May 29, 2018

This past year has been a productive one at The Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR), with the first convening of our new multi-year project cycle, “Material Economies of Religion in the Americas: Arts, Objects, Spaces, Mediations” (MERA); the launch of the MAVCOR Digital Spaces Project (featuring high resolution giga-pixel photography, 360º panoramas, and drone photography of spaces of religious practice); and the publication of our first “Collection” in collaboration with a university press. Just this month we also launched “Galleries” in order to provide visitors with increased opportunities for interaction with the MAVCOR site. 

The Digital Spaces Project offers an innovative approach for documenting and viewing religious monuments and spaces. The idea is to focus our energies, for the most part, on spaces that are otherwise under-documented and on spaces that various constituencies might wish to incorporate in teaching or research. In shaping the Digital Spaces Project, MAVCOR collaborates with scholars to develop virtual tours and other publicly available interpretative information about the sites we photograph.In March 2017 MAVCOR commissioned Cuzco photographer Raúl Montero Quispe to photograph the first group of spaces, a group of seven churches administered by the Jesuits in the area in and around Cuzco, Peru. Then, in November 2017 MAVCOR collaborated with art historians Meg Bernstein (an ISM alumna) and James Alexander Cameron to photograph a group of medieval parish churches in the Lincolnshire Fens. The 360º panoramas and drone footage from our work in England and Peru are available on the MAVCOR Digital Spaces Project page. MAVCOR has also begun working with Bernstein and Cameron to produce textual content interpreting the drone and 360º photography for eventual publication on the MAVCOR site. In the near future, religious studies scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri will advise and guide a similar effort to photograph a series of important mosques in the United States and to offer scholarship about them, along with this new photography, on the MAVCOR site.

In October we published our first Collection in collaboration with University of Chapel Hill Press. Rachel McBride Lindsey’s “A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America” accompanies her book of the same title. Collections are large groups of related objects curated by a single individual, potentially divided into smaller sections, and accompanied by discursive text. This first collaboration with UNC press has been enthusiastically received and other authors have communicated with us about similar projects to accompany their books. Later this year, we will publish a Collection to complement Tracy Fessenden’s new book, Religion Around Billie Holiday (Penn State University Press, 2018). In 2019 we plan a second Collection in collaboration with the University of Chapel Hill Press to coincide with the publication of Alex Seggerman’s monograph Reawakening Modernism, on Egyptian art movements, Islam, and the construction of Middle Eastern modernity.

This April, MAVCOR announced the launch of Galleries. Designed in response to feedback from site users wishing to teach with MAVCOR materials, Galleries allows visitors a customized way of engaging with the site. After creating a user account, individuals and groups can compile assemblies of articles, material objects, and MAVCOR Digital Spaces Project 360s and Zooms. Users can choose to designate their Galleries public or private and can include notes and commentary both on the Gallery as a whole and on the items included within the Gallery. We envision Galleries as a tool for scholars as well as the general public; we have particularly in mind audiences of teachers in the academy, in religious communities, and in civic organizations. These individuals might, for example, construct an assignment inviting students to create Galleries for class; these Galleries could be conceived of as mini-exhibitions curated by students. Teachers might also themselves create Galleries for students to read and view as part of, or in preparation for, classroom conversation. 

MAVCOR has begun to receive widespread attention in the academy and beyond. Recently the journal Religion invited MAVCOR editor and curator Emily Floyd and director Sally Promey, to contribute an article on MAVCOR to a special thematic forum, edited by James Bielo, on Digital Scholarship and the Critical Study of Religion. Floyd and Promey’s article, “Collaborative Scholarly Communities and Access in the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion,” can be viewed and downloaded here along with the rest of the forum. Floyd and Promey have also contributed to Introduction to Digital Humanities: Research Methods for the Study of Religion, edited by Christopher D. Cantwell and Kristian Petersen, and set to be published by DeGruyter as part of their new series, Digital Humanities: Religion.