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date: 26 September 2017

Digital Resources: The State of Digital Research on the Visual Culture of Spanish America

Summary and Keywords

Across the last 25 years, digital projects on the visual culture of Latin America have begun to shape, ever more fundamentally, both research and teaching environments. To be sure, books and journal essays remain the dominant mode of publishing (and significantly so), but digital projects—made possible in part because of increasingly accessible databases and less expensive editing platforms—are becoming widely recognized as key elements in the visual and intellectual landscape. The visual culture of Spanish America (also known as colonial visual culture or viceregal visual culture) extends across three centuries, dating from roughly 1520 to 1820. Yet its history, which embraces both the physical traces of everyday life and ephemeral experiences, is arguably the least familiar of Latin America’s artistic and material legacies, especially outside Latin American Studies. Nonetheless, the period has inspired a suite of projects that, considered together, highlight the current potentials (and limits) of digital work, provide useful models for future research, and open onto debates relevant across the digital humanities (as they are currently called).

If this is the basic landscape, then what are the important issues when it comes to the intersections of digital technologies and colonial visual culture? This question is considered here along three avenues. First, what can be achieved with existing software, particularly imaging software, and the inherent epistemological assumptions imbedded in software commonly used? This topic receives the most attention because future research depends so heavily upon our perceptions and understandings of present technological capabilities. The second theme considered is accessibility. Given that institution-driven projects, most often online ventures sponsored by a museum or a library, have opened certain collections to an online public, what are the implications of the accessibility they offer, and how might such databases shape the parameters of research—both in the data they provide and in the kinds of questions their technologies make it possible to pose and answer? Finally, consideration is given to the possibilities and potentials for collaboration that the online environment offers in the study of visual culture of Latin America.

To set a framework for discussion, this article begins with a broad view, “The Object(s) of Visual Culture,” and then turns to examples of scholar-driven projects currently online. Typically, these are generated by scholars working at universities and dependent upon both internal and external funding. The sections “Seeing Images, Knowing Landscapes” and “Epistemological Assumptions” not only describe examples, but also explore the modes of interpretation that digital environments enable and the habits of viewing that are produced as a result. Because scholar-driven projects do not exist in isolation, the article turns to institution-driven projects, represented primarily by digitized museum collections and archives, which have become central components of the research environment. Many projects in this vein are well-described elsewhere—our focus therefore rests on the effects on the larger research landscape, in a section called “Accessibility, Canonicity, Finance.” Lastly, issues related to collaboration are dealt with, in order to both address ideas that are being explored through digital work in other fields, but which have not yet surfaced with much force in the field of colonial visual culture, and to ask why.

Keywords: Colonial Latin America, visual culture, digital humanities, viceregal period, art, architecture, lienzos, maps, manuscripts

The Object(s) of Visual Culture

The field of visual culture addresses entire visual environments, not only consciously produced art and architecture. Presently, however, digital resources tend to focus upon material things—paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, and buildings that continue to have a physical presence in the world. This means key components of the visual culture of Spanish America that were ephemeral, like bullfights, the bartering that transpired at market stalls, and processions, rarely register in the digital world. In addition, interpreting material objects is itself no small project. For many scholars and students initial questions tend to be instrumental, focusing upon what an object or building was intended to “do” in the world at the time of its creation: was it created to enable prayer, or to further a lawsuit; was it made to trade abroad, or for local decoration of a body or house; was it to commemorate a singular person or event, or to stoke a tradition? The answers to such questions, especially for Spanish America, can sometimes be corroborated by written documents, but because of the paucity of relevant texts that have survived (or were ever produced), objects often offer the most eloquent testimony about originating impulses. Indeed, in many cases the object is the only preserved trace to past experiences that can be accessed today.

Yet it is not just a picture or single view of an object that is revealing, but rather the whole of it. To this end, digital resources have opened extensive options for viewing entire works, be they paintings, ceramic vessels, silver coins, or buildings, as well as for studying their material qualities. Along with looking closely at an object or building, researchers in the field of visual culture need a sense of context—that is, knowledge of other objects and texts in the same genre, from the same period, produced in the same region, created to serve the same functions. Assembling a diverse array of objects to establish an interpretive horizon, be it one of genre or geography, is also something that digital resources can do far better than traditional print publications.

