Reflections on National Gallery of Art Virtual Summer Internship 2020

Reflections on NGA Virtual Summer Internship 2020 with NGA artworks in the backgrounds

“Hello, I am Jaj, the summer intern with the Department of Analytics and Enterprise Architecture (TDS-AEA) at NGA and a Computational Sciences graduate student, Digital Scholarship Graduate Research Assistant at George Mason University, interested in Digital Humanities research.”

An oft-uttered phrase that flowed from me easier and more confidently as time whooshed past.
No I did not learn to ride a bike, or skate, or drive a car. Oops.

This summer of COVID-19, June and July 2020 might as well have been a fevered dream. The two months whizzed past even as I tried to hold on to individual moments of praise, recognition, and a sense of belonging. Words cannot truly express how grateful I am to have had this opportunity, to be a part of a prestigious cultural institution so early in my life, in such a distinguishing role too. Instead I offer a high-level view of my experience.

To find out how I went about looking for an internship: A Guide to Digital Humanities Summer Internships

As an international Computational Data Sciences graduate student interested in the arts, humanities, and social sciences research, the National Gallery of Art was one of the only places which was catering to my research interests while also welcoming and supporting me. I was heartened that NGA was one of the cultural institutions that facilitated the shift from on-site internship program to virtual internship program, which made my decision-process of picking this internship much easier. Mattie Schloetzer, the Internships and Fellowships Program Administrator supervised and facilitated this transition gracefully.

Goals

Along with the George Mason University’s Digital Scholarship Center Lab Digital Humanities Supervisor and my mentor, Alyssa Fahringer, I narrowed down my goals for making the best of the experience. With an internship in a cultural institution I was to try to understand the amalgamation of technology and culture from museum experts. Coming from a technical perspective interested in Digital Humanities research, I wanted to try to get to the bottom of a real-world practical study of digital museum studies by answering the following questions:

  • What kind of data do museums have and how is that best visualized?
  • How do the fields of digital humanities and museum studies intersect?
  • What kinds of Digital Humanities methodologies are employed in museums for intended audiences?
  • How can Digital Humanities methodologies assist museums in reaching their intended audiences?
  • How can Digital Humanities methodologies assist museum patrons/visitors in understanding and interacting with museum collections?
  • How can virtual assistant, AI, ML, VR, & AR technologies enhance the museum field?

These were very much in-line with the Technology Solutions program description on the website. 

Projects

The projects I worked on served to help me deep dive into many of these questions. The biggest, most luxurious ingredient in these endeavors was the kindness, encouragement, and sensitivity of my department. I was the first intern in the relatively young department, but I felt supported from the very first moment. Robin Thottungal, Katherine Green, and David Beaudet are wonderful supervisors and mentors, inadvertently imprinting important life lessons I will forever carry with me. 

PAR Dashboard

The main project for the summer was spearheading the Tableau prototype dashboard which ended up growing into a considerable beast nowhere near tamed with 30+ graphs. The dashboard will be key to better inform the public and the United States Office of Management and Budget of the Gallery’s financial, management & programmatic performance, and internally aid in interpreting the brand-new strategic plan for the Gallery moving forward.

Fellow Treasurer office intern, Casey Hayes-Deats, an MBA student from George Washington University, managed the communication and technical language write-up of the dashboard. We discussed requirements and processes internally as well as with the Smithsonian museum before inquiring on the various data possibilities with different departments based on my mock wire-frame of the dashboard. I admired her ability to hold multiple threads in the air, never letting any part of the process sag even a little, to weave them all together wonderfully by telling a cohesive story, which she has a natural talent for. Her experience and kindness was of paramount to the success of the dashboard prototype. Working together was also special for me since I felt more in tune with the work environment despite not being on-site. It is a missed opportunity that we interns could not spend lunch hours or after hours at the Sculpture Gardens with the Jazz at the Gardens events, but ah well, I will gladly take moments of shared levity all the same.

On collecting data from different departments, putting it together in a readable format, and then visually enhancing format took most of the time. The graphs varied from regular bar charts, line charts, histograms, maps, tree-maps, bubble charts, and yes, a couple of pie charts (Not to worry, this was for topics with only a couple of data points). In preparation for the technical aspect, I focused on relearning intricacies of Tableau’s features and the narrative styles of different types of dashboards. Concepts from my Spring 2020 semester course on Scientific Statistical Visualization a.k.a. Human Centered Data Visualization came to full force for this project. Cognitive load, technical complexity, accessibility concerns, visualization pipeline and idioms, etc. came up day-to-day in the creation of the dashboard. Data trace back for transparency, building data input pipeline, wider accessibility concerns were always on my mind.

