The importance of asking good questions; or, Reflections on “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures” at the Art Gallery of Ontario

The Old Books New Science lab had a field trip to the Gothic Boxwood Miniatures exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario today, and I came away impressed and inspired by their example of “digital humanities” research that really delivers on the promise of new insights. I often talk with “DH” people — and even more often with researchers skeptical of “DH” — about the difficulty of producing something which is relevant in and of itself. All research is fundamentally exploratory, an attempt to discover something not yet known, but the risk seems particularly easy to imagine with computational or technological approaches, that one might invest enormous effort to discover nothing except that the effort required was enormous. The AGO exhibit, I think, reveals a way to use exciting new tools without getting stuck just researching the tools themselves.

My sense of it breaks down into three steps that are the epitome of “easier said than done”:

1. Beginning: start with an important question

The project was not conceived as a “digital humanities” project at all — it was motivated by AGO visitors frequently stopping at particular objects on display and asking questions: “What is that?” and “How was that made?” They already had a lot of information about “what is that”, but “how was it made” turned out to be much harder to answer than expected. But because it was demonstrably a question of interest, the difficulty of finding an answer seems to have galvanized the researchers’ creativity — disparate methodological approaches are united by their focus on one clear, important question.

I’m definitely guilty of posing questions to myself like, “What corpora could I use topic modelling on?” or “What could I use a 3D printer to print?” — which are far less compelling questions in and of themselves. I am casting around for any problem that looks enough like a nail that I can try out my fancy new hammer on it.

(3D printers in particular seem to plague my peers in their obvious exciting newness, but also the non-obviousness of what kinds of research they are actually best suited to enable. I frequently find myself telling people about work at the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria, 3D-printing speculative prototypes of objects which no longer exist in tangible 3D form (like this early wearable tech), as research that ignores the boring question of “what can I 3D-print?” and instead begins from the much more interesting question “how did this work?”)

I can’t think of a better way to find a research question than letting people loose in a roomful of interesting objects and waiting to see what they ask that I can’t answer. I’m just going to have to mull over what the literary equivalent would be.

2. Middle: try anything that seems like it might answer your question

The research underlying the exhibit used X-rays, CT scans, 3D modeling software, and virtual reality — and it used photography, consultation with professional woodworkers, archival research, and plenty of art history. It really seemed like the researchers turned to anything and anyone that might shed light on their key questions.

When X-rays turned out not to reveal the level of detail required to understand how the beads were made, for example, rather than X-raying something else better suited to the tool, the researches went to the University of Western Ontario to try CT scans instead. When no boxwood-carving tools from the period survived, they included tools from a century later. As a result, all of the many ways of seeing the beads — including the big virtual reality “payoff” at the end — stemmed directly from the problems the researchers encountered in simply trying to see the objects they wanted to study.

The prototypes available for the public to hold and touch seemed borne of a particularly flexible focus on question over method: 3D printing turned out to be ill-suited to the complex openwork of the bead’s outer shell, and hand-carving turned out to be much too time-consuming and difficult to be feasible for the production of the inner scene. Neither method, then, could be used to make a complete prayer bead. So they took advantage of the fact that these beads were made in two parts, and used the method best suited to each of those parts: an artist hand-carved the outer shell, and they 3D-printed the inner scene. The resulting object was wonderful to be able to interact with: up until that moment I could hardly imagine travelling with one of these beads, but once I felt it closed up in my palm, it immediately felt natural to slip it into a coat pocket.

And when no newfangled process was necessary to answer certain questions, the exhibit didn’t try to shove them in: the exhibit cases also included traditional plaques and images connecting the scenes within beads to churches, paintings, printed images that were in circulation, and historical figures. I particularly liked a boxwood sculpture of a saint which depicted her with her own boxwood rosary hanging from her belt: it wonderfully showed how these objects were carried, and that they were both recognizable and important enough to make it into artistic depiction.

The huge range of approaches never felt scattershot, because they were all directly tied to the exhibit’s driving research questions.

3. End: the end is also about your important question

Each of these approaches pursued their key questions — “what is this?” “how was it made?” — as far as that approach could go, and the results were included in the exhibit if and only if they illuminated those questions. The process was discussed only the bare minimum necessary to allow the results to be understood. One of the videos discussed the fact that their initial X-rays turned out not to reveal enough detail to be useful– and so the X-rays were relegated to a 5-second mention in one of many informational video installations, and no X-ray images were included in the exhibit proper. Instead of dwelling on the research process, all of the images, videos, and exhibit cases focused on drawing you into the world of the beads.

At the beginning of the exhibit, the astonishing detail of the carvings mostly seemed like a symbol of wealth to me: one miniature altar piece included carvings of two patrons at Jesus’s birth, for example, which seemed to highlight the how expensive it was. But as I was drawn into the small worlds of each piece, I came to understand how compelling they could be for portable religious contemplation: they rewarded extended looking. Holding the physical prototype close to my face to see the integration of wood and 3D-printed plastic, I became aware of how completely the rest of the world dropped from my view once I held the object close enough. Now the patrons included in the scene seemed like a particularly direct injunction for the owner to keep the life of Christ vividly in front of them: not an external symbol at all, but a personal reminder.

The whole exhibit came together, for me, in learning to ‘read’ a particular bead depicting the last judgment. A video installation showed a 3D model of the various parts of the bead, zooming in and around the shapes and describing their meaning and physical assembly. I looked back and forth between that video and the large-format photograph of the bead on the wall, to practice parsing the complex whole and pick out individual figures. Then I leaned in to look at the bead itself, and where before I saw only “a very complicated small thing” suddenly I could make out the demon in the pit of hell with a tiny human face in its mouth.

Our group even discussed the interpretation of the scene, looking at the middle level — which was described as representing purgatory — to raise the possibility that it actually depicted the resurrection of the dead. The figures on that level looked like they were emerging from square holes: could these be graves? We spotted what looked like the tops of sarcophagi on the ground next to these holes, and on the slide down to hell which some of these figures were being dragged toward.

We looked, too, at what first looked like a small hole underneath the angels and happy souls in heaven, but which turned out to have a small figure at the very back, who looked up at heaven with hands clasped in prayer: who was that? Why separate that figure out from the rest of the composition, and embed it so deeply? This person was visually mirrored by the demon at the bottom, also hiding in the back, with a sinner in its mouth: thinking about them now, I wonder if these two figures, both central but obscured by how deeply into the bead they are carved, represent possible “gaps” into which the viewer might see a space that they themselves could occupy.

Our extended contemplation of the last judgment mirrored, in many ways, the intended use of the prayer bead: we imagined ourselves into the scene and sought to understand its religious message. None of our conversation would have been possible without the sophisticated technological research producing the large-format image and showing us, in three dimensions, how to parse it. But our conversation was not about that technology.

I wanna figure out how to do that, too.