For those interested in visual culture, seeing and aggregating objects are just beginning, instrumental steps in most scholarly research projects. Another crucial query is how objects created in the past worked, what features rendered them acceptable and useful to their audiences. Was it through a particular kind of imagery, shape, or scale, a specific combination of materials or craftsmanship techniques, commodity status, or distinctiveness? Stepping back from the thing itself, broader questions of agency and production require attention, which can be done only through the binding of archival and theoretical work to material culture. No less important is the current comparative impulse in visual culture studies. Scholars are looking across regions within Spanish America, across the Americas, and across the early modern world. Despite the comparative questions that are emerging in visual culture studies, most extant digital projects on colonial Latin America rise from a small, or singular, corpus of objects. This is not to say that digital presentations have not kept pace with shifting trajectories of scholarly inquiry, only to underscore that digital work, at least today, has a smaller scope. The section “Seeing Images, Knowing Landscapes” turns to specific projects to characterize the ways in which research on visual culture has been wed with digital technologies.

Seeing Images, Knowing Landscapes

Two impressive digital projects, both of which center upon indigenous maps and lienzos—painted cloths, usually of cotton or maguey, with imagery often focused on regional histories and genealogies—from New Spain, allow us to home in on the creative use of imaging technologies and their implications. From the mid-16th through the early 19th century, in indigenous communities in New Spain—especially those located in what is today southern and central Mexico—people applied ink and colored paint to cloth, animal skin, or paper to depict human (often ancestral) figures moving through space, often rendered as a map. Today a source for studies of indigenous history in Spanish America, maps, and lienzos tend to register and present multiple, overlapping narratives on a single surface. In many ways, the physical qualities of these objects align neatly with the scopic strengths of imaging software developed in the last twenty years. For instance, as flat objects, maps and lienzos can be relatively easily photographed in high detail, both front and back; this allows zoom features to present detailed views of individual figures, their clothing and gestures; zooming in can enable study of landscape features that would be impossible to see if one viewed the object hung upon a wall or set behind glass in a museum. When digital photographs are of high enough resolution, faint sketch lines, corrections, or overlapping areas of paint will be made visible, making it possible to study the working methods of indigenous painters.1 Beyond this, viewing by layers, another common feature of imaging software, can visually separate distinct narratives, providing conceptual clarity for 21st-century viewers who, trained visually and conceptually in quite different modes of map-making and spatial representation, tend to see narratives in colonial lienzos and maps as overly visually compacted, overlapping, or tangled. When lienzos contain written inscriptions (many do), pop-up translations of original Nahuatl or Spanish prose (for instance) can be added to digitized pictorial documents, as can interpretive descriptions of specific figures or events. One other feature of contemporary software dovetails with the cartographic ambition of this genre of indigenous paintings: because maps and lienzos reference sites in the landscape that are (sometimes) known today, colonial documents can be geo-referenced and linked to modern maps, Google Earth, and GIS (geographic information system) software layers. It is worth underscoring that such digital interventions are themselves modes of interpretation, not merely the application of science to historical painting; to geo-correct is also to impose a normative cartography onto indigenous landscapes of the past.

Projects like the Mapas Project, housed at the University of Oregon, and the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan reconstruction, undertaken by Universidad Francisco Marroquín, in Guatemala, depend on the capacities inherent in much of this imaging software. Yet these projects offer far more than just better views of old documents. Both make persuasive arguments about how to interpret indigenous cartographic painting. Juxtaposing these two projects—one of which is quite recent, the other long-standing—allows us to raise questions about how digital resources, because of their technological strengths, shape research agendas in the field of visual culture.

The Mapas Project (TMP) is an early and influential example of a scholar-driven project, as it is presently directed, and was largely developed by Stephanie Wood, who has worked collaboratively with scholars from the United States, Europe, and Mexico. A component of the Wired Humanities Project at the University Oregon, TMP dates from 1990s and represents one of the few digital research projects of such longevity.2 As of this writing (Summer 2017), it includes 32 indigenous pictorial documents, all of which were created in what is today the nation of Mexico. The interpretive information provided comes in two primary forms: for indigenous language texts painted onto the maps and lienzos, there are transcriptions and translations of individual words and phrases in English and Spanish; for pictorial images, small groups of images are featured on screen, and they are read iconographically. This mode of interpretation, which creates discrete, interpretable components, is fundamental to the work of TMP. Because it also relies upon a consistent analytical framework, TMP invites thinking about diversity within the corpus it draws together, as well as encouraging scholars to investigate patterns of representation and habits of indigenous painting.

