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08 April
Comments Off on Public Bookshelves: Goodreads

Public Bookshelves: Goodreads

I was thinking a bit more about our discussion of personal collections last week, and I wanted to look more at everyone’s favorite book site, Goodreads. I’m not really sure what to call Goodreads. An article I was reading called it a “book-focused social network,” which is accurate and inclusive as far as it goes, but not particularly descriptive. “Facebook for books,” I suppose you could call it. The social component, the recommendations, the shared reviews, the communal lists and trivia, is certainly a major part of the site, but the core of site is the creation of “bookshelves,” personal lists of books you have read or are reading or want to read.

Something I think is rather interesting about this site, and what makes it a little different from some of the other kinds of digital collecting we’ve been discussing, is the that fact that the site takes a physically existent, generally private collection, and makes it public, communal. Private collections of books, from grand private libraries down to the plywood-and-cinder block bookcases of paperbacks that some of us have tucked in corners, have existed also long as books have, but the kind of public exposure you have on Goodreads is new.

A lot of people, myself included, use Goodreads as a kind of personal book tracking/cataloging system. There are a number of software packages and websites that will help you build a catalog of your books, like this one, but it seems that people tend to choose Goodreads over other sites and software. Part of that is affordability (free!) and ease of use, but some of that is probably how much you can interact with other readers. Apparently book nerds are quite social when we don’t have to interact face-to-face. There’s looking at other people’s bookshelves (another example of very personalized cataloging), and making recommendations and sharing thoughts, but there’s also the creation of communal “bookshelves” (lists). That last creates a particular intersection of public and personal collecting. Pinterest (and Tumblr, and other personal “collecting” sites) will let you “repin” or “reblog” (or “re-nail” if it’s a male-centric site?) but there isn’t really a  place where the community can create a collection together. The list section of Goodreads is one of the most popular public sections of the site. There are thousands of lists, from “Best Books Ever” (90,000+ voters) to “Zombies!” (2,000+ voters)  to “Great Books That Make You Want To Scream They Are So Good” (3 voters), and hundreds of thousands of people adding books and voting on them.

Communal collection building (even the virtual collecting that manifests itself as “best of ” lists) is an aspect of collecting that doesn’t seem to be particularly well-understood or utilized. We’ve talked about crowd-sourcing  metadata creation and the like (individuals working separately), and about how institutions and individuals collect, but not about how a community works together to build a collection. Is there some way to recognize that collecting impulse at an institutional level and create collections (even virtual ones) based on communal interaction?

On a tangential note, Goodreads was just bought by Amazon (see this article), so it looks like all of our communal book-related activities will be helping with Amazon’s algorithms and reviews. Which brings up the questions of the private nature of personal collecting: should companies be able to use all the lovely data we’ve compiled for them on sites like Goodreads and Pininterest? Once you’ve made something visible to other site users is it up for grabs? The never ending saga of Facebook’s privacy settings…

30 March

When film archives go very, very wrong. The Sicilian edition.

A friend currently in film school at in NYC sent me an article from the Village Voice with the caption, “When Film Archives Go Wrong.” I knew that I would have to find a time to share it with all of you, and as we are studying personal collections this week, I figured it was as good a time as any.

village voice archive


Yongman Kim owned a huge video rental store called Mondo Kim’s in the East Village of New York from 1995 until 2009. The collection was massive and included everything from the latest blockbusters to foreign art house films to porn. Some of the collection was rare enough that it could only be found on VHS. The cashiers were passionate about film and could direct their customers to all sorts of movies they had never heard of. Unfortunately, the modern world has been hard on the video rental store, and soon Kim was looking at his store closing. As the article states:

In fall 2008, Kim warned his patrons via an appeal to the community that the end of his rental business was coming. Posted in the store, his message quickly made its way around the Web: “Kim’s Video is offering a collection of approximately 55,000 films to institutions, schools, business owners, or individuals who can accommodate Kim’s full line of film collection.”

