Making it digital

Joseph Nugent working with a team of students who produced a digital guide.
Humanities / History | February 16, 2016

Related links

McMullen Museum of Art

Joseph Nugent with some of the student creators of a digital guide to 'Making It Irish' at the McMullen Museum. Clockwise from top right: Nugent, John McElearney; Ryan Reede; Patrick Synan and Kaitlin Astrella. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Associate Professor of the Practice Joseph Nugent and a group of students have added an extra dimension to the McMullen Museum of Art’s new exhibition: an interactive digital guide that provides historical, social and artistic background to the items on display.

The guide is loaded on iPads and iBooks that are available to museum visitors who come to see “The Arts and Crafts Movement: Making It Irish.” The exhibition explores how Ireland’s Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century helped shape Ireland’s post-colonial transition.

Using the guide, a visitor can track the geographic movement of an exhibition item over time, and the nature and degree of its influence on Irish society; or examine an object in greater visual detail. Audio and video clips – including interviews with writer Fintan O’Toole and historian Paul Larmour, both catalogue and exhibition contributors – offer further enhancement and context. In a separate installation, visitors can experience an immersive VR (virtual reality) tour of six different medieval and contemporary sites using Oculus Rift.

“It’s a great, fun journey,” says Nugent—a faculty member in the English Department and Irish Studies Program— of the guide, which originated as a project in his Digital Text Material Image class last spring and continued with the involvement of six undergraduates and one doctoral student, supported by a Special Digital Humanities Grant from the ILA and a fellowship from Bookbuilders of Boston.

Nugent has been a champion of digital humanities at BC: In past years, he and his students have produced an e-book guide, “Digital Dubliners,” based on James Joyce’s Dubliners, and “Walking Ulysses,” a multi-media tour depicting Dublin in 1922 inspired by another Joyce work, Ulysses.

He credits Vera Kreilkamp, a part-time faculty member in Irish Studies who co-curated the “Making It Irish” exhibition, with suggesting a digital guide as a project.

“This was an opportunity to do something different,” Nugent explains. “There is an increased emphasis on getting more students to come to the museum, and one way is to make use of interactive technology to complement and expand on the exhibits.”

In the class last spring, Nugent gave the students an overview of periods in Irish history—such as the late 19th and early 20th century, the Middle Ages and the Celtic Revival—that are referenced in “Making It Irish.” Students then researched exhibition items to come up with ideas for which aspects could be developed for the guide.

Class members also collaborated on the technological end, which involved working with the iBooks Author program to integrate text with layout and design facets, and on marketing the guide.

“They had to keep in mind that we were creating a product for a client—something that was going to be used by the public—so it was important to pay attention to every possible detail: not only the content but the form,” says Nugent.

Fortunately, he says, the students – both in the class and those in the smaller group that continued working on the project—were up to the challenge. They included sophomores, juniors and seniors, and represented a diversity of academic interests: art history, computer science, history and English.

“They were a dynamic group, and I took great delight in teaching them,” says Nugent. “This is the kind of project that shows the benefits of integrating humanities and technology, and it wouldn’t have been possible without their work.”

Nugent’s students are equally laudatory of the project, and Nugent, for broadening their perspective.

When Kaitlin Astrella, a senior English major from Parsippany, NJ, with an interest in publishing and editing, heard about the class—which was full by then—she “begged” Nugent to find space for her, which he did.

“Before I started working on this, I had no experience with iBooks Author and had never before designed for a ‘client,’ much less a museum,” she says. “Now, I can say that I designed an iBook to fit a real exhibit and that is extremely rewarding. People are going to pick up what we did and learn with it. I love having been part of making something tangible and functional. And I aspire to make books, so working on an electronic book before I even graduate just makes me feel that much more confident about helping make more books in the future.”

“This was a very valuable experience: I felt like I was part of a project team,” says senior Ryan Reede, a computer science major from the Los Angeles area. “The artistic and historical elements of the class were not areas I’d necessarily delved into before, but Professor Nugent put them into a different context. I like how he pushes things forward, and helps you see the way technology can influence arts and literature, and vice-versa.”

Adds Medford native and physics major John McElearney ’16, “[Nugent] has this great skill in finding people and bringing them together to work effectively. I thought the idea of presenting an obscure, complex aspect of history in an accessible and engaging manner was intriguing, and I felt that even more as we continued on the project.

“Perhaps the most important thing you learn is to communicate effectively, because you’re collaborating with people who have different skill sets than you do.”

Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor