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UW Joins Buffalo Bill Center, UK Institutions in Digital Humanities Project

January 14, 2022
drawing of mountains and people on horseback
This drawing of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains by Charles Preuss is the first published image of the Rocky Mountains published in a government expedition report -- John C. Fremont’s “Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842; and to the Oregon and North California, in the years 1843-44.” The image is part of Cardiff University’s Illustration Archive, which will be used in a digital humanities project also involving the University of Wyoming and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. (Image courtesy of Cardiff University)

Researchers at the University of Wyoming and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West have joined international colleagues in Wales in a new project aimed at developing digital tools to analyze historical book illustrations to gain a more thorough understanding of history.

Using a nearly $500,000 grant from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities and the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, the team will use cutting-edge computing techniques to uncover hidden histories contained in the collections of several cultural institutions.

Leading the project are UW Vice Provost for Global Engagement Isadora Helfgott, an associate professor of history, and Julia Thomas, a professor of English literature at Cardiff University in Wales. Also participating are UW American Heritage Center Director Paul Flesher; Jeremy Johnston, the Hal and Naoma Tate Endowed Chair of Western History at Cody’s Buffalo Bill Center of the West; and a team of computer scientists at Cardiff University.

“Historical book illustrations, many of which have now been digitized and made available online, have an untapped significance in cultural institutions,” Helfgott says. “We will develop digital methods that open up this neglected material to new uses and applications. I’m thrilled to be brought into this project by colleagues at Cardiff University who have deep expertise in developing and mobilizing digital humanities tools that can deepen our engagement with these sources.”

UW President Ed Seidel says this project shows how digital technologies are impacting all fields of study, including the humanities.

“I’m delighted that UW is part of an international collaboration using the latest technologies to provide new insights into history, including Wyoming’s fascinating history,” Seidel says. “This groundbreaking work, part of our growing partnership with Cardiff University, exemplifies what computing can do in a wide variety of disciplines.”

In addition to historical illustrations held by the American Heritage Center and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the three-year project engages a core digitized collection of illustrated books from the British Library and involves archives of illustrations maintained by cultural institutions in the United Kingdom, including Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives, the National Trust and Lambeth Palace Library. The researchers are developing computer vision tools to examine and compare large collections of book illustrations.

“We will use these digital tools to cluster and group illustrations according to significant aspects; analyze them based on visual features; display subsets of illustrations in structured ways; and identify visual categories,” Helfgott says. “These new ways of looking will reveal hidden histories and enable discovery research.”

“This project can be understood as taking initial steps toward creating a search engine that works on images just as today’s search abilities work on text,” Flesher says.

In addition to strengthening ties between UW and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West -- which will enable statewide dialogue about the complex history of Wyoming and the American West -- the project’s collaboration with institutions in the United Kingdom will broaden its reach to explore the West’s connection with global trends and attitudes.

“The history of book illustrations is shared between the United Kingdom and the United States, with illustrated books widely circulated between these countries,” Helfgott says. “Being in conversation with United Kingdom cultural institutions will encourage consideration of global connections and new avenues for inquiry about influences of and on the history of Wyoming’s people and landscapes.”

For example, Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives, a partner on the project, contains an abundance of rare illustrations relating to Wales and the Welsh, along with illustrated books about America written for prospective Welsh emigrants.

Helfgott, who is part of a group developing a new School of Computing at UW, says digital technologies are making a big difference in the humanities.

“Through this innovative use of computing, humanities scholars will be able to move beyond the analysis of individual images, or even groups of images, to identify broader patterns,” she says. “This will not only enrich our understanding of national histories and national identities through common visual constructions of people and place, but also help identify counter-narratives that might deepen our current understanding of history.”

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