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Navigable Knowledge: Designing a Digital Interactivity Map at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History

Posted in DH Blog

Welcome back to the blog. Today we are featuring a guest writer, Joshua Fitzgerald, who is a UO doctoral student in the Department of History. DH@UO is eager to highlight the important digital scholarship that graduate students across the University are performing. If you or anyone you know want to showcase DH scholarship on the blog, please send us an email. Without further ado, let’s turn it over to Josh.

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Navigable Knowledge: Designing a Digital Interactivity Map at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History
By: Joshua Fitzgerald

Figure 1. The 17th century Mapa de San Andrés Mixtepec, a priceless pictorial manuscript created for the Zapotec community from a town located near Oaxaca, Mexico, now under the care of the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It tells of the community's ancient lineage, town founding, and celebrated traditions, and museum visitors will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn from this unique object during the Navigating Knowledge exhibition at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
Figure 1. The 17th century Mapa de San Andrés Mixtepec, a priceless pictorial manuscript created for the Zapotec community from a town located near Oaxaca, Mexico, now under the care of the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It tells of the community’s ancient lineage, town founding, and celebrated traditions, and museum visitors will have a once-in-a lifetime chance to learn from this unique object during the Navigating Knowledge exhibition at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Objects tend to rest in places. Surely, thousands of human decisions and history’s momentum set them in place, but once collected, identified, and catalogued, objects tend to stick around if treated well and respected. This fact is especially true for those rare and precious materials located in museums, archives, and special collections libraries.

Two rare and extremely valuable objects rest in place at the University of Oregon: the Mesoamerican mapas housed at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH). Not “maps,” per se, but called that for lack of a better shorthand term to describe indigenous-authored pictorial histories of New Spain (i.e. Spanish colonial Mexico). The MNCH’s mapas are works of art rarely seen by the public for preservation purposes. Beginning March 3, Navigating Knowledge: A Journey through Museum Collections (https://around.uoregon.edu/content/fossils-folklore-new-exhibit-spotlights-uo-research), a museum exhibition sponsored by the MNCH and curated with a diverse group of UO specialists, will give members of the public a rare glimpse into some of this collection’s most precious natural science and cultural objects. The Museum will exhibit the mapas in a display titled “Mesoamerican Mapas.” One object, the massive Mapa de Cuauhtlantzinco, a seventeenth-century Nahua pictorial from the state of Puebla, Mexico, will dominate an entire wall of the museum. The second object, a Zapotec object from Oaxaca, Mexico, called the Mapa de San Andrés Mixtepec (figure 1), will not make a physical appearance. However, museum visitors will still get to reach out and virtually touch this one-of-a-kind artifact. Hence the exhibit will be comprised of physical and digital representations, granting rare access to materials little known and, in some cases, too fragile to be displayed but still visible to museum visitors.  

According to Kristin Strommer, Communications Manager at the MNCH, Navigating Knowledge invites visitors to “glimpse into the vaults with UO researchers and join their ongoing investigations.” The mapas are just one piece from this wide-ranging show. UO scholars from the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Music and Dance, and College of Education have collaboratively curated the exhibit.  As an avid digital humanist and current intern with the UO Wired Humanities Projects (WHP) and MNCH, I have built a corresponding digital interactive exhibit for use with a touchscreen display to showcase both mapas, especially the too-fragile Mapa de San Andrés Mixtepec, and the work of UO scholars, thus enriching visitor experiences at the exhibiton. Beyond the touchscreen interactive, I have had an opportunity to create digital representations of physical artifacts, and to contribute as a guest digital curator. Our goal is not simply to make these objects more accessible to educators, researchers, and the public, but to enable users to engage interactively with those objects. The digital exhibit will enable users to examine and magnify the mapas, color and highlight portions of the text, and rearrange pieces of text to trace patterns or to study passages alongside one another.  Our digital curation of these objects therefore makes the roads, rivers, and landscapes of the MNCH mapas virtually navigable.  

