digital humanities in art history logo


Mapping the “White, Marmorean Flock”: Anne Whitney Abroad, 1867–1868

by Jacqueline Marie Musacchio


with Jenifer Bartle and David McClure, assisted by Kalyani Bhatt


Introduction     |     Mapping the “White, Marmorean Flock”     |     
Anne Whitney Abroad, 1867–1868     |     Primary Sources     |     Project Narrative



Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, Professor, Wellesley College

From the beginning, the place- and time-bound nature of my research on Anne Whitney’s life abroad seemed well suited to the use of digital humanities tools. But I was hesitant to embark on such a project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I have no particular training or technical skills myself. This was particularly daunting because, out of the box, the tools we investigated were not ideal for the evidence I had and the story I wanted to tell. My goal was to visualize Whitney’s experience as clearly as possible within the broader context of Americans abroad in late nineteenth-century Europe, and I wanted a way to provide access to a wide variety of information to give the best sense of Whitney as an individual. Jenifer Bartle, Wellesley’s manager of digital scholarship initiatives, suggested I work with the Neatline plug-in, developed by the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia for the Omeka platform, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. As she notes in her narrative below, Jenifer chose Neatline as the best option out of many possibilities at an early stage of the project, and she patiently taught me how to use it. But Neatline’s SIMILE timeline displays records in an unpredictable and constantly changing manner, and I needed more control over how these records appeared in order to organize both the data and its presentation. I also wanted to incorporate historically accurate maps, rather than modern ones, and I wanted to use both timelines and maps to show movement through space and time. These customizations, in addition to several smaller but visually and intellectually necessary changes to the default styles in Neatline, made this tool work much better for my purposes.

I also come at this material from a slightly different perspective. I am a Renaissance art historian who has always worked on the material culture of women’s lives, so I am focusing my Whitney research on her life abroad, and particularly her time in Italy. My background allows me to put her relationship with the ancient and Renaissance world, and indeed her understanding of Italy more broadly, into its proper context. This article is part of a book project tentatively entitled At Home Abroad: Anne Whitney and American Women Artists in Late Nineteenth-Century Italy. My research, funded in part by Wellesley’s Committee on Faculty Awards, has been made possible with the expert support of Jane Callahan, Wellesley College archivist, and Ian Graham, director of library collections. I am especially grateful to Alice Friedman, Martha McNamara, Nancy Siegel, and Joy Sperling, whose expertise and advice has been essential, and to Petra Chu and the editorial team at NCAW for their advice, patience, and hard work to bring this part of the project to completion. Since spring 2012 I have taught Wellesley College students using Whitney’s abroad letters in both seminars and independent studies. These students created draft transcriptions and conducted research on Whitney and her travels using these primary sources. I have recognized their individual contributions in the appropriate notes, but they all deserve acknowledgment for their willingness to take on this experimental course and their enthusiasm for Whitney and her life. My thanks goes to Joanna Ascher ‘13, Leah Abrams ‘16, Kalyani Bhatt ’14, Mary Benn ’14, Lauren Calihman ’13, Lia Dawley ’12, Katie Donlan ‘16, Anna Everett ‘16, Emily Frisella ‘16, Elizabeth Grab ’14, Lisa Koo ’13, Elisabeth Lechner ’13, Dominique Ledoux ’14, Hannah Levine ’15, Tiffany Liao ‘16, Caitlin McGrail ’14, Giovi Mier ‘16, Emily Mullin ‘16, Makenna Murray ’14, Quinn Refer ‘14, Aileen Ro ‘16, and Jessie Van Amburg ’13. Like all scholars who have worked on this material, I am also indebted to the unpublished Whitney biography by Elizabeth Rogers Payne, but in many instances my transcriptions and analyses differ from hers, as does my focus. Payne believed the abroad letters were of little import and no different from any other traveler accounts of the time,[1] while I see them as unique documents that tell an unusually vivid and detailed story of one woman’s transformative experience in Europe.

