Research Notes

High Volume Digitization: Bringing Southwest Collections to Light

By: Dan Lomastro, Jessica Carmine and Lucy Fowler Williams

Originally Published in 2020

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A Sun Spirit doll with brightly painted clothes and stylized sun head.
Sun Spirit Katsina, cottonwood root, paint, Hopi Pueblo, Polacca, Arizona. Made by Tino Youvella, ca. 2008. H 31cm, D 14cm. 2009-10-43. Katsina spirits are central to Hopi religion and continue to bring rain, health, and wellbeing to Pueblo communities today.

OVER 17,130 Southwest archaeological and ethnographic objects in the Penn Museum’s American collection are now visible and accessible online to our audiences around the world. With some dating to 800 years ago and others as many as 10,000 years ago, these objects, made by Native peoples of southeast Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, and northern Mexico, showcase a masterful mix of knowledge and ingenuity, function and spirituality.

Directed by Associate Curator and Sabloff Keeper of Collections Lucy Fowler Williams, Ph.D., the Southwest Digitization Project was initiated in January 2019 through a generous bequest by the late Museum Overseer John R. (“Rick”) Rockwell, who loved the Southwest. The goals of the two-phase project are to improve access to the collections through comprehensive photography and to enhance the catalogue data of each object record. Since only a small portion of the collection is displayed in our galleries at any one time, digitization allows for broader access by the public and scholars.

Collections digitization specialists Jessica Carmine and Dan LoMastro were hired for the first year and completed the initial phase of photography in just ten months. Achieving this volume of results required extensive preparation. The computer catalogue records were first evaluated to ensure an accurate list of all objects; the data was continually combed throughout the project, and the photographic team made corrections when anomalies were found. With a clean object list in hand, object numbers were printed and cut for inclusion in each image, and then photography began. Forty thousand images were taken, edited, and uploaded; each object was measured, and searchable cultural information was reviewed for every record.

Several beaded strands connected to a silver medallion.
Necklace, shell, silver, coral, turquoise, bone, hide, and cotton, Apache, Arizona, ca. 1875. W 8.5cm (silver concho). 70-9-137. This Apache necklace, owned by the wife of an Apache Chief, was collected by Major General Galusha Pennypacker (1844–1916) of Philadelphia.

Coiled basket with checkered bands of colored pattern.
Basket, cottonwood, willow, devil’s claw, buckskin, and wool, White Mountain Apache, Arizona, ca. 1900. H 35cm, D 37.5cm. NA1859.

Short, squat jar with a narrow, slightly raised opening with painted symmetrical designs.
Seed Jar, clay, Hopi Pueblo, Kykotsmovi, Arizona. Made by James Garcia Nampeyo (1958–2019), ca. 1993. H 12.4cm, D 24.8cm. 94-5-2. Many Southwest techniques, styles, and designs continue through time. James was influenced by his great grandmother, the famous potter Nampeyo (1859–1942), whose work is also in the Museum collection, 58-34-13.

A bowl, slightly chiped, with geometrical designs painted on the inside and swirls painted on the outside.
Bowl, clay, Ancestral Pueblo, St. John’s Polychrome, northeastern Arizona, ca. 1175–1300 CE. H 12.7cm, D 29.21cm. NA2229. Penn Museum’s collection shows the range in style of Pueblo pottery.

Wool rug with red, blue, and white diamond pattern.
Rug, wool, Diné/Navajo, Arizona. ca. 1880. L 246cm, W 157cm. NA8435. Diné design style incorporates a radiant and dynamic symmetry.

The Southwest collections are housed in six different storerooms throughout the Museum. Rather than arduously moving objects to the camera, it was more efficient to bring a portable photographic set-up to the objects. With an inexpensive portable backdrop and lights, the team moved from room to room, photographing in sometimes challenging situations. With careful handling, and support from Associate Keeper Bill Wierzbowski when needed, large and complicated statuary and textiles housed on rolls took longer to stage and shoot than small stone tools and pottery fragments. As a result, on some days 50 objects were photographed, and on others as many as 300 were completed. In general, two images of each object were taken, yielding 1,500–2,000 images per week. The files were edited for size and scale, labeled correctly, and prepared to go online. Progress was carefully tracked on spreadsheets recording different storerooms and any extraneous information; after the first few weeks, the photography and editing process was streamlined. Though the project scope—encompassing 17,136 objects—was daunting, it ran smoothly, and initial goals were achieved. With careful preparation and attention to workflow, we found that large-scale collections enhancement is indeed possible.

Accessibility through photography and accuracy in our object records promotes public interest, research, and use of the collection. For Museum staff, photography helps significantly in cataloging, tracking, and study, and aids in maintaining fragile collections easily damaged by handling. Our high-volume method now enables us to move toward enhancing the collections data for study and research by students, scholars, and the Native American community in support of future projects, exhibitions, and publications.

A chert spear point with grooved sides.
Folsom Spear Point, Edwards Chert, Clovis, New Mexico, ca. 8900 BCE. L 5.1cm, W 2.4cm. 36-19-26. Specimens excavated at Clovis, New Mexico in the 1930s by E.B. Howard provide evidence of early hunters and animals at the edge of an ancient lake.

Axe, wood and stone, Ancestral Pueblo, Southeast Utah, ca. 1200s CE. L 35cm, W 12cm. 29-44-63. The Museum’s archaeological collection offers rich insight into the materials and tools used by Pueblo peoples over hundreds of years.

Cite This Article

Lomastro, Dan, Carmine, Jessica and Williams, Lucy Fowler. "Research Notes." Expedition Magazine 62, no. 2 (July, 2020): -. Accessed April 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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