A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

Digital Approach

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]

As mentioned in the introduction to the project, HEALD is based on the book Keywords in American Landscape Design (Yale University Press, 2010). In its digital extension, the reach, scope, and potential of the project are greatly expanded, providing several advantages. These include the interconnectivity of keywords, people, and places that constitute the core of the project; the possibility to browse an unprecedented collection of historic images and texts; the opportunity to access an extended bibliography, which can be browsed and imported in its entirety from Zotero; and finally, the advantage given by informational modes of collecting, mining, and parsing data.

At its outset, the goals for the HEALD digital project were:

  • To provide unlimited, customizable cross-referencing of images and texts;
  • To utilize the archiving and storage capacity of digital media to expand content significantly, adding previously unknown images and primary texts to the repository as they come to light;
  • To facilitate interdisciplinary research through extensive hyperlinking of landscape and garden design keywords, images, sites, and people.


The HEALD project is built on MediaWiki, an open access platform that allows for the management of a large amount of visual and textual content. It is available as a ready-to-use software that integrates a clean interface with a widely used database language, SQL. In addition, MediaWiki was chosen for the the ability to archive and migrate its database; the opportunity to work with high resolution image files; and its large community of developers who continue to update the software on a regular basis. Accordingly, the platform allows for:

  • Frequent and real-time production: changes are implemented in real time and projects are scalable; they do not have to reach a fixed point prior to publication, but can continue to change as the project progresses.
  • Image management and resizing: once an image has been uploaded on the site, the author selects the appropriate sizing in the editing mode and thumbnails are created automatically. Each image has its own page which retains editing history and it allows one to visualize the file at full scale and to zoom in for closer study.
  • Automatic creation and maintenance of unique URLs: Interlinks among HEALD pages are easy to create, execute, and maintain.


In its current form, HEALD represents a model for a digital repository whose main characteristics are accessibility, usability, and longevity. In line with current developments in informational technology, HEALD is supported by the Semantic Web, an active area of research in the field of Digital Humanities. The site allows for its information to be extracted in a standardized format in order to be used for data analysis and visualization.

HEALD’s digital approach uses the potential of the digital medium to augment access and foster investigation. Data should not be used as facts and/or as evidence divested from its context. Data sets are always a result of extraction, selection, and standardization, which at times leads to a reductive scenario of the material made available. Through its digital approach, HEALD invites users to explore the network of keywords, places, and people by enhancing the navigation and exploration of its content in context. By drawing a distinction between information and data, and by encouraging a contextualized data analysis, HEALD offers the opportunity to search, sort, and parse the data in connection with the historical condition from which it emerges.

By offering a platform based on digital sustainability, the HEALD site and its contributors aim to ensure the longevity of the project. At the same time, thanks to the potential of the digital format, it remains open to new paths and new approaches to analyze durable sets of data in context, that can help to generate new questions about American culture.

The HEALD team invites students, researchers, and general users to consider this repository as a large and complex collection as well as a limited set of data that, while neither comprehensive nor final, offers an authoritative and nuanced perspective of the history of early American landscape and garden design.


A Guide to Using HEALD

HEALD has several components accessed through the top menu bar: Introductory essays; the three categories of Keywords, Places, and People; Keyword Subjects; and Bibliography (the latter of which is located under the “About” tab). Within each Keyword, Place, or People page, the user can further access images and primary and secondary references.

Introductory Essays (2010): The first essay, by Therese O’Malley, focuses on the history of the sites themselves, relating changing design practices to the broader social and cultural currents of American landscape and garden history. Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, in the second essay, discusses the textual sources for landscape history, examining both the history of the sources and the theoretical aspects of issues to be addressed when using documentary evidence for garden history. The third essay, by Anne L. Helmreich and Therese O’Malley, discusses the visual representation of the American landscape, including both the theoretical challenges of interpreting visual evidence and the history of landscape images in America.

Keywords: Each of the one hundred Keywords pages includes an interpretive essay that discusses the shifts in the term’s historical meaning and usage. The essay traces, where possible, the design history of each keyword, including its form, function, and materials, while it raises issues of the social and cultural significance of the landscape feature. It is followed by the primary documents, drawn from wide range of verbal sources, such as diaries, correspondence, travel accounts, garden treatises, dictionaries, legal records, advertisements, and periodical literature.

Text are subdivided into two categories to highlight the difference between common and prescriptive usage. “Usage” quotations contain the term in common language such as in letters, inventories, surveys or diaries, while “citations” contain generally published definitions, treatises and dictionaries. This dichotomy often reveals regional varieties and changes over time as a professional vocabulary evolves.[1] Each primary source is identified by a short citation of the bibliographical reference with full citations in the endnotes and linked to the project bibliography.