Like most humanities scholars, I am used to working alone and on my own schedule. A project like this does not allow for such freedom, but I was very fortunate to have enthusiastic and committed collaborators who were as invested in the technical details as I was in the scholarly details. Even more importantly, they understood that the scholarly component had to drive the technology, and they suggested ways to enhance the content that I could not have imagined on my own. The maps and timelines associated with this article have been made possible through generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Digital Humanities and Art History series. These funds enabled Jenifer Bartle, Emily Pugh, and I to visit the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville at the start of the process. Consultation with Scott Bailey, Wayne Graham, David Gist, Ronda Anne Grizzle, and Bethany Nowviskie helped us better understand the possibilities inherent in Neatline and the customizations we needed to make for this project. Technical details have been guided by Jenifer Bartle, who expertly and patiently coordinated both the work of her Library and Technology Services (LTS) colleagues and that of David McClure, formerly of Scholar’s Lab, who was responsible for the Neatline customizations. Marci Hahn-Fabris, curator of visual resources, scanned key images, and Laura Reiner, research and instruction librarian, provided assistance with her interest in and knowledge of Whitney’s era; Kara S. Hart, systems librarian, maintains the Omeka server and Geoserver and provides critical ongoing infrastructure support. I am particularly grateful to Ravi Ravishanker, Wellesley’s chief information officer, for his willingness to dedicate staff resources to this project; I recognize how fortunate I am to have so much assistance on my own campus. Kalyani Bhatt ‘14 was especially instrumental during the final research and editing, as well as the creation of the maps and timeline, thanks to funding from Wellesley’s Grace Slack McNeil Student Internships and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; she describes her contribution in more detail below. Dedicated, detail-oriented students can be valuable partners in digital humanities projects. Certainly I could not have completed the exhibits associated with this article without Kalyani’s assistance, and I hope she is able to continue using these skills in the future.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would urge anyone contemplating a similar project to first construct the maps and timelines to organize the material prior to drafting the actual article. We worked on all aspects of this project at the same time, and indeed I completed the article more than a month before the software was fully customized and I could create and plot the records themselves (and of course, even then, we were constantly tweaking the software and data until the last possible moment). A great virtue of this kind of project is the way it allows you to visualize the data in new and different ways, and although my conclusions would have been the same, I suspect my article would have developed differently if I had the opportunity to work from the maps and timelines, rather than the other way around.

I had to assemble all the components of the article by a deadline, without always knowing how or even if the different parts would work from the start; in fact, we were only able to incorporate the map of Massachusetts in the week before publication, and its inclusion here is entirely due to Jenifer’s great determination. This sort of workflow required certain sacrifices. The first was to limit the scope of the project to Whitney’s first sixteen months abroad, though she was in Europe for a total of five years over three trips. But even this shortened period encompasses some one hundred letters to and from Whitney, and I had to make difficult choices about the information I presented. This period covers her first and most immediate impressions of Europe as she crossed the ocean in March 1867, made her way overland to Rome, left the city for the hot summer, and returned for the fall, winter, and spring, ending just as she prepared to escape Rome’s heat again in July 1868. This project therefore details her initial experiences, allowing for an especially vivid narrative. My decision to include only primary source documentation in the exhibits—in most cases letter excerpts, but also the occasional documentary source or news article—was made because of my conviction that Whitney is her own best narrator.

As Jenifer notes, securing historically appropriate maps was challenging. Ideally, an additional map of Milan would have provided further information for the spatial narrative, but we could not find a suitable one in time to scan, georectify, and integrate it into the project. Even when I had the right map, I did not always have the right information to plot an activity exactly; while we know the address of a particular studio or apartment in the nineteenth century, it may have changed since, and in some cases changes to the urban fabric have demolished whole streets or blocks. In those cases I made my best guess, choosing a likely location based on the information I had to provide some sense of place. And of course it would have been even more useful to include complete transcriptions and scans of all the letters associated with this article, but the time and expense involved in doing so made it impossible.

With all of this in mind, however, I hope to expand beyond these sixteen months to encompass Whitney’s entire five years abroad before I put together the actual book. Certainly it will be easier, and much less frustrating, to do so now that I have a better understanding of how Neatline works and especially now that the software is customized to best suit this kind of information. And I hope that others who work on Whitney’s many contemporaries—both artists and not—might assemble similar data so we can begin to consider comparative studies and recognize overlapping incidents we may not have discovered working independently. If the map component is not necessary—as I felt it was for this article—the timeline tracks could in fact be expanded almost infinitely, enabling the visualization of an enormous quantity of information at once and opening up possibilities for future scholarly collaboration.

