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Museums and herbarium books available online

Good news for researchers who’ve been missing easy access to rare and special books in the Museums and Herbarium Collections: they’ve now been digitized and made available online via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

The project was initiated back in 2019, after the university had moved all of its museum and specimen collections to a facility equipped to preserve and store them, along with the related library collections that had always resided nearby for the convenience of the researchers who needed them.

But not all the books made that journey.

The new location at the Research Museums Center on Varsity Drive — which holds the collections of the Anthropological Archaeology, Herbarium, Paleontology, and Zoology Museums  — didn’t offer preservation-grade space for rare and fragile books, some of which date back to the 18th century. Those books were placed in a remote facility better equipped to preserve them, and are available on request for viewing in the Research Museums Center.

Passiflora, The Ladies Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants by Mrs. Loudon, 1849.

To enable more immediate access to these materials, Scott Martin, biological sciences librarian, teamed up with digital conversion specialists Lara Unger and Larry Wentzel to obtain a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

The project would have been completed in 2021, but as with so many other things it was delayed by the pandemic.

“When COVID arrived in earnest in March 2020, it derailed us on multiple levels: the shutdown of campus operations prevented us from accessing the materials, and once we resumed, the project took a back seat to digitizing materials for remote instruction,” Martin explained. “Meanwhile, our preferred scanning vendor was also affected by a prolonged operational shutdown, so by the end of 2020, none of the materials had yet been scanned.”

The work was finally completed earlier this year after a one-year extension of the grant period.

Collection highlights

The project’s benefits extend well beyond the University of Michigan, because many of the newly-digitized books are quite rare. Martin recalls a request from a medical team preparing for surgery on a zoo elephant in North Carolina suffering from an impacted tusk, and seeking a book called The Elephant’s Head, a rare volume whose images could help them plan the procedure. At the time, the library was able to provide high-resolution scans of the relevant images; now, a high-resolution scan of the entire volume is available online to everyone.

The Elephant’s Head: Studies in the comparative anatomy of the organs of the head of the Indian elephant and other mammals, plate 20, J.E.V. Boas and Simon Paulli, 1925.

In fact, many of the items contain beautiful illustrated plates — some of them hand-colored — of a vast range of flora, fauna, and ethnological subjects that everyone can see, download, and reuse. (A necessary caveat: while most of the newly-scanned collection is in the public domain, some in-copyright volumes, which are search-only online, were scanned for the sake of completeness and their eventual entry into the public domain.)

To find items of interest in the collection, you can search the entire collection in HathiTrust, or filter your search by subject, author, format, and other categories. Local favorites include The Ladies’ Flower-garden volumes by Mrs. Loudon; 49 volumes of photographs & pictorial works; and a 19th-century illustrated herpetology atlas.

Herpetology Atlas by Charles Frédéric Girard, 1858.

Ph.D. dissertations provide inspiration for artist

Alison Rivett would love nothing more than to make the arts accessible to more people.

That’s a large part of her role as associate director of the university’s Arts Initiative, but it’s also the guiding principle behind her latest efforts: illustrations based on Ph.D. dissertations.

Alison Rivett

Alison Rivett

Dissertations are not the most natural form of inspiration for art, and Rivett relishes the challenge.

“I was interested in text and image, since my time as a grad student here at the Stamps School of Art & Design,” she said. “I’ve only done a few from this series based on dissertations, but I want it to become my life’s work, especially at a place like U-M. I am interested in art for an audience of one, but very personally meaningful to that person.”

She completed her first one in 2019, a painting inspired by an analysis of the papyrus collection at U-M. Rivett was with the International Institute at the time and a colleague wanted to gift her partner something visual from his scholarly work in the classics department.

She chose a Greek-language papyrus letter to illustrate.

“I found the one I thought was the most visual, and it was a letter from a husband to his wife telling her to pack up the household and come,” she said. “He has found the place they were going to be living and all the things she needs to bring with her, which were trunks of clothing, 12 jars of olives, his three best men, and a few sheep.

“Taking it literally, I’m showing the woman carrying all this stuff on her own on a big platform — even though he probably did not intend that, it would have been difficult for her to move an entire household. I often look for what a textual description leaves out, or assumes.”

She also recently completed another piece inspired by an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards, which were hand-painted in Italy in the mid-15th century.

Alison Rivett made this painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards.

Rivett’s painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards

“The illustration I created combines frescoes referred to in the dissertation, and juxtaposes them with people mentioned in the textual evidence,” she said. “This one was great to work on because I love painting patterns-on-patterns.”

The finished product was gifted to the recipient as part of a “secret Santa” exchange.

The other painting she completed was about linguistic anthropology for a friend who wanted a gift for her Ph.D. adviser. The subject was the Wolof language in Senegal. She said she’s about to start another one based on an anthropology dissertation.

“I say part of the gift is I read the entire dissertation, and the joke is, they say, ‘You’re the second person who’s ever read this,’” she said. “I note the passages you can see in your mind’s eye that seem to suggest a setting.”

Rivett created this painting based on a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal.

Rivett’s painting from a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal

Rivett’s sense of humor shines through in her illustrations, and she believes that helps open the arts to a wider audience.

“Even when I try to do paintings that are straightforward, they end up being kind of funny, and that’s one way I see the arts being more accessible,” she said. “If you can laugh at it a little, it takes away some of this gatekeeping idea that art has to be about the sublime or it’s only for people who are insiders and go to galleries every week.