While these may now be familiar interpretive strategies, we suggest there is nothing natural about them. Rather, in pursuing these particular approaches, TMP advances a suite of intellectual arguments. Chief among these: indigenous maps from New Spain—documents long neglected by scholars—deserve sustained and widespread attention, and these paintings can and should be the focus of deeper research into indigenous history. These are important claims, because expanding the range of materials that count as worthy of study is one of the most valuable roles that digital resources can play (although, see below on accessibility). Perhaps most importantly, because of the attention TMP devotes to details of the map—be they images or words—this project argues that an iconographic reading should be fundamental to any sustained understanding of cartographic documents from Spanish America, as well as the societies that produced such paintings and, ultimately, the kinds of representational languages and histories indigenous people sought to create. No one can interpret a prose text of the 16th century without understanding its basic vocabulary; likewise, TMP argues, interpretations of indigenous paintings pivot on knowledge of what and who is depicted. As Erwin Panofsky argued, in the last century, iconographic research is but one step in any sophisticated interpretive project focused on images. Synthesis has to also take place, that is, the meaning of individual elements must be set in broader cultural, intellectual, and theoretical frameworks. TMP, as currently conceived, leaves synthetic work largely to its users and viewers; implicitly, it is meant to work in tandem with other modes of research, writing, and study—be it in an archive or a classroom.

In bringing together carefully chosen examples of a certain type, TMP taps the idea of genre, supplying a categorical framework within which to see individual members. This aggregation creates a very particular microclimate for the understanding of each painting and is quite different from institutional databases that feature, or solely present, their collections (see discussion in the section “Accessibility, Canonicity, Finance”). In contrast, the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan Project (LdeQ) focuses on a single work. The website—which dates from 2009, exists in both Spanish and English versions, and is hosted by a private university in Guatemala City—offers high-resolution images and line drawings of a 16th-century lienzo, along with a careful step-by-step tutorial on them. The site also includes a link to an ambitious (and, by now, well-publicized) digital reconstruction of the Lienzo and an interactive map of the Lienzo’s spatial and narrative scope. Originally created in central Mexico, and currently held in Puebla, Mexico, this large lienzo features an indigenous narrative about the 1540 conquest of territory that is (today) part of Guatemala, by armies under the command of Pedro de Alvarado. While much of the website’s content was created by Florine Asselbergs, who wrote a scholarly book on this Lienzo,3 its online existence is due to institutional interest in (and funding for) the work: the Universidad Francisco Marroquín’s sponsorship of the project aligns with the interest of Guatemalan institutions and individuals in restoring and/or preserving their national cultural patrimony, even works held outside national territory. Thus the distinctions we draw between “scholar-driven” and “institution-driven” is a somewhat heuristic one in practice, and probably will be even more so in the future, as institutional agendas often underwrite, both in concept and through financial support, online projects.

In terms of interpretive strategy, the LdQ Project offers basic parallels with TMP. Both bring to light (under-represented) indigenous histories, and emphasize iconographic decipherment. While TMP creates and then illuminates a corpus of indigenous painting, the LdeQ Project construes its single object—the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan—less as an exemplary case study than as a unique work, worthy of a great deal of scholarly attention (and digital labor). In taking this approach, the LdeQ Project invites deep study of a single colonial object, privileging isolated, deep reading—as opposed to comparative work—as a mode of study and scholarship. This monographic approach represents a venerable interpretive strategy in the humanities, especially for manuscript study. Projects such as the LdeQ and the site dedicated to the Codex Mendoza suggest it is considered a viable, if not highly desirable, mode of research to port into digital environments.4

Distinctive to the LdeQ Project, however, is its investment in digital reconstruction. Whereas TMP—and other manuscript sites such as the one dedicated to Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s Nueva corónica y buen gobierno5 and the nationally sponsored “Códices de México”—feature digital facsimiles of extant objects, showing them in their current condition (albeit photographed with very good lighting), the LdeQ Project, depends on digital reconstruction. While the original lienzo has greatly deteriorated and is, today, very difficult to read (leave alone photograph or display), the reconstruction is not merely a restorative gesture. Debates about the physical restoration of objects can be traced to the very beginnings of art history: no hand, no matter how skillful, can erase the effects of time and return an object to some earlier point in its life, just as a plastic surgeon, no matter how talented or well paid, can “return” a human face to its youth. Consequently, restorations need to be seen as translations, projects that bring technological, intellectual, and ethical practices, not only visual, to the fore. Since the development of photography, the historiography of reconstructions has become ever more tightly bound to discussions of modernist thinking about the role images play in the world, especially images of documentary (e.g., historical) truthfulness. Given the wide accessibility of imaging software, restoration is today easier than ever to carry out, but is widely recognized as a convenient fiction, because the visual appearance of the restored work may have never existed at any one moment in the past,