It will go live soon in its final form, and this prototype will only be a single iteration before many more to come, but I cannot help but feel proud of the dashboard prototype and my contribution to letting the world know of the Gallery’s significance.

Possible DH Projects

The project of pin-pointing and identifying 25+ possible Digital Humanities projects to bridge the technical, accessibility, diversity, inclusion divides became more and more important with the times. Art museums were being asked difficult questions. That begged the question: How can art museums transform their focus into a data-driven digital-first initiative in a post Covid-19 museum space. I undertook this discussion with 25+ people within and outside the NGA on their pressure or pain points. By asking humanities scholars, “What do you wish a robot would just swoop in and do for you?” I gathered many requirements and understood specifications better than I ever could have reading hundreds of research papers or articles. This kind of analysis requires a boots-on-the-ground approach. I was excited with every new possibility and listed down possible projects for each of the concerns. Meeting with industry people from other museums, galleries, and even Google Arts and Culture (!!!) gave me an insider perspective into the way forward for the field as a whole. That is not to say I am a proponent for digital tools and endeavors everywhere and anywhere; even where not really necessary. However, given the perceived slow uptake or even push-back from the socio-cultural sectors on using these digital tools for arts, humanities, and social sciences research, there is a lot of actual curiosity, interest, and enthusiasm for revamping the way we approach age-old establishments. This report could easily have been an intensive research study in itself.

Conservation Consultation

Advising the Photograph Conservators with text analysis tools, techniques, qualitative research, & digital pedagogy based on the internal database was a superbly fascinating exercise. Museums house large amounts of data, and analysis of this data in its various formats and stages of processing lends the rich possibilities ten-fold. I provided my guidance on concepts from text analysis tools with Voyant Tools, Python, R, to particular text analysis techniques like n-grams, word frequency counts, concordances, etc. This was a perfect example of a symbiotic Digital Humanities collaborative effort. Understanding the data was the first step to working towards an investigatory research and the Photograph Conservation expertise is instrumental in coming up with the right research questions. Working with my super-knowledgeable mentor, Carly Anne-Wooten on an actual project in my short time with NGA was an added bonus and joy.

Visitor Experience Simulation

The penultimate project I worked on was initiating the visitor interaction behavior with art objects in the Gallery environment with NetLogo. I only got started on it and will be working on it further, but I was instantly attracted to the idea of applying agent-based modeling and simulation to a museum environment. How do visitors feel when they see an artwork they have prior knowledge of? What of their boredom levels if they were dragged (gasp!) to the museum? How does this impact the experience of interacting with museum programs, and then with the museum shops and dining experience? How would you travel from hallway to hallway? Gamify-ing the simulation perhaps would evoke a better understanding of the people the museums serve, to better serve them itself.

For this project, I researched any similar models, visitor behaviors, previous exhibitions spaces outcomes, learning theories, educational resources, neuro-behavioral studies, etc. The model could help to recognize emergent patterns by recreating exploratory conditions with given identified parameters using social complexity factors.  For example, introducing factors like COVID-19 with six feet distancing could add different levels of such complexity to the model.

Pop-Up Talk

Of all the projects, the pop-up talk had me most nervous, so its success caught me off-guard. Exploring medieval East-West connections with the dramatic painting, Bellini & Titian’s The Feast of the Gods as the backdrop for diplomatic trade gifts and objects in Renaissance Italy, to be stored in the NGA Curatorial Records for future references was quite the reach for someone with an amateur interest in art history. More on this in the Art History Crash Course section below.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this, petty pace, from day-to-day, but the Greco-Roman Gods will party on

I definitely felt like I had bitten off more than I can chew but I do not regret a thing. I do wish I had more pockets of time in between but ah well. I am satisfied.

Summer 2020 of Covid-19 and Virtual Work 

Not only was I getting an opportunity to work on my goals but also bear witness to the behind-the-scenes of this enormous cultural institution during especially consequential times. Apart from COVID-19 shutdown and re-openings, I was very aware, for the first time, of the inner conversation taking place across all cultural institutions on the responsibility of museum spaces to the response of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests. Witnessing this moment in history helped me better understand the future of the world we are a part of. Setting expectations for what was to come was important and yet, I was completely blown away for the experience truly exceeded all my expectations. Given that it was a short virtual internship, I was fearing isolation and disconnect from the rest of the Gallery staff, however, the connections even over Teams, Zoom, Meet, etc calls did give a sense of community and belonging all the same.

