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date: 08 May 2021

Digital Resources: The State of Digital Research on the Visual Culture of Spanish Americalocked

  • Barbara E. MundyBarbara E. MundyDepartment of Art History, Fordham University
  •  and Dana LeibsohnDana LeibsohnDepartment of Art, Smith College


Across the last 25 years, digital projects on the visual culture of Latin America have begun to shape, ever more fundamentally, both research and teaching environments. To be sure, books and journal essays remain the dominant mode of publishing (and significantly so), but digital projects—made possible in part because of increasingly accessible databases and less expensive editing platforms—are becoming widely recognized as key elements in the visual and intellectual landscape. The visual culture of Spanish America (also known as colonial visual culture or viceregal visual culture) extends across three centuries, dating from roughly 1520 to 1820. Yet its history, which embraces both the physical traces of everyday life and ephemeral experiences, is arguably the least familiar of Latin America’s artistic and material legacies, especially outside Latin American Studies. Nonetheless, the period has inspired a suite of projects that, considered together, highlight the current potentials (and limits) of digital work, provide useful models for future research, and open onto debates relevant across the digital humanities (as they are currently called).

If this is the basic landscape, then what are the important issues when it comes to the intersections of digital technologies and colonial visual culture? This question is considered here along three avenues. First, what can be achieved with existing software, particularly imaging software, and the inherent epistemological assumptions imbedded in software commonly used? This topic receives the most attention because future research depends so heavily upon our perceptions and understandings of present technological capabilities. The second theme considered is accessibility. Given that institution-driven projects, most often online ventures sponsored by a museum or a library, have opened certain collections to an online public, what are the implications of the accessibility they offer, and how might such databases shape the parameters of research—both in the data they provide and in the kinds of questions their technologies make it possible to pose and answer? Finally, consideration is given to the possibilities and potentials for collaboration that the online environment offers in the study of visual culture of Latin America.

To set a framework for discussion, this article begins with a broad view, “The Object(s) of Visual Culture,” and then turns to examples of scholar-driven projects currently online. Typically, these are generated by scholars working at universities and dependent upon both internal and external funding. The sections “Seeing Images, Knowing Landscapes” and “Epistemological Assumptions” not only describe examples, but also explore the modes of interpretation that digital environments enable and the habits of viewing that are produced as a result. Because scholar-driven projects do not exist in isolation, the article turns to institution-driven projects, represented primarily by digitized museum collections and archives, which have become central components of the research environment. Many projects in this vein are well-described elsewhere—our focus therefore rests on the effects on the larger research landscape, in a section called “Accessibility, Canonicity, Finance.” Lastly, issues related to collaboration are dealt with, in order to both address ideas that are being explored through digital work in other fields, but which have not yet surfaced with much force in the field of colonial visual culture, and to ask why.

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