Finally, beyond this project, we at Wellesley are committed to working with the incredibly deep and rich Whitney archive in other ways. With funding from Wellesley’s Friends of the Library, we have developed a crowd-sourced transcription project for the thousands of Whitney letters that are not from her years abroad. We are currently testing this project within the Wellesley community, but in the future, with additional funding and software revisions, we hope to open it to the wider world. Eventually, when the letters are all transcribed we will release a database of transcriptions, making these fascinating letters accessible and searchable for all. This crowd-sourced website, based on the model of DIY History and the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers, might be another way for art historians to think about providing access and information to a larger interested audience via digital humanities tools.


Jenifer Bartle, Manager, Digital Scholarship Initiatives (DSI), Library and Technology Services (LTS), Wellesley College

I am responsible for coordinating library and technology support for faculty digital scholarship projects. My role in the Anne Whitney Abroad project was to build and maintain a strong collaboration between Jacki Musacchio, LTS, and other Wellesley College staff, and David McClure, who programmed the customizations of the Neatline plug-in for Omeka. I provided project planning and management; other crucial support provided by LTS for this project included creating and maintaining collections of the archival letters, hosting and administering the Omeka and Geoserver web servers, identifying and procuring high-resolution background images of maps, georeferencing and publishing the maps for display in the exhibits, training Jacki, staff, and other collaborators in Neatline, and helping to determine the necessary customizations to serve the scholarly content.

Tool selection
The Neatline plug-in for the Omeka platform was best suited to create the integrated geospatial and temporal visualizations necessary for this project. Both are supported by active user communities, and are used by a broad range of digital humanities projects across many disciplines. These tools were selected to highlight the rich geotemporal nature of the data, and to make use of and contribute to existing open-source tools. Omeka was in many ways an obvious choice because the platform was already supported for other digital scholarship projects at Wellesley. Neatline works well for presenting visualizations of this kind of data; its strength lies in its ability to present both geographic and temporal data without privileging one over the other. It also facilitates relatively easy map annotations and allows a great deal of flexibility in the information presented in individual records. Transcriptions from Whitney’s letters, including date and location information and, when relevant, contemporary images, appear in these records. Many of the records are also linked from notes in Jacki’s article, yet they can also be viewed together in the two stand-alone exhibits that function as illustrated representations of Whitney’s travels throughout Europe.

Omeka and Neatline were also chosen because they are flexible, freely available, open-source platforms with active development and a broad pool of users in the library, archives, and museum communities. They can be used out of the box or modified, as we did in this case, to facilitate effective engagement with archival materials. We also chose this broadly available tool in part to demonstrate that digital scholarship based on rich archival collections requires neither major investments in original development or infrastructure nor advanced technical skills to be successful and scholarly.

We also wished to contribute to this open-source project in a way that could benefit its large and growing user community. After working on an earlier project using the SIMILE timeline widget for Neatline, we wanted to explore whether the functionality of the timeline could be improved by incorporating stable horizontal “tracks” that could be used to categorize timeline entries. We were pleased that David McClure was willing to help us realize this vision. This enhancement, described below, improves the user interface of the timeline and expands the possibilities for temporal data visualizations. These modifications are being made available to the wider Neatline user community. It is our hope that the enhanced functionality of the timeline will encourage other uses of the tool by art historians and scholars in other disciplines.

Source materials
The two Anne Whitney Abroad Neatline exhibits use primary source materials including archival letters, images, and maps. Materials were gathered, processed, and presented according to their format, availability, and other considerations, as described below.

Letters
As noted in Primary Sources, the Whitney archive has been at Wellesley College since 1944. The letters in particular have been cataloged and organized according to best practices since 2012, when Jacki began to use them in her art history courses. Draft transcriptions of many of the letters were created by Jacki, her students, and interested LTS staff members; Jacki edited the exhibit data from these transcriptions, which she and her student assistant, Kalyani Bhatt, refined and finalized before integrating them into the records.

