Digital Humanities for the Million


Portrait of Govard Bidloo, Gérard de Lairesse, 1690

by Lisa Rosner

Before there were “For Dummies” books, popularizers of abstruse yet fascinating topics gave us books “For the Million,” from Lawrence Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million to Martin Gardner’s eternally popular Relativity for the Million. The excitingly inventive world of digital humanities is now being brought “to the million” when scholarly and tech-savvy practitioners use an array of hardware, software, and just plain gadget-ware to investigate, interpret and present history, literature, philosophy, art, society and culture.

Located in a historic building in Philadelphia, The Mütter Museum attracts a steady stream of visitors to its exhibits in medical history. Describing its exhibits as “Disturbingly Informative,” the museum’s highlights include a collection of skulls and other body parts put together by physicians; a startlingly large and varied array of objects that were swallowed and subsequently removed from the human stomach; slides of Einstein’s brain; and the “Soap Lady,” a corpse turned to adipocere. The Mütter’s staff have gleefully embraced the opportunities for outreach created by YouTube and other social media, developing YouTube series entitled “Mütter Minutes” and “No Bones About it” to bring its collections to a smartphone-toting audience.

The Mütter Museum’s “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia” exhibit takes the use of digital humanities even further. Though Philadelphia was not the site of any Civil War battles, its high concentration of medical staff and ready access to railways and turnpikes made it a center for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers. The exhibit, guest curated by historian Jane Boyd, focuses on what happens to bodies during wartime, both the mental and physical aspects. Historical materials include anatomical specimens, including bones shattered by bullets, eyewitness accounts and photographs, chloroform bottles, and medical instruments. It also builds on the pioneering work of Philadelphia physician Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), one of the earliest physicians to study the phenomena of “phantom limbs”. As he treated amputation patients on both the battlefield and in hospitals, Dr. Mitchell observed that many claimed to be able to feel their missing limbs.  A prolific writer for both professional and lay audiences, he explored the science behind this experience in clinical case histories published as Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Wounds. He portrayed the emotional consequences in the short story “The Case of George Dedlow,” in which an army surgeon suffers amputation of both arms and legs during the Civil War, only to have his missing limbs appear as “phantoms” during a séance.

But how could this kind of experience really be brought home to a modern audience? How is it possible to put a museum visitor in the body of someone who has had an amputation, in a way that is convincing, yet respectful to the historical circumstances?

Image via The Mütter Museum

To address that issue, Dr. Boyd and the Mütter staff called upon Matthew Fisher and Philadelphia-based design studio Night Kitchen Interactive. The solution they came up with is borrowed in part from Victorian parlor tricks, the original “smoke and mirror” illusions, and in part from modern therapies for amputation patients. On walking through the exhibit, a visitor comes to a small room in the back, a black curtain covering the door. The visitor must specify gender, height and skin tone before drawing back the curtain to encounter an ornate, Victorian-style full length mirror. The visitor must stand in the proper part of the room, staring directly at the mirror – and possibly remembering Harry Potter’s encounter with the mirror of Erised. But what follows could not be anyone’s heart’s desire, as the viewer’s own arm disappears from the mirror. It is replaced, first, with images of an arm, wounded in battle, projected precisely at the point where the visitor’s own arm should be. As the visitor watches, she can see, projected on the reflection, the way the wounded arm deteriorates over time; what it looks like during the amputation process; and finally, how it appears when fitted with a clumsy artificial limb.

Image via Night Kitchen Interactive

The exhibit is beautifully executed, and visitors find it poignant and challenging in equal measure. In keeping with the Mütter’s mission, it is visceral, thought-provoking and impeccably researched. It recreates for its 21st century audience the mental and physical sensations – and sensationalism – of the Civil War’s impact on bodies. In that it is true to the spirit of Silas Weir Mitchell’s “George Dedlow”, when the protagonist, during the séance, hears the “irregular rapping” of two visitors from the spirit world who wished to speak to him. He signifies his interest, and these mysterious visitors communicated with the medium by means of the alphabet:

The spelling was pretty rapid, and ran thus as she tapped in turn, first the letters, and last the numbers she had already set down:—
The medium looked up with a puzzled expression.
“Good gracious!” said I, “they are my legs! my legs!
—S. Weir Mitchell, The Case of George Dedlow

The union of the humanities and the digital world is full of promise for scholars and popular audiences alike, beyond the corridors of colleges and universities where digital humanist discussions require a degree of geek-friendliness that has not yet extended to the million, or even to the thousand.

About the Author:

Lisa Rosner is Distinguished Professor of History at Stockton College. She is the author of The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes.