Emily C. Floyd and Sally M. Promey: Collaboration and Access in the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion[i]
Materialities & Secularization Theory
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As the study of material and visual religion has taken shape over roughly the past four decades, the field has faced a unique set of challenges, both ideological and technical. Secularization theory looms large from an ideological perspective. Scholars in multiple disciplines have rehearsed, many times over, the challenge of the secularization paradigm for studies of religion, and for studies of religious materialities in particular. In brief, secularization theory maintained that if religion survived into modernity, it would be an immaterial and interior sort, a set of beliefs rather than behaviors or practices with their material, spatial, and sensory agencies, implements, and accouterments. This set of secularist assumptions constrained the study of material religion by situating it almost exclusively within the pre-modern, the “primitive,” the “less advanced.” Although secularization theory, in its earlier reigning forms, has now been fully debunked, its complex effects and aftermaths continue to impede the study of material religion today
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The technical challenges to material religion studies are readily apparent. Chief among these is the necessity for access to large numbers of high quality images for research and teaching. Beyond the simple requirement for many high quality images, scholars of material religion also need access to multiple forms and formats beyond the photograph. When thinking about performative practices, for example, sound, motion, and three-dimensional capacities contribute to an appropriately capacious archive.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Earlier visual technologies came with specific kinds of restrictions. Slide libraries archiving images generally catered to discipline-specific audiences, art historians and anthropologists, among them, and the discipline shaped the nature of the slide collection. Slide libraries specific to the discipline of art history, for example, largely consisted of works of fine art. Furthermore, slides were themselves discrete material objects. If someone in a department needed a slide for teaching, and a scholar from elsewhere in the university had removed it for the day, an entire lecture required retooling. This made disciplines highly protective of and territorial about these objects. Slides also required support technologies (projectors, screens, darkened rooms) that were for years the purview of only those departments (art history, archaeology, anthropology) presumed to require them. While scholars in other disciplines (religious studies, history, sociology) focused occasionally on the study of objects, or incorporated object study into scholarship on specific topics like ritual, for example, those disciplines did not develop classroom support technologies to make possible robust visual teaching. The advent of what is now called digital humanities represented enormous opportunities, fairly quickly inspiring smart classrooms that allowed for image projection in every discipline.
The Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR) took shape in 2008 as one means of addressing these and other challenges to the study of its subjects. At full scale, MAVCOR has three major components. First, the Center is a programmatic hub at Yale University. Here its work includes, for example, the organization of conferences and symposia, the development of seminars in its fields, the curation of occasional exhibitions, and the work of an active interdisciplinary research group of graduate students and faculty. Second, MAVCOR convenes groups of fellows to work together as part of a project cycle. Project cycles have a roughly five-year duration and aim to produce collaborative scholarship around a designated theme as well as to encourage lasting networks of intellectual exchange. The first project cycle devoted its energies to the intersections of religion, materiality, and sensation. The collective produced a volume titled Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice (Yale University Press, 2014). The current project cycle is dedicated to the study of Material Economies of Religion in the Americas (MERA). Invited Fellows represent all ranks in the academy (from graduate students to senior faculty) and from international institutions as well as universities and museums in the United States. Third, and though MAVCOR is indeed a center, it does not simply, or even most fundamentally, shape a physical space at Yale University. Instead, a core dimension of the center’s work takes place digitally through MAVCOR’s website (mavcor.yale.edu), which went live in 2011. Consisting primarily of a born-digital peer-reviewed journal, electronic exhibition spaces, and a material objects archive, MAVCOR’s website intended to address two of the critical challenges that have historically faced the study of material religion: the ideological framework of secularization theory that might suggest the decline and disappearance of material dimensions of religion over time, and the technical hurdles that reinforced barriers among disciplines and that encouraged the study of certain forms and kinds of materials over others.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 New technological developments and intellectual frameworks and perspectives have allowed MAVCOR, in concert with other key contributions like the scholarly print journal Material Religion, to dismantle earlier impediments to the study of material religion. Secularization theory favored the fine arts, for example, and thus dismissed many objects and monuments important to the study of material religion. In the past, then, these objects and monuments were neither robustly collected and preserved nor usefully curated. MAVCOR’s born-digital Material Objects Archive is intended to provide a space for objects neglected under earlier paradigms. The reasons for this neglect were multiple. They included the privileging of some religious traditions over others; gendered understandings of production and usage; differential valuation of materials and media of production; and the economic class of makers and/or users. Racialization also played an enormous part in what attracted study and the interpretive and evaluative frameworks applied.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Responding to the call of the editors of this volume to discuss MAVCOR as a case study for digital humanities scholarship, in what follows we, Sally Promey, the Center Director, and Emily C. Floyd, MAVCOR site Editor and Curator, describe the evolution of the Center over time, discuss current MAVCOR projects intended to expand the scope of digital publishing, and address some aspects of the ethics and complications of digitization. We intend to present MAVCOR as one way in which digital humanities might be leveraged to address theoretical and methodological shifts in the study of religion.