“When I was a student here, even classmates pursuing Ph.D.s were intimidated by art. They thought they did not have enough training to access or appreciate it fully. I think of that a lot now as we at the Arts Initiative think about how more students at the university can participate in art making.”

Rivett is an art consumer in addition to being a creator. She said her favorite exhibit each year is the Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners through the Prison Creative Arts Project. The exhibit closed last week.

She said she enjoys visiting museums that are off the beaten path, inspired by her time as a museum studies student at U-M, and she holds the distinction of being the second paid employee of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall.

She also said she enjoys checking out local estate sales on weekends and has come away from many of those with unique finds.

“I went to an estate sale that had a set of scrapbooks,” she said. “I found that all of them, 10 or 12, were filled with images of cats found from various sources — newspapers, greeting cards, and even Morris the Cat from cat food containers. I bought five of them.

“When confronted by incredulous friends, who see these as ‘trash’ not ‘treasure,’ I point out that these are pre-internet Google images. If we wanted to have images of things, we had to work hard to find them and collect them. And, particularly because these are images of cats, and some say the internet mostly exists as a platform to share images of cats, I think these are, really, an early version of the internet.”

U-M program reshapes undergrad research

The curiosity and passion for understanding the use of literary expressions as nonviolent resistance brought together University of Michigan professor Samer Ali and student Elizabeth Tower.

After Tower, a junior majoring in international studies, took Ali’s class on peace and nonviolence in Islamic cultures, she wanted to dive deeper into Arabic art forms, such as music, poetry, film and more. Their similar research interests connected them and a mentor-mentee journey began.

Ali then suggested Tower join the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, so they would have up to two years to develop a research project and the resources to build it. She jumped all in and next week will share their experience working together at UROP’s annual research symposium April 20.

“Mentoring is usually one-on-one and one of the best types of teaching,” said Ali, associate professor of Middle East studies. “It’s very practice-oriented, and we’re addressing problems, talking about the trade-offs that go with each solution. I learned how to teach using the philosophy of John Dewey, “learning by doing” and then engaging the mind, body, and heart of the whole human being.”

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower Image credit: Sean Carter

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower. Image credit: Sean Carter. 

Ali and Tower have been working together for the past two years. Their research falls under a broader umbrella: nonviolence in Arabic-Islamic cultures.

“It’s the capacity of human and literary expressions to transform social reality in a nonviolent way,” Ali said. “It’s nonviolence and the idea of creative resistance to injustice.”

Tower’s work intends to demonstrate that Palestinian hip-hop is a multimedia cultural movement that blends multiple forms of art at every possible stage: inspiration, production and integration into society.

“As a genre characterized by intermediality and multifunctionality, Palestinian hip-hop transcends cultural, social and political boundaries to offer everyone an access point to resistance,” Tower said. “This research helps us understand how creative work—when coupled with resistance and characterized by intermediality—straddles the boundaries between art, politics, news media and education to make a widely accessible form of creative resistance.”For Tower, the most valuable part of being a UROP student is the mentorship relationship.

“Professor Ali has not only guided me through my research, but he has spent endless time helping me as a writer,” Tower said. “He’s also looked for opportunities for me to present my research and to network with other scholars. It has just enriched this experience for me as a student and as a scholar.”

In its 34th edition, the UROP symposium, which has about 58,000 alumni, celebrates the partnerships created between students and research mentors.

It is a capstone project for more than 1,000 undergraduate students—from arts and Humanities, engineering and environmental sciences to physical sciences, public health and social sciences—conducting research around campus. They will present in a hybrid format this year, returning to in-person research presentations at the Michigan League.

“Seeing all the research posters, listening to students present their work, and all the energy and excitement in one space will be exciting,” said program director Michelle Ferrez. “Many of our undergraduate researchers have been looking forward to this opportunity. It is always a rewarding time for the UROP staff and research mentors to see how much a student has developed and grown in the past year.”

For Ferrez, research and scholarship are how the academic community communicates with the world and, therefore, the contributions from research go well beyond the academy.

“Engaging undergraduate students in research helps them mature as thinkers and doers,” she said. “Research is all about finding an interesting question or scenario and not knowing the answer. In addition, it provides students with an invaluable networking experience. It is those connections and skills they will be able to apply in the future.”

Investigating math learning and teaching

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students. Image credit: Sean Carter

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students. Image credit: Sean Carter.

Vilma Mesa, U-M professor of education and mathematics, has mentored 20 UROP students since 2004. This year, she is working with four students to investigate mathematics teaching at community colleges.

Duo Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao spent the last year analyzing qualitative data and calculations to determine how students and instructors use open-access textbooks in college. Another piece of the research is to understand how they can develop textbooks that will improve teaching and learning.

“My UROP researchers are helping us understand the connections between the use of some specific textbook features by college students and how teachers work with these textbooks,” Mesa said. “We have an extensive project that allows us to map and track the viewing of textbooks, and we have identified ways in which teachers and students view particular features.”

During next week’s symposium, Burley-Sanford and Hao will talk about their experience working on this project and discuss some of their findings.

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao. Image courtesy: Vilma Mesa

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao. Image courtesy: Vilma Mesa.

