MIT Visualizing Cultures
About Visualizing Cultures
MIT Visualizing Cultures
Massachusetts Institute of Technology © 2013 Visualizing Cultures

What is Visualizing Cultures?

Visualizing Cultures weds images and scholarly commentary in innovative ways to illuminate social and cultural history. Founded in 2002 by MIT Professors John Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa, Visualizing Cultures exploits the unique qualities of the Web as a publishing platform to enable scholars, teachers, and others to: (1) examine large bodies of previously inaccessible images; (2) compose original texts with unlimited numbers of full-color, high-resolution images; and (3) use new technology to explore unprecedented ways of analyzing and presenting images that open windows on modern history.

Visualizing Cultures has positioned itself as a nexus between the institutions that house image collections and the scholars who would like to use them for research purposes. Publishing on MIT’s revolutionary OpenCourseWare—making MIT courses freely available on the Web—Visualizing Cultures has worked with many institutions to negotiate online publication of images for educational purposes using a creative commons license.

Visualizing Cultures Units

This website offers a growing number of titles referred to as “units.” This first, pioneering set of units visualizes diverse aspects of Japan in the modern world. Units in development move into China and beyond. Choose from the list of current titles on the VC Units Menu.

Navigating the Site

Units are generally comprised of four sections:

A topical essay written by a Visualizing Cultures scholar and driven by the visuals themselves features full-color images, often enlarged to reveal telling details. Images are isolated and juxtaposed to highlight diverse perspectives and points. Reading images involves asking who the artists are, when they worked, what mediums they used, and how the audiences of the times responded to them.

Visual Narratives
Graphics dominate the Visual Narratives. Themes from the essay as well as pathways and details within the image collection are explored visually in many different ways—series, close ups, recurring visual motifs, juxtapositions, changing media, and so forth—with a minimum of text.

Image Database (Gallery and VCID)
Each unit has a database that features every image in the essay, plus many more. The database generally takes the form of a simple view (Gallery) that enables users to easily scroll through the collection of source images. Some units feature a more complex database (VCID) with a federated search function that hooks directly into museum databases. All databases include at least basic metadata.

Video and Animation (VCTV)
Visualizing Cultures has more than a hundred short clips that include author commentaries, interviews, tours, animation, and archival source footage. Video is also downloadable for the iPod on iTunes U.

On Viewing Images From the Historical Record

Visualizing Cultures is a gateway to seeing history through images that once had wide circulation among peoples of different times and places. We do historical research this way as scholars to better understand how people saw themselves, how they saw others including foreigners and enemies, and how in turn others saw them. Visualizing Cultures presents images from the historical record uncensored. It is not an art-history or art-appreciation site. Displaying images from the historical record does not represent an endorsement of their content. (More.)

The Team

The founders and directors of Visualizing Cultures are MIT professors John W. Dower, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian whose scholarship includes close attention to visual materials, and Shigeru Miyagawa, who holds a joint appointment in linguistics and Japanese language and culture, and is a pioneer in the production and use of digital media for education.

Multimedia specialists Ellen Sebring (MIT ’86) and Scott Shunk have conceived and designed the project’s structure and “look and feel” from its inception in 2002. Sebring, Creative Director, designs the Essays, develops the Visual Narratives and adjunct video, and works with authors embarking on a Visualizing Cultures unit. Shunk, Program Director, is the liaison with the partner institutions, authors, and teachers, and develops outreach for the project. Andrew Burstein creates graphic, multimedia, and animation elements.

John W. Dower, Founder & Project Director
Shigeru Miyagawa, Founder & Project Director
Ellen Sebring, Creative Director
Scott Shunk, Program Director
Andrew Burstein, Media Designer

Professor Miyagawa, Sebring, and Shunk previously worked on StarFestival, a multimedia
presentation about a festival in Japan.

Scholars who have authored units on Visualizing Cultures
(in order of appearance on the site):

Peter C. Perdue (Yale University)
Lilian M. Li (Swarthmore College)
John W. Dower (MIT)
Allen Hockley (Dartmouth College)
Alona C. Wilson (Former curator, Smith College Museum of Art)
Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley (San Francisco State University)
Jeffrey Wasserstrom (University of California, Irvine) (units in production)
Rebecca Nedostup (Brown University) (units in production)
Christopher Capozzola (MIT)
Ellen Sebring (MIT) (units in production)
David Hogge (curator and head of the Freer and Sackler Archives, Washington DC)
Andrew Gordon (Harvard University)
Gennifer Weisenfeld (Duke University)
Christopher Gerteis (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
James T. Ulak (Smithsonian Institution)
John A. Crespi (Colgate University)
Akihiro Takahashi (Hiroshima survivor)
Linda Hoaglund (New Day Educational Filmmaker)
Justin Jesty (University of Washington)

Secondary School Curriculum
Extensive secondary school curriculum was developed for Visualizing Cultures by educational experts and is available on the site. Workshops and teaching training is actively carried out and the materials are being taught in many schools and used in universities. The units have become widely-used educational resources for secondary school educators, drawing on the site’s curricula, and higher education academics alike. In 2011, the Canton Trade unit won the Franklin R. Buchanan prize from the Association of Asian Studies for best curricular materials concerning Asia.

Scholars who have developed curricula on Visualizing Cultures
(in order of appearance on the site):

Lynn Parisi
Meredith Melzer
Kathy Krauth
Karen Johnson & Patty Koller

Partner Institutions
The following institutions have generously opened their archives to Visualizing Cultures and provided images from their collections for publication on the website:

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Colgate University Library
Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Hamaya Hiroshi Archive
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Honolulu Academy of Arts
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Ohara Institute for Social Research, Hosei University
Peabody Essex Museum
Ryosenji Treasure Museum
Shiseido Corporation
Smith College Museum of Art
The Wolfsonian-Florida International University

Additional Contributing Institutions:
Allentown Art Museum
Bard Graduate Center
Chicago Historical Society
Chrysler Museum of Art
George Eastman House
Harvard University
Honolulu Bishop Museum
Kobe City Museum
Library of Congress
Nagasaki Municipal Museum
Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum
New Bedford Whaling Museum
Shimura Toyoshiro collection
Shiryo Hensanjo, University of Tokyo
Tokyo National Museum
US Naval Academy Museum
US Naval Historical Center
White House Historical Association
Yokohama Archives of History
Yokohama Museum of Art


MIT Visualizing Cultures received generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Getty Foundation, the Japan Foundation's Council for Global Partnership, the National Endowment for the Humanities, MIT's d'Arbeloff Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, and MIT's Microsoft-funded iCampus project.

OpenCourseWare (OCW)

Visualizing Cultures represents a substantive offshoot of MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative to make pedagogical and scholarly content freely and widely available. Professor Miyagawa was a member of the committee that first developed this groundbreaking project, which has inspired counterpart initiatives on the Web worldwide.
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