Emergence and Development of MAVCOR
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Late in 2008, when Promey and the MAVCOR team first started to plan for MAVCOR’s digital dimension, we had two primary aims. First, we wanted to provide substantial peer-reviewed scholarship, about a range of material objects, to a wider set of audiences than those usually reached by scholarly print journals. From the start, this set of aspirational audiences included religious practitioners in diverse traditions as well as scholars. Second, we wanted to encourage scholarship on, and to archive and make available, diverse economies of images and objects and architectures, including, but also vastly exceeding, those high cultural productions conventionally studied by art historians. As contributions started to come to us, we realized we could accomplish more than these two goals, prompting us to expand the scope and kinds of material we published even before the site went live in 2011.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 MAVCOR came together at a time when the digital humanities was not fully developed at Yale University. For example, Yale hired its first Digital Humanities Librarian in 2013, and opened its DHLab in 2015. Getting started thus required navigating by considerable trial and error to make our website function in a way that fulfilled even our two initial goals. From the outset, building MAVCOR necessitated that we, as academics with little expertise in digital media, learn to communicate clearly with designers and programmers. We now do a fair amount of our own designing and we contract, and collaborate, with a programmer who has a substantial track record of successful scholarly projects. However, at first, we did not know enough about what we were asking from the technical and design experts to achieve the result we wanted. We also felt the limitations of the then current templates for Yale University websites, which we had opted to use at the beginning because this was the way most websites on university servers were imagined at the time. We were, moreover, encouraged in this direction by the IT professionals with whom we first worked. We were unaware, at that point, whether what we really wanted was possible to attain, and if it was possible, whether we could do it for the amount of funding available to us.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 When we began, Yale University websites were largely departmental sites with templates designed to provide introduction to the disciplinary departments and information about them. Fortunately, the university’s IT specialists agreed that a customized site, produced by Drupal programmers outside the university, would offer us more creative ways of working around these challenges. Despite customization, however, we felt that the initial design still lent a “departmental aesthetic” to the MAVCOR site and constricted the site’s functions. These frustrations prompted our first major post-launch redesign, which we debuted in 2015.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In the summer of 2017, we introduced further changes to the site in order to make it more intuitive, informative, and accessible for our users. Two “Think Sessions” framed the 2017 redesign. The first of these sessions took place at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference in November 2016 in San Antonio where MAVCOR gathered a group of religious studies scholars known for innovative and energetic ideas about this medium. The second one coincided with the February 2017 annual meeting of the College Art Association (CAA) in New York City where digital humanities innovators in the field of art history sat down with us to have a similar conversation. These meetings offered valuable insights about new ways users might wish to encounter the site, opportunities to clarify and more directly convey MAVCOR’s mission, and accessibility challenges to which we might respond.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 One of the primary changes we instituted in 2017 was a redesigned home page, intended to clarify for first-time visitors the variety of possibilities the site provides for organizing, studying, and (re)imagining content [FIGURE 1: Screenshot of new homepage]. The new home page features a large hero image comparable to the 2015 design, but we now have the ability to overlay text on the hero image so that visitors receive both visual and textual information about the project. In the header, the site displays a redesigned logo that emphasizes the project’s acronym, “MAVCOR” in addition to its extended title “Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion.” The new site also includes expanded content below the hero image: two columns of announcements, one sharing recent contributions to MAVCOR Journal and one communicating information about upcoming events. The latter column also provides space for us to share information about developments and opportunities of interest to our readership and to highlight our Twitter feed.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Among the most substantial feedback we received from the AAR and CAA events was that many site users did not realize that MAVCOR Journal, formerly titled Conversations, was a peer-reviewed, academic journal with a distinguished scholarly editorial board. The former title, Conversations, reflected an important aspect of the original vision for MAVCOR. Fundamental to the initial conception of the site was a commitment to encourage multiple contributors, from a range of disciplines, to write Object Narratives on a single item, from different perspectives, in conversation with one another. We continue to find this idea compelling and retain it as one goal for the site. However, the journal title, Conversations, lacked precision and failed to specify the nature of the publication, revealing neither its review process, nor its content. The name change, along with the new inclusion on the homepage of the tagline “born-digital, peer-reviewed” more explicitly broadcasts key information about the publication; MAVCOR Journal is not an “informal” blog, but a formal scholarly serial, circulated in a non-traditional manner.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In response to the Think Session feedback we received, we have also added other hallmarks of the traditional scholarly serial publication: a journal ISSN number from the United States government; DOI numbers from CrossRef to identify each article; and volume and issue numbers to conform to traditional journal structure.[ii] We also made changes to the display of the articles themselves in order to signal the publication’s professional character and facilitate citation and user engagement. These include working with the digital preservation service Portico (www.portico.org) to archive articles, making them available in perpetuity even in the unlikely event of the disappearance of MAVCOR from the web; the addition of .pdf downloads so that users can choose to print out articles (and to facilitate Portico’s archival process); the inclusion of paragraph numbers to aid in citation; and the addition of a section designated for author biographies. These markers of a traditional, peer-reviewed publication make it possible for librarians to catalogue the journal in their databases. Such additions also assist scholars and students to locate MAVCOR content and assure them of the journal’s status as a sustainable, peer-reviewed publication.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The recent addition of volumes and issues to MAVCOR Journal opens up new opportunities for collaboration and for grouping of articles around specific topics. MAVCOR Journal is currently working with guest editor Dana Leibsohn, an art historian specializing in colonial Mexico and early modern exchanges, on a special issue (forthcoming in 2020). The issue is dedicated to the conception, materiality, motion, and spatiality of exchange, centered on how trade created new landscapes and new networks in the ancient and colonial Americas. We are also collaborating with the born-digital Journal of Southern Religion to publish a joint issue on material cultures of religion in the American South, with completion expected late 2019. Conversations with MAVCOR’s editorial board members, advisors, and contributors have informed and continue to shape the site in meaningful ways.