“We found interesting differences across our teachers in using one of the textbook features and also differences in the versatility their students describe as using the same feature,” Hao said. “Some instructors use the feature only for planning or only during instruction; using the feature during instruction seems to prompt more students to use the feature to learn the material more.”

With this information, the team believes it can demonstrate that the feature does fulfill the purposes for which it was created.

“Faculty who use the feature for planning and instruction do not see the need to use it for student assessment,” Mesa said. “Adding this component to the feature would be an unnecessary use of resources.”

Burley-Sanford said that once she started the project, she felt overwhelmed and underprepared.

“That is where a great mentor can step in,” she said. “Professor Mesa has been an inspiration and has helped shape my academic experience. I have learned valuable skills that will benefit me both in academia and in life, such as critically thinking about something and analyzing information.

“The best part about having a mentor became clear when she encouraged me not to give up.”

Prison artwork live again after 2 years of digital versions

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project presents the 26th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, the largest exhibition in the world of its kind.

“Falling Down Locked Up,” Ink & Colored Pencil. Image credit: Tyler Gaastra

The free, public exhibition highlights the work of 392 artists from 26 state correctional facilities in Michigan. It features 714 paintings, drawings and three-dimensional works. 

After two years of not being able to meet the artists in person (the 2020 show was canceled and last year’s exhibition was virtual), PCAP staff and volunteers had strong reactions to reconnecting with them.

“There was no greater joy I experienced this year than visiting artists in prison,” said PCAP Director Nora Krinitsky. “Despite everything, PCAP artists have persevered and they continue to create works of great ingenuity, nuance, thoughtfulness and playfulness. I’m humbled by it.” 

For Krinitsky, art selection trips to each facility are at the heart of the exhibition because this is when powerful dialogue happens between artists and volunteers. 

MSW graduate Emily Cole was among the group of U-M students, staff, faculty, community members and local artists who traveled to all 26 participating prisons in Michigan in search of the best works of art created.

“I learned a great deal about what inspires their work, such as their family, passions outside of art, and the goals that they have set for themselves in the future,” Cole said.

The show features diversity of both artists and artistic choices. Artists range from 18 to 80 years old, men and women from across the state with diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most pieces are for sale, with proceeds going directly to the artists.

Last year, almost half of the 823 pieces were sold, generating $28,945 in just two weeks. There is a broad array of artistic media and subject matter, including landscapes, portraits, prison scenes and political statements. 

“Many artists chose to respond visually to several topics that currently dominate the news and public discourse,” said curator Charlie Michaels. “They include emotional and thoughtful reflections on isolation and COVID-19, on the American political landscape, and personal perspectives on race and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

  • "At our Wit's End," Paint. Image credit: Serge Tkachenko
  • "Curiosity Built the World," Acrylic. Image credit: Albert Kakosky III
  • "Even in the Dark, There's Beauty," Acrylic. Image credit: Daniel Teribery
  • “3 Dodo Birds, Acrylic. Image credit: Darryl Rattew

Senior curator Janie Paul started the Annual Exhibition in 1996 with her husband and PCAP founder Buzz Alexander. Paul, a community-based artist and U-M professor emerita whose primary focus is the capacity of visual meaning-creation as a vehicle for social change, has been bringing art from prisons across the state to campus each year.  

Paul and Alexander traveled to 16 prisons in Michigan to collect art for the first show in 1996. 

"We were just mind-blown by the work," Paul said. "We discovered it was such an important event both for the artists inside and for the community. It brought us all together."

The exhibition is at the Duderstadt Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd. on U-M's North Campus March 22-April 5. Gallery hours are noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 

The opening celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. March 22. It features speakers from U-M and the Michigan Department of Corrections, artists from previous exhibitions and a performance by the U-M Out of the Blue choir. 

Oboe professor runs a marathon in every state

Nancy Ambrose King traveled in January to Hawaii to run in the Maui Oceanfront Marathon.

When she crossed the finish line, she completed a goal that was years in the making: running a marathon in each of the 50 states.

Nancy Ambrose King.

“It was really thrilling, and maybe even a little bittersweet,” King said. “I had been working toward that moment for nine years. Overall, it was just a really exciting morning, and I was happy that I accomplished what I’d planned to do.”

King, professor of oboe in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, picked up running as a hobby in her mid-40s when her neighbor invited her to join a local 10K race.

King discovered she loved the way running made her feel, both physically and mentally. That first race led to others, and running became a regular part of her routine.

As her 50th birthday approached, King thought participating in a marathon would be a fun way to mark the milestone. That year’s annual Detroit Free Press Marathon happened to fall on the same weekend as her 50th birthday.

“I thoroughly expected it to be the first and last marathon I ever ran. But six months later, I did one in Cleveland,” King said, “and just kept running.”

King learned about the 50 States Marathon Club, a nonprofit organization whose members share the common goal of running marathons in all 50 states. People are eligible for membership after they’ve run 10 marathons in 10 states.

King decided to try to complete all 50 marathons before she turned 60. She started signing up for marathons across the country and launched a vigorous training schedule.

“I’m a goal-oriented person,” she said. “It’s sometimes not that much fun to get up in the morning and go running when it’s snowing and 5 degrees below zero, or 95 and hot and humid.

“It’s easy when you’re only accountable to yourself to take a day off or a week off. I felt the goal of having a marathon coming up held me accountable to getting out there every day and running.”

King ran as many as nine marathons a year. To train, she ran 45 miles a week divided into short runs on weekdays and longer runs on weekends.