Figure 2. Director Stephanie Wood and Alberto Sarmiento Tepoxtecatl (2013), one of the many international scholars collaborating with the UO's Wired Humanities Projects, at the MNCH (photograph provided by Wood)
Figure 2. Director Stephanie Wood and Alberto Sarmiento Tepoxtecatl (2013), one of the many international scholars collaborating with the UO’s Wired Humanities Projects, at the MNCH (photograph provided by Wood)

The Wired Humanities Projects (WHP) is a co-collaborator on the new MNCH exhibit. WHP is an online research collaborative located within the Center for Equity Promotion in the College of Education at the UO that fosters the study of history, culture, and art. For more than twenty years, Stephanie Wood (WHP Director) has been working with scholars from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America to build digital collections of primary-source texts (with transcriptions and translations) and images (with annotation) for use in teaching and research (Figure 2). WHP’s interactive, open-access projects include curricula with Native American views about the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Honoring Tribal Legacies), curricula about Mesoamerican cultures and their histories, close studies of symbols embedded in textile art (Text in the Textiles), activist art from Latin America and the world (Presente! Art and the Disappeared), an annotated map archive relating to the early Americas (Age of Exploration) and, relevant to the MNCH mapas, a collection of Mesoamerican texts and visual materials (the Mapas Project, the Nahuatl Dictionary, and Early Nahuatl Library). For more than two decades WHP has promoted digital humanities at the UO. During this period the WHP has received eleven National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grants, a Fulbright award, and several grants from the National Park Service.

Beyond helping to produce the traditional, physical presentation of the mapas exhibit at the MNCH, I have been in charge of guest curating a stand-alone digital interactive feature for a touchscreen display. For the project, I worked closely with Stephanie Wood and MNCH Director Emeritus, Don Dumondand, MNCH exhibitions staff Lauren Willis, Lyle Murphy, and Liz White. Together we are reproducing digital, interactive surrogates of objects included in Navigating Knowledge.

My particular role in this collaboration is to create digital curation signage using Intuiface, a presentation software by Intuilab that lets scholars create dynamic narrative presentations without having to use coding languages (Figures 3 to 5). By adding animation and interactive narratives to the exhibit, objects and labels can pop, shake, wiggle, and otherwise move before the viewer. Part of museum curation is helping facilitate the experience of learning for visitors, and the added visuals can be helpful in highlighting particular points of interest on the mapas. For instance, visitors will be able to compare the digital closeups with portions highlighted. When the highlighted portion is touched, a transcription of the most up-to-date English translations of the original Zapotec (the language of the people of San Andrés) will pop up before their eyes. And an embedded video clip will play with an interview with one of the lead translators, Michel Oudijk. This type of digital curation brings the most recent scholarship on museum collections in an exciting presentation format, while simultaneously keeping the objects safely protected. Designed to suit a variety of purposes, from commercial to educational, Intuiface is friendly to novice designers and DH specialists alike.

 

Figure 3. A big step in the digital life of the Mapa de San Andrés Mixtepec, as it enters digital curation with Intuiface Composer, one element digital signage software used for the "Mapas Exhibit.". The "Scenes" tab allows digital curators the ability to construct a narrative with their content. The highlighted scene (seen in the background) is the "opening" page visitors encounter about this mapa (screenshot by the author).
Figure 3. A big step in the digital life of the Mapa de San Andrés Mixtepec, as it enters digital curation with Intuiface Composer, one element digital signage software used for the “Mapas Exhibit.”. The “Scenes” tab allows digital curators the ability to construct a narrative with their content. The highlighted scene (seen in the background) is the “opening” page visitors encounter about this mapa (screenshot by the author).
Figure 3. Intuiface’s no-coding-necessary animation system at work. The sky-blue box (right) highlights the “Dancers” from this scene of the Mapa de Cuauhtlantzinco, and the charcoal box with violet tabs (left) is the list of movements that the “Dancers” will undergo as the user opens this particular page. One iteration of the digital exhibit included a live recording of a traditional dance played for visitors, showcasing the living traditions of this region of Mexico (screenshot by the author).
Figure 4. Intuiface’s no-coding-necessary animation system at work. The sky-blue box (right) highlights the “Dancers” from this scene of the Mapa de Cuauhtlantzinco, and the charcoal box with violet tabs (left) is the list of movements that the “Dancers” will undergo as the user opens this particular page. One iteration of the digital exhibit included a live recording of a traditional dance played for visitors, showcasing the living traditions of this region of Mexico (screenshot by the author).
Figure 5. Play and learn about traditional drumming practices, explore the finer details from the mapas, and compare Native and Spanish instruments from the Spanish Conquest period. Using interactive software allows visitors more opportunities to learn and interact with the past. Here, visitors immerse themselves in Mapa de Cuauhtlantzinco’s visions of ceremonial drumming while investigating the latest research by UO’s scholars (screenshot by the author).