Images
Many of the images used throughout the Anne Whitney Abroad exhibits are from Whitney’s personal collection. These were digitized, described, and uploaded to Omeka. Other relevant historical images were found primarily in external, open-access repositories, such as the Library of Congress and Wikimedia.

Maps
Finding maps to use as the background of the digital exhibits was one of the major challenges of this project. We wanted to use contemporary maps that reflected accurate borders during this time of flux in European political history; we also wanted maps that highlighted the cultural and artistic attractions to which Whitney was drawn and which she described in such detail. We focused our search on contemporary guidebooks such as Baedeker’s, but this decision brought with it a new set of challenges. Many scholarly map repositories do not have popular materials like guidebooks in their holdings. Cataloging data for nearly 150-year-old serial publications with non-standard titles and multiple parts is not always complete or accurate. We needed to find not only correct editions, but also copies of those editions with maps that were not damaged or missing; that had bindings that were neither too fragile nor too tight to allow digitization; and that were held by institutions with facilities and procedures in place to accept external requests for high-resolution imaging (as these materials rarely circulate via Interlibrary Loan).

In the end, we had three main routes to success in securing these maps:

  • Acquisition and in-house digitization: the main background map of Europe was purchased for Wellesley College’s Special Collections and digitized in house by Jordan Tynes, research and instruction technologist.
  • Downloads from existing map repositories: the Paris map, already digitized and georeferenced, was downloaded from the Harvard Geospatial Library; the Massachusetts map was downloaded from the David Rumsay Map Collection.
  • Digitization requests to other libraries: the remaining maps, of Rome, Switzerland, Bologna, Florence, and Rouen, were identified at the Getty Research Institute and Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) using online catalog searches and the Internet Archive. Both institutions offer fee-based, high-resolution imaging to external researchers.

Once they were received, digital images of the maps (with the exception of the Paris map) were georeferenced using ArcGIS by Carolin Ferwerda, LTS’s instructional technologist for numeric and spatial data. Because of the geography of the cities and the projection of the maps, georeferencing sometimes caused the maps to become skewed; in these cases Jacki decided that it was more important for them to be legible and recognizable, so we sacrificed some geographic accuracy, choosing to align the maps as they were printed and best recognized.  In these cases the addition of compass roses, placed in unobtrusive corners, orient the reader to the true directions. All maps were then uploaded and published to the open-source Geoserver instance maintained by LTS. The correct server name and layer names were added to Neatline, which uses the Web Map Service (WMS) protocol to present the maps.

Putting It All Together
While the software customizations, images, and maps were being assembled, Jacki began to build the exhibits in Neatline. She decided to limit the coverage to the first sixteen months of Whitney’s time abroad, and to split the content into two exhibits: an overview exhibit that shows Whitney’s broad movements through Europe, and a detailed exhibit that presents specific information about her daily life, art, travels, historical events, and sites. Remaining decisions included design elements such as the color, size, and weight of different elements, such as pop-up windows, dots, arrows, and lines.

Jacki created individual records with painstaking attention to detail in the administrative view of the Neatline database. Each record consists of multiple components, including:

  • title text
  • body text, including formatting of images and text with a WYSIWYG editor and some additional html tagging
  • dates, including a single standardized date for a “point,” and beginning and end dates for a “span”
  • annotations, including points, lines, arrows, and compass roses; these were done “freehand” with the Neatline annotation tools and by importing SVG files
  • location, including numerical latitude and longitude data of all graphics
  • map positioning, including zoom levels and map focus
  • tags, for use in controlling the style of the different elements
  • slugs, for use in the Neatline Text links
  • WMS address and layer information, for dynamic display of background maps

Neatline exhibits have exhibit-specific style sheets that allowed us to control the appearance of annotations with tags in individual records. We used style sheets to control aspects of the annotations such as color, opacity, line weight, and point radius. Because these changed as we learned more about Neatline’s capabilities, elements of each record had to be changed, too, requiring a great deal of flexibility and patience on everyone’s part.