The medals earned by Nancy Ambrose King, who completed a marathon in all 50 states.

“I really found that (running) is a time that I could have completely to myself and my thoughts,” she said. “I would come up with really good ideas and projects. It was just an hour or a few hours that I would be out there unreachable for the most part, and I found it to be a creative time mentally. Physically, I like the way I feel when I’m in good shape.”

At first, finding marathons was easy. But King had only a few states left when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing her to get creative with her schedule as she scurried to locate replacement races for ones that had been canceled.

She said one of her most memorable races was in Boston in 2015, two years after the Boston Marathon bombing. She also loved the scenery during a race in the mountains above Seattle.

“Even though a lot of the marathons I did were big-city marathons, some of the most memorable were in the small towns that I never would have had the opportunity to visit if they weren’t the destination for a marathon in their state,” she said.

King always knew the final marathon in her goal would be in Hawaii.

“It’s just such a beautiful destination,” she said. “I knew it would be a great trip to celebrate the project’s completion and share that moment with my family.”

On Jan. 16, King’s husband, two sons and their girlfriends, her neighbor, her neighbor’s family and even a couple former students who are living in Hawaii were there to cheer her on.

She said she hasn’t yet decided what her new running goal will be. She plans to participate in some half-marathons and recently picked up a new sport: golf.

King has actually exceeded her 50-marathon goal. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2014 in Washington, D.C., bringing her total to 51.

“If Washington, D.C., ever becomes a state, I have it covered,” she said.

Nancy Ambrose King playing Danse (Sigillum Saturni) by Dirk-Michael Kirsch.


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

Each time one of my students achieves a great milestone or is recognized for their effort and ability is a memorable experience for me. I am so fortunate to work with students who are among the finest musicians in the nation, and it is truly a privilege to guide them through their career.

What can’t you live without?

Definitely my family. My husband and two sons are my biggest supporters. And my daily New York Times crossword puzzle!

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Hill Auditorium. I have so many memories of performances I’ve played on that stage and amazing concerts I’ve heard as an audience member, going back to my days as a student here in the early ’80s until the present day. It’s a jewel on our campus.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by great musicians who transcend their instrument, by the beauty of our natural surroundings right here in the state of Michigan, and by those in the world who tirelessly give of themselves for the betterment of our world. Seeing small random acts of kindness in the midst of our pandemic is a great testament to the strength of our community and is inspiring.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larsen. I have Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” next up on the list.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Definitely the three oboe professors I had in my life. Arno Mariotti, who I studied with from the age of 10 until I was 20; Harry Sargous for two years right here at U-M; and Richard Killmer at the Eastman School of Music, who guided me through both master’s and doctoral degrees and has been my lodestar for 35 years since.

UMSI students provide Arab American National Museum invaluable community accessibility and usability expertise

The halls of the stately Arab American National Museum (AANM), usually echoing with the patter of feet and expressions of awe, have sat silently awaiting the return of patrons since March 2020.

With the pandemic necessitating the temporary closure of AANM’s physical space, the institution turned to University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) students for assistance and expertise in improving the digital accessibility of the museum’s collections.

Located in Dearborn, Michigan, AANM is the only museum out of the nation’s 35,000 that is dedicated to preserving, celebrating and sharing Arab American culture. The institution has long been a champion of curatorial accessibility; however, ensuring that its tens of thousands of annual in-person visitors have the same intimate and meaningful interactions with its online collections is a new challenge.

While the museum was closed due to the pandemic, staff hosted an online music festival, in their pajamas, from Yasmine Nasser Diaz’s “Teenage Bedroom” installation. Video by AANM. 

“The pandemic and our inability to have visitors come to the museum really forced us to ask who’s accessing our things online, who do we want to be accessing them and whether they’re getting the full experience that we want them to,” says Matt Jaber Stiffler, the research and content manager at AANM and lecturer within the U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ American Culture department.

To answer these questions, Master of Science in Information (MSI) students William Cheng, Michelle Torby and Angel Caranna met regularly with Stiffler as part of the fall 2020 SI 547: Engaging with Communities course, led by clinical associate professor David Wallace. The class is client-based, meaning that companies, nonprofits or organizations host student teams that work to address real-world information challenges.

UMSI’s Engaged Learning Office helps recruit projects for the course that facilitate community partnerships and allow students to make an impact while building their portfolio through real-world experiences. In SI 547, students are challenged to examine the principles, methods and ethics involved in community collaboration.

The Arab American National Museum, located in Dearborn, is the first and only museum in the U.S. that is devoted to Arab-American history and culture.

Wallace says, “This type of experiential, hands-on, client-facing work is fundamental for professional development as it explicitly joins course theories and concepts to pragmatic, real-world problem solving and shaping positive client outcomes.”

At the start of the semester, each student submitted a questionnaire surveying their skills, experience and interests. The students were subsequently matched with projects where they could make a meaningful impact.

Cheng, who graduated from the MSI program in spring 2021, was excited to be a part of AANM’s project because he could exercise both his technical user experience (UX) design skills and his empathetic objectivity.

“I’m an international student, so I can relate to the way that Arab people feel in U.S. society in terms of status and suffering,” Cheng said. He came to UMSI after growing up in Taiwan and earning both a BA and MA in library and information science from National Taiwan University.