The catch? “The condition to accept this collection requires 3,000 square feet of space, commitment to give access to Kim’s members (charging minimum membership fee), and maintaining the collection. The exclusive film collection should still be available to the public, especially film students and film-lovers. We hope to find a sponsor who can make this collection available to those who have loved Kim’s over the past two decades.”

Apparently some educational institutions were interested, but no one wanted the full collection…except a small town in Sicily known for its connections to the mafia.

The whole collection was shipped over there, and since then, despite grandiose intentions of digitization and access, nothing has really happened. It apparently isn’t deteriorating as people feared, but it’s not being used either.

Beyond the sheer human interest part of this story (and it is really interesting on that level! Mafia! Italian personalities! Grumpy video store clerks!), I am interested in the idea of the difficult donor who has a one of a kind, very desired collection. Kim’s collection is unique and important, which makes it very interesting to a lot of different institutions, but no one was willing to play by his very particular rules, because, as the article states, “they didn’t need all 15 rental copies of Shrek.” But, by not accepting it, the collection is now in a place where it may never be seen again.

Should institutions bow to the requests of the donor when the collection is this good? What sort of demands are acceptable, and which aren’t? Is there a way to work with difficult donors from the beginning to promote a more peaceful transfer later?

I believe that it comes down to trust, in the end. A donor who believes that you are going to use her collection in a responsible way is more likely to play by your rules. A donor believes that her collection is amazing. She has worked hard through the years to find all these items. The donor’s biggest fear is that everything is just going to end up in a dumpster. They can be resistant to weeding, even when it really, really should happen, because of that fear.

So what is the answer? Contracts? Ongoing collaboration? I would love to hear from any of my classmates who have experience working with these sorts of difficult donors. There must be an answer! Or maybe not. Maybe collections are just bound to end up in weird Sicilian warehouses, where they’ll live until they’re finally thrown out in fifty years. I sure hope not.

25 March

Charles V of France: I can haz all teh books?


Ingeborg Psalter, Jesse Tree, c. 1200, Musee Conde (Chantilly)

In his book Library: an Unquiet History  Matthew Battles describes an extraordinarily far-ranging history of books, book collections, libraries and librarians. It would unfair of me to criticize him for omitting my personal favorites (but he did, ok?!). He concludes his history with a brief discussion of the future of the library and the place of “digital objects” in our collections, and I wish he had discussed some of the opportunities that The Digital brings to the study of long-dispersed libraries and collections.

Battles only fleetingly mentions the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. The library traces its roots back to the reign of Charles V (1364-1380). Charles greatly expanded the royal library and employed a steward, Giles Malet, whose sole responsibilities were to maintain the library and actively seek out more volumes to add to the collection (collections development!). While Battles credits the Medicis with having the first “public” library in 1440, Charles’ collection at the Louvre was open to all the members of court in the 1360s. Medieval poet, single mom, and all-round badass Christine de Pisan wrote about using the library at the Louvre in her 1404 work, Le livre des fait et bonnes moeurs du sage roy Charles V. At the time of Charles’ death in 1380, the library held at least 1200 volumes – not too shabby.

I like to think of the Louvre library as “public” not just because it was open to all members of court but because Charles also had a “private” library. He kept a collection of fifty-six manuscripts at his palace at Vincennes – then a royal hunting lodge, now the suburbs of Paris. Vincennes was a much more private residence away from court. It served more as a family retreat and a place to bring privileged guests. In addition to being kept at a private residence, the books were stored in Charles’ private chambers. These rooms would have been accessible to an extremely limited number of people.

Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, folio 68v-69r, c. 1324, The Cloisters

Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, folio 68v-69r, c. 1324, The Cloisters

The fifty-six manuscripts in his private collection were listed in an inventory taken in 1380 and describe some of the most lavishly decorated and extensively illustrated Gothic manuscripts (of ALL TIME). Only ten of the manuscripts listed and one fragment are known to manuscript historians today.* And those ten manuscripts are the most well-researched, most-published, and most-often displayed Gothic manuscripts. They are all insanely beautiful and expensive. Period. End of story. Charles was a surrrrious collector. And these manuscripts never appear together, as a collection, after Charles’ death. No collector was able to amass such a high profile collection of Gothic illuminated manuscripts ever again.

The ironic part of the story is that the individual manuscripts that were in Charles’ collection have generated much more published research than the collection as a whole. In fact, apart from the inventories themselves, the collection has been discussed in scholarly work exactly once – at an historical conference that took place at Vincennes in 1994. This is a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. It is not unusual for art historical research, especially manuscripts studies. In general, the scholarship in this area has focused on discovering the authors, the scribal hand, the names of the illustrators and illuminators, essentially a discovery of a book’s origins. I have no problem with origin stories, but by focusing on how and when the book was made we miss out on all the different and exciting ways these manuscripts have been interpreted over the course of centuries. Centuries.

I have a lot of ideas about why the books were kept at Vincennes, and why these books and not others and how Charles might have used them. Today these manuscripts are in libraries and museums France, the UK, and the United States. They are dispersed, in different states of preservation, and there are no plans to get the old gang back together any time soon. However, because these manuscripts are so well researched digital scans of the pages already exist for many of them. It would not be impossible to re-create (at least a teensy portion) of Charles’ collection in a digital space. It would be the first time since 1380 that anyone would be able to have a reading experience that even comes close to what Charles created at Vincennes. What would that teach us?

Jean Pucelle, Belleville Breviary, David Page, 1323-26,  BNdF

Jean Pucelle, Belleville Breviary, David Page, 1323-26, BNdF

*List of the existing Manuscripts (in the interest of full-disclosure):

 Ingeborg Psalter (Chantilly, Musée Condé ms. lat.1695);

Saint Louis Psalter (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 10525);

Psalter of Isabelle of France (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum ms. 300);

Breviary of Philippe le Bel (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 1023);

a royal manuscript of unknown ownership (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 13233);

Belleville Breviary (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 10483);

Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters ms. 54.1.2);

Breviary of Jeanne d’Evreux (Chantilly, Museé Condé ms. 51);

Hours of Yolande de Flandres (London, British Library, Yates Thompson 27);

Savoy Hours (New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library ms. 390);

Breviary of Charles V of France (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 1052).




24 March
Comments Off on How Soon Is Now? Disasters and the Digital Library

How Soon Is Now? Disasters and the Digital Library


As I mentioned in my questions for this week, I was stuck by the following quote from Battles,  “we have in this keening a recognition of the perishability of books as objects, which always threatens to triumph over the immortality of the book as ideal” (113). Any type of material–digital or paper–is subject to entropy and perishable.  Battles accounts of historic libraries suggested that the real threats to preservation are not physical conditions or poor collections strategy but global social and economic upheaval. As a result, it seems to suggest the really enduring collections are privately held, outside of institutional and political shifts.  Extending the lifespan of digital collections seems to require supporting private collectors and nonprofits.

Yet, preservation is not completely immune to conditions of physical damage, even when in private hands.  I imagine that climate change might pose another global sea change (bad pun intended) that will disrupt populations an in the process render institutional collections increasingly insecure.

Hurricane Sandy provides a small  harbinger of the challenges climate change will pose to preservation, particularly of new  media works. Eyebeam, a non-profit digital art space located in Chelsea very close to the water. Eyebeam originally selected their space because of its cavernous space, location, and cheap (at the time) rent.  Concerns about proximity to the shoreline was never even a consideration.