Which brings me to the virtual format of the internship. I definitely felt safer physically and better for conserving mental health space from the outside world (COVID-19 cases, protests backlash, physical safety, immigration concerns, etc.) I threw my entire self into my projects and work, which was a saving grace in itself. (We all cope somehow.) It was easier to track time, meetings, managing productivity expectations and work load with digital tools like Calendar, Notion, and timed video meetings. It was convenient to remember and associate people from across the large cultural institutions by their names and departments mentioned in the video calls. 

I was also, of course, extremely grateful for the opportunity to have gained experience and connections with humanities researchers and educators at all this summer virtually, as opposed to the program being cancelled. I do believe I learned many valuable skills to translate to other virtual work experiences. Having already worked online previously, I got used to it earlier in my run. That is not to say it was a walk in the park (Sigh. Parks. Gardens. I have not seen one in months.) 

  • Separating work-life balance was extremely difficult because work more often than not spilled over, especially since there was no hard stop with timings.
  • Managing time and communication was a bit of a learning curve. My advice to virtual workers? Over-communicate, always. Oh, and invest in quality earphones, microphones, seating arrangements, and ensure internet connectivity.
  • Being glued to the screen almost all day, especially on days with 5-6 meetings… is not fun. Timed breaks to take a gander around the room with Chrome or Firefox extensions like Coffee Break or Forest app to the rescue!
  • Understanding the physical space and departmental locations of the Gallery. How are they located, and connected? Where does the staff have lunch for example? What is a day in the Gallery like, for the people there everyday?

Despite all of these concerns, or maybe even because of them I felt a sense of kinship and shared experience with my fellow interns, especially as we were living through unprecedented circumstances and situations. Working together with many of them in different contexts was an interesting way to learn with each other, and everyone was so encouraging and empathetic which gave the term “We’re all in this together” all the more meaning. I could talk about a very specific moment in intern sessions, coffee meetups, or staff meetings as well as intern activities and everyone would know exactly what I meant, felt, or learned about; as temporary staff at the Gallery we had a unique insider-as-an-outsider perspective of the Gallery itself.

Did I spend an entire day dazed about being featured on the NGA Press webpage? Yes.

Networking

My NGA mentor, Carly Anne-Wooten helped me stay level-headed for which I am truly grateful. She helped me in understanding the inner workings of the workspace, spatial representation of the Gallery’s various departments, while also being extremely encouraging and in-sync about my very possibly over-enthusiasm over everything Digital Humanities. I truly lucked out and felt that she had my back and supported me in my endeavors to learn in terms of specific research areas, networking, long term prospects, marketing myself in the future. I come away knowing I have a long-term friendship and meaningful connection meshed together with her kindness and encouragement. 

One of the most defining moments of my internship was attending Tammy Hong‘s (Conservation department) webinar on Indian ink (which is actually Chinese ink) via Carly’s invitation.

More on her Ancient Silk Route related artwork investigation at Antiques and the Arts, Decorative Arts Trust, and as an art detective at American International School of Guagzhou.

It redirected my entire world view of the approach to my pop-up talk and inspired me to trace the artwork’s objects, and materials within. I felt a sort of kinship in her approach to historical art materials. We later discussed our interests in the ancient silk route trade movements and there was a familiarity in our understanding of the topics even with different academic backgrounds. 

I had enlightening conversations with many experts in the field via informational interviews. Having this kind of access and gaining their interest in my work was invaluable. Did I ostentatiously slip in my Ancient Silk Route project from time to time? Oh yes. You better believe it. I took part in Museum Technology and Digital Museums webinars like Wikidata and cultural heritage collections, Linked Art exemplar modelling, and ONLINE | ART • WORK • PLACE: Emergency Session III. I joined so many related listservs. We interns were a part of the larger Association of Historians of American Art (AHAA) Interns network. It was interesting to be the only techie intern there though.

Some of the other defining moments of the summer was also the discussions with relevance groups, inclusion round table meetings, and morning coffee conversations. I had an insider look into the way cultural institutions were reacting to the unprecedented times as a whole and individually. It helped me consider the kind of workplace I would see myself to be a part of eventually.

Crash Course Art History

I learned how traditional pop-up talks are conducted, how art history research is pieced together, where to find sources and resources on topics of interest. I also found the possibility of shifting the narrative and style of the pop-up talk to new technologies and methodologies created for exciting prospects. I gained interesting insights into various artworks in the process and viewpoints from different people, from their reactions. 

Apart from attending other interns’ pop-up talks to learn of their interests, we had our own Art of Looking and Pop-up Talk demos with Lorena Bradford. Monthly Staff Spotlights highlighted current projects on various artworks. Close looking at a variety of artworks including Aaron Douglas’ Judgement Day, Edgar Degas at the Opera exhibition, Peter Paul Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s I See Red: Target and so many more expanded my knowledge from the abstract to tangible. I can look at an artwork and learn more about it just from that now, without fretting over the implications, hidden meanings, contextual agendas, etc. I will, but first I will look, and that removal of hesitatation or trepidation makes such a difference to an western art history novice like me. 