The students worked with Stiffler and the team at AANM to set realistic goals. AANM had just migrated to a new website for the first time in 13 years during June 2020. Around the same time, the museum had been forced to lay off nearly two-thirds of its staff due to pandemic budgeting constraints.

The museum’s website contains object, archival, art and library collections in addition to born-digital collections that preserve online content. AANM started the partnership with the intent of making the museum’s digital space more accessible specifically for those with hearing and vision impairments.

Through a series of user interviews, students discovered that people with sensory impairments were not the only users having trouble accessing information on AANM’s new site. The students determined the website needed a stronger structure before it made sense to solely concentrate on audio and visual accessibility.

Entrance to the exhibit “Coming to America” at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

“We expanded the project’s scope to focus on general accessibility that could benefit everyone,” says Torby, a second-year MSI student.

Her advice to those taking client-based courses is to “be open to changing the scope of the project and working with the organizations to voice your concerns, because if you don’t, then you can’t best pivot to meet the needs of everyone.”

The students spent four months engaging with the website to create a usability report. During their regular meetings with the team, AANM was receptive and often implemented the students’ suggested changes on the spot.

AANM found the experience of working with the students so useful that when an opportunity arose to continue the partnership during the winter 2021 semester in the SI 622: Needs Assessment Usability course, they seized it. A new group of MSI students, including Austin Zielinski, Jordan Graves, Qinchi Chen and Shujie Li, picked up the project.

In SI 622, students utilize a variety of methods — including observation, surveys, interviews, performance analysis, evaluation in the design/iteration cycle, usability tests and assessment of systems — to provide clients with recommendations for performance improvement. The winter 2021 course was taught by clinical assistant professor Mustafa Naseem.

“The AANM project goal was to better understand how to bring users to the website and how they access information,” says Zielinski, a second-year MSI student.

Epicenter X, a timely exhibition of Saudi Contemporary Art in Dearborn, Michigan opened at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) on 8 July 2017, and ran until 1 October 2017.

The interdisciplinary team assessed the website and held interviews with users and stakeholders. They also conducted comparative analysis assessments with other museums and did usability testing. At the end of the semester, the students sent a report to AANM along with a final video summarizing their findings.

“The recommendations were very clear: Change the wording of headings for clarity, adopt color contrasts to make screen reading easier and run tests to understand how screen readers are picking up the information,” Stiffler shares. “We had really good suggestions, so it’s just a matter of implementing them now.”

Stiffler and his colleagues at AANM were impressed by the final product. “It was very professional, very useful. Throughout our conversations, the team understood what we were trying to do, and the end product will be very helpful for us as we move forward.”

AANM recently reopened to the public and hopes to continue implementing the changes to their website for those interested in exploring the museum’s digital collections. The institution plans on sustaining its relationship with UMSI in the future, too.

“I think it’s great that UMSI is so invested in these projects. It’s really nice that we don’t have to seek out ways to get help, that they’re always there,” Stiffler says.

Fair Representation in Arts and Data

Stamps Associate Professor Sophia Brueckner has long known that small things can make a big impact. However, the fact really hit home for her very recently through her work with the ongoing research project, ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data.” In the last year, she’s been part of a team of dedicated University of Michigan (U‑M) researchers who used several of the most popular face detection algorithms designed to distinguish a variety of factors (including gender and race) to analyze the entire collection at UMMA.

We’re trying to draw parallels between bias and exclusion in the museum world and bias and exclusion in technology,” Brueckner says. ​With our research, we hope to create a more aware — and more inclusive — local community and world.”

Funded by the U‑M’s Arts Initiative, Brueckner explains that the year-long collaboration between data scientists, artists, and museum curators has focused on exploring how bias is present and problematic, the process where bias happens, and if they could recognize some trends in the diversity of UMMA’s collection.

There’s simply no other project like this anywhere, and it’s really important research to have in this day and age,” says the project’s lead investigator and data scientist, Dr. Jing Liu.

Liu, who is also the managing director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science, shares that previous to working on ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data,” she had already been kicking around the idea of how artwork could be used to demonstrate to the public, ​in a very intuitive way, both the power of data science and the harm of data science.”

We know that data science and artificial intelligence (AI) systems have implicit bias and that momentum needs to be built up around the topic,” Liu says. ​For a few years now we have thought about educating the public in some way. When we found out that there was funding for pilot projects, I knew it was a chance to be a part of doing something really substantial.”

Working Together To Make Change

The project’s initial findings are certainly thought-provoking. Some key highlights were not too surprising to the research team. For instance, they uncovered that the algorithms often failed in recognizing females in the collection and that the collection is very white-heavy.

We essentially did face detection over UMMA’s entire collection,” Brueckner explains. ​We found all the faces in the collection and then we applied algorithms that are available publicly and open source, which helped identify race classification and gender classification to those faces.”

She said that it’s very hard to understand sometimes why these algorithms are making certain decisions, but the researchers have found the results really interesting. She points to one unexpected discovery: when left to an algorithm to categorize visual input, the most representative face found in the collection is a painting of a clown.

Georges Rouault, Cirque de l’Etoile Filante. Plate XIII: Le Renchéri (p.106), 1935. Full information

We applied a different type of algorithm that looks at which features are really important in detecting a face and then look at the averages,” Brueckner says. ​That the algorithm concluded on the ​clown’ is funny, but it actually sort of makes sense, because clowns have exaggerated facial makeup.”

