Graduate Work Spotlight: Hannah Southern, Digitizing MA Capstone Projects with the Visual Resource Center

The Graduate Work Spotlight Series highlights the rich variety of projects and work experiences assigned to graduate students in the Art History program across the academic year. Not only does AU’s College of Arts and Science offer students a range of opportunities relevant to professional success in the field of art history and academia, but the financial support to complete their degree in a nurturing and timely manner. For this iteration of the series, we honor the Visual Resource Center (VRC) and its role in preserving the history of the art history department. 

The current historical moment shines a light on the importance of digital media and online resources. For instance, online archives not only help to preserve scholarship, but also increase student access to research in an era of distance education. In the summer of 2019, Hannah Southern (MA 2020) began the process of scanning and digitizing all 427 of the MA capstone projects currently held in the VRC. “Before 2011-2012, no digital records were collected of any MA projects,” Hannah informed us. “The physical copies held in the VRC were the school’s only records of these students’ capstone research.” Before 2012, most students wrote two large research papers for graduation before the current thesis system was put into place. Hannah has worked over the past year to make these capstone projects available to students on American University’s Digital Research Archive (AUDRA)

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Hannah Southern with the uploaded capstone projects. Photo courtesy Hannah Southern.

The earliest capstone in the collection is from 1958, but the majority of the collection ranges from the 1970s to 2010s. “The work has been really fulfilling, but also sad at times,” says Hannah. “A handful of the older projects are missing pages, there are unfinished drafts, some used acidic glue to adhere photographs, while others were printed on thin typing paper that hasn’t held up well over the years. We also know that we just don’t have hard copies of many students’ research, especially through the 1960s. Digitizing these projects preserves past students’ hard work for the future.” 

“As I’ve digitized and catalogued these capstone projects, I’ve really come to appreciate the feminist pedagogy of AU’s art history program in a more nuanced way,” says Hannah. “For example, there is a 1995 capstone called ‘Gabrielle Münter: The Forgotten Expressionist.’ It’s wild that, only 20 years ago, Münter’s profound influence on Wassily Kandinksy had yet to be fully explored in art-historical scholarship. It’s amazing to see the influence of professors emeriti Norma Broude and Mary Garrard in such a tangible way.”

Hannah enjoys working in an archive setting and is appreciative of AU’s graduate work opportunities. “I’m really thankful to Sam Sadow, the curator of the Visual Resource Center, for letting me take on this big project and see it through from digitizing to cataloging. Working at the VRC gave me the opportunity to learn how to work with Islandora, AUDRA’s online platform. I hope, once institutions begin reopening, I can continue to work in digital archives and expand the accessibility of research, primary sources, and historical artifacts for distance learners. This project and working in the VRC has shown me the direction I hope to continue on as I begin my career.”

For students who are interested in archives, Hannah encourages them to visit the VRC and talk with Professor Sadow. “I’m very lucky that my first student work placement was in the VRC. I really enjoyed my original work there, which led to this year-long project. Sam is a great resource for those looking to gain experience in archives and visual resources. And with the realization that distance learning may become the new normal, online access to materials is one of the most important things archives and libraries can do.”

Congratulations Hannah on tackling this extraordinary project, and best of luck to you for your upcoming graduation!

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