Feral Atlas

Reviewed by:
Nicholas Dease, Digital Learning Librarian
Pratt Institute Libraries

ARLIS/NA Multimedia & Technology Reviews
April 2022

The anthropocene, a new geological period defined by humanity’s indelible mark on nature, is a topic of great interest among scholars in various disciplines. One doesn’t need to look far to discover a wealth of literature, datasets, news articles, and documentaries exploring the topic. However, it is rare that we see attempts to capture this phenomena as a work of art in the digital humanities. Published online by Stanford University Press, Feral Atlas is an openly accessible experiment that does just that. It is at once a work of interactive digital art, a dense informational resource for researchers, and a passionate call to action.

The image shows an overhead view of a port with buildings, shipping containers, and ships drawn in oblique view, with a gathering of people near two smokestacks. The water is shown in shades of blue and green, fumes are shown yellow, and other small multicolored accents are scattered throughout.
An image from Feral Atlas, depicting a port scene, pollution, and protest.

Curated and edited by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou, the Feral Atlas is a set of four massive interactive artworks or maps, seventy-nine field reports produced by humanists, artists and scientists, and a “Super Index” to enable a more traditional exploration of the essays, poems, and other multimedia content. As described in the introduction, its goal is to invite the user to explore the “feral effects” of the anthropocene–to explore the ways in which human interventions have produced effects beyond human control.

The image shows a scene of two areas of land, shown in bright green, separated by an hourglass-shaped area of water, shown in shades of blue. The land on the left side shows leafy plants and trees and four human figures. Three humans appear to be land surveyors, and a fourth human points a gun at an elephant. The land on the right shows planted fields and a field of purple flowers, between which is the back view of a human holding a gun.
An image from Feral Atlas, depicting an interpretive view of colonization.

The experience of interacting with the atlas begins in an empty plane of white. Over time, a random selection of feral effects to explore drift into the browser viewport. Clicking on these effects will drop the user on one of the four maps, named Invasion, Empire, Capital, and Acceleration. From there, the user is invited to explore the map by panning, zooming, and clicking on feral effects represented by interactive dots or pins. Clicking on the dots reveals a “Tipper.” These are rich and often poetic descriptions of ecological changes that “shift ecologies past tipping points.” Viewing the tipper content provides a direct link to a field report that describes the effect in-depth and may reveal additional poetry, video, or other multimedia.

While the overall experience should be familiar to users that have navigated online interactive maps, the atlas itself is quite opaque at first blush. Much of this is intentional. Users are invited to slowly explore, learn how the system works, and come to their own conclusions. As such, the interface design and link names are quite unconventional and may confuse first-time users. This is reminiscent of the early days of the web, when interfaces were experimental and game-like. For impatient users, clicking on the rotating key at the top-left will direct them to the Super Index, where they can pick and choose what to explore in a more structured manner.

As for the content, the artwork, essays, poetry, and video poems are all impeccably produced. It is a joy to discover new things and ruminate on the themes. Even panning over the four maps can be a powerful aesthetic experience in itself. Certain segments are painted. Others are drawn in a sketchy minimalist style and others still are collage. The compositions are all imbued with dense meaning and references.

However, there are some challenges with the design of the atlas. Particularly, the website is not optimized for mobile devices. Attempting to view it in a mobile browser will trigger a message to urge the user to view it on a desktop or laptop instead. However, this doesn’t detract from the value of the work.

Ultimately, the Feral Atlas is a dense project. While the site can be difficult to comprehend and the interface isn’t optimized for all devices, there is no doubt that the work is a stunning achievement of collaboration and should serve as a model for future digital humanities projects in the same vein.

Museum Digital Initiatives During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Freyja T. Catton, MLIS, BFA
Wordeater Consulting

Museum digital initiatives during the Coronavirus Pandemic is an Austrian-based research project by Dr. Chiara Zuanni on the impact of COVID-19 on museums and their digital strategies. The homepage presents a map of museum digital initiatives around the world. The digital initiatives are categorized by type: contemporary collecting projects, social media initiatives, streaming content, virtual tours, online exhibitions, games, educational content, other activities, and tweets tagged #ClosedButActive.