Motivated by the knowledge that both the algorithms and UMMA’s collection are biased, the ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data” team inspired the UMMA exhibition, White Cube Black Box.

The phrase ​White Cube’ is a term that refers to museums historically being exclusionary and having blank white walls and removing all the context, which makes the work actually quite inaccessible for those who aren’t highly educated in the subject matter or coming from certain communities,” Brueckner explains. ​And, the term ​Black Box’ is used in engineering to talk about how a lot of these technologies that we rely on are opaque.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

Entrance at UMMA during the “You Are Here” exhibit (2021).

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

Viewers examining UMMA’s 2019 Photography Exhibition “Take Your Pick,” which showcased every aspect of 20th-century American life you can imagine—and some you probably can’t.

For Liu, the power of people from different disciplines coming together to share ideas has not escaped her. She shares that in her usual experience when different groups of people talk about the same topic, they tend to talk over each other.

But, with our project, artists and scientists sat down and talked with each other and learned from each other and challenged each other to strengthen our collective effort,” she says. ​I want to see more of this and I’m really hoping that our project is an example that helps to steer things away from the status quo.”

Seconding her wish is Brueckner, who also hopes that the team’s work will steer people towards becoming more educated consumers who will vote for more data privacy and security. If the project can provide an inroad to making people aware of the pitfalls in technology that is being embedded locally, and all across the world, a bit earlier, then she’ll be plenty happy.

This type of biased data collection is already being deployed around the world, and some of it is useful and some of it is frankly pretty scary,” she says. ​Recently, there was a disturbing case in Detroit where a child was misidentified at a skating rink and was given a ban all because of an algorithm. We need to raise awareness that these algorithms are still deeply flawed.”

Ancestor garden: Community plants butterfly garden honoring Detroiters lost to COVID-19

DETROIT–Asia Hamilton showed up on a misty fall day to Detroit’s historic Virginia Park district to plant three flowers: one for her mother, one for her father, and another for her sister.

She was one of dozens of people that stopped by that day to ceremoniously plant blooms one-by-one, each in honor of loved ones who had passed away—most from COVID-19. Many were unable to have funerals during the pandemic.

It’s no surprise so many gathered. An early “hot spot” in the pandemic, the city of Detroit data indicate that more than 2,800 Detroiters have died of COVID-19 to date with more than 7,000 deaths likely related to the virus.

“Losing my mom last year was really shocking, especially to COVID,” said Hamilton. “And since then, I’ve really gotten into gardening. A garden is a place that offers peace, beauty and unity, and I thought it would be an amazing way to honor her and other family members I’ve lost.”

Venita Thompkins said that every memorial garden needs a soldier in it, so she planted a purple coneflower in honor of her brother, Irvin Thompkins, a Vietnam veteran who died from COVID-19 in May 2021.

“Every garden needs a soldier in it; this is for Irvin Thompkins,” said Venita Thompkins, referencing her brother, a Vietnam veteran who died from COVID-19 in May 2021, as she knelt down to plant a purple coneflower. 

Samantha Pickering found out about the garden over the summer and had been looking forward to participating.

“I lost my dad to COVID April 1, 2020, so I came here to do something in memory of him. Having to grieve through isolation, we never had a funeral or memorial service, so I’m grateful for this opportunity.”

They all had responded to a call for community members to contribute to the planting of the “Ancestor Posterity Butterfly Garden,” located just outside the Joseph Walker Williams Center off of Rosa Parks Boulevard. The three-year-long project is the brainchild of University of Michigan alumnus Douglas Jones, a Detroit-based artist, activist and community organizer, and his co-collaborator and fellow artist Errin Whitaker. 

Just before the stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020, the project was commissioned and greenlit by the city of Detroit and Design Core Detroit. Though the plan was always to design a garden in the historic neighborhood, the pandemic and its devastating impact on the people of Detroit gave it more meaning as plans stopped and stalled but continued to move forward. 

“It feels so great to be out here today, to see this come to life,” said Jones, who greeted each person stepping onto the plot with a cheery hello and a socially distanced elbow bump.

Jones, who has facilitated public art projects in several locations across Michigan including Detroit, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Grand Rapids, says the garden is an example of the brand of “public art” that he believes in. 

“Through my work as an artist, I’m trying to shift the narrative of public art,” he said. “Most of it is consumptive, but I’ve always thought of it as something that requires participation and collaboration from the community, from the people that will enjoy it most.”

Errin Whitaker, a Detroit artist who collaborated with Jones to create the butterfly garden, created the ancestor posterity chair that is positioned in the middle of the garden.

Led by Jones and Whitaker, there were several people who helped bring the project to fruition, including Kyle Bartell, co-founder of Sit On It Detroit, who crafted the wooden benches that surround the garden and Akello Karamoko, a farmer at Keep Growing Detroit who grew the starter seeds for the native Michigan plants that make up the butterfly garden. 

While Jones designed the garden, Whitaker created the “ancestor posterity chair” that is positioned in the middle of the plot, where it will eventually be enveloped in plants as the garden matures in the coming years. According to the artists, the chair was inspired by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright first introduced to Jones while taking undergrad classes at U-M, and his idea of a symbolic chair created for our ancestors, both past and future.

“My biggest influence with the chair was my grandmother. She had three daughters and three grandsons and she never thought we got enough rest as Black men,” Whitaker said. “I made the chair in quarantine, where I was able to sit still and rest. I thought about her a lot while making it, and I thought about all of the people, ancestors, that are continuing to transition during this time.”