Academic Conventions and the Digital Humanities
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Digital formats afford new freedoms: the capacity to make arguments in novel ways, to form new scholarly partnerships across disciplines and distance, to enhance accessibility to academic and larger publics, to accumulate materials and varieties of contributions over time, to modify and improve formats, and to expand aims in relation to discerned needs and innovations. At the same time, the constraints of tenure requirements and broader scholarly conventions for evaluating academic work, standards often framed by the outward forms and appearances of the scholarly print journal and academic press, frequently do not reward scholars who employ digital media. In imagining MAVCOR as a Yale University site, we hoped the university’s reputation would, at least in some small measure, make digital publication more legible as scholarly enterprise. This, we thought, would be especially important with respect to the tenure reviews of junior scholars who publish with us.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 MAVCOR endeavors to balance these two sets of interests then: to elicit new ways of viewing, thinking about, and engaging with material and visual cultures of religion, while also addressing institutional requirements for promotion and tenure. We are invested in designing and producing a collaborative, accessible, substantial, interdisciplinary, experimental, and intellectually and methodologically responsible space and experience. In “Religion, Media, and the Digital Turn: A Report for the Religion and the Public Sphere Program Social Science Research Council” (2015), Christopher D. Cantwell and Hussein Rashid note,
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Digital media’s inherently participatory nature means that to engage with the medium successfully, one must be aware of its characteristics or rules. Communities of print, visual, or audio culture that migrate online simply by creating ‘e-’ versions of themselves not only underutilize the medium, but also risk alienating the communities of use that are rapidly emerging around digital content.[iii]
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 At the same time, it is also important to recognize and learn from traditional print approaches to scholarship. The rhetoric of replacement critiqued by Cantwell and Rashid, in which digital projects create little more than online replicas of their analog originals, is inadequate in at least two ways. First, it fails to acknowledge the expansive potential of the digital medium; and, second, it constrains digital possibilities by framing the medium primarily as a new, more durable and accessible, but otherwise largely identical, version of analog.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 As increasing numbers of scholars launch web-based projects, content creators, consumers, professional organizations, and tenure committees have wondered how to assess or weigh non-print scholarship. In response, in recent years digital humanities publications and projects have adopted a range of innovative approaches to peer review that present new models for evaluating digital content. Presses and professional organizations have initiated many of these developments. A collaborative imprint of University of Michigan Press, digitalculturebooks, for example, publishes work on new media studies and the digital humanities. As part of this effort, the press seeks to develop “open platforms that make openness part of the scholarly peer review process.”[iv] Similarly, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University designed PressForward, a platform that attempts to harness internet virality as a form of peer review. Both of these presses move away from the anonymity that has historically characterized peer review in an effort to promote transparency and encourage larger communities of experts to assess future publications prior to the emergence of the final versions. Indeed, the volume in which this essay appears takes an “open” approach to peer review as developed by DeGruyter. Professional organizations like the College Art Association, American Historical Association, and, soon, American Academy of Religion have responded to the growth of digital humanities projects by issuing guidelines for evaluating born-digital content on its own terms.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Within this context of peer review experimentation and innovation, MAVCOR approaches print and digital publishing as independent scholarly media but also ideally understands print and digital forms and formats to be mutually reinforcing, each with respect to the other. We recognize the potential benefits of employing some of the outward forms of print publishing and acknowledge the advantages of some print conventions for vetting of academic content. MAVCOR’s Editorial Board and double-blind review process, for example, closely resemble print models, offering means by which scholars gain feedback, produce knowledge, and enhance collaborative dimensions of research, teaching, and mentoring. Peer-review not only ensures a high standard of scholarship, but also serves as an expression of scholarly community, providing a venue for idea exchange. Within MAVCOR’s interdisciplinary context, this feedback is especially useful. When scholars of religion write on materiality, for example, they benefit from an art historian’s perspective, just as art historians with scant training in religious studies frameworks may benefit from the insights of a reader in that discipline. In following certain established norms of print publication, MAVCOR acknowledges the current benefits and strengths of these norms and asks how best to adopt or adapt them for publishing within digital humanities media. As colleagues in digital publishing invent new best practices and standards, we will watch closely to consider whether these developments in review processes may allow academic publication in this new arena to expand and enhance what print already does well.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 One of the ways MAVCOR has sought to innovate on the traditional model of journal publishing is in the diversity of article types we publish. Indeed, the born-digital nature of the project has allowed a multiplicity of content types. This array of formats would be more challenging, if not impossible, to include in a print publication. MAVCOR’s article types encourage creative ways of thinking about the roles of material objects in religious practice. In addition to Essays, modeled after conventional journal articles, we also publish Object Narratives (roughly 1,500-word contributions dedicated to exploring a single object), Medium Studies (texts of any length that focus attention on materials, media, and techniques), Mediations (theoretical musings of varying lengths on subjects related to MAVCOR’s areas of inquiry), Interviews (transcripts of conversations with relevant thinkers or artists optionally accompanied by contextual information and author commentary), Constellations (focused exhibitions of four to twenty objects brought into conversation with one another, with the option of including descriptive text), and Collections (large groups of related objects curated by a single individual, potentially divided into smaller sections, and accompanied by discursive text). Some of these formats, including Mediations and Collections, emerged in response to user feedback.