Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1998
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H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

Centuries-old tapestries return to Peabody... "A Doll House," richly done... preserving Cuba's patrimony... on-line journals pay off

A triumphal return

An old friend has returned to Peabody Conservatory: Scipio Africanus the Elder.

The image of the Roman general, woven into the tapestry "The Triumphal Carriage," is back on the wall of what used to be Peabody's North Hall. The tapestry came down in 1980 for cleaning and repair, and went back up in September as part of the renovation of what is now named Griswold Hall. It graces the room along with Peabody's massive new three-story Holtkamp pipe organ.

A magisterial ride back home to Rome for Scipio
The tapestry, part of Peabody's art collection, is owned by the Maryland Commission on Artistic Properties of the Maryland State Archives. Along with a smaller companion piece, it was donated to the conservatory in 1961 by the Hearst Foundation.

The tapestries were created in the mid-to-late 1500s by the Flemish master weaver Heinrich Mattens for the king of Spain. Over the larger tapestry's expanse of 13-1/2 feet by 29 feet, Mattens portrayed the triumphant return to Rome of Scipio, after his defeat of the Carthaginian Hannibal. Scipio rides magisterially on a throne atop a carriage. More than a dozen Roman officers, standardbearers, and soldiers accompany him, carrying booty and leading bound captives. Around a bend in the road is the gateway to Rome, and in the distance are the hills of the city. Executed in greens, browns, blues, and ochers, the tableau is charged with a muscular energy.

Repairing the tapestry, and its smaller counterpart that will hang in Leakin Hall, has been the project of private conservator Julia Woodward Dippold, who has worked on them off and on for 18 years. "I truly enjoyed these pieces," she says. "The quality of the weaving is superb."

She describes working on a section involving the hands of the prisoners of war: "I had taken all the old repairs out and cleaned the area up, and had started stitching it back together again. It was like focusing a camera. With each additional slit, as it closed up, this nondescript blob came back to a very distinct hand with fingernails and joints."

Several things deteriorate any old, large tapestry. Light, humidity, handling, and the stress of hanging fade and soil the colors, tarnish the metal threads employed by the weavers, and cause the tapestry to pull apart. Says Dippold, "Textiles are something that people love to touch, and it's absolutely the worst thing in the world that you can do, because there's abrasion, and transfer of oil from the hands. I must wash my hands 15 times a day [when working on a tapestry]."

The prolonged "rest" has been good for the piece, Dippold says: "It's a Catch-22. It's not good for a tapestry to hang for a long period of time, but you can't take it down and put it up, take it down and put it up. The handling is as bad if not worse than long-term exhibition."

The tapestry's warp, its horizontal threads, is wool and provides structural support; silk, wool, silver, and gold compose the weft, the vertical threads. Dippold spent much of her time conserving the structural soundness of the piece. The tapestry was remarkably intact, she says, in part because of the large volume of gold and silver thread that provides support within the weft. One of her principal tasks was to resew the slits between the end of one area of color and the beginning of another. Over time these slits come apart and must be repaired, work that used to be done in the weaver's workroom as part of regular maintenance. Dippold also cleaned the piece, using a special light-suction vacuum.

The piece retains much of its original aspect, Dippold says. The biggest change wrought by time and the elements has been the tarnishing of its silver thread. This is most noticeable on the rumps of the procession's horses. "When it was originally done," she says, "all of the silver would have just been gleaming."

Dippold worked by hand, inch by painstaking inch. Only a fraction of the work was visible at a time. After the tapestry went back up on the wall, she says, "It was nice to see the whole thing again."

As large as it is, "The Triumphal Carriage" weighs only 200 pounds, Dippold estimates. And how does one affix a 16th-century tapestry to the wall? By means of a 20th-century invention: Velcro. --DK

Building a better "Doll House"

Since it was written 120 years ago, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House (or A Doll's House--pick your translation) has had life on the page, the stage, movie screens, and television. A group of Hopkins faculty and students now has applied information technology to combine all those media on a CD-ROM. Titled A Doll House, the compact disk presents the text of the play within a rich context of historical information, critical commentary, and varied theatrical and cinematic productions. The CD-ROM is the first of the Johns Hopkins University Digital Drama Series.

