Our most recent class meeting of “From Cotton to Kevlar” was one of experimentation and play. Jon asked us to read Chapter 3 of Rosenzweig & Cohen’s book Digital History, to inform a discussion of the pros and cons of making things digital. After looking at digital versions of Ackermann’s Repository (a resource for the team projects), the jaw-dropping work of the Berliner Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK) to reconstitute the Stasi archive, the presentation of objects “in the round” by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and UMass’ own very-impressive effort to make George Washington’s handwriting searchable, we talked as a group about the power of search engines and the preservation and presentation aspects of digital access. Students seemed especially alert to the ways that digitization facilitated the preservation of items that normally might be lost, and expanded the number of items that one could easily share. For instance, students noted that family photos are easily shared digitally: once we used to be limited to just our own photos, but now it’s easy to share images among family members. In fact, most of the examples offered centered on family genealogy—suggesting that the findings of Dave Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Presence of the Past continue to hold true among this rising generation.
One thing we didn’t discuss, but that I was thinking about as we looked at websites like these (and others we explored, like London Lives), that present large caches of European primary sources, was the relationship between digital archives and our collective carbon footprint, as online collections transform relationships between research and travel. There are other related implications here as well; as my colleague Jon noted, these sites also allow people with more limited financial resources to engage in archival research.
But then we turned to the inevitable highlight of the afternoon: the toys. Jon showed us Gigipan views of President Obama’s first inaguration and insect specimens at the North Carolina State University Insect Museum presented by National Geographic. On the syllabus, Jon had asked us to “bring your favorite piece of clothing that you would like to digitize. This might be a piece of clothing from your own wardrobe, your grandmother’s, or something you picked up at a thrift shop.” Out of bags and backpacks came T-shirts, tops, hats, caps and shoes. One student modeled a vintage coat that she’d word in a theatrical production, which Jon photographed using a Gigapan and a Canon G10 camera. Most fun for me was the USB microscope. One student produced a colorful top made of cotton, linen and viscose; under the microscope, the fabric was transformed into a beautiful grid, stunning in its perfect regularity—quickly contrasted by another woman’s knitted scarf, which under the microscope became a rugged terrain of gray and white fiber.
We also played around with the smartphone application “123D Catch” by Autodesk, the makers of “AutoCAD.” Two students who had brought objects that lent itself to this tool—a gladiator sandal and a fedora—photographed their objects from several angles and watched as the software created a 3-D image.
Both the microscope and 123D Catch have a good bit of “wow factor.” How might we use them in the exhibits to come? Next week we will form teams and assign topics: can’t wait to see what’s next!