The categories are indicated on the map by color and icon. Projects are flagged by location in one category color.

A map of Europe with color-coded icons indicating projects in different locations. The legend is across the top of the map and the filter categories are overlaid on the right-hand side.
Screenshot of map with legend and filter categories.

Users click and drag to navigate the map, then click on one of the flags to read brief project descriptions. Each description includes titles, category, institution name, summary, and URL. The map supports filtering by category. Each country is shown using its own alphabets and names, further demonstrating the global impact of the project.

A map of eastern Canada/US border and Guelph Museum indicated with an orange flag and text box that reads: "Guelph Museum, Rapid response collection. The museum launched a contemporary collecting project: “We are interested in collecting contemporary objects and personal expressions, in the midst of city-wide closures, social distancing protocols, and our individual and collective experiences.” Text is followed by a URL link for Guelph Museums.
Screenshot of the map over eastern Canada/US border and Guelph Museum selected (orange flag).

Users must begin their search with a location they’re interested in and click and drag to get there. There is no search option, which makes quick searches difficult. The webpage is responsive to different browser sizes. This website relies heavily on a good internet connection, as connection lags make it hard to navigate.

The technology feels a little underwhelming at first, because all of the information shared isn’t searchable and is viewed on a single page. However, the information presented is clear, complex, and very useful. It’s fun to poke around at different projects around the world!

The website is freely available on the internet for anyone to use. Zuanni is dedicated to making this easily available and to expand and refine the dataset as the collection grows. Contribution forms are presented in several different languages. A lot of work went into making this website multilingual.

In the “About” page, users can learn about the project by reading the summary and related papers and reviews. The reviews correspond with areas of the map that are dense with contributions. Many of the digital initiatives and museums represented are in central and western Europe and in the US. There was a surprising lack of museums represented in Canada, as well as eastern Europe, such as Ukraine. The absence of Ukraine stood out because many cultural heritage organizations there are actively working to preserve their collections during wartime, for example Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online.

It is not clear what the vetting process is like for accepting submissions, or how initiatives are recruited other than by contribution. In the contribution form on the website, there is a summary statement at the top indicating the purpose of the project, but questions do not specify that the project needs to be specifically a museum initiative, or developed in response to the COVID-19 closures.

Google Forms. The first question reads: “What is the name of the institution you wish to add to the list?” Second question reads: “Select the type of activity you wish to add to the list:” with a drop-down box below.
Contribution form

Considering the range of budgets and staff resources, Museum digital initiatives during the Coronavirus Pandemic projects are useful examples for the broader cultural heritage community, not just museum professionals. Although it’s unclear whether this project will extend beyond the height of the pandemic, it is a valuable resource for uncovering the impact of COVID-19 on museum digital strategies.


Reviewed by:
Anina Rossen, Librarian, and Independent Art Historian
Academy of the Holy Angels

ThingStor: A Material Culture Database for Finding Objects in Literature & Visual Art is an open-access resource supported by the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. It was created by Dr. Martin Brückner, together with a multi-departmental group of undergraduate and graduate students at the University. There are currently twenty-four project members, as well as twenty former project members. Thingstor provides a reference database allowing users to access its catalogue of “real” objects, both vernacular and high-style, that appear in American and English literature, as well as in visual art, from the long 19th century. Currently housing more than 1,000 objects, the database is an ongoing project welcoming contributions and input from users of the resource.