Jones and Whitaker are currently working to create potential community programming related to the garden, and to create a plan with the community to continue its upkeep.

“We didn’t realize how powerful the idea would be pre-pandemic when we started planning the project,” Jones said. “It’s full of symbolism—hope, unity, renewal—and I know it will be cared for and nurtured by all of the people who showed up today to grieve and reflect. This is the kind of art that I want to do.”

Just outside the garden, a historic sign memorializes those who died during the events of the summer of 1967.

This is Michigan

New York native drums up performance, teaching career

Drums have always been a part of Ian Antonio’s life.

He’s been around them so long, he cannot pinpoint when he first started playing.

“It’s probably pre-conscious memory,” said Antonio, assistant professor of music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “The instruments and sticks were just laying around the house. It’s just one of the things we did at home.”

Both his parents are retired public school music educators, and his father is a percussionist so Antonio would watch him give private lessons. Those early years of exposure led to a lifetime of playing, performing and teaching those same instruments that were lying around the house.

Antonio grew up in Albany, New York, and started playing in his elementary school band in third grade. He was blessed with a teacher who, despite being stern and “old school,” was a percussionist himself and helped nurture a love for the instruments.

His future was clear from a young age.

“Percussion has always been central in my life,” he said. “My best friends in high school were percussionists in the youth orchestra and percussion ensemble and band program. So it was something I never really thought twice about.

Ian Antonio.

“When people ask you what you want to do later in life, I never had anything else to say.”

Antonio said Albany is home to a strong community of percussionists, many of whom, like Antonio, studied with the legendary teacher Richard Albagli. One of those was the principal timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with whom Antonio studied while attending the Manhattan School of Music.

“It was kind of in the water, I think,” he said.

He thought for a time he would pursue an orchestral career. But while studying percussion ensemble and contemporary ensemble as an undergraduate, he found his calling.

While at the Manhattan School of Music, Antonio joined Wet Ink Ensemble, which formed when he first started at the school. His first concert with the ensemble was in 1999, and he still performs with the group a dozen or so times a year. The New York Times named it “Best Ensemble” of 2018.

“It’s evolved over the years,” Antonio said of Wet Ink, for which he serves as co-director. “It started as a sort of loose collective, but for the past dozen or so years, the group has operated as a tight-knit ensemble of composers and performers.

“We work in a sort of band-like fashion, making small tweaks, suggesting sounds and techniques, finally arriving at the premiere. Sometimes authorship is a bit fuzzy because everyone is contributing to the result.”

One of Antonio’s most memorable performances occurred in 2016 with Josh Modney, the Wet Ink violinist, when they played at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

“It involved a hundred live sheep on stage,” he said. “They had to get trucked in every day from a farm in Pennsylvania. They wandered out from a foggy nook in the back of the stage.”

Antonio is also a member of Talujon, a group of percussionists all with New York roots or ties. It is less active than Wet Ink, which is not exactly a bad thing for a musician who has performed on four continents but is now a father of two young daughters.

“The days of three months on the road in a van are sadly and not sadly behind me,” he said. “I miss playing in a different town each night, but I don’t miss sleeping on floors for weeks on end.”

While he has been performing for over two decades, he’s only recently joined the ranks of teaching. He spent five years teaching at the State University of New York at Purchase before coming to U-M before the 2020-21 school year.

Teaching has provided its own rewards — much like the ones his parents reaped when he was younger.

“Percussion is such a giant family of instruments,” he said. “Anything you strike, shake or scrape, and pretty much anything else other people don’t want to do. That’s one thing I talk to my students about. I think of percussion as a comprehensive approach to music making rather than only acquiring specific skills for specific instruments. It’s approaching instruments, objects, and situations with a musical mindset.”

While his daughters have not yet taken up drumming like their father did as a child, his 2 ½-year-old is intrigued by one instrument in particular.

“She’s been saying she really wants to play a marching bass drum. We live in Ypsilanti and the Eastern Michigan marching band marched through our neighborhood this past fall,” he said. “She’s been all about the marching bass drum since then.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

The first time I entered the balcony at Hill Auditorium to hear the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s large ensembles perform really stands out. The talent of the students and the incredible acoustics and awe-inspiring design of Hill combined to make an unforgettable moment.

What can’t you live without?


Name your favorite spot on campus.

There is a small, forested area outside my office window, between the new Dance Building and the south side of the Music Building. Several tall trees in the grove reflect the seasonal changes and are super responsive to the wind and sunlight. I could stare out that window for a long time.

What inspires you?

I’m lucky to be surrounded by inspiring people at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance every day. The students constantly amaze me with new ideas and fresh approaches and my faculty colleagues are simply the best.

What are you currently reading?

Every week is a race to not get behind on my New Yorker subscription. They can pile up fast!

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

It’s tough to name just one person, because I’ve had the great fortune of working with and learning from so many incredible people. One crucial influence on my musical journey was Claire Heldrich, who was director of Manhattan School of Music’s Percussion Ensemble and Contemporary Ensemble in my early undergraduate years. The attention to detail she brought to her work every day was jaw-dropping, and her dedication to the music of today inspired me to consider reorienting my musical path as well.

Black-owned bookstore blends culture and community in Flint

FLINT—When Kathy Harris needed books written by Black authors for Juneteenth celebrations at work, she knew exactly where to go.