Indeed, the first day of introductions I felt the imposter syndrome creeping up on me, not having a true answer for the question, “What is your favorite art style?” How do I encompass intricately carved ancient Indian temples, or rich silk heirloom hand-loom embroidery patterns on saris, or even the sculptures, portraits, and deities in an art style? How do I explain the deep seated romanticism of all of the above in a couple of words? It took gathering my courage to say that I am impartial as of yet. Which was true, I personally have a complicated relationship with the concept of art styles, given the history of western art history, and its origins.

Speaking publicly was always hard for me, and my learning curve with the pop-up talk delivery was steep, since I had to rework my skills and approach (indeed, I know very few tech-focused people who would be as enthused about such an art history and humanities focused project) but I found embracing as well as overcoming my fears and insecurities over being out of my depth very fulfilling. I am also happy to have kept true to my interests for the way the talk was delivered virtually, by playing up the strengths of the video meeting format with Focusky. I loved the flexibility and visual movement from region to region afforded to actually trace the trade movements of the ancient Mongol-influenced, Ming-era Chinese porcelain to end up in a magnificent Italian Renaissance painting popular even today. I was especially pleased to learn of connections to my place of childhood, Oman from Rosamund Mack, whose lecture Arts of Splendor set off my fascination with looking for the objects from worlds away within western artworks.

How many spices, tableware, materials here can be traced to the rest of the world?

With the painting depicting Blue-and-White porcelain bowls which have been found to contain Cobalt blue pigments in their shards from the mines of Oman. The personal link was further compounded by tracing the routes of the Blue-and-White porcelain bowls from Jingdezhen (景德镇市), Damascus, to Ferrara, in my own visualization of the Ancient Silk Route. Over 50 people attended the talk, including the head curator, and the subsequent conversations on the topic – having now read obscure texts on a singular fascinating subject – were absolutely further illuminating.

I also feel like I attended an intensive Western Art Boot-camp, where I received a crash course in European and American Art History in a very practical way. This whole summer was an actual high-level graduate course in understanding how art historians and museums think of art and practice art education as well. Sessions on museum administration, artist interviews, acquisitions, museum libraries, sculpture conservation, paper conservation, rare books, manuscripts, artist diaries, conservation, exhibition setup, imaging, digitization, educational programs and services, accessibility programs, artworks facilities, exhibitions and gallery tours, digital art detective, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), etc. and then informational interviews with museum professionals from all departments and spheres of museum spaces from weekly unstructured coffee meetups, or appointed meetings were heady and delightful. In each of these meetings, I always had a Digital Humanities related question and my enthusiasm was boundless even from across the screen.

Take a break. Deep breaths. What do you see? Where do your eyes rest?

Personal Evaluation and Takeaways

I realized I have to temper my perfectionist streak, to accommodate for time and effort constraints. While I became better with time management I still have to figure out energy management. I learned to communicate better, although I do have ways to go still. In a world without the emotional and physical impediments, I hope to do even better and remember to ask for ongoing feedback to improve my process. 

I managed to thank everyone I ever interacted with, including the Director, Kaywin Feldman (Everyone replied!) before my last day, wrapping up what is possibly the two most significant months of my life yet. It was unforgettable and 21-year-old Jaji would be absolutely in awe of every moment I wrung out of the experience.

Artful Activities

Here are some of my submissions for the artworks activities we interns took part in:

Artwork Mindfulness Practice:

I picked Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943. Initially I was looking at the network of items and trying to come up with connections between the various objects. Then I noticed the colors, shapes and sizes of the objects and their perceived location from me. I wondered about why some objects were connected while some others were not, and about the balance that kept the whole art object upright. I was also intrigued by the name of the artwork and then o further exploration tried to identify which object within was the eponymous “bomb”, guessing the multicolored downward facing rocket shaped item was the bomb. This seems to be a direct connotation to World War 2, and I found it interesting that the artist was a Mechanical Engineer graduate.

Alexander Calder's Vertical Constellation with Bomb
Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb

I also imagine that now, someone could recreate the Expanding Galaxy Brain meme with this astronomical themed artworks by their levels of complexity, and this artwork would most definitely feature.

Artworks by Name Acronym

Chinese Southern Song Dynasty (artist) |Tea Bowl |13th century |glazed stoneware, Jian ware

I enjoy trying out new tea flavours, types, and methods of preparation. In school, I took up pottery classes and managed to make various knick-knacks which I (an accomplished historian archaeologist in my imagination) would then go on to pretend were my discoveries from a hidden treasure cave.