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The digital platform has enabled MAVCOR to provide users with new ways of interacting with and making arguments about materiality. Unlike print media, which is largely static, MAVCOR can publish audio and visual material, as well as text. The journal welcomes video-first contributions. We have also begun collaborating with Internet Archive (archive.org) in order to digitize books, including photo albums, prayer guides, and other devotional materials, held in the personal collections of our contributors, so that contributors can produce articles that comprise books, as well as pictures, performances, buildings, and sculptures. Internet Archive’s unique book viewer platform allows visitors the experience of virtually turning pages. Although viewers cannot achieve the actual sensory experience of physically holding a book and manually manipulating its pages, this technology allows site visitors to see the layout of pages in relationship to one another, rather than in the isolation in which they are generally displayed in print publications.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 We began publishing Collections in 2016 in response to a common scholarly problem: many researchers accumulate large databases of images, audio files, and video over the course of their investigations. The vast majority of these are never shared with the scholarly community or general reading public. Academic monographs, the typical venue for publication of long-term projects, set limits on the numbers of images they can include, even if greater numbers might be relevant to the argument at hand. MAVCOR’s Collections provide a space for curated display of the full set of these accumulated materials accompanied by introductory text. As with other categories of contribution, the scholar/author retains copyright to these materials, or works with MAVCOR to secure permissions from the relevant venues, as appropriate.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In October 2017, MAVCOR published its first Collection realized in concert with the print publication of a scholarly monograph, Rachel McBride Lindsey’s A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press). The print book includes a link to Lindsey’s MAVCOR Collection, which in turn links to the press’s publicity page for her book. While MAVCOR has from the start planned to archive such assemblies of images and research project materials (audio and video), it is largely thanks to the initiative of University of North Carolina Press Executive Editor, Elaine Maisner, that we now imagine Collections as a means of establishing formal and mutually advantageous relations with scholarly print publication. This first collaboration with UNC press has been enthusiastically received and other authors have approached us about undertaking similar projects to accompany their books. Planned for 2019 is a second Collection in collaboration with the University of North Carolina Press, which will coincide with the publication of Alex Seggerman’s monograph Reawakening Modernism, on Egyptian art movements, Islam, and the construction of Middle Eastern modernity.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Many digital humanities projects represent the robust and innovative visions of single scholars or small groups of scholars, tightly focused and dedicated to exploring a specific question or area of study. These projects make valuable and exciting innovations and contributions to scholarship. MAVCOR consults and learns from them, but imagines a different contributor model for itself. MAVCOR’s platform offers a unified forum in which multiple scholars’ work can come together around a single, interdisciplinary set of mutually engaged subjects and in which scholars are invited to join the digital humanities community without necessarily investing in building a website or developing these infrastructural tools on their own.
Accessibility, Accumulation, and Flexibility in the Digital Humanities
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 While MAVCOR is invested in substantial and original scholarship, it is not solely a community of scholars. As an open-access publication, we regularly receive emails from individuals outside the academy, inquiring about the dates of religious festivals described in the journal, wishing to contribute a religious object from their own collection to the Material Objects Archive, or simply hoping to identify an object located in a relative’s attic. The open access nature of MAVCOR is one of its greatest strengths—furnishing a space on the Internet where anyone (in university, public school, museum, civic organization, religious community, e.g.) can find thoroughly researched and thoughtful information about material religion. Our commitment to a broad readership has influenced our approach to editing and publishing content. Since we aim to attract the larger public, as well as scholarly readers from a wide range of academic backgrounds and interests, it is important that all contributions define terms, offer historical context, and explain their theoretical concepts. MAVCOR promotes scholarship that is simultaneously substantive and accessible.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 In order to ensure MAVCOR’s content is both comprehensive and accessible, the Center depends upon success in attaining financial support as well as on a small and highly trained staff (several graduate associates in addition to the editor/curator and director). A continuing barrier to website development for most digital humanities projects is the need to raise substantial funds to build and maintain these sites. MAVCOR has been fortunate to attract generous support from, for example, the Henry Luce Foundation, Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and Yale University. Although our financial stability requires ongoing preparation of new grant materials, MAVCOR, thanks to this institutional generosity, is able to ensure continuity in this work. This continuity is an undeniable asset in shaping MAVCOR and making it possible to showcase the work of multiple scholars on a shared platform.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Another key feature and distinct advantage of digital technologies is that they allow modification over time. From the beginning, we have valued and counted upon these prospects for accumulation and malleability. We can continue building the website and multiplying contributors and contributions for as long as there is interest and meaningful rationale for this labor. These two characteristics (accumulation and amenability to refinement and change) work well in tandem. In April 2018, MAVCOR extended this collaborative and open format by inviting users to create accounts on the site through which they are able to curate their own Galleries of site content. Galleries can include material objects as well as articles from the journal,. Furthermore, users are able to add their own textual glosses and commentary. We envision these Galleries as pedagogical, research, and exploratory tools. Professors might create a Gallery of articles and images and then invite their students to read the articles in conversation with the selected images. A course might assign students to shape Galleries in response to a specific prompt. A researcher might employ Galleries to gather together material related to a subject of interest. A religious practitioner might compile objects and articles connected to devotions, holidays, or specific iconographies. With the addition of Galleries, MAVCOR seeks to engage a broader collaborative community.