ThingStor banner image, which includes four smaller images. From left to right, the first image is a copy of a painting showing three people around a table, one reading a newspaper; the second image shows an antique glass lamp; the third image shows an antique book; the fourth image has a yellow background with white and black text that reads "ThingStor A Material Culture Database for Finding Objects in Literature & Visual Art, Supported by the Canter for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware CMCS"
ThingStor banner image

Using WordPress and Airtable as its platform, Thingstor is an effectively organized and easily navigated resource. The homepage provides six clear headings: access the database, learn more about how to use it, about us, webinar event 2021, and suggest an object. The site is minimally designed, but provides a functional and visually appealing layout, with concise and clear instructions on how to use the database. Under the heading Webinar Event 2021, one can find a video of the event, led by Dr. Brückner, that provides an in depth description of the project and how it came to be. Though mobile-friendly, the gallery view is best experienced on a larger screen.

Once one enters the database on Airtable, one finds a visually engaging resource featuring high quality photos of the objects, at times multiple images, a description of the object, and tagging that links the item to the source text in which it was found. The resource is easily searched and different tabs allow users to access the content by example object, source, or referenced object. The user’s view of the content can also be changed from a gallery view to a grid view, giving the user the option to sort the content to fit their needs. Links are provided in each object record to direct the user to sample object image. Some of these links take the user to additional information while other links are no longer functional.

The image shows an entry in the ThingStor database: a photograph of a decorative silver box with text below it. The text reads "Vinaigrette box. Caption of sample object image: Vinaigrette box, Nathaniel Mills. Source Text: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Or, Life among. Quoted Object: Gold vinaigrette."
ThingStor object record, featuring a vinaigrette box.

This online resource is open access and freely available to users without paywall or the need to create an account. The project was initiated by questions from graduate students seeking more information about unfamiliar objects they were coming across in literature and visual arts. This resource is useful to individuals in those fields, but would also be useful to anyone engaging in literature, art, history, theater, or ephemera from that era.

The use of WordPress for the website and Airtable for the database itself is an effective way to organize, store, and share this content. The images are excellent quality, as they are drawn from museum and library digital collections, and allow for close investigation of the object. The resource is highly engaging and invites exploration. Thingstor welcomes interaction from users with Dr. Brückner’s email address available for questions. There is also a Google form for users to suggest an object for the database.

Thingstor is an incredibly useful resource for identifying and accessing information about material objects referenced in 19th century literature and visual art. The database continues to increase its holdings, making itself a valuable repository for researchers and interested lay-people alike.

Text reads "Publications" over an image of two periodicals.

Tilt West

Reviewed by:
Chelsea M. Stone, MLS, Digital Asset Manager

Tilt West is a Denver-based non-profit that engages in publication activities as well as hosting community round tables. The board members are supported by a team from the region’s budding arts and culture community. Founded to “elevate, amplify, and support the growing arts and culture scene in Colorado,” Tilt West believes in the essential role of critical discourse in supporting a healthy artistic ecosystem. Tilt West Journal is a manifestation of this goal and is complimented by open invitation community talks. 

Digital edition of volume one, Art and Language.
PDF viewer with page navigation on left and cover of publication in window. It reads "Art and Community".
PDF view of Art and Community issue.

With the first two volumes of Tilt West Journal freely available online, Tilt West released the third volume, Art and Labor, on September 1, 2021.  Volume one, Art and Language, was published March 2020 and volume two, Art and Community, was published December 2020. Publications, created using the Getty’s Quire publication system, are freely available in multiple formats including a browser-based viewer, PDF, EPUB, Kindle, and Mobi. Additionally, print versions are available for purchase for $30. Tilt West usefully provides citations in both Chicago and MLA formats and carry a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license. This review will primarily discuss the browser-based experience of Tilt West Journal.

