Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Constructing a (Digital) Resource: Isabella Bird in Japan

The summer is off to a fantastic start! It has been hard to get my head into writing, so I’ve thrown my effort into developing a new online resource using ArcGIS and the StoryMap feature that they offer for free. It isn’t live yet, but I’m close…

I have some experience working with the basic functions of mapping in ArcGIS through the Traveling Hokkaido project. I’ve got a long way to go before that work is done, but I wanted to make a resource more squarely focused on the various dimensions of a single traveler. Since I’ve been working on an essay on the role of illustration and the depiction of the Ainu in Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) (which will be moving to proofs soon, hopefully), I thought this might make a nice supplement.

My goal with this is to create something that is accessible for audiences of all ages. The points I plotted out for Traveling Hokkaido form the basis of the Hokkaido map above, but I’ve gone through Bird’s itinerary and began plotting out her travel in Honshu as well. Although her journey is in two volumes, I am breaking it up into four stages: Yokohama to Niigata, Niigata to Aomori, Hokkaido, and Kansai. Each point on the map to the right is an actual location Bird indicates either in text or in her itinerary. For each pin, I am going through the original 1880 text and isolating relevant quotes that pertain to place, geography, specific sites, or customs. I haven’t worked with her first volume extensively before this, and it has been enlightening to see seasonal changes and her subjective evaluations of place before and after her time in Hokkaido.

In addition to creating an overview of her entire Japan trip, I’m also trying to conxtualize the importance of her time in Hokkaido. I feel committed to doing this in terms of Japanese history while also recognizing the current state of the Ainu in the Saru River valley, where Bird spent her time. I’m highlighting the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, the Kayano Shigeru Ainu Museum, and the legal debate regarding the Nibutani Dam. Too many popular writers only see the Ainu in terms of their “pastness” and it would be irresponsible not to consider their present and their future.

As I put this together, I am also compiling ideas for an Educator’s Guide pitched towards high school and undergraduate students. I want to give educators ideas about how to use this series of maps in their classes. (After all, what good is a resource if you don’t know how to use it?) I think it could be extremely useful in Japanese history (of course), discussions of Victorian travel writing in literature, understanding the role of women in 19th century exploration, understanding the role of the Ainu in these narratives, and as a way to highlight the geographic context for understanding earlier practices of tourism that inform our own “beaten routes” today.

A work in progress! I anticipate releasing the project in two weeks or so. The Educator’s Guide might come a little bit later, but it will definitely be done before fall. For now, enjoys the screenshots!

Lessons Learned: Global Digital Humanities Symposium @ MSU

So the symposium has ended. I still have a few hours to enjoy the snow outside in Lansing, Michigan and the amenities of this hotel room before I fly back to Minnesota. There was a lot to like about the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at Michigan State University (#msuglobaldh), and I was able to meet a lot of interesting people doing digital humanities work in a variety of disciplines (many of whom will now populate my twitter feed). But let me recount some of my personal takeaways.

1. Good things can happen when you intentionally include indigenous and global voices. In the same room. And more than one. In my experience, many conferences and symposia that I attend dedicated to a large topic, like “digital humanities,” tend to mostly focus on Euro-American projects and perspectives. If racism is brought up, it is about racism in America. If feminism is brought up, it is specifically a white, American feminist experience that rises to the forefront. In my own experience presenting, although I am not Ainu or Japanese, if I speak about indigenous Ainu historical representation in Japan, it always has to be framed and situated in this Euro-American context to be legible. I’m forced to repeatedly explain (a) who the Ainu are, (b) how they fit into Japan, (c) issues of indigenous representation broadly, and (d) why I am interested as a white female scholar and what my relationship is to that community (in addition to the ethical implications of this visual work). All of these things are important to address, but instead of feeling like an outlier or novelty project, it was nice to be taken seriously and be situated amongst projects asking similar questions about race, representation, visibility, and erasure. I was really interested in Rebecca Wingo‘s presentation, “Archival Repatriation: Reuniting the Crows with their Ancestors,” as there are facets of the work she is doing that reminds me of the work of Miyatake Kimio with regard to the Ainu and reintroducing lost photographs and objects from the St. Louis Exposition to their living descendants, and I learned that Rocio Quispe-Agnoli’s work has a lot of research questions in common with mine from a Latin American perspective.