The MAVCOR Digital Spaces Project: a case study
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 In summer 2017, MAVCOR launched the Digital Spaces Project. These high-resolution giga-pixel, 360º panorama, and drone photographs record religious spaces and form part of the Material Objects Archive [FIGURES 2 and 3 360º panoramas at Huaro and Marcapata]. For the first round of photography, in March 2017, MAVCOR collaborated with cusqueño photographer Raúl Montero Quispe and the Society of Jesus in Cuzco to document seven churches in the Cuzco area, all administered by the Jesuits: La Compañía de Jesús de Cuzco, San Pedro de Andahuaylillas, San Juan Bautista de Huaro, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de Canincunca, San Pablo de Ocongate, San Juan Bautista de Ccatcca, and San Francisco de Asís de Marcapata. This kind of imagery records both architectural interiors and exteriors (using drone photography), as well as the location of works within these spaces and their current states of restoration. The photographs also indicate aspects of current religious practice, documenting flowers and candles left before images as well as other elements of devotional ephemera.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The MAVCOR Digital Spaces Project’s work in Peru raises ethical and methodological considerations frequently faced by other digital humanities projects. Petit, Yang, and Huang raise similar concerns in their essay for this volume, where they grapple with questions raised by documenting unofficial religious sites in China. In inaugurating our project, we first needed to study, understand, and come to some decisions about the complicated historical relationship between cultural heritage photography and the theft of national patrimony in Latin America, and especially in Peru.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Countries, organizations, and individuals in this region have substantial reason for anxiety about the attention that photography draws to their already endangered and looted patrimony. In contrast to churches in Europe and the United States where tourists, locals, and pilgrims are generally welcome to photograph at will, churches in South America regularly feature prominent signs prohibiting all photography. These signs represent fears about possible theft, although occasionally caretakers cite conservation concerns as well (i.e. the potential damage caused by flash photography to delicate artworks). These anxieties about theft are grounded in painful experiences: Memoria Robada (Stolen Memory), a transnational investigation into trafficking of Latin American cultural heritage carried out by investigative reporting team Ojo Público (Public Eye), declares:
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 From 2008 to 2016 alone, the main auction houses of Europe and the United States sold more than 7,000 objects of Peruvian archaeological patrimony . . . The volume of Latin American works sold to collectors in the major world capitals is even greater than the 4,907 cultural objects that Interpol is currently investigating as stolen from all of South America, Central America, and Mexico. This is what one could call a disappeared museum.[v]
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Peru’s Ministerio de Cultura (Ministry of Culture, formerly the Instituto Nacional de Cultura) keeps an extensive digital archive of all the paintings, sculpture, and objects stolen, most of these from church and monastic collections.[vi] Museum, church, and culture officials in Peru frequently describe thieves using scholarly publications as “catalogs” to select objects to steal.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Although some culture officials in Peru cite anecdotal support of scholarly publications serving as catalogs for potential thieves, there is also substantial evidence that photographic documentation of cultural heritage can provide an important means of defense of these materials. In Memoria Robada, Ojo Público presents the example of an eighteenth-century Quechua manuscript stolen from the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú and eventually sold to the library of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. In 2012 Dumbarton Oaks summer fellow Isabel Yaya McKenzie informed French Quechua expert César Itier of the manuscript. He recognized it and was able to prove, on the basis of scans he had had made years earlier, that it was the manuscript he had consulted at the Peruvian national library. Itier’s scans convinced Dumbarton Oaks they had purchased stolen goods. The research library immediately initiated efforts to repatriate the manuscript, though the original theft has yet to be solved. Similarly, “No robes el pasado,” (Don’t steal the past), an educational guide for young people designed by the Peruvian Ministerio de Cultura in collaboration with UNESCO, tells the story of two colonial paintings returned to churches in rural Bolivia on the basis of photographs and technical documentation.[vii] Recently, Ojo Público’s Memoria Robada project published an account of a seventeenth-century painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe stolen from a Cuzco-area church.[viii] The painting ultimately ended up in the collection of the Catholic Diocese of Orange County, California, where the Ojo Público team was able to identify it, thanks to a photographic registry compiled in 1983 by the lawyer Frederic J. Truslow. The painting returned to Peru in 2018.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Parish priests who attempt to report a stolen painting, at times without clear recollection of its specific iconography, will be challenged to prove the work rightfully belongs in their holdings. Memoria Robada recounts numerous cases of this nature, describing, for example, 214 objects stolen from Costa Rica that the “Museo Nacional de Costa Rica was unable to reclaim as it was unable to supply documents demonstrating their origin.” [ix] Proper documentation of cultural heritage contributes to the safe maintenance of that heritage. MAVCOR hopes that its documentary collaboration with the Jesuit churches in Cuzco will assist these seven churches, some of them rural and relatively little-known, to establish and defend ownership of their holdings so that objects can be reclaimed should theft occur. The MAVCOR Digital Spaces Project photographs, and other projects of this sort, may even help to discourage some potential thieves by increasing public awareness of the churches’ collections and thus reducing the market for stolen works.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 In addition to combating theft, photography can also assist in the conservation and study of spaces compromised by other cultural processes. In some instances, dramatic restorations of these spaces obscure the historic appearance of buildings, painting over or filling in missing details to produce radically revised visual and spatial programs. Even the most careful restoration comes with advantages and disadvantages. Restorations may be celebrated by some of the populations who live with these spaces and appreciate the experience of renewed colors and the completion of fragmentary or damaged murals. For scholars aiming to place these churches within a historical context, however, excellent documentation of the churches’ pre-restoration appearance can be immensely important.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The churches photographed by MAVCOR represent a range of interventions by restorers, from the highly scientific, recent work at Andahuaylillas to the heavily over-painted early-twenty-first-century work at Ocongate, to the completely untouched state of Marcapata.