Decomposing Bodies has been around since 2013, and has included a rotating cast of researchers, locations, collaborations, and themes. Dig a bit through the history of our project via timeline, images, and text.
Extended versions of the descriptions from the timeline are below.
Beginning in January 2017, a new system of tags for the transcription process on Omeka was implemented, as well as the addition of “Occupation” as a part of the transcribed fields. The project also took on two new FE-R students, Ashley Cipcic and Joe Jang, who are assisting with transcription as well as working on a research project together. This term also saw the beginning of “Phase III” of Decomposing Bodies, following on phases of data collection and management, seeking to ask relevant questions surrounding this data, and linking the institutional practices of the OP and OSR that resulted in the creation of these cards to the state of crime, punishment, and surveillance in contemporary American society.
The Data (after)Lives exhibition opened on September 8th, 2016, and Decomposing Bodies welcomed a new Project Manager S.E. Hackney, a first-year PhD student in Library and Information Sciences. The VMW and the UAG presented their collaborative work at an HAA Colloquium, “Decomposing Bodies to Data (after)Lives: Expanding Modes of Academic Research,” highlighting the position of Decomposing Bodies between the humanities, art, and information and social sciences. More best practices and workflows for handling the images and their transcription were created, and a content inventory of the hard drives containing the master copies of the Bertillon card images was undertaken as a part of documenting and sustaining the project into the future.
Continuing the work of the previous two terms, more images were uploaded to and transcribed in Omeka, and the manager reviews continued. Best practices documents, for how images should be replicated, transforms, transferred, and stored began to be created. Work on the exhibition at the UAG, now known as Data (after)Lives: The Persistence of Encoded Memory, continued in preparation of its opening in the Fall.
In the spring of 2016, the Decomposing Bodies project took on two First Experiences in Research (FE-R) undergraduate students, Maureen Borden and Christopher Babu, who assisted with the transcription of the Bertillon cards, as well as creating their own research projects from the DB dataset, which were presented as poster presentations at the FE-R Celebration of Research at the end of the term. During this term, and based on the research projects of the FE-Rs, three more data points began to be transcribed from the cards: “County,” “Crime” and “Descent.” The Project Manager also began the process of reviewing previous transcriptions, checking for consistency and accuracy.
As the volume of images and metadata associated with the project grew, we began documenting in earnest our storage and upload procedures for handling the digital files associated with Decomposing Bodies. With the arrival of a new Project Manager, LIS PhD student Chelsea Gunn, the information management and documentation practices of the project came to the fore. The team also made its most recent trip to the Ohio History Connection to date, finishing the digital photography, and the primary data collection phase of the project.
During this summer, researchers at the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) and the VMW began a conversation about collaborating with the Decomposing Bodies team to work on a project using the Bertillon cards to enhance the handwriting recognition capabilities of computer vision. Bertillon cards contain text of predictable types in a constrained physical context, making it (we thought) an ideal test case for a computer learning situation. We began collecting a sample corpus for them. We also began planning for an exhibition in the University Art Gallery featuring items and themes from the Decomposing Bodies project, working with Isabelle Chartier, the Curator of the UAG. We also took another trip to Ohio to photograph cards.
2015 began with another trip to Columbus in January, where digital photographs of Bertillon cards from both the Ohio Penitentiary and the Ohio State Reformatory were taken. After this trip, we had collected the images of more than 3,500 cards, containing within them more than 43,000 individual data points. We conducted a preliminary analysis of a subset of 536 cards, looking at the Bertillon measurements, and creating a set of measurements for a hypothetical “average prisoner” as documented by the cards. During this term we also began collecting “Nativity,” “Born [Year],” and “Complexion” information from the cards.
As transcription work continued, the team took another trip to the OHC to review documents related to the Ohio State Reformatory and the Ohio Penitentiary besides Bertillon cards, such as ledgers, reports, and inventories. In investigating the legal implementations of Bertillonage, Aisling Quigley and Jennifer Donnelly began a related research project about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which leveraged documentation practices to surveil and restrict the movement of Chinese immigrants in the United States. We also first began envisioning what an exhibition incorporating the objects making up Decomposing Bodies, as well as the Bertillon system as a whole might look like.
After another trip to the OHC, we began to investigate methods and platforms for transcribing the cards, and creating a structured dataset out of the content of the cards. We settled on using the Omeka platform, and began developing best practices for uploading and transcribing the images. The work of transcription was distributed among the student workers in the VMW.
Two trips were taken in Spring 2014 to the Ohio History Connection, and digital photos of the cards in the OHC collection began to be taken. We began exploratory research about facial recognition software, fingerprinting, and mugshots, seeking to connect these documents with the larger history of surveillance and contemporary criminal documentation practices. On February 5, 2014, the first HAA Colloquium, “Producing Collaborative Work in the Humanities: The Case of Decomposing Bodies“ about Decomposing Bodies was given, discussing the collaborations between researchers on large digital projects, as well as the history of Bertillonage.
The Visual Media Workshop began researching the history of Alphonse Bertillon and his system of measurement for the identification of criminals, known as Bertillonage. This led to reaching out to archives and historical societies across the country, looking for remaining caches of Bertillon cards, a semi-standardized implementation of Bertillonage used to catalog the physical characteristics and criminal histories of incarcerated persons. Out of this research, we identified the collection of the Ohio History Connection (then known as the Ohio Historical Society), and team members took the first trip to Columbus, Ohio to get hands-on with the cards themselves.