In the end, this project came together beautifully as a result of Jacki’s broad knowledge of the subject matter, her vision, and her diligent work and attention to detail, along with the work of talented, dedicated consultants, staff, and students. Successful digital scholarship requires broad and deep collaborative effort on the part of many, many people. In this project as in others, there was no single straightforward path from conception to completion. It began with a strong vision, but that vision was undeniably influenced by numerous factors as it began to take shape on the screen. We were bound by common constraints of time, resources, access, skill, and technology, yet because of the well-supported, well-coordinated, collaborative nature of the project, we found ways to adapt the plan to respond to all of these. To colleagues who may be embarking on similar projects I recommend assembling a strong team and stockpiling three indispensible virtues: flexibility, creativity, and persistence.


David McClure, Software engineer

From 2011 to the beginning of this year, while working as a research software developer at the University of Virginia, I had the good fortune to work as the lead developer of Neatline, an open-source framework for digital mapping and visual annotation that was supported by a digital humanities start-up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a $665,000 implementation grant from the Library of Congress. Over the summer, when Jenifer told me about the Anne Whitney project, I was excited to get involved because it was clear that the project needed a series of enhancements to Neatline that we had been discussing for some time at the Scholars’ Lab, namely, an improved timeline, and some way to reference specific parts of an exhibit from an external piece of writing. These kinds of modifications always turn out best when they're motivated by specific projects, and the Whitney exhibits seemed like an ideal driver for this round of development.

Despite our necessarily close collaboration over the past few months, Jacki, Jenifer, and I never met in person; we conducted all of our work by videoconference and email. The first enhancement that we made was the ability to “hard link” to individual locations in the exhibits, which would allow Jacki to reference specific locations and events from the text of the article. This is a feature users have requested many times over the course of the last few years, and, since it's a general-purpose enhancement that could be useful in lots of different contexts, we decided to build it into the core Neatline plug-in. Once the code was in place, each record in the exhibit was automatically assigned a unique, durable URL, which could be used anywhere on the web—a digital publication, a blog post, a tweet, etc. When a reader clicks on a link to a specific record, the exhibit automatically focuses the map and timeline to frame the corresponding locations and events. This turns Neatline into a kind of geospatial footnoting system—a way to reference individual bits of spatial and temporal information from an external location.

Next, we moved to the question of how to effectively structure the large amount of temporal information that needed to be displayed for the second of the two exhibits, which tracked Anne Whitney’s travels in Europe over the course of sixteen months. We quickly ran into some familiar challenges with interactive timelines. In order to display a large number of events that all fall within a relatively narrow interval of time, the events usually have to be allowed to “stack" on top of one another, or else they begin to overlap as more information is added, since the position of each event is pegged to a specific location on the X-axis of the timeline. In this case, though, the stacking approach did not work. If we wanted to show all the events at once, the timeline would quickly grow to take up the entire screen, leaving no space for the map, the letter transcriptions, and the images in the popup windows. To solve this, we used a Javascript library called Vis.js, which makes it possible to “zoom in" on the timeline in roughly the same way that it's possible to zoom in on the map. This allowed us to constrain the vertical height of the timeline without hiding information. At the start, when the timeline is zoomed out, the events cluster together, giving a sense of how they distribute over the course of the sixteen-month span covered by the exhibit. But the reader can zoom in toward progressively more granular intervals of time, to a minimum of seven days, which allows the events to spread out and become easy to interact with on an individual basis. All the information can be accessed, but it never takes up so much space that it overwhelms the rest of the exhibit.

Along the same lines, we added a feature to the First Sixteen Months exhibit that will automatically “minimize" the timeline when the reader starts to interact with the map. This was motivated by the same desire to leave as much of the screen available for the map as possible. When the reader starts to pan around or zoom in/out on the map, the timeline will automatically shrink down to the bottom left of the screen, which gets it out of the way and allows the map tiles to take center stage. Then, to toggle back to the full-size timeline, the reader can just click on the minimized version, and it will expand to fill its original position at the bottom of the exhibit.

