Session 5: Digital facsimiles: the “Electronic Vesalius” and archival remediation

About This Session

The place of materiality and medium-specificity in the digital humanities has challenged the field’s conceptions of communication and intellectual labor. These fault lines informed a recent collaboration between the Texas Medical Center’s Rare book Room and McGovern Historical Center; the Rice Oshman Engineering and Design Kitchen (OEDK); and Rice’s Fondren Libray and Humanities Research Center (HRC). Centering on a physical-digital remediation of Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 Fabrica, this panel examines the historicity of media, the communicative implications of data structures, and the tensions between virtuality and materiality in creative/interpretive digital media interventions; our 5’5” interface will be unveiled at the talk.

John Connor Mulligan, Rice University

Digital humanities and the history of printing

“I advocate a philology as exact as possible of nonperfect precise things, which will be devised and developed to support communcation with others, to facilitate them, to make them a sensational, even perhaps scandalous happening.” With this pronouncement, Siegfried Zielinski in his 2011 [... After the Media] lays out his program for a non-ideological media praxis capable of fully inhabiting communicative knowledge-production.

The Electronic Vesalius project attempts a minor scandalization of print and digital media (as well as the history of science), by taking apart and putting back together again Vesalius’ 1543 anatomical atlas, De humani corporis fabrica, one of the first comprehensive deconstructions of the human body. Our physical-digital remediation of this famous anatomy atlas intensifies media’s physicality by mimicking the feel of paper impressed by woodcut printing; and it instensifies media’s immateriality by turning an old book into an interface to explore centuries of bodily representations on backlit “screens.”

In this paper, I frame the digital humanities’ turn to materiality as a Zielinskian “exact philology of precise things,” capable of expanding our sense of where digital media is in our connected world, and what our scholarly remediations of it and interventions in it can do. In an in-depth examination of the curious print history of Vesalius’ Fabrica as exemplified by the TMC Library’s three editions, I argue that the atlas and illuminated manuscript book forms are rich sites for digital interventions in the history of science.

Ying Jin, Rice University

Integrating databases with physical objects

We are aware of the need to attend to the specificity of forms when thinking about cultural dissemination; and the digital humanities’ ethos of universal communicability helpfully strives to make most kinds of information accessible in the greatest numebr of mediums. Medium-specificity as a design principle, therefore, is useful as a critique of work that sees all texts as flat data sets, but it cannot be allowed to turn the digital humanities into a field for the reproduction of hypertexts whose structure is too dependent on technologies well outside of our control: e.g., can we trust dynamic web content after the general collapse of database-driven Content Management Systems like Microsof Open-Access?

The design of the database that runs the Electronic Vesalius project had to strike a balance between the desire for a faithful reproduction and the desire for a generally accessible web version of the atlas. We opted against proprietary CMS’s, and even proprietary databases like Wordpress. Our webpages consist of a few hundred lines of HTML in a template and basic logical javascript that call on a MySQL database to display relevant content; that database necessarily had to be small, because we hosted it on a Raspberri Pi. The template is also written in basic HTML and CSS in order to be compatible across different screens/platforms in its purely digital renderings. This paper presents database design as a mediation between scholarly research and the production process in general.

Matthew Wettergreen, Rice University

Media fabrication and experiential learning

Rice University has been at the forefront of the experiential learning movement, with its ENGI-120 class run out of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen that teaches team-based project work and the general methods of integrating technical knowledge with the forms of critical thinking involved in real-world problem solving. We argue that engineering is never just fabrication; implementation influences design which influences concept.

The Vesalius project, because it is a media project, surfaces the necessary interdependence of different kinds of intellectual labor in any team venture and allows us to think through what learning means in the “experiential” classroom.  Experiential learning, in the Vesalius project, makes the communication medium an object of study and reproduction; our exploration of the possibilities for making a new kind of reproduction of an antique print object changed the design of the object and the project’s goals. Our move from tactile to touchless buttons precipitated a move to seeing the project as a networked organism, and our experimentation with lasercutting small (eight inch) models precipitated a shift towards the CNC routing necessary to imitating woodcuts. We argue that the forms of intellectual labor specific to engineering in a team environment contribute to and can reformulate our understanding of materiality in the digital humanities.


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Pamela Andrews

Pamela Andrews is the Repository Librarian for Scholarly Works at the University of North Texas.  She has an MLIS from Florida State University and MA in English from the University of Central Florida.

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John Connor Mulligan

John Mulligan is a lecturer at the Rice University Humanity Research Center (HRC). Since earning his Ph. D. in English Literature at Brown University in 2016, he has taught English literature and experiential learning courses at Rice under the HRC's Public Humanities initiative, funded by the Andrew W.

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Ying Jin

Ying Jin is an application programmer at the Rice University Fondren Library. She earned her master’s degree in computer science from Indiana University, and is an expert programmer across several different platforms and languages, including Java, Ajax, CSS, and SQL.

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Matthew Wettergreen

Matthew Wettergreen is a Lecturer at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, Rice University's engineering prototyping facility. He teaches the foundational engineering design courses, including first-year engineering design and their follow-on courses.

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