In this case, the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan has been digitally restored to suggest how modern interpreters imagine it might have looked at the moment of creation. Other moments in the Lienzo’s biography might have been chosen as the temporal anchor of restoration, but in focusing upon a moment of origin, the reconstruction presents imagery that is clean, colorful, and sharp in detail. This makes the Lienzo easier to read for 21st-century viewers. Indeed, gone are the vagaries of the painters’ touch and faint clues to the production process; also eclipsed are the physical traces of the Lienzo’s wear and use (including the small pieces of paper that were affixed to it as labels in the 20th century). Of course, the beauty of the digital reconstruction is it leaves the original untouched, and the Lienzo still exists, albeit having paid the cruel tax of time. Nonetheless, reconstructions like that of the LdeQ raise questions about the ontological status of “original” documents and images. Do restorers exercise a kind of technological imperialism as they improve on the hand-work of indigenous people for online viewing? Would the counter be to offer competing restorations on a single aggregated site? Or to juxtapose the modern digital restoration with its antecedent, that is, the hand-drawn copy made of the same document by an 18th or 19th century artist? Would crowd-sourced restorations be valuable or even feasible? Because the ontological status of the work is itself the product of scholarship, how do such questions put pressure on the authority of scholars? This last point will be discussed, but first, there is a suite of epistemological issues to consider.

Training the Eye to See

Because of the technologies they use, these two projects (Mapas and Lienzo de Quauhquechollan) cultivate certain habits of viewing. This is true of every digital project, but given the proliferation of imaging software, we suggest it is becoming ever more crucial to acknowledge the ways in which research tools are teaching us how to see, and as well, setting the parameters of what we might see. In TMP, for instance, each map can be read in the same way, detail by detail, with zoom technology creating an experience of visual intimacy. An afternoon spent on the online site turns these indigenous documents into new friends; one begins to sense the habits and preferences of each painted map, they things they say often, the topics they are reticent to address. The epistemological position promoted by TMP, then, is this: to see is to know (and, by extension, to see more detail leads to deeper knowledge). In art history, where close looking is a foundational practice, this strikes a familiar chord. There are two questions, however, the software does not invite, but which we think are worth asking. First, is there ever a document or set of conditions for which “better seeing”—particularly the certain kind of high resolution seeing that zoom software invites—is not useful as a route to knowledge? Second, for all of their advantages, zoom technologies (and the parsing they encourage) do little to explain colonial habits of viewing. Is there a value in (or possibility of) using digital technologies to illuminate visual cultures of the past, rather than rendering colonial creations visible and legible through contemporary means?

This query can be asked of the ways that the LdeQ project uses mapping software to set the spaces of the colonial map against contemporary (21st-century) maps of Central America. Such spatialization of the narrative of the Lienzo encourages viewers to align the painting with landscapes they know or contemporary maps they know how to read. No doubt, for certain readers, this gesture renders the Lienzo’s territorial depictions more accessible—because they can imagine the distance, or have traveled themselves from x to y; for others, the technology turns the indigenous imagery into something ever more foreign because the painting is so different from maps they know. We are not suggesting that the LdeQ should have fought the impulse to use contemporary cartography as normative touch point and spatial anchor for its interpretation. Rather, we raise the question: what kinds of estrangement result when software is used to translate indigenous habits for rendering space and time into image and object in 21st-century terms? Is the next challenge for a digital project to interpret colonial objects and to encourage sustained thinking about technologies of cartographic representation across time, as has been done in other fields?6 At present, digital projects on colonial Latin America address a subset of the broader questions being raised within visual culture studies. Yet, since a digital project is still a fundamentally humanistic inquiry, it needs to keep in play the epistemological questions rising from its own practices.

Accessibility, Canonicity, Finance

The online accessibility to works from colonial Latin America grows daily, in no small part because of the push by institutions to get their holdings online. Notable U.S. collections of artworks and books are to be found online, including those of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the John Carter Brown Library, the Library of Congress, and the University of Texas at Austin. A number of institutions have also curated online exhibitions; some of these are stand-alone projects, others function as parallels to actual exhibitions and catalogues. In Latin America, some state-funded institutions, like the Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, have robust websites, although many of the most extensive websites are sponsored by private rather than national or regional museums. A few public institutions, like the Museo Nacional de Art in Mexico City, have opted to use Google Arts & Culture as a way of making parts of their collections public.7

Nonetheless, this digital explosion is geographically limited. Major national and publically accessible collections in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Bolivia (for instance) are not yet available online. There are many reasons for this, but one fact is clear: even today, when it is not unusual to hear, “everything is online,” only collections with a certain level of resources and support can have a robust online presence, and only people with the resources to travel to collections or those who are already on site can work with under-published, little known, and often rare objects. Consequently, works from collections that are easily accessible, or can afford to host high-resolution images, are posted and published more often than those that are not, and are therefore studied more intensively. This repetition is, without doubt, producing a new canon of colonial art objects.8 Indeed, search engines only serve to amplify the growing canonicity of certain objects, since the histories they track are those of clicks and views, not of colonial practice, and so the objects most commonly seen may well differ from those that would have been considered most important by people in the colonial past.