During the hurricane their entire space was decimated–basement archives and ground floor working spaces were totally wiped out.   The salty toxic sludge water that came into the building corrupted and eroded everything it touched. Fifteen years of exhibition records, files, and media-driven artist projects were soaked.  Hyperallergic put it well, “Though we think of digital creations as non-physical entities, most of these works were made in the pre-cloud era, and stored as extremely physical things vulnerable to physical problems. The digital isn’t so digital any more when the metal computer tower files reside in is getting eaten away by chemicals.”

New media documentarian and Eyebeam resident Jonathan Minard participated in the conservation efforts, and published a short video showing the problems the institution now faces. Recovering Eyebeam’s Archive

With fundraising assisstance Eyebeam was able to salvage 1,500 digital and analogue storage media containing unique art from their fifteen-year history. These efforts are documented in an exhibit hosted in January entitled: Eyebeam Resurfaces: The Future of the Digital Archive. The exhibit, only two months after the storm, gave the gallery a chance to highlight the recovery efforts following Sandy as well as display some of the saved collections from the archive. Curators describe the exhibit as “a conversation about the long term future of digital media and what it takes to preserve artifacts of our time.”

Digital materials seem infinitely movable, copying and remixing and existing across spaces, in multiple places at once.  They are magical but not magic.  The cloud lives in a terrestrial place–in a distributed network of servers and devices.  While this distributed method offers some kind of security–hence the Internet’s origins as a DARPA project–Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that it is all equally fragile to the elements.

17 March
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Serendipity and the Internet

For a company/data tool that started out in 2001 (!) I’m always amazed at how few people I interact with know about StumbleUpon, let alone use it. I think its safe to say that most people who are internet savvy have their guilty time-wasting pleasures to pass by idle hours, but these seem to be refined and limited to a set of sites which, in and of itself, is limited to a small group of actors, ideas, and resources. That’s part of why I find StumbleUpon fascinating and refreshing in a seemingly otherwise stagnant web, which at times offers up the same thing in different forms/from different sources- it allows you to break free of that stagnation. If you’re unfamiliar with it StumbleUpon is a discovery engine, something that many people have hailed for re-injecting serendipity into the web; it shows you things you might never have seen otherwise, but just might find fascinating or entertaining, based on the universe of themes you might like (which you choose- so arguably could be just as limiting).

After reading the article by Kraus and the Prelinger style of information organization, I immediately thought about StumbleUpon and its use of proximity and context as a form of (seemingly) random organization. I found a short article about this idea of the loss of serendipity on the web, although it does focus more on new people rather than new ideas. Many of the tools/attempts to interject serendipity among individuals have had disastrous results (see Google Buzz, or the GirlsAroundMe mentioned in the article…). Recently we’ve seen Facebook initiate something similar with their Graph Search, perhaps indicating that people are growing tired of the current ways to organize and access data, and are looking to recapture that serendipity (or the execs at Facebook just think it’ll be profitable…). There’s been discussion (via a TED talk most notably) about the fact that the way most people use the web/social sites tends to feed our confirmation bias rather than opening us up to new and conflicting information, and I like to think that StumbleUpon to some extent can help people break out of those type of patterns. If you don’t use it, I suggest you try it the next time you have some time to burn online and want something new; I’ll preface that by saying it takes a little time to set up- like a good Pandora station you have to spend a bit of time before you reap the rewards, but sometimes the best things in life require a little work (do it, don’t be lazy). Serendipity needs you just as much as you need it?

04 March
Comments Off on All we have is what we’ve been through: New Media and Love

All we have is what we’ve been through: New Media and Love

The Love Artist at work.

Kathe Izzo is a performance artist. She also calls herself a healer, shaman, writer, teacher, a mother, the mother of all creation. She has been engaged in a conceptual performance piece for the last decade or so called The True Love Project. This project is composed of love performances and installations in addition to private, individual sessions. During these sessions or performances, Kathe Izzo falls madly, deeply in love with her audience.

