institution: Wexford Publishing
category: Exhibition and Collection Extension
The Texas Coastal Bend Collection:
Vaqueros, Black Cowboys, the Irish and Man’s Connection to Nature
The TCBC is Louise O’Connor’s thirty five plus year documentation of the ranching culture in the Coastal Bend region of South Texas. The Irish immigration in the early 1830s coincided with the Texas Revolution in 1836 and launched the land hungry Irish toward an immense accumulation of what was then considered worthless land. When the cattle industry boomed post Civil War, the influx of freed slaves coupled with the established Mexican ranching traditions and the unique climate of the coastal bend created vast ranches that supported an unusually isolated lifestyle lasting into the 1960s. In many ways the earliest Irish colonists came to personify the Texas myth of empire, stoicism, and survival. Their ranches were almost exclusively populated with Black and Mexican cowhands and this tripartite culture’s connection to the land is the source of a valuable wisdom that we seek to preserve with our collection and pass on through our website.
We are building a cultural history website that has evolved into a platform for the express purpose of presenting assets in relationship to one another. All relational assets are cross-linked. Our CMS is in service to exploration and presentation. We are creating a set of tools to facilitate the discovery of the embedded stories. Our path to the user is our mantra – relationship illuminates meaning, meaning reveals story, and story engages. The actualization of that trajectory is to be found in the museum exhibit and that’s essentially what we’re doing – building an online museum. Not so much as the end goal but as an example of one way to look at the material. The tools we’re building aim to encourage users to utilize multiple entry points to experience the content, and to move through it. Our navigation is lateral instead of hierarchal. We want to allow for different users to filter, focus, and explore in different ways, based on their interests.
The site has two components; the research side is based on a customized Sphinx search engine built to leverage an extensive custom hierarchy of keywords, coupled with tagged entities (people and places). Each asset comes with a two or three tiered tagging scheme that allows different levels of relationship to be teased from the assets. The search results page has our three major media types as tabs (audio, images, and documents) across the top and the ubiquitous left side faceting column for further narrowing of the search results.
The browse side of the site offers/will offer multiple portals into the collection; topics, people, places, image gallery, oral history, and the written word. The people portal is fully functioning going to a grid of Louise O’Connor’s remarkable portrait photography with rollovers revealing name, life span, and role. Selecting the hamburger menu brings up filters for race, gender, and role. Clicking on an individual portrait goes to that person’s page with short bio, an audio intro by Ms. O’Connor, an audio snippet from the person, related images and text references. The places portal is in the design stage. Each place (ranches, settlements) page will feature maps, histories and prominent people with many opportunities for cross linking. The image gallery invites a browse experience with a little serendipity as well as a curated selection of special collections. The oral history and written word portals will follow this approach. The topics are the gateway to the online museum which we get to later.
Gallery link – http://stage.texascoastalbend.org/galleries/
The people are the heart of a culture and Ms. O’Connor, as a fifth generation descendent of a prominent ranching family with a life’s work of preserving a dying culture, is uniquely able to share her depth of knowledge and intimacy of insight with her photography. She wants you to know these people like she knew them. Her introductory recollections weave personal stories with the larger danger of losing their wisdom. Who was Nathaniel Youngblood? Looking at her portrait of Nathaniel, hearing her share her time with him, hearing Nathaniel talk about the strength the ranches provided, one can begin to get a real sense of who was Nathaniel Youngblood. And through Nathaniel and Romulo and Tom Jr. the user can begin to see what made this culture tick.
People link – http://stage.texascoastalbend.org/people/
The oral histories are the backbone of the collection (1400 hours). We needed a new way to present audio. We’ve devised a vertical display to take advantage of the internet’s propensity for scrolling. The audio interviews range from a half hour or so to as much as five hours. Each interview is broken down into tracks (individual audio files) of 20 minutes to over an hour, with each track broken into segments. Each segment is then tagged to identify the people, places, and subjects that are mentioned in the segment. The user interface provides the ability to filter the entire track down to only the segments that reflect a specific subject or subjects, based on a user’s interests. At the same time, each segment shows the user the related tags, prompting new subject explorations.
The written word is comprised of a treasure trove of family papers, ledgers, journals, letters, and books. The four books authored by Ms. O’Connor are the first distillation of what can be found in the interviews. We present the books using two different page formats: the traditional book replication and a web view. Each book is available in its entirety and shown as a scanned digital page-by-page layout. Navigation is available to skim through the entire book quickly when looking for something specific. The book is fully searchable, and since each page has its own tagging, users have the ability to filter down to specific pages of interest. Each book’s chapters are made up of thematic sections. The web view reformats these sections as a vertical scroll with text in the left column and the book’s images in the right column. This allows an increased flexibility to add photos or audio snippets to the book pages and enhances the ability to link to the collection’s other assets.
The web view is not yet implemented but can be seen with this mock up.
The online museum is where we curate the assets to highlight the different topics we have found to be significant. Each topic provides a narrative, taken from the books, and interspersed with other assets (audio, photos, video, documents) as illustrations and expansions of the narrative thread. The narrative runs vertically along a spine with a corresponding set of subtopics asking the user to explore. The subtopic level is the destination level. Here a user will find multiple sets of “pairings”, curated groups of assets (audio, photos, docs) centered around a specific aspect of the subtopic. Together, these “pairings” tell the story of the subtopic and the subtopics, together, tell the story of the topic.
Provided are the two design mock ups for the topic page and the subtopic page. Implementation will be completed by conference time.
Mock up for topic page below.
Mock up for Subtopic page below.
Finally the My Collections space allows users to assemble assets of their own choosing into custom folders with tools for moving assets around, making notes for individual assets and sorting assets. The admin site features a custom toolset for asset ingestion and management, batch editing, data import tools from legacy systems, as well as audio snippet creation and image cropping. The topic and subtopic pages are based on templates for expansion.
We envision our platform, as it matures, to be used by other small collections as well as by individuals looking to tell online stories.
Essentially the TCBC is a collection of voices delivering history as an actual lived experience told by those who labor, rancher and cowhand alike. It’s a human collection with a profound connection to the natural world. Here the stories of Milam Thompson, the philosopher camp cook, Abel “Guero” Perez, brush rider extraordinaire, and Thomas O’Connor [I], the seventeen year old disenfranchised second born son of an Irish miller, are all threaded together within this tripartite culture. Near as we can tell Tom came to Tejas not to achieve wealth or accumulate land but to leave a legacy. Louise O’Connor will leave the world this extraordinary collection of voices, “echoes from the past callin’ to us to be remembered”. This is Louise’s legacy.