[x] The Digital Spaces Project preserves a record of the appearance of the Jesuit churches in Cuzco at a specific moment in their use, documenting the appearance of Marcapata prior to restoration, and the aspect of the other churches in their current states. Even the most skilled and meticulous restoration efforts disguise as well as reveal. They may uncover hidden layers of earlier mural painting, but in doing so they inevitably remove later additions. At Ocongate it is difficult to discern the building’s pre-restoration state due to the thick layer of modern paint added by the restorers. Andahuaylillas and Ccatcca, in contrast, demonstrate two different approaches to careful restoration/conservation. At Ccatcca the restorers left large expanses of wall blank, occasionally filling in some details with precise, if subtle parallel lines of paint, which allow the viewer to identify previously absent sections. In general, however, the restorers at Ccatcca avoided such efforts to fill lacunae and left the surviving murals to float within wide white expanses of empty wall. At Andahuaylillas the restorers similarly employed parallel lines of paint to indicate areas of restoration, but a quick survey of the church reveals a greater number of such areas than at Ccatcca. Certainly more mural painting had survived intact at Andahuaylillas up to the date of the restoration, but Ccatcca and Andahuayllilas nonetheless represent slightly different approaches to the task. Huaro, restored from 2004-ca. 2007 by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura and the World Monuments Fund, represents another example of careful restoration.[xi]
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Unrestored Marcapata is a rural church some six hours’ drive from Cuzco, over the 5000-meter Ausangate pass and plunging into the ceja de selva or “eyebrow of the jungle,” where the Andes meet the Amazon rainforest. When Meritxell Oms Arias, Director of the Society of Jesus’s Ruta del Barroco Andino (Route of the Andean Baroque) proposed Marcapata as a potential site to include within the digitization project, she referenced its untouched state and the plan to restore it within the next years as particularly compelling reasons to make the long, perilous drive to visit the church. Marcapata’s unique thatch roof, well documented in the 360º drone photos that we also took at each site, formed an additional draw (FIGURE 3: Drone photography at Marcapata). Photography at Marcapata represented a unique opportunity for MAVCOR to document the site prior to restoration, recording both the remarkably well-preserved nature of the murals and the single area of water damage, where water broke through the roof over the painted image of Saint James the Greater, washing away portions of the mural (FIGURE 4: Marcapata 360º panorama). These 360º photographs will allow future generations to assess the extent of later restorations as even careful restorations like those at Andahuaylillas or Huaro can disguise aspects of the lived history of the church that might otherwise be of interest to scholars.
Location and Scale
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 A primary rationale for MAVCOR’s photographic efforts is the work’s utility to scholars, students, and professors in researching, studying, and teaching these objects and places. As Averett and Counts also explore in their essay for this volume, traditional photography offers only a single view of a space and is limiting in what it can tell the viewer about the location of objects and people within that space. In contrast to traditional photography, 360º panoramas offer a sense of scale, location, and relationship to other works in a specific space. A major and singular challenge of illustrating works of art is conveying their scale. As anyone can attest whose knowledge of an object comes primarily from illustrations of that object in a book, encountering the original can present something of a shock. This is because the object in question is very likely to be substantially smaller or larger than the book’s photography was taken to imply. Such texts often show tiny objects at much larger than actual scale in order to offer greater detail to the reader, while drastically condensing larger objects to fit on the page. The 15th edition of Gardner’s classic art history textbook, Art Through the Ages, offers one approach to this problem by including rubrics alongside each image, suggesting the photograph’s relationship to the original by detailing how many millimeters, centimeters, or meters high the illustration would be were it to scale. These measurements are a valuable innovation, but they still cannot offer the intuitive, visceral sense of scale that best comes from comparison to an object of known size or to the body itself. 360º panoramas offer an improved, if still imperfect, solution to this problem. In the Jesuit church panoramas, for example, pews scaled to fit the human body help provide a sense of the dimensions of the rest of the space.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Another crucial element often missing in single-point photographic illustrations is the location of the object in question and its positioning relative to other objects within a space. 360º panoramas allow the viewer to see the object’s positioning on a wall, its location relative to other objects, or its situation within a broader religious context. Instead of being told that a mural stands at the entrance to a church, viewers can witness the positioning of this work for themselves, and consider how exactly it then engages with the lateral walls, envisioning how a visitor to the church might encounter this iconographic program. The ability to view 360º panoramas with virtual reality glasses contributes to the immersive experience of viewing such images.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 MAVCOR is far from the first project to recognize the value of virtual representations of architecture to the study of historic sites, or even to the study of material religion. Indeed, one of the earliest religion and digital humanities projects was the Virtual Qumran project (http://virtualqumran.huji.ac.il/), which sought to avoid contentious debates about provenance or ownership of the Qumran site and the Dead Sea Scrolls by focusing on the information gleaned from archaeological research at the site itself. As part of this endeavor, the project built a 3D virtual model of Qumran’s architecture. In developing the MAVCOR Digital Spaces project we were inspired by the Virtual Tour of the Sistine Chapel (http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html) developed by the Villanova team lead by Paul Wilson, a communication professor, Chad Fahs, Assistant Digital Media Coordinator for the communication department, and Frank Klassner, a member of the computing sciences. In addition to the Sistine Chapel, this group is also working to produce tours of St. John Lateran, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major, the Pauline Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Between 2015 and 2018, Benjamin E. Zeller at Lake Forest College in Chicago worked with undergraduate student research assistants to develop 360º tours of several historic religious spaces in Chicago (http://digitalchicago.lakeforest.edu/exhibits/show/digital-chicago-churches/sacred-spaces-introduction). Zeller’s tours combine 360º photography with historic photographs and other information about the sites. MAVCOR looks to the models offered by these earlier projects, but moves beyond a geographically-defined focus area, instead choosing sites to photograph in collaboration with individual scholars and with preference for lesser known sites, or at least less well documented sites.
