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Morna O’Neill: “Home Subjects”

by Aimee Mepham, Program Coordinator, WFU Humanities Institute

Morna O’Neill, Associate Professor of Art History at Wake Forest University, was a recent recipient of an Innovations in Digital Humanities grant from the WFU Humanities Institute for her work on the “Home Subjects” project. “Home Subjects” is the website of a research working group which aims to illuminate the domestic display of art in Britain. The group’s goal is to “examine the home as a place to view and exhibit works of art within the historical context of the long 19th century.” They are seeking scholars whose work touches on this broad topic to join the conversation.

Morna O'Neill

Morna O’Neill

O’Neill founded the project with Melinda McCurdy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California and Anne Nellis Richter, an independent scholar and part-time faculty member at American University.

The idea for “Home Subjects” was born from a number of conversations held over several years. O’Neill and Nellis Richter began discussions on their respective topics when they were researching their dissertations at the same time in London. The focus of O’Neill’s dissertation was the way the mid-19th Century conceptualized the idea of decorative art and the divisions between fine art and decorative art. Nellis Richter was writing on the early 19th Century idea that nations should have national museums and what questions this raises in Britain where private collections in private homes were open to the public. “The dividing line between public and private and how audiences experience art has sort of a long lineage for us,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill continued to explore this topic in the creation of the exhibition¬†Domestic Bliss: Art at Home in Britain and America, 1780-1840. O’Neill created the exhibit in collaboration with three WFU undergraduate students through an HI¬†Faculty-Student Collaborative Humanities Research Grant. The exhibit showcased pieces that graced the walls of the Reynolda House when it served as a home for the Reynolds family, highlighting the “tension between ideal presentations and real manifestations of 18th century domestic life.” You can read more about this project here.

During this collaboration, Nellis Richter visited WFU and spoke to both O’Neill’s 18th Century Art class as well as the Humanities Institute Faculty Seminar on art and science in the 18th Century. This visit prompted further discussion between O’Neill and Nellis Richter about their shared research interests, particularly the ways in which scholars of the history of British art focus on the public display of art in commercial galleries or at the Royal Academy. “It seemed to us there was this other history, this other lineage that had to do with domesticity as a paradigm for experiencing a work of art,” O’Neill said. They began to discuss scholars that they knew working in this area and wanted a way to collect the work being done on this topic in an organized way. Nellis Richter suggested they start a blog. O’Neill, a self-described Luddite, was resistant at first, but agreed to contribute with Nellis Richter handling the more technical aspects of the project. Melinda McCurdy was also brought on at this point as part of the initial steering committee.

The Last Day in the Old Home 1862 Robert Braithwaite Martineau 1826-1869 Presented by E.H. Martineau 1896 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01500

The Last Day in the Old Home 1862 Robert Braithwaite Martineau 1826-1869 Presented by E.H. Martineau 1896 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01500

The blog began with the initial contributors posting thoughts on their own research and methodological topics. They then presented at a conference and used the session as a way to direct people to the blog and continue the conversation from the conference. When they began to feel limited visually by the platform they were using, O’Neill applied for the HI Innovations in Digital Humanities grant. This allowed the team to work with WFU Digital Initiatives Librarian Chelcie Rowell and Geoff Groberg, former web developer for Build.ZSR. This collaboration resulted in a redesign of the site to make it both more visually appealing and more readable for both scholars and a potential broader audience. The new template also streamlined the process of approving posts by contributors. The change has resulted in greater exposure and traffic as well as overall positive feedback from those who have visited the page.

O’Neill and her collaborators are continuing to look for contributors to the site as well as promoting the page at conferences. They will attend a conference in London in July 2016 to preview the papers on the site and hope to continue the conversation online after that session. They will also continue tho build the “Researchers” page as a way to connect scholars and graduate students who are exploring the same methodological and theoretical challenges.

Click here to visit the Home Subjects page. If you are interested in contributing, you can email homesubjects@nullgmail.com