By Andy Stuhl on December 19, 2014
In mid October, a transatlantic group of scholars gathered in New York City to present their research into more than a century of French theater and to discuss the tool that had helped them examine this history. This tool was a faceted browser, developed by HyperStudio as part of the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP).
Under the guidance of Jeffrey Ravel, a professor of history at MIT and the principle investigator of the project, the HyperStudio team has developed ways to catalog, browse, and visualize the contents of thousands of register pages—the hand-written ledgers in which the ticket sales of every performance had been meticulously recorded since the Comédie-Française’s opening in 1680. The faceted browser, the latest of these tools, was made available to this group of scholars a few months prior, and the workshop in New York marked the first time they had convened to discuss their work with CFRP data. In preparation for this meeting, scholars used the faceted browser to examine the dates of the workshop (October 14th and 15th) throughout the theater’s 300-year history. From that launching point, each presenter crafted a research question and probed it through the faceted browser. At the conference, the scholars shared the impressive array of findings from their research, as well as their insights into the design of CFRP tools.
It quickly became clear that researchers drew on the flexibility of the faceted browser in a myriad of ways. For some, screenshots of the faceted browser’s register entries and responsive filters, as well as of the built-in time wheel data visualizer, ably illustrated their arguments. These presentations often relied on juxtaposition—for example, showing the difference in attendance between Molière’s plays and of Voltaire’s during the 1781-1782 season. For others, the browser served as a method by which they could generate data that could be entered into outside tools, allowing them to create additional visualizations. This latter category reminded us as developers of digital research tools how users will always incorporate additional tools into their projects. Accordingly, tailoring for every possible use should take a back seat to enabling smooth transitions of data from HyperStudio’s platform into others.
As we go about bringing CFRP tools to a wider scholarly audience, one priority is to develop case studies to familiarize viewers with the interface, while also showing compelling stories about its usefulness. Reflecting on their experiences of learning to use the CFRP faceted browser, many scholars at the workshop noted that such case studies would be very helpful to new users. Their presentations, meanwhile, provided invaluable examples of the stories we might build these studies around and indicated paths toward an interactive design for the case studies. Building on the thorough documentation of related digital humanities tools such as the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, we are working to design a model for web-based CFRP case studies that will inspire readers to jump straight from the page into the data with their own questions.
The need to continue to craft engaging entry points to the Comédie-Française data was driven home by the workshop’s final discussion, which raised questions about the use of CFRP and similar tools in the classroom. Damien Chardonnet-Darmaillacq of Paris West University Nanterre La Défense discussed his introduction of CFRP and the faceted browser to a group of high school students, who enthusiastically took it up in launching their own investigations into French theater history. The students’ excitements and frustrations with the tool demonstrate both the rewards and the challenges of opening a still-developing project to pedagogical use. Chardonnet’s students, he noted, were quick to take on the data-based research approach and to become adept with its tools.
It’s always tempting with large-scale data projects to think that the body of data offers a neat and tidy representation of the underlying texts and events; the workshop’s discussions reminded all that the data from the registers is thoroughly embodied in the history and the physical space of the theater itself. For example, participants raised challenging problems of defining the different categories of seats within the theater and of understanding how these definitions changed across the troupe’s movement into a new theater building in the 1780s. Some called for a visualization tool that would evoke the three-dimensional space of the theater itself in representing data trends. Projects in the digital humanities bring along with them strong and complicating connections to the materiality of texts, performances, and spaces; yet the digital humanities also provide unique approaches to harness this materiality in digital representations through thoughtful design. When the presentations had concluded, participants headed uptown for a performance of a Voltaire play, tying the workshop’s ventures into the realm of data, queries, and visualization back into the lively theater tradition that inspired them.