In addition, wealthier museums have set certain levels of expectations for scholars, who have come to endorse digital databases as a mode of collection sharing. Indeed, many researchers rely upon online research as a foundational element of their work. Because of this, the passive logic of availability exerts a real sway on research.9 And there’s the potential snowball effect: collections that hold objects that are researched and published by scholars have a competitive advantage in raising funds, which allows them to develop their online presence even more. But what will be the effect on objects and collections that are not easily accessible online? Consider the Museo Inka in Cusco, Peru, which is under the auspices of the public Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco, and holds some of the most distinctive colonial material from the Andes, including significant portraits of indigenous nobles from the 18th century, colonial furniture, keros (ritual drinking vessel), and textiles. The website for Museo Inka is restrained, showing galleries and cases of objects. How will the relative invisibility of its important collections play out both in setting and sustaining research agendas, and in attracting resources? By understanding that availability is a condition, rather than a convenience, we suggest that scholars have a crucial—and to date largely unrealized—role to play in building cross-institution collections and establishing new canons.10

The digital work Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520–1820, begun in 2000 and ongoing today, attempts to work in this vein by bringing together a corpus of objects and buildings, drawn from public collections across the United States, Europe, and Latin America. The aim of the assembled corpus is to shed light on the visual culture of a large region (Spanish America) and a long durée (the colonial period). Vistas also seeks to counter some of the critiques launched against traditional narratives of visual culture. Across the globe, objects created for and by elites are more likely to survive from the past, and in Latin America this is no exception. Nonetheless, through on-site research the authors were able to find, study, and ultimately include in Vistas objects that captured other registers of experience, beyond those of elites, and that are typically not the objects on public display at museums. Some of the challenges of accessibility were overcome—like paying for new photography in collections that had no photographic record, and traveling to lesser known institutions and places—because of generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and funding by other institutions.

In the leaner funding environment of the present day, the possibilities for scholars to think and work outside of—or even to challenge—the canon being produced by virtue of digital accessibility seems a greater challenge than it did ten years ago. While the costs of cloud storage, bandwidth, and permissions fees are less onerous, resources for humanities research continue to shrink. Yet, the online intellectual landscape available would be an impoverished one without the contributions of scholars making arguments about the importance of under-studied objects, and thinking beyond the limits of a specific collection. Given this, it is likely that future collaborations will bring scholars into extended partnerships with museums and libraries, with one aim being to draw disparate institutional repositories into conversation with each other.

Collaboration and Its Boundaries

Collaboration has become the watchword of work in the digital humanities. Scholars and students, librarians and technologists, designers, and sometimes the public at large—whether working in teams or sequentially on projects—are now understood as fundamental contributors to serious, successful digital projects. Indeed, one of the most profound promises of the web is that the single authorial, expert voice no longer needs to reign supreme. Scholars trained in the tradition of narrative scholarship often find that multi-vocal projects put them in unfamiliar (and unsettling) terrain. Perhaps as a result, most digital projects on visual culture are collaborative, multi-vocal enterprises, but they retain quite firm authorial boundaries. That is, few projects are open to unsolicited or un-vetted contributions.11 One project that is enriched by the contributions of a wide spectrum of collaborators is Mesolore, directed by Liza Bakewell (Brown University) and Byron Hamann (Ohio State University).12 Mesolore promotes the close reading of six important colonial-era texts, four of them largely pictographic, and two of them native-language dictionaries. It features on-page pairing of texts and images; because its presentation software is different from that used by MTP and LdeQ, it offers yet another model for ways to achieve a complementary reading of an image or a text. Along with the suite of related documents parsed and interpreted in Mesolore, the website includes video clips with lectures and scholars’ biographies, as well as audio files in which scholars from North America, Europe, and Latin America debate issues related to the interpretation of codices and other colonial documents. Tapping a range of technologies, Mesolore opens diverse pathways through the material it contains. One could trace the details of a particular manuscript, such as the Matricula de Tributos, or one could hear a group of scholars debate issues related to cultural patrimony. Mesolore goes further in developing a suite of intellectual frameworks for understanding colonial objects. Its argument is that no single scholar of gender or indigenous rights is more “right” than another, but that knowledge is gained through juxtaposition and collaboration. Nevertheless, as with all projects on visual culture that exist online today, synthetic interpretive work is left to each user. There is much information at the Mesolore site, and it encourages close looking of specific documents, but there is no narrative thread upon which it insists. Different readers will learn different things. And that, Mesolore implies, is just fine.