Images provide visual evidence for each entry, and represent diverse media including paintings, prints, maps, textiles, drawings, and painted furniture and ceramics, appear throughout. Each image has its own object page that provides information about the artist, title, date, media, and source or repository. This feature in itself represents an unprecedented corpus of American garden imagery.

Fig. 1, Anonymous, “Plan of a Suburban Garden,” in A. J. Downing, ed., The Horticulturist 3, no. 8 (February 1849): pl. opp. p. 353.

The degree of certainty with which words may be associated with images varies, so throughout the Keywords pages of HEALD a concerted effort has been made to use the most secure associations possible. Each caption includes, along with the above information, an indication of how the image and term relate to one another. To this end, there are three designations used within the gallery of images: inscribed, associated, and attributed. An “inscribed” image incorporates the word or is directly related to it through a key or an immediately accompanying text such as a caption or a description of the site published with the image. For example, The Horticulturist published a “Plan of a Suburban Garden” (taken from “an elaborate French work”) with an accompanying article which describes the features of the site using the letters on the plan as orientation points [Fig. 1].[2]

Fig. 2, Daniel Wadsworth, “Monte Video, Approach to the House,” in Benjamin Silliman, Remarks Made on a Short Tour between Hartford and Quebec, in the Autumn of 1819 (1824), pl. opp. p. 16.

An “associated” image is related to the term less directly by a contemporaneous description of the feature or an inscribed image of the same feature. For example, two engravings of Monte Video are published in Benjamin Silliman’s Remarks Made on a Short Tour between Hartford and Quebec, which includes a description of the site, specifically commenting on the lake and the tower, both visible in one of the prints [Fig. 2].[3] A range of certainty exists in linking an image with an associated text.

Fig. 3, John Izard Middleton, “Greenhouse,” 1813.

The third category, “attributed” images, are those for which there are no inscribed terms or associated texts [Fig. 3]. Identification of the garden features visible in these images is based on our study of comparative examples. The problems with interjecting modern identifications are not inconsequential and are discussed in more depth in the essay on visual representation of the landscape, but these attributed images offer the opportunity to include a range and variety of works not otherwise accessible. In this category are imaginary, allegorical, or instructive images that are often revealing of principles of landscape design and representation, even if they are not records of executed designs. Also in this category are naïve art and textiles, often by unknown artists, as well as lesser-known images from painted furniture, ceramics, and wall murals.

People and Places: Throughout the database, a selection of people and place names are hyperlinked to their own pages. The pages for People provide brief historical essays on a range of individuals of particular note or interest in which their relation to the theory and practice of early American gardens and landscapes design is discussed. The Place pages include historical essays on a selection of gardens or landscapes, in which key features, events, or associated figures are discussed. How the site evolved over time and, when possible, a statement of the site’s current condition, and geographic coordinates are included. The essays for both People and Place pages are followed by citations and a gallery of images related to the subject of the page. Other resources include links to relevant external websites and maps when appropriate.

Keyword Subjects: This general search option assists in both browsing by categories of form and function and also locating a term for which the reader has an illustration but no name. In the case of the latter, the entries for “plant-keeping structure” or “water feature” direct the reader to specific types of garden structures such as orangery, hothouse, and conservatory, or to types of water features such as basin, canal, fountain, and pond.

Bibliography: The extensive bibliography comprises all published and manuscript sources used in this project. It was built with Zotero, a free, open-source reference software that can manage bibliographic data and related research materials. It many cases it links to digitized editions of the primary sources. Furthermore, the user can add the source to one’s own personal Zotero library.

Taken as a whole, the HEALD website provides both an overview and in-depth resource of key terms, places in public, private, and institutional realms, and a wide array of people—designers, gardeners, writers, patrons, artists, theorists, professionals, and amateurs—that together contribute to a rich and vibrant picture of a significant chapter in the history of American garden and landscape design in the colonial, early national, and antebellum periods.


Notes

  1. The treatises and dictionaries include European and American publications, although only those sources known to have been available in America before 1852 were consulted. See Kryder-Reid essay for further discussion of American garden literature.
  2. Anonymous, “Design for a Suburban Garden,” The Horticulturist 3, no. 8 (February 1849): 380, view on Zotero.
  3. Benjamin Silliman, Remarks Made on a Short Tour Between Hartford and Quebec, in the Autumn of 1819 (New Haven, CT: S. Converse, 1824); see description on pages 11 and 15 and the illustration bound between pages 16 and 17, view on Zotero.
A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

National Gallery of Art, Washington