Additionally, the overview exhibit provided an excellent opportunity to use some of the text-to-map linking tools that I had the opportunity to develop while working at the Scholars’ Lab. The interaction between the narrative on the right side of the screen and the map is powered by an extension to the Neatline system called Neatline Text, which makes it possible to link individual paragraphs, sentences, or even words in a text document with a specific location or annotation on the map. Once the links are established, the software automatically connects the features, so that a click on the text will cause the map to focus around the corresponding location, and a click on the map will scroll the text pane to show the relevant text. Whitney’s travel narrative is an ideal use-case for this tool, because the linear axis of the text narrative can be mapped onto the linear plot of Whitney’s movement across Europe on the map.

Once all the major functionality was in place, I worked with Jacki and Jenifer to make a series of small tweaks to the appearance of the exhibits and to the low-level mechanics of the user interactions. For example, in the overview exhibit, we wanted to find a way to synchronize the line annotations that plot Whitney’s itinerary with the individual locations along the routes, so that when the reader hovers the cursor over one of the lines, all the corresponding locations change color. Since these kinds of changes are specific to the content of these exhibits, we made the changes in the code for the custom themes that control the look and feel of exhibits. This way, the core Neatline code can be updated in the future without breaking the customizations.

Looking ahead, I think there is still room for improvement with the timeline zooming functionality. The enhancements we made for this project are a huge step forward from what we had previously, but I wonder if we could find ways to decrease the density of the timeline when the reader is zoomed out far enough to see the entire sixteen-month interval. Instead of displaying all of the events and allowing the labels to overlap with each other, I wonder if there could be some way to “cluster" the events into larger meta-events, which would be toggled on and off depending on the zoom level of the timeline. Zoom out, and the events get grouped together into a smaller number of composite units; zoom in, and they break apart to show the individual events. This is similar to an approach that is commonly used with digital maps, and I see no reason for why it could not work well on timelines as well.

Note: David McClure’s blog, including posts about his work on Neatline, can be found at www.dclure.org.


Kalyani Bhatt, Architecture Major, Wellesley College, ‘14

Working on a digital humanities project is an exciting challenge combining traditional research methods with the extensive resources available today thanks to modern technology. I previously worked with the Anne Whitney materials as part of a seminar as well as an independent study, for which a classmate and I constructed an interactive timeline of Whitney’s life using Omeka software, so I had a strong background in this scholarship before I joined the project team.

Part of my research was traditional, using online primary source databases. In close consultation with Jacki Musacchio, I researched various aspects of the American artist’s experience in Italy and the struggle for Italian unification from 1867–1868 in databases like Proquest and America’s Historical Newspapers. To complicate matters, articles published in American newspapers often reported events in Europe nearly a month after they occurred. But most of my efforts were directed toward the digital humanities aspect of the project. I helped find archival maps of cities published in contemporary guidebooks. I also assisted in perfecting the draft transcriptions of Whitney’s letters so relevant excerpts could be included in the exhibits with the highest possible degree of accuracy, and I helped with the necessary HTML coding to best replicate Whitney’s erratic punctuation and writing habits. I worked with different functions of Omeka, including the Waypoints mapping plug-in in conjunction with the SIMILE timeline plug-in, to assist in the creation of a multidimensional, illustrated map of Whitney’s travels across time and space. To make the most of the visual aspects of these digital humanities tools, I sought out copyright-free images of towns Whitney visited, works of art she saw, and sites she described in her letters. This was a surprisingly difficult task, even though there are a seemingly infinite number of resources on the internet. Wikimedia Commons has a large searchable database of images, many of which are in the public domain, as does the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division and the Brooklyn Museum Goodyear Archival Collection. The CAA recently released a list of useful websites for image research in their statement on Intellectual Property and the Arts, and that proved to be a useful resource in my searches. Out-of-copyright books also include useful reproductions (Google Books, HathiTrust Digital Library, and The Internet Archive). Once found, I had to upload these images to the online Item Collection Database so they could be used where needed.

I was involved in all aspects of the project and learned a great deal from it. This certainly gave me a better sense of the work art historians do, and how that work can be combined with other disciplines to create interactive scholarly material.




[1] Payne, “Anne Whitney: Nineteenth-Century Sculptor,” typescript, Wellesley College Archives, 667.

Reviews