"We wanted to address the long-standing problem in teaching drama: the divorce of text from performance. Instead of just glamorizing a literary text, we wanted to go to the crux of a problem for all teachers of drama," explains English professor Jerome Christensen, who collaborated on the project with Michael Kohler, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature (now at SUNY-Binghamton), and Harry Goldberg, a senior lecturer in biology who also has a degree in computer science.

Christensen and Goldberg are co-directors of the Hopkins Center for Digital Media Research and Development, which produced the disk. Funding came from the Annenberg/CPB Project, which is marketing the CD-ROM to high school, college, and continuing education students for $39.95.

When the user launches the disk, the image of a stage appears on the screen. In the foreground, atop a desk, is a director's prompt book. Click on the book and the text of the play appears. Also on the desk is a stack of books; clicking there takes the viewer to the library, where one can read critical commentary, reviews of past performances, and historical documents.

The user also can explore a dramaturge's office, which contains, letters, biographical information, and notes Ibsen made while planning the play. A design archive exhibits photographs of costumes and set designs used in a variety of performances, from Vienna in 1889 to Baltimore in 1992. One scene in the play has characters dancing a tarantelle; click on the image of a cassette, and an orchestra plays a tarantelle.

The opening image of the theater includes a pair of actors rehearsing on the stage; clicking on them provides access to more than 70 minutes of video. There are scenes of each of the play's three acts, from a trio of productions: a 1973 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Claire Bloom, another 1973 film, this one with Jane Fonda and David Warner, and a 1991 BBC television production featuring Juliet Stevenson and Trevor Eve. The user can compare how different directors have staged the domestic drama of the Torvald family, torn apart by Helmer Torvald's response to his wife Nora's financial fraud, a fraud perpetrated years earlier to save his life.

For the center's first major project, Goldberg and Christensen turned to students in Goldberg's computing class--a widely varied bunch. Computer science students worked alongside students of art history, biology, and English.

"For a while," says Goldberg, "the computer scientists took the view, 'How can a student of humanities tell me that I'm wrong? This is what I've been trained to do!' But then everyone came to appreciate what everyone else brought to the table. Essentially the whole class hierarchy was broken down and recreated." -- DK

A pioneering project puts journals online

Project Muse has proved inspirational--to some.

The online journal publishing project has outlived its initial start-up grant, and become self-sufficient. In its fourth year, the database of 47 scholarly journals, all published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, lists 580 subscribers--far more than the 125 projected a few years ago.

The Press now sells online versions of its humanities journals to libraries at private universities; two-year colleges; and such state university systems as Virginia, Ohio, and California.

"Through Project Muse, we are reaching a wider market than we do with print journals. Instead of one journal being read by one person at one time, the [online] journal is available to an entire community," says Marie Hansen, Project Muse director.

Launched in 1995 as a joint effort of the Hopkins Press and Hopkins's Milton S. Eisenhower Library, the idea won $720,000 in funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Back in '95, no one knew quite what to expect from online publications. Would people read scholarly works off a computer screen? Here's the gist of what Project Muse and a handful of other online scholarly journal publishers have found: For quick research, yes. For more leisurely journal reading, not really.

On-line journals "provide faster, more efficient delivery. People can search a wider range of materials by keyword, by author, or subject," Hansen says. Current online titles include The Emily Dickinson Journal, Literature and Medicine, The Yale Journal of Criticism, and Human Rights Quarterly.

There have been hurdles: Some humanities scholars are slower to switch to online journals than their science counterparts, and fears of new technology have prompted some grumbling (both within the Press and among journal contributors and subscribers). One of the strictly online journals, Theory and Event, has yet to catch on.

A full subscription to the database costs about $2,900 a year-- the cost of a single print journal, in some cases, Hansen notes, which has made it possible for more libraries to offer their readers access to the journals.

What's next for online offerings? The Press has published two books online, a scholarly encyclopedia Walker's Mammals of the World and The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, which so far have just a handful of subscribers. And the Press may expand Project Muse to include journals published by other university presses. --JPC

Written by Joanne P. Cavanaugh and Dale Keiger.