2. Data is political and connected to the lives of real people, and we need to be mindful about how we mine it, cite it, represent it. We also need to consider how we ultimately label the work that we do. I think we all leave this symposium feeling a little more vigilant about these issues. Andrea Ledesma‘s paper “Witnessing Hate: Case Studies in Data, Documentation, and Social Justice,” asked us to consider what is means to bear witness to hate and then the implications and challenges of representing marginal identities when data becomes a statistic. Today, Viola Lasmana examined what a digital humanities that was engaged with freedom, revolution, and social justice might look like through the lens of post-1965 Indonesia. She channeled Edward Said on amateurism, and asks us to be critical of the term “global digital humanities” when there are many small, local projects that are not considered part of that corpus. To use a turn of phrase used by Anelise H. Shrout in her presentation about Irish immigrants and institutions like Bellevue, data needs to be humanized or we risk perpetuating archival violence. Real people are complicated. In the quest for clear or representable data, we can’t forget those border spaces that resist easy categorization and are thus rendered invisible.

3. The role or partnerships and collaboration in the digital humanities. This question was forcefully raised by Jennifer Hart‘s presentation “Accra Wala: mapping roads, mapping history, mapping partnerships,” where she spoke about building bridges between communities in Ghana and America. But from involving indigenous developers when designing games that represent the indigenous community, as raised by Elizabeth LaPensée, to considering institutional partners when working between one’s own project and the state to our student workers who assist in data collection and interpretation, collaborators take on many forms. The presentations over these past two days remind us that we rarely do our work alone.

4. The need for public funding for the arts and humanities. So many of the projects discussed over the last two days would have been stopped dead in their tracks without National Endowment for the Humanities or National Endowment for the Arts funding. In a scary intellectual environment where the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum and Library Services are being threatened to be cut from the budget, we must remain vigilant in protecting these. MSU Dean Christopher P. Long invokes Hobbes in saying, “For in the end, without the arts, without the humanities, there is no shared future; there is no society at all, but rather, a collection of increasingly isolated individuals for whom life has become ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'”

I totally underestimated the challenges of attending a conference while getting over a nasty cold, but I’m so glad that I made it here in one piece (even though I had lost my voice for my own presentation… C’est la vie). However, lots to mull over as I move forward with my own work in this area.

Presentation at Global Digital Humanities Symposium

Time flies not when you are having fun, but when midterm season is approaching! In light of exam craziness, I’m quite excited to be giving a lightning paper next week at the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at Michigan State University. While I have been pretty involved in digital humanities since I was a graduate student, I don’t often get a chance to come together with people across disciplines who incorporate these kinds of methodologies into their research and pedagogy. The techie in me is jazzed to learning about new tools or new applications of tools that I already use.

The paper is titled “Mapping the Northern Frontier: Geo-Spatial Visualization and the Exploration of Indigenous Culture in Japan.” In a nutshell, I will be talking about how the mapping tool ArcGIS can be used to compare the routes taken by travelers in Hokkaido during the Meiji period (1868-1912) to learn new information about the Ainu villages that became tourist staples later in Hokkaido’s history. However, I think this approach has vast implications for art history. Ainu visual artifacts are scattered across US, European, and Japanese museums. In the future, I would like to layer the routes of prominent travelers/collectors/anthropologists with metadata about these visual objects and where they were found. From the experimenting that I’ve been doing, I think it can paint a rich picture about how visual culture moves through geographic space and give valuable data about which Ainu villages and regions are over-represented in the history in a way that gets beyond mere anecdotal evidence. I am hopeful that such a tool will permit us to compare the narratives of travelers (some of whom highly exaggerated the uniqueness of their itineraries), and that it will give us a chance to compare regional styles and go beyond a “monolithic” understanding of Ainu culture during that time. In sum, it paints a more dynamic picture of the visual cultural landscape.

If you are in Michigan and interested, the two-day symposium begins on March 16th at 11:30pm. My panel on mapping begins at 2:05pm.