Ann Hamilton (sculptor) |American, born 1956 | (lineament-ball) |1994

I consume books vociferously, until they all melt together to become a part of me, as I am a part of them as I read them. Beyond my own reading, I believe stories are a form of human connections so when I saw this piece I felt for both the book with lines carefully cut out and the ball of words they make.

Johannes Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance
Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance

Johannes Vermeer |Dutch, 1632 – 1675| Woman Holding a Balance|c. 1664

This painting struck me as a poster for Women in STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) and I LOVE that as someone interested in Digital Humanities research from a technical perspective. It has long frustrated me that I do not know enough of women in history. This woman could be Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Marie Astell, Émilie du Châtelet, Margaret Cavendish, and so many more.

Map of the World German
Map of the World

German 15th Century|Map of the World|c. 1480

I adore maps. They tap into the wonder of exploration that has carried over to our fascination with the unknown. For my spring semester project, I worked on an Ancient Silk Route visualization and simulation which mapped out trade routes across 600BCE to 1900CE. I came across many maps, but the Mappa Mundi painted artworks like this one were especially interesting. 

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881, pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton faille bodice, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden base, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1999.80.28

The little dancer reminds me of another girl from my history books – The ancient dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro. They both have the same poise and confidence and they are still young women, while I have grown up so much from then.

Linnaeus Tripe's Madura: The Vygay River, with Causeway, across to Madura
Linnaeus Tripe’s Madura: The Vygay River, with Causeway, across to Madura

Linnaeus Tripe, Madura: The Vygay River, with Causeway, across to Madura, January–February 1858, albumen print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Carolyn Brody Fund and Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel, 2006

I was pleasantly surprised to find a South Indian collection of historic photographs. In 1858, during East India Company’s rule over the Indian sub-continent, Captain Tripe traveled from his Bangalore studio in Karnataka to Madurai in Tamil Nadu to capture this scene. I grew up in Bangalore and I have been to the Meenakshi Temple on a pilgrimage visit with my family. The road leading up the gopurams (the two tall buildings to the center-left) is now lined with offerings baskets, trinket shops and food stalls. The gopurams are still frozen in time. The architecture of these temples are unique, gorgeous, and endlessly fascinating.

Joseph Pennell's The Marble Hall, Pennsylvania Station, New York
Joseph Pennell’s The Marble Hall, Pennsylvania Station, New York

Joseph Pennell |American, 1857 – 1926|The Marble Hall, Pennsylvania Station, New York

 I grew up on a healthy diet of American media – including books, films, TV shows, movements, Broadway musicals, and I have romanticized New York beyond reckoning. The tales I’ve heard of the fast-paced human stories happening at every corner have held me in awe. Train stations also hold a magical charm of being in-between places. New York and train stations together? I would probably “people-watch” all day.

Teaching Critical Thinking through Art with the National Gallery of Art with Julie Carmean

I feel lacking in my arts and humanities related education so I intend to take up this course and learn about observing, reflecting, questioning via art. I also loved taking up MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) in random subjects of interest and I am glad that NGA is offering this possibility for us.

Recreate Artworks (Digitally)

I downloaded the image of Van Gogh’s Green Wheat Fields from NGA Images, cropped parts of the painting with shapes using Google Arts and Culture supported Weird Cuts app, and recreated a field scenery in Augmented Reality.

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Thanks for reading, anything else you would like to know? Message / email / contact me!

Note: The images from the features blog post banner are courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington. Find more at NGA Images website.

Top row, Left to Right:

The Hat Pin (Le chapeau epingle) by Auguste Renoir, 1894.

Woman Standing by a Tree by Auguste Renoir, 1866.

Haskell’s House by Edward Hopper, 1924.

Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains by Eugene Delacroix, 1863.

Dr. Koller by Egon Schiele, c. 1918.

Middle row, Left to Right:

Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar by Auguste Renoir, 1898.

The Bower by Antoine Watteau, c. 1716.

Ceres (Summer) by Antoine Watteau, c. 1717/1718.

Bottom row, Left to Right:

Philemon and Baucis by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1658.

Haymakers at Montfermeil by Georges Seurat, c. 1882.

Château Noir by Paul Cezanne, 1900/1904.

3 Comments

  1. The writing is very good. Clean flow, well connected, good coverage. I was able to complete the reading in one go – it drew my attention, with a feeling to know what next. By the way, did you have to make lot of editing? Did anyone else help you in the editing? Thanks & Warm Regards, Ramesh

    Like

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