I worked as a studio assistant to Kathe Izzo in the winter of 2007. We began our correspondence in 2005, when I scheduled a love-appointment with her. She was living in New York, and I was in highschool in Virginia, so most of our day-long love affair consisted of emails, text messages, and sending each other songs and pictures online. When I came to New York to live and work in her studio I brought so much expectation and fear and uncertainty. She often told me to “be bold,” and I am still working on that.

Her work is experiential and transient. The majority of what she “has” is documentation of a piece, and not the piece itself – blog entries, video, photography, letters, transcripts, love objects, set pieces, altars, costumes, ad infinitum.

She is not really a new media artist. Love is as old a medium as I can possibly think of. That said, I don’t know how you would write about Kathe without also writing about email, virtual communication, travel, digital photography, web design, twitter, blogs – essentially, new media. You could argue that these digital objects and interactions are just the by-products of her real craft. Even if they are, you could not begin to collect Kathe’s work without collecting all of these things. Her online presence is, in some ways, more real and permanent than the fleeting glimmer of her love. And, as far as I know, she has no archival method in place for storing this information or collecting it as part of her body of work. When I worked with her, she had converted a small pantry off of her dining room into a kind of personal archive. She had boxes and binders full of clippings, fliers, all kinds of documents about her and her work, starting around the 80’s and her work in photography and film. The kind of ephemera she was saving has largely moved online, and there are fewer clippings to save and fliers to preserve. In January she funded her book project through Kickstarter, she is a a tweeter, YouTube artist, and infrequent (if heartfelt and intriguing) blogger. She certainly uses and incorporates new media into her performances. In fact, our own love performance would not have been possible without it. She is a wild, one-woman show, and I sometimes worry about the longevity of the digital goods produced out of her work. I don’t know if it bothers her. It would not surprise me if she found the fragility of digital objects to be somehow poetic and organic. But, it certainly creates a challenge for curators and collectors. It has always been difficult to “preserve” performance, but how can we keep the relational? the emotional? All we have is what we’ve been through, and some tweets.

18 February
Comments Off on Curating objects as instruments

Curating objects as instruments



I want to take Usai’s Charter of Curatorial Values as a jumping off point to introduce a few other models / conversations around curatorship in visual art and popular culture.   The word  curator has steeped, perhaps a bit to deeply into our everyday life.  “Curate your Facebook profile like you curate your life,” a recent NY Times article suggests.  In keeping with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion that objects solidify and project the power of a fragile and variable individual self — popular media has been inundated with the notion of a ‘well-curated’ life.  Popular ‘curators’ in fields from music to art, fashion to beauty present themselves as emulatedable object selectors, taste-makers for an overabundant world.  To mind come names like Taavo Somer, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, and Danielle Rubi-Dentzel. Often the selections are heightened by a rarified or hand-made quality and the curation extends into the most banal arenas of life, invisible to outsiders – toothpaste and soap come to mind.

Tavi Gevinson, teen blogger of Style Rookie and now online Rookie Magazine was catapulted to fame  not simply for her artful writing on fashion, but for her own depictions of herself in stylish outfits and her presentations of collections of artifacts (both physical and digital) that depict an idealized adolescent bedroom.   Style Rookie elevated the teen bedroom to a curated space.  I argue that this represents a move away from traditional fashion media as well as from the creative production of teens because the thrust of the bloggers activity is to project an image of self, rather than to produce art or comment on fashion.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that the way to get beyond materialism is to use objects “as instruments rather than projections of our selves.” Might it be possible to make the argument that a ‘curator’ used in the broad pop-media context, might be using objects/artifacts as instruments? Does this appellation extend to both curators in institutions and lifestyle curators on blogs?

Curatorial work in the visual arts has exploded with the exponential growth of the contemporary art market since the late 1990s.  In this context, the figure of the curator-as-artist has been debated widely. Usai seems to land on the side of the curator as artist – as capable of creating new works. “New works may be created through the use of one or more existing items in the collections (something whichshould always be encouraged by curators who believe in the archive or museum as a catalyst of invention).”