For all of its openness, the creators of Mesolore keep their hands on the reins. This is not surprising: to date, no project on visual culture in Spanish America has done away with authorial control by opening content to commentary, blogging, or interpretive narratives provided by the public at large. In part, this is because scholars see some measure of authorial control and bounded-ness as essential to intellectually coherent projects; at the same time, most researchers would acknowledge that the control exerted in these projects reinforces older models of knowledge production. One interesting example that moves in the crowd-sourced direction is the Project on the Engraved Sources of Spanish Colonial Art (PESSCA), established and directed by Almerindo E. Ojeda (University of California, Davis). This project seeks to compare paintings from Spanish America with the European prints and engravings that inspired them. The parameters here have been clearly set, such that the website is a catalog of visual comparisons. Its premises are equally direct: the point is to create image-to-image comparisons, with little comment or analysis. While some might argue that the focus on prints-and-painting correspondences seems narrow (especially, say, in contrast to the openness of Mesolore or even Vistas), PESSCA has been very successful as an open project, drawing on the contributions of a growing number of third parties. For future designers of online projects, PESSCA offers the lesson that a very narrowly targeted site can be well suited to fruitful public contribution. Another model is that offered by museums that have been proactive in opening their collections to comment and tagging by a wider public (see, for instance the object collections in the Brooklyn Museum). But many such projects have been conceived as a one-sided public outreach, rather than as a dialog with the general public, since, in the case of Brooklyn, public comment is not integrated into the museum’s own narratives about these objects. However, new kinds of collaborative models are called for. Whatever forms these might take, they are not likely to depend solely upon fresh ideas or novel training in the fields of visual culture; very real changes in technology—which still depends heavily upon yes/no, on/off, in/out binaries—will also be necessary if we are to escape (or at least successfully rethink) the relationships between authorial voice and collaboration.

On the Horizon

While there is much to be said about the logistical problems of producing born-digital research (which is not at all the same as scanning traditional writing and posting it), this article has chosen not to dwell on the mechanics of digital publication. The work of securing sufficient funding and keeping projects alive as software changes remains daunting. Indeed, in the arenas where visual culture and online technologies meet, these are serious challenges. Yet, at least for now, good online discussions exist on these topics (particularly through digital humanities listservs). In closing, the focus turns to a few themes that are intellectually challenging precisely because of digital technology.

To our eye, the illusion of abundant imagery will require more careful thought on the part of scholars, as will new enabling technologies. High-quality digital imagery seems to short-circuit the need to see a real object (and makes requests for funding to do so seem indulgent). Yet standardized views are just that, controlled by the photographer rather than the scholar, who might find the back of a work or bottom of a vessel just as, if not more, revealing than the front or top. Moreover, while glorious color images are now easy to find from major collections, relatively few institutions share full collection records. Online research cannot as yet pursue in depth studies of collecting histories or object conservation and restoration. In spite of luxurious photographs, the paucity of metadata (a problem librarians know all too well) means that, without intervention—in the kind of data published online, in the presentation of images, and tools for viewing images—digital technologies will only reinforce the epistemological position that seeing, and in very particular ways, is the foundation of knowing, and that the photograph is an acceptable simulacra for the object or building. What it means to see, then, is an issue both central to visual culture and ripe for further research.

In the last ten years, materiality has emerged as a theme of great interest across the humanities, perhaps in reaction to the “spectacular reality” seen as a feature of late capitalism. In the digital world, materiality cuts both ways. On one hand, digital imagery seems de-materialized; although pixels and the electricity needed to present them are hardly “immaterial,” zooming into a portrait to see its details, or tracking across the façade of a building holds the lived, material world of museum galleries and noisy plazas at bay, with their very real, indeed inescapable, collaborative environments created by other viewers and urban residents. As noted, digital access does not preclude the need to see original objects in their current setting. Nor does it dampen the desire to do so. It is this theme—how digital imagery creates new desires to see, know, attend the materiality of objects—that is especially promising for new research. Can digital technology help us think anew about the material qualities of the wood in a colonial chair from Nueva Granada, or an engraving sent from Brussels to Cartagena? It certainly offers new ways of visualizing material connections, and not only with dynamic maps. In addition, the kind of collaborative partnerships that online environments enable, and indeed call for, mean that collaborations between art historians, scientists, and historians, are becoming more frequent, and studies once thought of as simply technical, of paint pigments, painting supports, building materials, and paper are slowly becoming more common ground.13 The questions that remain: Where are the technology developers in this equation? What would it take for this research to spur the development of new presentational online tools that would highlight, for instance, histories of colonial technology and trade?

