HCL Digitizes Artemas Ward House Collection
May 22, 2008 – Within its walls the General Artemas Ward House contains hundreds of 18th- and 19th-century artifacts: old-fashioned dresses and top hats, china and linens, parasols and playing cards, a sewing basket, butter churns, and much, much more. The house — originally owned by the commander of the patriot forces during the Battle of Bunker Hill and meticulously preserved by his descendants — was given to Harvard in 1925 but proved difficult to study since it lies 40 miles from Cambridge in Shrewsbury, Mass. Now HCL Imaging Services has significantly improved the collection's accessibility by digitizing a large portion of the collection and making images of the house and 500 of the objects within available to Harvard professors, students, and anyone, in fact, with an internet connection.
It used to be that libraries needed only catalogers to prepare and make collections available to patrons, but today new technologies require a greater diversity of staff. Collections like the Ward House, which cannot fit on a library shelf but are important to researchers, speak to the need for digital specialists like photographers. So HCL was well prepared when Harvard professors Laurel Ulrich and Ivan Gaskell, who have used the Ward House collections since 2005 in their co-taught History 1610 course, Confronting Objects/Interpreting Culture, proposed a digitization project that would benefit their course.
"Students learn in the course of semester how to research an object and interpret it from a historical point of view," says Gaskell of the undergraduate course. "We've done this twice and the students have really risen to it. Because they're doing original work, that really inspires them."
David Remington, Manager of HCL's Digital Imaging and Photography group, carefully sets up equipment for a room shot.
Field trips to the 18-room house, however, were a real challenge. "Professors Ulrich and Gaskell saw that using digital technologies could be a way to really facilitate use of these materials in their classes," says Maggie Hale, Librarian for Collections Digitization, Preservation & Imaging, who served as project manager.
Capturing the collection—or rather 500 of the first-floor objects—required the dedicated attention of two HCL photographers over summer 2007. David Remington, Manager, and Julia Featheringill, Assistant Manager in HCL's Digital Imaging and Photography group, spent time on-site in Shrewsbury working first to photograph the house and later the historical objects themselves.
The rooms alone took three weeks as Remington and Featheringill struggled to maneuver a small arsenal of cameras and lamps through the cramped 18th century structure. "Because the lighting in the Ward House is so limited they had to be very creative," says Hale.
With the benefit of only a couple of electrical outlets, installed in recent years, they ran extension cords everywhere throughout the house in order to properly light its spaces. Low ceilings and tiny rooms complicated matters, leaving little space to actually position lamps. Some rooms were so small, they positioned the camera in the doorway and crammed lights into corners and closets, or held the lamps themselves. If another room's door appeared in the frame, they had to light that back room as well. "We got good at being contortionists," says Featheringill. "David would be off to one side with a light and a bounce card, and I'd be operating the camera but holding a light at the same time."
To be thorough, they photographed every room from multiple angles. "One of the reasons for capturing overall shots of the rooms was to compare them with earlier photographs and to see how the house museum of the early 20th century compared," explains Hale, explaining that for a time before the Ward House came to Harvard, it operated as a museum. "That is, in the early 21st century, how have they interpreted this room differently? Where is the furniture placed? What is the wallpaper like? This information can be used to study history but also used in museum studies."
Working on-site came with other challenges as well, and they often found themselves covering windows and moving furniture to make room for equipment, minimize distractions, and lessen glare. Consulting with Paula Lupton, Ward House Collections Manager, ensured that they restored each piece to its original spot.
Fortunately, they were aided by technology. "We were shooting digitally, so we would confer over a lot of the shots," says Remington. "The image would come up on a computer and an external monitor, so we could study it and fix problems. That was reassuring."
Still, tight deadlines left little time to experiment. For particularly troublesome hot spots, Remington and Featheringill devised the strategy of taking two identical photos, but with different lighting. "If there were mirrors or paintings on the wall," says Remington, "we would have to take two photos, one where the lighting looked really great, but the mirrors and paintings didn't, and one that was horribly lit but where the mirrors and paintings looked good. We'd digitally merge those together later."
Among the many objects photographed was this mid-18th-century foot warmer with pierced tin sides enclosed in a molded wood frame.
The task required them to work with an eye to both the big picture and the smallest details. A table might be photographed as is, folded up, and with close-up shots of the hinges or the label on the underside. "We'd go from photographing an item from as far back as possible, to just as close as possible to get a detail like a claw foot," says Featheringill.
Once images of the rooms had been captured, they faced the new challenge of photographing the smaller objects. "We pretty much built a custom studio outside in the woodshed—it was really a garage, with wood walls, a concrete floor, and lots of spiders," says Featheringill. "It was warm in the house, but I swear it was 20 degrees hotter in the woodshed than outside, probably 100 degrees on some days. There no windows and a teeny little fan."
Remington aided in the studio set-up, and Featheringill spent every other week in Shrewsbury throughout the summer, slowly working her way through a detailed shot list provided by Lupton. Most items required multiple shots to capture the item from different angles or to show specifics, like labels, so that researchers later viewing the images online would be able to really study the details.
Featheringill and Remington created a half dozen or so studio set-ups to use according to the type of object, a particular color background paper for glass, for instance, or a stage for medium-sized objects. Featheringill then spent many hours getting to know the Ward House collections.
"My favorite object," recalls Featheringill, "just because it was so weird, was an ornate blue and gold box, with two rattlesnake tails and laurel leaves inside." Another item that left an impression was a Ward family hair bouquet. "It was a framed giant bouquet made of different family members' hair," she explains. "They kind of looked like flowers until you got close. It was framed and obviously cherished."
These are among the images—of 460 objects ultimately—made available digitally in VIA, an average of two to three shots per image. The multiple shots, close-ups, and details are what will help make the objects so useful to scholars online—for instance in History 1610, where students need those details to research their chosen item, its maker, materials, and significance.
"Now that so many materials are available—objects as well as documents—I will be able to use these things in undergrad lecture courses and small seminars," says Ulrich. "I will no doubt use them in my core course Inventing New England when I next teach it."
Gaskell is careful to note that he will still want to take his students to the Ward House so students can see the original items and view the collection in context. Still, students should now be able to view the possibilities online before visiting the Ward House and afterward study their chosen objects online in their spare time.
The parlour chamber in the Ward House.
The Ward House may hold ordinary objects, but the abundance and totality of the collection—house, furnishings, manuscripts, photographs—make it extraordinary as well. It presents, all at the same time, an opportunity to study an important figure in the American Revolution, a 19th-century farm family, and a 20th-century museum.
HCL has made all but the room photos publicly available, and a finding aid describing the virtual digital collection will link to the various components—collection objects, family photos, and manuscripts—drawing them together and thus integrating the pieces.