The cover display for the three journal volumes is a piece of art featured within the publication, an enticement to draw the reader in. Navigation is fairly intuitive, although not especially conspicuous, and there is no journal homepage to speak of. Within a particular volume of Tilt West Journal, once the user locates the navigation arrow and/or the expandable sidebar table of contents, it is easy to browse and identify areas of interest. Users who choose to navigate through the digital publication in sequential order will find the application a bit clunky and lacking smooth transitions. Additionally, unlike a traditional print publication, interaction requires scrolling to engage with all the content. The digital publication allows you to click a “Next” button at the bottom of the page, which improves the navigation. While it is a benefit to have multiple output offerings, they are not intuitive for less tech savvy users and each provides a different experience. The browser-based digital publication version loads images slowly, although the quality of the digital images is high. On the positive side, the digital format allows for multimedia such as embedded videos and GIFs, which are unavailable in other formats. Volume two features the digital animation piece Test by Anthony Garcia, Sr. and the video piece unoccupied by Kim Shively. The inclusion of multimedia sets Tilt West Journal apart from other arts journals. Multimedia enhances Tilt West Journal’s digital reading experience and empowers readers to create connections with content. 

Socially we are in a connected ecosystem of technology and communication; further emphasized by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tilt West is making technology work for humanity and utilizing it to preserve and further people’s interaction with “community exchange, critical dialogue, and provocative conversations on art, ideas, and culture.” This transformative publication will continue to challenge itself and its readers.  

French Paintings and Pastels, 1600-1945 

Reviewed by:
Julia Reynolds, MLIS Candidate
Simmons University School of Library and Information Science

Edgar Degas’ Rehearsal of the Ballet (1876) serves as the cover image for French Paintings and Pastels, 1600-1945

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s French Paintings and Pastels, 1600-1945 is an online catalog that brings the museum’s collection of 110 French paintings and pastels to visitors and scholars worldwide. Launched in 2021, it is the seventh volume in a series of catalogs that systematically documents the NAMA’s encyclopedic collection and the first to be published digitally. It offers viewers much to learn from a digital distance and has infinite potential for addition and modification.

The catalog is edited by Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Arts. With twenty-six contributors, the NAMA aims for a vision of collective authorship. Most contributors are affiliated with the NAMA, but others are curators at the J. Paul Getty Museum; faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and vice presidents at Wildenstein & Co.

Mobile friendly, French Paintings and Pastels, 1600-1945 is best viewed in either Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome. It can also be downloaded as a PDF and printed in hard copy to store and preserve for future use. There are no accompanying video or audio clips.

Compared to the multimedia, web-based publications funded by the Getty Foundation as part of its Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, French Paintings and Pastels, 1600-1945 more closely resembles a traditional print publication. Entries are arranged chronologically by artistic movement. Within each movement, the paintings and pastels are arranged alphabetically by artist name. Each fully published object includes a high-quality curatorial entry by new or established scholars interpreting the subject and contextualizing the art within the artist’s career, with zoomable high-resolution photographs, comparative figures, and fully searchable text. Technical entries from conservation staff document how each artwork was made and its state of preservation. Detailed provenance, related works, exhibition history, and bibliographic references appear at the bottom of each entry page.  

Those entries with new scholarly research and commentary are indicated by a page icon. At the time of writing, such new information is provided for nineteen artworks, most of them Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces by artists including Monet, Morisot, Renoir, and van Gogh. The new technical examination of van Gogh’s Olive Trees (1889) is especially compelling. For object pages without the expanded object entries, there is a note indicating when enhancements are expected..

More than twelve years in production, this digital scholarly effort benefited from external funding at several key moments. The National Endowment for the Humanities made a startup grant in 2009 to support the research and preparation of the original manuscript. The Kress Foundation awarded a Digital Interpretative Grant in 2018 to make possible the hiring of a digital developer and digital assistant. Finally, the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation supported this project as part of a grant to increase awareness, scholarship, and understanding of the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art. 

The NAMA seeks to ensure that French Paintings and Pastels, 1600-1945 will be maintained and updated for the long term. Any revisions or corrections made to the publication after the first edition date are listed on the “About” page and in the project repository at https://gitlab.com/namafpc/catalog-french-paintings, where a more detailed version history is available (login required).

As with any online catalog, the danger lies in its limitless possibility for expansion. High-resolution images and historical background information are important, but arguments must eventually result from this abundance of raw material. When adding new scholarly research and commentary, the challenge for the NAMA will be to ensure that its contributors continue to offer a clear point of view. 

