Red Thread: A Co-curated Digital Site with Students

By Vera Keller, University of Oregon

Image credit: Gart der Gesundheit, Hortus sanitatis (1485), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon. Burgess 109, p. ccxlviii.

The Red Thread site grew out of an interdisciplinary, Honors College seminar, Global History of Color. I made colour the focus of a course for four reasons:

  • it intersects with my own research into early modern experimentation with color;
  • it is a vehicle for teaching a course that is global, interdisciplinary, and material;
  • it is not too intimidating for students;
  • and I thought it would be a way to connect disparate corners of campuses and to build a public intellectual community.

Everyone knows that artisanal production is big in Oregon, but there is little connection between wider public interests in historical craft practices and academic research on those topics. When it comes to the study of material culture, we not only have under-used collections of objects at UO, but also many unique and wonderful resources around campus–an Urban Farm, Craft Center, and Beach Conservation Lab. We also have a highly skilled, curious and passionate local public of artists, crafters, homesteaders and farmers. What we don’t have is a way to connect and strengthen these various constituencies, especially in a way that places the University and historical research at the center of this connection.

Particularly as a faculty member at a public university, I feel that engaging the university with a wider public is part of its mission. Historically, recipe collections have served as forms of social media tracing community building and sharing across different domains of knowledge. At a moment when face-to-face interaction, civil discourse, and communities are weakening on a national scale, we can draw on the strength of this historical genre to engage ourselves, our students, and the public in a collective endeavour to build intellectual community.

Color proved to be an accessible way for both students and the public to engage with primary sources, material practices, and historical artifacts. In the course, we focused on a range of reds: ochre, coral, cinnabar, vermilion, kermes, madder, cochineal, Tyrian purple, brazilwood, logwood, colloidal gold, ruby glass, and red-painted porcelain. Together, we studied the history of these pigments through the lenses of the history of science, the history of medicine, economic history, cultural history and material culture. Each student focused on a single material object from campus collections, which became the subject of their exhibition labels for a co-curated exhibition and a final research paper.

We visited three campus collections: Special Collections and University Archives, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH)  and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA), with strengths respectively in European, Native American and Asian materials. Through a campus grant for teaching initiatives (the Williams Foundation), I invited a guest speaker to campus for a public event. Marie-France Lemay, the paper conservator at Yale Library, brought with her the Yale Traveling Scriptorium — a traveling showcase of the materials found in premodern books and manuscripts. With Lemay, we explored the Scriptorium alongside rare books and manuscripts from our campus collection. Lemay also demonstrated a cochineal recipe, which highlighted for students the wide range of materials and processes involved in producing premodern books.

Image credit: Sa’di, Gulistan and Bustan, 1600-1699?, Edward Burgess manuscript collection 043, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon. MS 43.

The course produced several intertwined outcomes that were oriented simultaneously to the classroom and to the public. The Museum of Natural and Cultural History hosted a small exhibition of the student-researched objects drawn from their collections. A selection of all the students’ work is also featured on a site I was able to build through a grant from our campus Digital Scholarship Center. All the books and manuscripts were completely digitized as part of the grant. My aims in building the site were to advertise our under-utilized campus collections; to highlight my students’ research; and to produce a resource that could be used in other courses and by the public.

With remaining funds from the Williams grant, I built our own version of the Traveling Scriptorium, with help from UO’s conservators Marilyn Mohr and Ashlee Weitlauf. The Scriptorium is a case full of nearly 100 materials. We experimented a lot with packaging and labelling its various parts. Through my use of the Scriptorium in various classroom settings, we tested the ease and rapidity through which it could be unpacked and repacked. When we were satisfied with it, we donated the Traveling Scriptorium to our campus library, where it is now cataloged and can be checked out by faculty for a week at a time. 

The Travelling Scriptorium.

At the same time that I was working on developing the digital Red Thread site and the physical teaching resource, the Traveling Scriptorium, I also worked on an on-going third initiative, “Farm to Book” , a collaboration between myself, the Beach Conservation Lab and the Urban Farm.  We experimented with historical ink recipes drawn from my archival researches with conservators of the Beach Lab. We also planted ingredients for inks and dyes at our Urban Farm.

We’ve held several highly successful public events at the Craft Center and at the new “Dream Lab” in our library where members of the public could craft with our inks produced according to historical recipes, practice calligraphy, hear student presentations on their historical research, explore the Traveling Scriptorium and the Red Thread site, see selections from our rare book materials, and learn about the history of our campus collections. We even served cochineal cake!

Rose and pansy inks at Craft Center Event. UO Libraries, Tayler Bincandi.

My hope is that the Red Thread site can be used in tandem with the Traveling Scriptorium in other classes or in public presentations, either in preparation for a visit to our campus collections, or in the case of large class sizes, in lieu of a group visit. Pairing the hands-on Scriptorium with the digital resource proved to be a great way to minimize some of the limitations of digital surrogates by giving participants a sense of the material constituents of the original books and manuscripts. I used the site and the Scriptorium, for example, during a presentation for a program bringing high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to campus.

The tactile nature of the Traveling Scriptorium offered a great way to draw people in, as members of the public found it fascinating to handle all the little bottles of materials. I purchased one seventeenth-century volume (for less than $100) to include as part of the Scriptorium, so that an actual rare work could travel to events off campus. Being able to hold a four-hundred year-old book always has an immediate effect upon public audiences. The initial wonder and curiosity sparked by these hands-on interactions often then provoked questions and deeper discussions.

Do you think that there is something to gain from connecting classroom instruction on historical practices of making with makers across campus and from your local community? If so, how would you do it?


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