Johns Hopkins students learn to curate material culture in the digital age

Pioneering gynecological surgeon Howard Atwood Kelly was one of the Big Four doctors who were recruited to found Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1889. Over the course of his lengthy career, he researched and developed new surgical techniques and medical devices, and is regarded as one of the more innovative surgeons of his era. A life cast of his left hand and wrist in bronze by artist Martha J. Cornwell was donated to the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and the sculpture is currently included in the Mark Dion installation An Archaeology of Knowledge in the Brody Learning Commons on the Homewood campus.

"It's kind of a strange object when you see it because it's essentially a hand sitting on a pedestal," says Gianna Puzzo, a Johns Hopkins class of 2015 undergraduate majoring in history of art with a minor in Museums and Society. At this writing, she is one of four students taking Curating Material Culture for the Digital Age, a fall 2014 class offered by the Krieger School's Program in Museums and Society. Over the course of the semester the students have picked three objects from the university's collections—the Homewood and Evergreen museums, the Sheridan Libraries, the Archaeological Museum, the Chesney Medical Archives, and academic department collections—to investigate.

The students need to recognize some thematic affinity among their three objects, and Puzzo is curious about the intersection of art and science. Two summers ago she interned in the School of Medicine's Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, where she started to think about how art and science come together. She chose two objects from the medical archives: a collection of Antoine-Louis Barye bronze animal sculptures and the bronze cast of Kelly's hand; and from Art as Applied to Medicine, an anatomical model of a head and neck dissection created by German sculptor Franz Josef Steger.

"What was interesting was the way art and medicine come together" in that piece, Puzzo says. "How could you use an artistic medium to capture the profession of a surgeon? By casting his hand. And thinking about that brought up a lot of ideas that I hadn't really thought of before."

Asking new questions of material culture is one of the scholarly practices the course encourages. Jennifer Kingsley, a lecturer and assistant director of the program, developed the class as a way to bring together critical and curatorial practices that surround material culture. "I think the program [Museums and Society] is always thinking about the ways in which exhibit works are researched and the ways in which research is publicly engaged," she says, pointing out that the class builds on both the strong relations the program has fostered since 2006 with university curators to think about university collections in new ways, and its interest in new research methods that the intersection of humanities scholarship and emerging digital technologies offers to investigate and consider material culture.

The students' work will eventually be posted on the JHU Collections website, which was conceived and developed by Kingsley; Reid Sczerba, the multimedia development specialist in the Center for Educational Resources (a CER grant funded its development); and with other university colleagues and student assistants from the Krieger and Whiting schools.

"Our students are digital natives and adept users of new technology, including the Web, but are not necessarily critical consumers of it," Kingsley says. "So there is an opportunity to think conceptually about digital technology as it connects to research and the museum, which is increasingly embracing technology in its practice."

While researching their objects, students consulted university archives to learn of their provenance and also conducted research to be able to tell a concise, informative story about each. Those stories and the basic facts about the object—medium, creator, date, collection, subject area—are included in its entry in the JHU Collections site database. That supplemental information is the object's metadata, and Kingsley wanted the students to think critically about it. Metadata can vary across archives and disciplines, and Kingsley and Sczerba designed the platform to be robust enough to encourage different ways of thinking about how material culture objects can relate across disciplines and research interests.

Finding new connections can be an idea seed for new scholarship. Kingsley acknowledges that digital research brings with it "massive quantities of data that offer new possibilities for new questions but also run the risk of doing the same old work with a new data set," Kingsley says. "I do think there's a tendency to want to push ahead with the technology because it's novel and seems innovative, and what I hope to inculcate in my students is a more critical stance that acknowledges the power of this connected world but also [for them to] learn how to evaluate it and judge its possibilities."

In Puzzo's case, considering these questions in relation to her objects made her wonder about 19th-century neuroscience. "I started to think about other artists who worked with bronze, and the first to come to my mind was Auguste Rodin and his isolated hands, arms, or torsos," she says, referring to the 19th-century French artist who, though perhaps best known for whole-body works, often sculpted partial figures. "It was interesting to see a connection between Rodin's work and an American artist making a commemorative piece for a doctor. It made me think of the broader context of what the medical world thought at the time."

Curating Material Culture for the Digital Age is the first Museums and Society class to develop content for the JHU Collections website. Kingsley's hope is that many classes will consider it as a potential platform for sharing research on the university's collections. "I do think our program is in a unique position to put the university and the museum in dialogue with each other," Kingsley says. "In the 19th century, the museum was really seen as the site of knowledge making," Kingsley says. "Over the course of the 19th century, and in part with the founding of Johns Hopkins as a modern research university, that mission was taken over by universities, and museums began to focus more on their public mission.

"Today, I think museums are certainly becoming aware that technology is a tool for storytelling," she continues. "The goal is the content, and that's true for us as well. Certainly in my class the goal is to combine traditional theoretical approaches, from multiple disciplinary perspectives, to material culture, its study, and its interpretation, and to merge that with an understanding of new and emerging technologies. How do they change the knowledge scape that we live in, and the possibilities for research and interpretation? We really want to think of the Web as its own medium and push a little bit what you can do with Web-based and digital technologies."