09 October 2020

Taking Thomas Nast’s Life Online

It was disappointing to learn, as I described recently, that the cartoon biography of Thomas Nast I’d worked on since this spring would not be displayed in the Massachusetts Historical Society as originally planned. But frankly, in this needlessly calamitous year, that change in plans felt like a minor glitch.

At the time, I was researching visual references for the artists: What did Nast’s editors look like? What about their workspaces? How did Spanish police officers dress in the 1870s? As I did, I tried to imagine our new pictures in an online environment. How would they come across on people’s computer screens instead of up on the wood-paneled walls? Most important, what could a digital exhibit do that a material one could not?

Online, the cartoons would be smaller than they would be when displayed on a wall. But the webpages could give viewers links to the Nast images they played off of—and to many more images than the physical room had space for. I began to reimagine the exhibit as a series of webpages with supplemental webpages offering additional information.

There were still some challenges caused by the pandemic. The M.H.S. is looking after its employees by making sure only a few are in the building at a time, which meant that it took longer to digitize some of the Nast images we needed. There was no chance for all the people involved in the exhibit to sit down in a room, lay out the material, and discuss how it fit together. But again, compared to what else was happening in America, those weren’t big problems.

My colleague E. J. Barnes did a terrific job rounding up all the cartoonists’ drawings, keeping track of the necessary Nast artwork, assembling the hybrid images, and then going back to the artists to ensure they supplied all the info they needed to be credited and paid. And she drew one of the new cartoons as well!

“Thomas Nast: A Life in Cartoons” made its online debut a few days ago. It’s an adjunct of a larger digital exhibit on political cartoons in American history, “Who Counts: A Look at Voting Rights through Political Cartoons.” With the country in the middle of a crucial election, and access to the ballot at issue more than anytime for decades, this is a very timely exhibit. I’m proud that I was able to be part of it, and to help provide a forum for so many talented cartoonists. (More about them coming up.)

On Thursday, 15 October, Nast’s modern biographer, Fiona Deans Halloran, and political cartoonist Pat Bagley will give a virtual talk about the man through the M.H.S. Sign up here.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

You can watch Dr. Halloran’s conversation with Pat Bagley about Thomas Nast and political cartooning here.