Digital Humanities: Many Approaches

Specimen of Pinus virginiana collected by John Clayton, Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

I wrote in the first post in this series, Digital Humanities is a broad term that describes many different kinds of projects.  In this post, I will look at a few that are germane to the botanical world but not specific to it.  One just getting underway is The Sloane Lab: Looking Back to Build Future Shared CollectionsHans Sloane has cropped up in many of my posts because he had one of the foremost plant collections of the pre-Linnaean era, and most importantly, it is still extant today at the Natural History Museum, London.  Sloane’s specimens from his time in Jamaica have been digitized, as have other portions of the collection including specimens of John Clayton from Virginia, Paul Hermann from Sri Lanka, and George Clifford from his garden of exotics in the Netherlands.  But there are many other important collections that have yet to be digitized or extensively studied.  In addition, there are Sloane’s correspondence and other manuscripts in the British Library, art and anthropological objects he owned in the British Museum, and Sloane items in several other British institutions involved in this project.

Digitizing more of these resources will be a major boost to research on Sloane, a pivotal figure in British science and culture.  His roles as a chronicler of the British colony in Jamaica and owner of enslaved persons who worked on his Jamaican sugar plantation make him important in the effort to decolonize British cultural collections.  The Sloane lab is just one of five projects funded by the British Arts and Humanities Council for five years, with an emphasis on new ways to connect institutions, areas of knowledge, and communities within Britain.  This is the digital humanities writ large, and it will be exciting to view the results, open to all of us online.

A very different project, but also very ambitious, has been going on for several years and has matured to the point that many of its fruits are available, while others continue to develop.  This is the Making and Knowing Project founded in 2014 by the historian of science Pamela Smith of Columbia University.  In her research Smith has (2003) argued for the importance of craft in early modern science.  This work led her to investigate precisely how crafts like metal casting and preparing pigments for paints were done.  She fashioned projects where her students attempted to reproduce close to original conditions in order to recreate tools and materials early modern artists and scientists used.  One major result of this work is a massive website, Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France.  It was built around a translation of a 16th-century French manuscript composed of handwritten entries on medicine, life casting, painting, dying, metal working, printing, and more.  In addition to the translation alongside a digital copy of the manuscript, are over 100 essays on various aspects of the document, including reports on attempts to reproduce the methods it describes.  A recent review of the site by Lan A. Li (2021) of Rice University notes its many strengths, including a “restrained” technological design.  In other words, it doesn’t have a great many bells and whistles so it will not be difficult to maintain and is likely to remain available.  This is something I can appreciate as a number of my favorite digital humanities sites have disappeared due to complex data architecture that didn’t age well. 

Smith’s work has been influential in the education not only of historians but artists, particularly those interested in the intersection between these fields.  This approach is now used in many institutions and one of my favorite examples is the work of a young historian and artist, Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen, who is researching 17th century flower painting by making pigments and then using them to create plant illustrations.  She writes that she used painting as a way to relax from her research, and slowly it became part of her work.  She has even taught online classes in creating pigments from plant material. 

While I am not ready to dive into this world, I can see both its attraction and its value.  Grinding pigments and mixing in other ingredients is not trivial work.  There is a reason few artists do this today.  However, there is still a reason to attempt it, just as there is in mounting your own specimens.  That quiet work allows time for thinking, and for looking at the material aspect of science and craft in a new way.  Here I am purposely mixing art and science.  Both involve close observation, and one of Smith’s key ideas is that early modern craft workers, including painters, were such close observers of nature that this translated into their art.  It was this art, naturalistic plants by artists like Albrecht Dürer, that led to closer observation by botanists and the artists who worked for them.  There is some evidence that Hans Weiditz, the artist of Otto Brunfels’s 1532 herbal, may have been trained by one of Dürer’s students.  This is a beautiful example of one aim of digital humanities projects:  to make such cross fertilization more obvious in the hope of creating new examples of it.

References

Li, L. A. (2021). Crafting Digital Histories of Science: A Review and Tour of Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. Isis, 112(3), 586–589. https://doi.org/10.1086/715712

Smith, P. H. (2003). The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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