As long as we are asking for new kinds of tools, it seems time that three-dimensional objects and buildings receive more attention online. Architecture, which was arguably an aspect of visual culture that spoke to and formed part of many people’s lives in the colonial past, is still a stepchild in the digital world. In the early days of technological experimentation, fly-overs and models were commonly made, but by and large, sophisticated online work on architecture remains in its infancy. In a first step to use the web to display architectural complexes and interior spaces, Mexico’s national institute for the conservation, curation, and study of anthropology and history has launched “Paseos Virtuales,” which features 360 views of many archeological sites under its aegis, as well as exhibitions it has sponsored, the majority of them from the pre-Hispanic period. Colonial spaces and buildings present distinct challenges, often because they are still inhabited and form crucial parts of urban civic centers in Latin America. Nonetheless, a newly launched initiative from the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR) will document some colonial religious buildings in Latin America with high resolution, 360-degree views, bringing non-canonical images and sites to wider public. Still lacking are systematic 360-degree digital surveys of colonial-period buildings, which would serve as documentary record for the current existence and location of paintings and sculptures that otherwise may be poorly documented. But documentation might not be the only benefit of such surveys. Questions about the lives of buildings and their histories could, in fact, form the kernel of a very interesting research project.

Nearly all of the projects discussed in this article have been object-driven. That is, they have taken material things—lienzos, books, artworks, maps, buildings—as their starting point. Their enduring presence offers proof positive of the value of established art historical approaches, and that digital technologies preferred in academic settings are especially good at cataloguing, parsing, describing, and presenting discrete things (as opposed to game technologies, which privilege environments and plot-driven interaction). It would be possible, however, to imagine different starting points and sources. For instance, an object could be the prompt for an interesting digital project on visual culture, but so too could an investigation of a material and its presence in daily life (silver, cotton, cochineal). Pressing beyond this, we can also imagine online projects centered upon broad practices that engage theoretical, factual, material, and ephemeral histories. One possibility would be a history of spirituality (or modes of spirituality), another might be attuned to affect a sensory experience. What did it mean to walk through the streets of Mexico City in 1620?

Finally, it is important to raise the issue of scholarly practice. Most of the projects discussed here were initiated by people based in the United States, collaborating with partners in Latin America. Online projects initiated by scholars based in Latin America are rarer, in part, because of funding options; the “Paseos Virtuales” was work sponsored by the national government. Whether wealthier research institutions, like the Getty Research Institute or the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence (a branch of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), to name just two examples, will continue to sponsor collaborative and pan-national work in visual culture that is shared publicly online remains an open question. But a pan-national vision, and funding to sustain it matter because the questions generated in museums and universities in Buenos Aires, Lima, and Puebla have differed, at least in the last 50 years, from those posed in New York and Paris. If the history of visual culture is to be more than a neoimperialist enterprise, work generated outside North America and Western Europe needs—indeed, deserves—cultivation.

Discussion of Literature in Visual Culture and Digital Humanities

Since advent of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a 1972 television show and a still-valued book that broke the boundaries between the consideration of “high art” and contemporary imagery, more art historians have widened the parameters of their traditional field of inquiry to think not only of singular objects, but of the contexts of viewing—that is, the interactions of entire visual environments—over time. The shift is discussed in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s influential An Introduction to Visual Culture, recently complemented by the same author’s The Visual Culture Reader, as well as Matthew Rampley’s Exploring Visual Culture. One feature of new scholarship is to move away from considering vision and viewing as a value-free and largely physiological phenomenon, and see these as socially constructed and historically contingent practices. Contemporary debates at the dawn of the millennium, found in Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright’s Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, centered on modern and contemporary art and media imagery; since then scholars across humanities disciplines have ever more frequently taken up the charge to look at historical practices of viewing.

Although these shifts in the larger field have been felt in much of the new scholarship on colonial Latin America, as early as 1995, Claire Farago’s edited volume, Reframing the Renaissance: Visual culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450–1650 used the lens of visual culture to study colonial works. Since then, scholars have considered how works (often non-canonical ones) functioned within wider viewing environments, as do Daniela Bleichmar’s Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment and Donna Pierce’s volume of essays, Festivals and Daily Life in the Arts of Colonial Latin America, 1492–1850. One inroad into the historically contingent practices of viewing and evaluating artworks has been through study of critical vocabulary, like that to be found in Nombrar y explicar: La terminología en el estudio del arte ibérico y latinoamericano, edited by Patricia Díaz Cayeros, Montserrat Galí Boadella, and Peter Krieger.