Based on a programming architecture reminiscent of Adobe imaging tools, Intuiface is (true to its name) intuitive and familiar, offering rich HTML text features, the ability to animate based on a touchscreen recognition “triggers”, 3D models, audio and video capabilities, and an easy-to-navigate composing structure. Users can create interactive presentations of their research with almost every platform (except Apple, but that should soon change).  

For the “Mesoamerican Mapas” digital interactive, I used Adobe Photoshop and InDesign to create particular digital objects (Intuiface supports PDF, JPEG, PNG, MP3, MP4, and many other common file types) and then imported them into Intuiface’s Composer program. I used a touchscreen device to curate the mapas, which helped me see real-time results and make adjustments to the experiences I created. The Composer program includes a playtest feature, but the full Intuiface’s Player program should be used to present a curation. Intuiface will work with a mouse or touchscreen stylus, too. I found it crucial to playtest my project using the final display unit. Each device has limitations, and playtesting ensured that I could articulate with accuracy all experience animations and transitions I produced in Composer.

Digital signage software in museums is valuable and exciting. Instead of static panels attached to showcase walls, visitors touch, resize, and otherwise navigate through one’s content, enhancing the learning experience. Animations can pop up to surprise viewers, music and lighting can augment a particular curated experience simple games can enliven material, or visitors can delve into whatever digital objects they find at their fingertips. When desired, Intuiface can be made Web-ready with plugins to help send or retrieve live data, allowing visitors the ability to access social media, the weather, news, or the like. This makes sharing a museum visit, selfies, or a screenshot from the digital collection with friends or classmates a breeze. Digital technology will never replace the experience of seeing a rare artifact in person, but it can change our experiences with those objects in ways that enable us to raise new questions, see old material anew, or analyze features never before considered. Personally, this experience has been illuminating. I have had practical training curating with the MNCH’s friendly and wise staff, and the lessons I have learned from my mentor, Stephanie Wood, have helped me develop as a digital humanist. Finally, this project has truly changed the way I look at the mapas. They are not simply two-dimensional paintings, objects resting in a place as objects tend to do. Rather, I see them as living histories contributing to a vibrant conversation about Native American history, the practice of telling stories through pictures, and—with a little help from specialists and the right digital tools—objects with stories of their own making.

To learn more about the exhibition, upcoming talks and museum events see their website here, (http://natural-history.uoregon.edu/) and be sure to “like” them on Facebook here (https://www.facebook.com/oregonnaturalhistory/).


Joshua Fitzgerald

PhD Candidate
Department of History
Julie & Rocky Dixon Graduate Student Innovation Awardee (2017-2018)
University of Oregon
HASTAC Scholar (2017-2019)

About the author:
Joshua Fitzgerald is a PhD candidate with the Department of History. This year, he is finishing his dissertation, “Unholy Pedagogy: Local Knowledge, Indigenous Intermediation, and the Lessons of the Colonial Learningscape (1400–1650),” a spatial-cultural study of Native American ways of learning under Spanish-Catholic education systems, along with certification in Museum Studies through the UO College of Design. His internship is sponsored by the Julie & Rocky Dixon Graduate Student Innovation Award Office under the VP for Research & Innovation, the UO Graduate School, and his department. Last year, Fitzgerald was the Collections Historian for the Gertrude Bass Warner Collection working with the UO Libraries Digital Scholarship Center, Special Collections & University Archive, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, and he has worked on several local museum projects, including Lane Country Historical Museum’s Their Hearts are in This Land (2017). He advocates for digital pedagogy, especially the use of video games in the classroom, and he plans to apply his enthusiasm for learning, research focus, and love of DH toward a career in education, public history, and digital curation.

 

 

 

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