"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."
The Power of Visual Artifacts
So begins the Visualizing Cultures unit on the opening of Japan, a story told in words—but even more powerfully in contemporary images, both American and Japanese. Text by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower accompanies the images to provide context.
Typically, researchers interested in visual artifacts have had to travel far and wide, digging through library basements and museum archives to examine forgotten posters, drawings, paintings, and prints—only a handful of which could be included in any publication.
Visualizing Culture, an initiative in image-driven scholarship and learning, uses new technology to provide context and online access to images that would otherwise languish unseen.
"It is tempting, and indeed fascinating, to ask which side was more 'realistic' in its renderings," Dower writes in his essay on Perry and Japan. "But this really misses the point. For it is only by seeing the visual record whole, in its fullest possible range and variety, that we can grasp how complex and multilayered these interactions really were."
The Visualizing Cultures website currently features 13 units, all centered on Asia. In each case, says Program Director Scott Shunk, "The essay is driven exclusively by imagery—based on what is seen."
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