Surveying Experts for Culturally-Informed Search Strategies

The Rhizomes team has been busy with qualitative investigations of search strategies related to Mexican American art.

Co-directors, Connie Cortez (UTRGV) and Karen Mary Davalos (UMN), along with project manager, Mary Thomas, organized a series of activities directed at uncovering search strategies. Since conventional strategies obscure or render invisible the art attributed to people of Mexican heritage, our goal was to explore how these essential culturally-informed search strategies might improve the discovery of Mexican American art. Rhizomes not only recognizes the knowledge of experts (including those with lived experience), but it will also reconcile conventional codes and Euro-centric classifications with culturally-informed descriptions of Mexican American art. Such a process will also insure that novices and the general public will also be able to effectively use Rhizomes.

First Convening in October 2019

With this in mind, we invited scholars, librarians, archivists, digital humanists, curators, and arts educators of Mexican American/Chicanx art to Minneapolis in October 2019 to gather and observe their search strategies as content-experts.
We gathered together over twenty-five content-experts and analyzed how they search for, describe, and categorize art. This group was mostly comprised of the National Advisory Council but also included some of the most important curators and stewards of significant collections of Mexican American art, such as Cesareo Moreno and Rebecca Meyers from the National Museum of Mexican Art (Chicago, Illinois), Tey Mariana Nunn from the National Hispanic Cultural Center (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Rebecca Gomez from the Mexic-Arte Museum (Austin, Texas), and E. Carmen Ramos from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.). In addition to activities designed to illuminate how content-experts search for Mexican American art, Mary Thomas also created a visual tool with fourteen images that allowed the group to examine vocabularies and cultural-codes that experts employ when describing and contextualizing Mexican American art. With this visual tool, the group worked in homogeneous teams—all curators in one group and all arts educators in another group, for example—and heterogeneous groups. The heterogeneous groups revealed unconscious biases and intuitive processes, whereas homogeneous groups formed descriptors that allow additional contextualization. The two-day meeting was revelatory and indeed lively.

Sample from Visual Tool

For example, the image below was used to elicit qualitative data about works of art without an identified creator and objects created during the late 19th or early 20th century. We asked that the groups share terms, words, or phrases that they would use to describe the piece, along with any thoughts on how they might use it in the classroom. We encouraged them to consider descriptions for content, style, medium, history, theme, etc.
Marcoi
Isleta Tin Workshop.
Tin, paint, glass, photo, solder. 1890-1910.
9 1/4” x 11 1/8.” Museum of International Folk Art.

Word-Clouds for Immediate Feedback

At regular intervals, we shared the results with the entire group to further enhance our findings. These conversations were very rich and proved extremely valuable. Using ChimeIn2, a classroom tool developed by Colin McFadden (UMN, LATIS), we presented the data in word-clouds, a text-image that gives greater size to words that appear more frequently in the source.
At the end of the exercise, word-clouds were projected for the participants, which allowed for immediate sharing of results and preliminary, intuitive assessment. The sharing and immediate quantification of the results spurred rich and vigorous discussion, which we captured as additional qualitative information about search strategies, descriptors, and vocabularies. ChimeIn2 also allows for refinement by eliminating words that participants agree are insignificant, such as “help” or “use.” The refined word-clouds also generated discussion and relevant data, as new words received greater size and thus weight.
Rolando Briseño. Twin Tortilla Towers. Tortillas, chile, steel. 2002. Dimensions: 28” x 16” x 14.”
Original word-cloud regarding Briseño’s Twin Tortilla Towers.

Our Findings

In general, we found that content-experts use:
  • period- and geography-specific terms (i.e. Hispano, tejano, tejana, and Californio);
  • historical themes, time periods, or events (i.e. US imperialism, Manifest Destiny, and US-Mexico War);
  • regional names of places (Aztlán, Nuevo México, borderlands, US-Mexico border, and The Rio Grande Valley);
  • culturally-informed styles (i.e. domesticana, rasquache, mestizaje, borderlands, tortilla art, punkero) and American art styles;
  • culturally-informed forms of art (i.e. santero, piñata, and paper fashions); materials and geographic origins of materials (corn, wood, and wool from Rio-Grande Valley) and;
  • critical concepts (i.e. colonialism, settler colonialism, racism, and sexism).
Most importantly, content-experts expect search strategies to indicate relationships between content, networks of artists, artist collectives, exhibition webs, social movements, and other works of art. We also learned that experts search using “first-degree terms” (i.e. artist name, style, period, year, collection, medium, artwork title, subject, theme) and second-degree terms (i.e. aesthetic influences, material referenced in the work, contemporaries, techniques, exhibition venue). These findings reveal that the affiliated metadata of the first- and second-degree terms are more comprehensive than “tombstone” information (i.e. artist name, year, medium, and artwork title) shared by most mainstream museums. These findings inform how we design Rhizomes and its search capabilities.

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