I am more inclined to agree with the depiction of the curator as a cultural producer–this incompasses a wide-swath of curatorial duties. Both the traditional duties of an arbitor looking down from the ivory tower determining merit, but also allows for the essential role of uniting a creative team and guiding ideas to fruition.  Nato Thompson and Michelle White address this perspective remarkably well in an interview for artlies. Nato and White discuss the possibilities of curatorial work to upset and engage with the matricies of social, cultural, and monetary capital through collective curatorial work.  In effect, to answer my own question, I believe they would be inclined to agree with Csikszentmihalyi that objects are best used as instruments not projections of self, but that collecting and arranging objects – or experiences of artifacts – can be a great disruptor of materialist power.

I want to end by citing the intro to their interview…

In 1934, during Hitler’s ascendance to power, Walter Benjamin gave a lecture called “The Author as Producer,” at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. With urgency, Benjamin questioned the role of the author and the artist. He felt that it was their job to not just respond to what was going on from a removed observational vantage point but, as a “producer,” to engage and actively change the course of social politics. Part of being a producer is letting go of individual conceit. Revolutionary power is the autonomy of the collective idea—not the autonomy of an individual.




14 February
Comments Off on It’s not what you think, Mom.

It’s not what you think, Mom.

I had a very transitory childhood. My family moved almost every year (there were a couple 2-4 year stints of geographic stability, but by the time I was a teenager, we were moving every year). Because of this, I am the opposite of a pack rat. I learned very quickly that minimalism alleviates the laboriousness of constant transition. I have the ability to purge my belongings with wild abandon (or other people’s belongings, if they ask me to or if they leave their things in my path for longer than 24 hours). However, reading “Why We Need Things” reminded me of a significant aberration in my anti-hoarding lifestyle. I began downloading music feverishly as soon as Napster came across my radar, when I was 12 or 13. I was tenacious about this – finding new bands, finding new services after the inevitable shut-downs (napster > morpheus > kazaa). By age 16, I’d filled a 200 CD case with burned discs. Somehow, through these years, I’d failed to foresee my mother’s eventual censure of my “illegal activities.” She’d been too busy during those years dealing with the trouble that my three older brothers caused to notice that I’d been committing “massive thievery” for quite some time (I’d place my mother in the “paranoid Luddite” category, or as Kara would say, one of the “OLDS!”). When she finally noticed, she surreptitiously removed my hefty CD case from my room and drove to a dumpster some miles away wherein she disposed of “the evidence” (and thereby thwarted the inevitable FBI pursuit and eventual arrest of me/her/the whole family).

I was devastated. Until now, I’ve not thought of the connection between this incident and the events that occurred around this time in my life. Soon after this happened, I dropped out of high school. Unquestionably, I made this decision for a lot of reasons – my inability to cope socially and emotionally after the fifteenth new school is the one that stands out. However, I’d never thought of the role that my music collection played in quelling my “psychic entropy” and regulating my consciousness, and the downward psychological spiral that ensued once this collection was suddenly gone. Perhaps if I’d been able to articulate to my mother the invaluable utility of this collection in regulating my conception of myself, or that the collection “stabilizes the sense of who I am, gives a permanent shape to my view of myself that otherwise would quickly dissolve in the flux of consciousness” (paraphrased, Csikszentmihalyi 23), she wouldn’t have tossed it away with so little concern for my obscenely precarious teenage self-conception. Although, knowing my mother, she would have been just fine sacrificing my “self-conception” in order to keep the family out of jail. I did, after all, learn my indiscriminate purging skills from her.

21 January
Comments Off on Imagined Communities – Khalil Rabah: Pages 7,8,9

Imagined Communities – Khalil Rabah: Pages 7,8,9

Khalil Rabah, In this Issue, 2006–2012 (Act III: Molding, Neon, 120 × 400 cm). Photo by George Haddad.