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Promoters of 360º panoramic photography often suggest that panoramas are “just like being in the original space.” Such an argument may imply that panoramas are a substitute equal to or even better than a visit to the original space. Viewers of panoramas, however, should not be fooled by this rhetoric: panoramas create a distinct viewing experience, profoundly different from the experience of a visitor to the original site. This experience offers advantages unavailable to the in-person visitor, but also distorts the experience of the site in several ways. MAVCOR’s 360º panoramas are produced at relatively high resolution, compiling as many as 250 high definitive range (HDR) photographs in order to produce a single panorama. HDR photographs are composed of multiple exposures taken at different shutter speeds in each camera position. These exposures are then stitched together in post processing to create a final image in which detail is visible in both dark shadow and bright light. The high resolution of MAVCOR’s panoramas allows MAVCOR to limit the level of distortion in the images while the HDR photographs compensate for the camera’s more limited ability to distinguish between light and dark in contrast to the human eye. The result is that sometimes more is visible than would be discernable to a visitor in the actual space, as when the viewer of the photographic works is able to zoom in to details on the ceiling or into areas of darkness revealed by the HDR photography. At the same time, the viewer is also capable of zooming out so far that the space of the church takes on unreal and potentially misleading proportions, offering a radically new and distorted way of viewing the space that would be impossible without the 360º capability.
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 The same could perhaps be said of MAVCOR’s giga photography. In order to produce giga photographs, MAVCOR used a telephoto lens to photograph small portions of a larger image at very high resolution. Then, as with the 360º panoramas, MAVCOR stitched together that mosaic of images in post-processing to produce a final, massive whole. In the Jesuit churches we used giga photography on large murals. The final images allow the viewer to zoom in close enough to see individual brushstrokes and the texture of the wall behind them. Such images offer an unusually detailed kind of close looking. Scholars might use them to consider techniques of production or to teach about those techniques to their students, or simply to focus in on a discrete segment of a larger composition. These super high-resolution images also allow the viewer to analyze restored areas and to assess what segments remain of the original composition. They thus serve to further document restoration efforts. Photography of this nature has been quite popular in museum contexts in which it complements the work of restorers, curators, and art historians more broadly. The Getty Foundation employed giga-pixel photographs in their Closer to Van Eyck project (http://legacy.closertovaneyck.be/#home/sub=teaser), which focuses on the artist Jan van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece. The project offers not only extreme close-ups and high-resolution photographs of the entire altarpiece, but also data drawn from the conservation of the work, including dendrochronology, conservator’s reports, and x-ray and infrared photography.
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 MAVCOR’s photography in Cuzco churches represents an initial foray, a first glimpse of a project we intend to expand significantly over time. One of the MAVCOR site’s primary functions is to provide shared space for material religion scholars to come together to do digital humanities work without each individual scholar needing to fund their own isolated project. All future Digital Spaces Project photography will take place in collaboration with specific scholars, the photographs intended to complement and further their scholarship. This is not unlike MAVCOR’s approach to Collections, which the site has published in concert with print publications. For new contributions to the Digital Spaces Project, then, MAVCOR will work with scholars to take photographs and record audio and video material, as well as to aid them in constructing tours or other kinds of interpretative tools using the new images, videos, and sound recordings. In November 2017, we began this first round of scholar-centered photography, partnering with medieval art historians Meg Bernstein and James Alexander Cameron to photograph four neighboring churches in the Lincolnshire Fens in eastern England: Bicker (St. Swithin), Algarkirk (St. Peter and St. Paul), Sutterton (St. Mary), and Kirton-in-Holland (St. Peter and St. Paul). The 360º panoramas and drone photographs taken in concert with Bernstein and Cameron can now be seen on the MAVCOR site. In March 2019 we partnered with art historians Amara Solari and Linda Williams to photograph a series of colonial Maya churches in the northern Yucatán Peninsula. In the near future, religious studies scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri will advise and guide a similar effort to photograph a series of important mosques in the United States and to offer scholarship about them, along with this new photography, on the MAVCOR site. In December 2018 we began this collaboration with GhaneaBassiri, photographing at the Islamic Center of Washington DC
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 MAVCOR Journal, the MAVCOR Digital Spaces Project, and the website as a whole are part of the larger project that is MAVCOR. This larger project has many moving parts, generated, shaped, and overseen by the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion at Yale University. It should by now be clear that the MAVCOR website places a premium on collaborative scholarship of many sorts. It is a cumulative interdisciplinary site, rather than a comparative one. It nonetheless also imagines itself as a possible space where new kinds of comparison might emerge across a span of traditions, geographies, times, media, and disciplines. MAVCOR does not endorse a particular comparative methodology (or even comparative methodologies in general). Rather, in addition to many other aspirations, it hopes to elicit serious reflection from site contributors and visitors, on the usefulness of comparison as one strategy for considering varieties of things that assume a new adjacency simply by virtue of their presence on the site. We do not imagine any aspect of this project to be static, though we are fully committed to responsibly maintaining the work entrusted to us by contributors, each of whom retains copyright to their own texts and/or materials.