Malangatana: Mozambique Modern

Reviewed by:
Lauren Haberstock, Director of the Genesis Lab Maker Space and Academic Center for Excellence | Librarian for Emerging Technologies and Digital Projects
Pepperdine University

Malangatana: Mozambique Modern is the third installment of The Modern Series at the Art Insitute of Chicago. The free digital publication builds and expands on the physical exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago which showcased the work of Malangatana Ngwenya focusing on the artist’s work from the late 1950s until 1975. Compelling and well-balanced, the visual design of the publication is effective as it embraces simple fonts and aesthetic choices focalizing Malangatana’s works. 

Digital exhibition header content featuring title of the exhibition on a gray background on the left with a reproduction of Final Judgment on the right
Digital exhibition header content featuring title of the exhibition on a gray background on the left
with a reproduction of Final Judgment on the right

The publication includes a forward by the museum director and an overview of the modern series which contextualize the specific exhibition within the series and provide information about the museum’s relationship with the artist’s works. The publication also includes five essays written by scholars, curators, and conservators who worked closely with the exhibition along with digital reproductions and installation views of the works. The digital format enhances the typical exhibition catalog by allowing for linkages between digital works and publications, particularly of note are the author bios linked to from each of the essays included in the publication. The ‘Essays’ and ‘Works’ sections of the publication include individual DOIs for persistent linking.  Users can download the individual sections of the publication, however the publication is not able to be downloaded in its entirety as one document. As a whole, the publication is well-executed and provides a point of entry to Malangatana’s work for scholars and art historians not able to view the exhibition in person or who would like to critically engage further with the works and the artist. 

The digital publication is optimized for use on a mobile device while remaining easy to use and navigate from a desktop view. Of particular note in the desktop view is the Table of Contents menu which operates separately from the main content, allowing the user freedom to browse through the publication and readily return or navigate to other sections efficiently. In the mobile view, users must rely on the Table of Contents hamburger menu in order to navigate through the publication, which does require scrolling to the top of the page. In future mobile editions, the designers may want to include an auto scroll feature that tracks along with the user. In the current iteration, the user must reach the bottom of the page before the auto-scroll feature appears.  

The table of contents, on the left side of the screen, operates separately from each webpage within the publication, shown on the right

The five essays include linking within the publication which, in tandem with the Table of Contents menu, allows for user agency to determine the flow of the experience. Multiple pathways through the piece are possible, allowing the user to determine the order of their digital visit. Additionally, the essays include paragraph numbering and citation information, encouraging reference and engagement by scholars, researchers, and learners alike. 

Users can explore photographed installation views of the exhibition and digital reproductions of the works grouped according to their placement within the exhibition. The digital reproductions can be expanded for further examination and include an information icon that when clicked displays the image caption. Images in a web view cannot be downloaded and do not allow the user to zoom in or out on the image. However, in the mobile view, users can zoom in or out on images. The image display reflects the curatorial perspective with images appearing in the same order as the show. To encourage user engagement, the creators might consider an additional customizable digital display that allows users to curate the works in order to explore how the pieces inform or differ from one another and to gain further insight into the artist’s work through curiosity-driven comparison. 

The most compelling use of media within the publication has to be the inclusion of the virtual walkthrough video on the Installation Views page. The video includes audio fragments from the artist (closed captions available) which imbues the works with life as you both listen and see. The impactfulness of this auditory experience brings to mind the question, could audio have been incorporated elsewhere in the publication? For example, the essays could have been recorded and existed as playable audio pieces while browsing the publication in order to marry the auditory and visual experiences of the exhibition. 

Virtual walkthrough video of the exhibition.

Ultimately, this publication brings digital life to the works of Malangatana included in this exhibition and provides important contextual information in order to better understand and situate these works in both their modern and African context. It is easy to navigate and while there are possible additions to the work that might enhance it, its effectiveness is in its simplicity.