Khalil Rabah, In this Issue, 2006–2012 (Act III: Molding, Neon, 120 × 400 cm). Photo by George Haddad. Courtesy e-flux

In Epistemic Infrastructure in the Rise of the Knowledge Economy, Hedstrom and King trace the development of modern collecting institutions: museums, archives, libraries.  The evolution of these institutions is tied to both technological and political developments–most notably the development of the nation-state.

Hedstrom and King offer only a cursory assessment of the relationship between national recordkeeping, museum and library collections and the construction of a national identity. The given example of  the Bibliotheque National in France demonstrates how collections, by transcending numerous regime changes, can become identified with the people of a territory (including linguistic community and shared cultural resources).

Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities, defines the nation as a socially-constructed community, imagined “as both inherently limited and sovereign.”  The nation is imagined because all members of this community cannot have face-to-face interactions. Instead the members of a nation create a mental image of their shared identity through media and, I would argue, collecting institutions.  Pre-digital collections physically manifest the knowledge resources of a nation-state.

In a forthcoming exhibition at e-flux, Palestinian artist (and UT Alum) Khalil Rabah takes the relationship between collecting practice and national identity as his subject and archival practice as his medium.  “Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind” (2003–ongoing) documents an elusive museum primarily communicated by newsletters.  From the e-flux press release, “In a gallery adjacent to this storage space pages 7, 8, and 9 of the twenty-four page Summer 2011 newsletter have been extracted from the Museum archives to become a series of paintings, giving them and their content prominence over the remaining twenty-one pages.”

Rabah uses the natural history museum (and the Orientalist authorial/institutional voice) as an absurdist framing device that sends up the contested identity of  the Palestinian nation[state?].   The artist takes institutional critique to the natural history museum–referencing the colonialist legacy of Western museum acquisition in the region.


21 January
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I always get a little riled up when any author refers to the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages,” just as Hedstrom and King did in this week’s readings. I am biased. I wrote my Master’s thesis in Art History on French medieval manuscripts and manuscript collections. What Hedstrom and King say is true – that much of the genius of the Greeks and Romans was preserved not by Europeans but by kings and princes of the Late Antique Islamic Empire, and we owe them a great deal. But, to suggest that there was no interest or growth or new thought in Europe for a space of nearly a thousand years is more than a little absurd.

Hedstrom and King are especially interested in collections as public goods, and how this changes a mere collection into a didactic resource. They note, correctly, that during the French Revolution the library of the King was “transformed” into the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Today the Bibliotheque National de France dates their establishment not the French Revolution but to the reign of Charles V of France in 1368. A description of how that early library was used can be found in a first hand account of the life of Charles V, written by Christine de Pisan in 1404, Le livre des fait et bonnes mouers du sage roy Charles V. Christine de Pisan was able to use the library as a work space, a place in which to socialize with other scholars and authors, and as a collective resource under the patronage of the French court. The collection may have been private, but it did support and foster several generations of research and writing prior to its being made a public good.

During Charles V’s reign, his collection of manuscripts were kept in a relatively public and accessible part of the Louvre. He hired a personal valet, who managed his collections both the more public collection at the Louvre and a more private collection at Charles’ residence at Vincennes, that would have been accessible only to Charles and his immediate family – the medieval version of tiered access.

I do not point this out to be a snark to Hedstrom and King. I want to suggest that this medieval model – of a large, research collection that is gated is not so unlike the many, many gates that researchers today encounter when trying to access the information they need. The University of Texas at Austin prides itself on being a top research university, but access to the riches of its library and archival collections as well as its online resources are reserved for current students, faculty and staff. There are, of course, ways to become a patron of the library system if you are no longer affiliated with UT, but I would argue that access remains gated.

Recent events, such as PIPA and SOPA as well as the death of Aaron Swartz suggest that we continue to live in a world of gated information. The acts of the French Revolution remain that – revolutionary ( How truly public are public collections, and what can we learn from the evolution of historical collections, their failures and successes?