Although most of the work on visual culture has been disseminated through traditional means, a growing number of works are born digital. For instance, the journal Nuevo Mundo/Mundos Nuevos, which appears in multiple languages, is published only online. Increasingly, scholars are envisioning the digital as more than just a way of delivering content, they are using new computational methods to push research questions. For Latin America, the results will be seen in some of digital humanities projects that are under development, like the “Broken Paths to Freedom: Free Africans in Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Slave Society,” from Stanford University’s Spatial History Project. Projects dealing with the subfield of colonial Latin America visual culture are far fewer, and most are discussed in this article.

Primary Sources

For those interested in an overview on digital humanities, Digital_Humanities, edited by Anne Burdick and available in hard copy and as ebook, is a starting point. Essays in the journal published by the Visual Resources Association, VRA Bulletin cover important aspects of work on visual materials. The website Digital Humanities Now offers a broad view of the field and current developments, with an emphasis on academic scholarship. For more experimental work in the digital humanities produced by scholars, see the online journal, Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vector. All of these are published in English and have information relevant to digital scholarship on Latin American visual culture (although none of them focuses explicitly on colonial art or its history). To follow debates and keep abreast of events in the digital humanities, one can consult the Digital Library Federation, with Twitter feed for the DLF 2017 Forum. Valuable on this score also are the twitter feeds of the National Endowment of the Humanities, Office of Digital Humanities, and the feed of Bethany Nowviskie.

Two kinds of primary sources, museums and library databases, and online projects, are relevant to current work being done at the intersection of digital technologies and traditional research on visual culture in Spanish America. Over time, we expect this range to expand.

Selected Museum and Library Databases

Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Fundacion ILAM. This aggregator site brings together links to museums and other cultural organizations in Latin America.

The John Carter Brown Library.

Library of Congress. Digital Collections.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Museo Nacional de Arte de México.

Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI).

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Buenos Aires.

Further Reading

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series with John Berger. New York: Penguin, 1990. From a 1972 television show.Find this resource:

Bleichmar, Daniela. Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012.Find this resource:

Burdick, Anne, ed. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Díaz Cayeros, Patricia, Montserrat Galí Boadella, and Peter Krieger, eds. Nombrar y explicar: La terminología en el estudio del arte ibérico y latinoamericano. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2012.Find this resource:

Farago, Claire, ed. Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450–1650. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Visual Culture Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012.Find this resource:

Nuevo Mundo/Mundos Nuevos.

Pierce, Donna, ed. Festivals and Daily Life in the Arts of Colonial Latin America, 1492–1850. Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum, 2014.Find this resource:

Rampley, Matthew, ed. Exploring Visual Culture. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Williams, Daryle, and Erik Steiner. “Broken Paths to Freedom: Free Africans in Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Slave Society.” Stanford University, Spatial History Project.


(1.) These features of zoom technology are now widely recognized, so much so that they have begun to seem necessary, not merely advantageous in digital work.

(2.) The University of Oregon’s Mapas Project can be accessed here. See also Wood’s essay, “Digital Resources: Digital Mesoamerica.”

(3.) Florine Asselbergs, Conquered Conquistadors: The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan: A Nahua Vision of the Conquest of Guatemala (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2008). See also Laura Matthew, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

(4.) The Digital Codex Mendoza exists in both English and Spanish versions.

(5.) See the Guaman Poma Website for a digital edition of the manuscript

(6.) Examples include the GIS maps, created under the directorship of Anne Knowles, of General Lee at Gettsyburg, as well as the interpretive work published in Anne Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano, eds., Geographies of the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

(7.) Born-digital publications are also burgeoning: some, like Nuevo Mundo/Mundos Nuevos, appear in multiple languages.

(8.) A parallel situation transpires when some museums freely loan objects from their collections (or invest in conservation so that works are stable enough to travel), but others do not. Indeed, this is a dilemma that online publication has begun to remedy, but cannot fully resolve.

(9.) There are of course parallels to this in the world of online text publishing.

(10.) When it comes to books, collective initiatives, like the World Digital Library, which has put important manuscripts online from across the world, has begun to mitigate the influence of a cadre of wealthy libraries. But no such parallel site exists for objects and architecture.

(11.) An example of such a project would be the British Museum’s “History of the World in One Hundred Objects,” which includes podcasts and a website for people to upload and comment on objects they have found significant.

(12.) Mesolore, a resource for scholars and students of Mesoamerica.

(13.) In archeology, projects dealing with the pre-Columbian world and computer-aided collaborations are becoming more common. See, for instance, Projecto San Bartolo, being done on the Maya murals discovered at San Bartolo, Guatemala, and Chavín de Huántar Archeological Acoustics Project, as well as the documentation of Mexican archeological sites on the Paseos Virtuales page at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.