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 We conclude with an expansion of our introductory discussion, and with what may seem like an extravagant claim for digital humanities: the advent of electronic technologies has been crucial to the wider emergence and development of material religion as a sub-specialization within religious studies. In their essays in this volume, Bielo and Vaughn and Averett and Counts present ways in which the affordances of digital technologies offer new analytical and representational possibilities and have transformed the capture, analysis, curation, and publication of research data. We go beyond this to argue that, without the advent of digital humanities, the robust study of material and visual cultures of religion, and thus MAVCOR itself, would have been unlikely to have assumed its present shape as a formally recognized and widely practiced specialization. The academic study of objects, images, monuments, and spaces requires the possibility of displaying such materials in the classroom. This necessitates both projection devices and rooms in which projected images can be seen. In the first years of the 1990s, such display was extremely difficult to achieve outside the discipline of art history. Art history, alone among disciplinary identities, had long demanded interior architectural and spatial structures that facilitated image projection. Each art history classroom included machinery for dual slide projection and each room could be darkened so that everyone could see the projected images. If anthropologists or historians in other disciplines (like religious studies) wished to display images, they had to carry their own heavy equipment into the classroom, and they needed to arrange for a classroom space that had adequate surface for projection and that either had no windows or had windows with curtains or blinds adequate to blocking out light in order to facilitate visibility of projected works.
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 By the early 2000s, and into the early 2010s, significant changes to educational infrastructure placed so-called smart classrooms in numerous university departments in the United States, including religious studies.[xii] In the present moment, on many campuses, art history departments continue to demand superior image projection capabilities—but virtually nowhere in the United States would one need to carry their own heavy and expensive equipment with them in order to use the current technologies for image projection in the university classroom. This is not to suggest that religious studies scholars universally incorporate material sources in their teaching and research, but rather to trace the rise of a new sub-specialization, called material religion, within the field. Although there are other factors at work here, one reason that material religion has caught on faster in departments of religious studies than has the study of religion in modernity in departments of art history has everything to do with electronic technology and digital humanities. This raises larger questions about the roles of available technologies in shaping disciplinarities and interdisciplinarities in scholarship and classrooms. MAVCOR aims to create spaces for interdisciplinary conversations and offers new resources for collaboration and access. In this work, we imagine more permeable (inter)disciplinary domains, open to a wider range of actively engaged contributors and participants.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 [ii] A DOI number is a “unique alphanumeric string assigned by a registration agency to identify content and provide a persistent link to its location on the Internet”, see http://www.apastyle.org/learn/faqs/what-is-doi.aspx.
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 [iii] Christopher D. Cantwell and Hussein Rashid, “Religion, Media, and the Digital Turn A Report for the Religion and the Public Sphere Program Social Science Research Council,” (Social Science Research Council, 2015), 7.
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 [v] https://memoriarobada.ojo-publico.com/investigaciones/memoria-robada-las-historias-ocultas-del-saqueo-cultural-de-america-latina/ In addition to their reporting, Memoria Robada also includes a database of stolen objects, of repatriated objects, and of auction houses known to have sold stolen objects. “Disappeared museum” is a reference to Héctor Feliciano’s The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy To Steal The World’s Greatest Works Of Art, first published (in French as Le musée disparu: enquête sur le pillage de oeuvres d’art en France par les nazis) in 1997. All translations from Spanish by Emily C. Floyd.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 [viii] David Hidalgo, “El robo de la Virgen de Guadalupe: la pintura del Cuzco que reapareció en California,” Memoria Robada (2018). https://memoriarobada.ojo-publico.com/investigaciones/el-robo-de-la-virgen-de-guadalupe-la-pintura-del-cusco-que-reaparecio-en-california/
¶ 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [x] “Cusco: Restaurarán el Templo de San Francisco de Asís de Marcapata,” Perú.com, February 17, 2013, http://peru.com/viajes/noticia-de-viajes/cusco-restauraran-templo-san-francisco-asis-marcapata-noticia-122046 When MAVCOR met with Meritxell Oms Arias, Director of the Asociación SEMPA which administrates the Ruta del Barroco Andino and the six churches including Marcapata, Oms asserted that although plans for restoration had been proposed no work had begun at the time of our photography.
¶ 59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 [xi] See “Restauración del Templo de San Juan Bautista de Huaro: En la ruta del barroco andino,” Conservación de la Historia: Restauración y puesta en valor del patrimonio cultural, no. 26 (February-March 2007): 5-9.