“I knew there was a Black-owned bookstore downtown,” said the Flint native, who works for McLaren Health Plan and serves on its diversity and inclusion committee. “And it’s more than just the bookstore. It’s art and all of the cards. And it’s just wonderful, wonderful to see.”

The Comma Bookstore & Social Hub is a rarity—fewer than 6% of U.S. bookstores are owned and operated by Black entrepreneurs.

Its owner, Egypt Otis, is a charming and determined native of the city who just lost her job as a political activist as the pandemic struck in early 2020. At loose ends, the University of Michigan-Flint graduate had time to think about next steps and decided that opening a bookstore would help her leave her mark on the Flint community.

She opened in September 2020 and stocks mostly what she calls “Black and brown books” by Muslims, African Americans, Indigenous and Latinx people. She also gives local artists and nonprofits a space from which to sell their projects such as eyeglasses made from plastic water bottles, paintings and jewelry.

She also invites community groups in for their meetings and created a children’s book club at the store. She hosted a Juneteenth event at the store to bring historical context to the day and to celebrate freedom with readings, live music and youth programs.

A crowd during a Comma Bookstore event.

“I am a Flint resident and I’m an Afro-Latina woman, too, so I’m very proud of my identity,” she said.

Before opening the bookstore, Otis was a social worker, a community organizer and political activist. She’s a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect and on the state’s Foster Care Review Board and is a new board member of the Latinx Technology Center.

“Everything we’ve done in the store is geared toward helping people, whether it be through making sure we have representation on those bookshelves so people can feel a sense of identity or whether it be through creating platforms for local entrepreneurs and creatives and artists,” she said.

Otis came to UM-Flint as a nontraditional student who was working full time and parenting her young daughter. It was hard balancing those roles, she said. She found a mentor in Peggy Kahn, professor emerita in political science.

“I had a department of people who encouraged me. Peggy Kahn, who I still consider as a mentor today, really invested in me and challenged me, which is something I was missing to think differently about not only the world but myself,” Otis said. “She really introduced me to myself.”

Kahn remembers meeting Otis in 2015 when she took her course on comparative social policy.

“I have seldom seen such persistence and resilience,” Kahn said. “Being able to press through external barriers is a sign of a certain kind of self-confidence.”

And so much of that experience and confidence contributes to the bookstore. Back when she was growing up, Otis’ grandparents asked why she didn’t like to read. The answer was simple: Reading gave her a headache.

While at the university, she recognized the pleasures of reading and acquiring knowledge through her coursework and nonfiction books, and added more fiction novels. And she knew the knowledge had to be shared with others.

“You know, if I could grow this much as a person just from reading this material, imagine what somebody else could do, could be,” she said. “So the bookstore definitely was born from my overall experiences in life, but definitely at the University of Michigan-Flint.”

Porschia Harris, left, and her mother, Kathy Harris, say they are delighted to support a Black-owned bookstore. “I think it’s awesome to see reflections of ourselves and have a space where you just feel at home and comfortable,” Porschia says.

Otis’ husband and partner in the bookstore, Dorian Jackson, also a Flint native, works with the state of Michigan to provide job placement and training. Jackson and Otis have 10-year-old children from previous relationships who are best friends and often play or read together in the bookstore.

“Comma is a very organic space. It came from a vision that Egypt had of a bookstore and a space and platform for a lot of events and things that hadn’t been taking place in Flint—and to give people an opportunity who have traditionally not had a space downtown, to be able to do a lot of things,” Jackson said.

The couple has a deep appreciation of music and have brought in DJs and musicians to play. Some even recorded performances in the store to share in podcasts and on social media during the worst times of the pandemic when foot traffic was low in the store.

Comma became known as a place to hear African salsa, Brazilian music and Soca music.

Isiah LattimoreI, a local artist and U-M alum, stands in front of the large scale mural of Egypt Otis U-M commissioned him to paint on the Harrison Street Parking Garage to celebrate graduates. Some of his fine art paintings also are on the walls at Comma.

“And that really kept us very, very relevant,” Jackson said. “I think there’s been a greater embracing of culture especially downtown, not just African American culture, but we worked very closely with the Latinx community and the Asian community.”

Isiah Lattimore, a local artist and U-M alum, stopped by the store recently to visit Otis, who was his model for a mural U-M commissioned him to paint on the Harrison Street Parking Garage that celebrates graduates. Some of his fine art paintings also are on the walls at Comma.

“I couldn’t think of a better place for my art to be. What I love about Comma is that it really does become kind of that watering hole of sorts, where many different people come,” Lattimore said.

Porschia Harris, a Flint native who is now a teacher in Houston, was in town visiting her mom Kathy Harris this summer when they shopped at the Comma Bookstore.

“To be able to come back home and find this store … I was literally just telling my mom, ‘If I live here, like I would totally hang out here because it’s an awesome place to be able to soak in Black literature in a connected space,'” she said.

Porschia Harris was excited to see some of the books in stock as they aligned with an African folklore class she taught online this summer.

“It’s Black-owned, and I think it’s awesome to see reflections of ourselves and have a space where you just feel at home and comfortable,” she said. “And it makes us feel empowered.”

Otis says, above all, Comma Bookstore is “a learning space for everyone. We all start from somewhere. You know, you have to allow room for people to grow. So that’s what we do here.”

This is Michigan