MIT Visualizing Cultures

Visualizing Cultures is a gateway to seeing history through images that once had wide circulation among peoples of different times and places.

We do historical research this way as scholars to better understand how people saw themselves, how they saw others including foreigners and enemies, and how in turn others saw them.

Visualizing Cultures has been designed to offer viewers—especially scholars, teachers, and students—ready access to hitherto inaccessible materials, as well as guides to their careful analysis and use.
To this end, each topical unit is (or eventually will be) accompanied by a substantial Database, Bibliography, and lengthy Lesson Plan. Videos, including interviews, complement some of the presentations and analysis. All images can be enlarged and scrutinized in detail, and also downloaded for use in educational projects.

Visualizing Cultures is not an “art appreciation” project.
Rather, these units invite the viewer to examine each image carefully and critically. To this end, each topical unit imbeds its many visual images in a detailed explanatory text identified as the Core Exhibit.

Some of these images are harsh, for history itself is harsh.
While many images may be aesthetically attractive, or entertaining, or “realistic” (like photography), some are cruel, brutal, and offensive. Users must keep in mind that the purpose of Visualizing Cultures is to gain a more accurate, first-hand sense of all the many ways in which people have presented and viewed their times.

Graphics that depict dark aspects of history—such as violence, intolerance, racism, aggressive nationalism, war and atrocity, abuse of others and of the environment in general—have not been censored.
We must confront such harsh images directly—and struggle to critically understand them—if we hope to ever make a better world.

To date (2006), Visualizing Cultures uses Japan since the mid-19th century as a case study for gaining new perspectives on “cultures” in the broadest sense—the “cultures,” for example, of Westernization, modernization, changing modes of technology and mass communication, imperialism, nationalism, militarism, racism, commercialization and consumerism, etc.
Projected future units will deal with photography in late 19th and early 20th-century Asia; modernism in Japan before World War Two; and the Asia-Pacific War of the 1930s and early 1940s (including in China) as seen from the perspectives—and through the propaganda—of all the various antagonists. The units on "Visualizing Japan" have been written by John W. Dower. Technology and pedagogy development for these units is under the supervision of Shigeru Miyagawa.

Please view and use these Visualizing Cultures units carefully, in the spirit in which they have been prepared.
To tear images out of context and use them irresponsibly and provocatively destroys the highest ideals of uncensored sharing and communication that sophisticated virtual technology now makes possible. To use the graphic imagery of the past to perpetuate cycles of violence and hatred runs counter to everything for which Visualizing Cultures stands. The goal must be to understand the past so that we can make the present and future world a better place.

Visualizing Cultures
Visualizing Japan Units by John W. Dower:

Black Ships & Samurai
Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan (1853-1854)

On July 8, 1853, residents of feudal Japan beheld an astonishing sight, foreign warships entering their harbor under a cloud of black smoke. Commodore Matthew Perry had arrived to force the long-secluded country to open its doors.

Yokohama Boomtown
Foreigners in Treaty-Port Japan (1859-1872)

This window on the imagined life of foreigners in Japan at the dawn of the modern era is based on the catalogue of the 1990 exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-Century Japan, by Ann Yonemura.

Throwing Off Asia
Woodblock Prints of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)
and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5)

Japan’s mid-19th century adoption of an agenda of industrialization and “Westernization” is illustrated in wartime woodblock prints. Produced in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Asia Rising
Japanese Postcards of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05)

Imperial Japan’s 1904–05 war against Tsarist Russia changed the global balance of power. The first war to be widely illustrated in postcards, the Japanese view of the conflict is presented here. Produced in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Yellow Promise/Yellow Peril
Foreign Postcards of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05)

Imperial Japan’s 1904–05 war against Tsarist Russia changed the global balance of power. The first war to be depicted internationally in postcards, it is captured here in these dramatic images. Produced in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ground Zero 1945
Pictures by Atomic Bomb Survivors

These drawings and paintings by Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb were created more than a quarter century after the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. They are provided by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.


Visualizing Cultures
Visualizing Cultures Units by Shigeru Miyagawa:

Star Festival

A return to Japan

An interactive documentary based on the story of real-life MIT Professor, Shigeru Miyagawa - played by Star Trek's George Takei. Follow along as the Professor returns to his Japanese homeland for the first time in 30 years. Anyone who has ever lived across multiple cultures will find a kindred spirit in the professor as his journey unfolds.

Visualizing Cultures
Site Features:

VC|Core Exhibit
The Core Exhibit, written by John W. Dower, is a new approach to history that “reads” images from the historical record. The text features full color images, often enlarged to reveal telling details. Images are isolated and juxtaposed to highlight diverse perspectives. Reading images involves asking who the artists are, when they worked, what mediums they used, and how they reached their audience.

VC|Visual Narratives
The Visual Narratives provide a shorthand view of primary themes and images from the Core Exhibit texts, with links to the appropriate sections. Viewers, students, and teachers who don’t have the luxury of sitting with Dower’s text in full can click through the Visual Narratives.

VC|ID (Visualizing Cultures Image Database)
Each unit has a database that features every image in the Core Exhibit, plus hundreds more, viewable in three sizes with full metadata and commentary. VCID features a federated search function that reaches multiple collections and a list of keywords that highlights themes and stories within the image collection.

Visualizing Cultures has created a channel called VCTV to house more than a hundred short clips related to the Core Exhibit. These clips will pop-up throughout the site as a VCTV button. Content includes “talking head” commentaries, animation, and archival source footage. In collaboration with Apple Computer the VCTV content will be featured as the first iTunes for Education channel and be downloadable to the video iPod.

The Visualizing Cultures curriculum, currently in development, offers a full complement of standards compliant lessons for each unit. The lessons provide teachers and students with a pathway to becoming active historians and knowledgeable readers of images.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology © 2005 Visualizing Cultures