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How do you make the world go 'round?

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center’s Coronelli Celestial globe (ca. 1688) is almost five feet high and depicts several constellations labeled in Italian and Latin. To coincide with the current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, the technology and digital services department developed a virtual model of the globe for our website. Photographer Pete Smith and technology services graduate intern Ramona Broussard describe how they assembled this model:

The first challenge we encountered in creating this virtual model was moving the globe to the photography studio to capture high-quality images. The Ransom Center’s exhibition preparation department had to remove a door so that the large globe could fit inside the photography studio.

After our first test shots, we realized that the lighting would have to be polarized to clear up the glare coming off the shiny surface of the globe. The final lighting setup required five powerful flash units and numerous reflectors. For the animation to run smoothly, the globe had to be rotated the same distance for each photographed frame. After some investigation we found that the globe was marked with 72 longitudinal lines that were perfect to use as guides when we moved the globe for each frame. When photographing the globe we had to be careful not to skip a section or double up on one.

One person moved the globe and carefully stepped out of the frame so that the photograph could be taken. This process was repeated 72 times until the globe was photographed for one full rotation. When the photographing was complete, the exhibition preparation crew lifted the globe onto a type of dolly and rolled it out of the studio. They then replaced the door.

The next challenge was deciding how to stitch the photographs together and present them online in a usable and accurate way. We settled on using Flash because Flash is a widely adopted tool that most browsers support without the need for add-ons or plug-ins; the necessity of downloading add-ons often prevents people from accessing new multimedia.

We reviewed several online Flash tools and settled on one created by YoFLA because it was easy to use and provided several functions we wanted, including the ability to zoom, a customizable look, and predefined hotspots (or clickable areas.) YoFLA 3D Object Rotate is freely available for those who want to try it.

The first 3D object we created with 72 uncropped images was prohibitively large. To keep download time to a minimum, we created a smaller object with only 36 images that were cropped. Finally, we had a virtual globe that could be put online for easy viewing and close inspection.

Playwright Terrence McNally's connections

By Alicia Dietrich

Four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally is a frequent focus of theater news these days. This summer he completed a workshop production of his new drama, Unusual Acts of Devotion, at the La Jolla Playhouse, that starred Richard Thomas and Doris Roberts. His latest musical—a stage version of Catch Me If You Can, originally a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio—just closed in a workshop production in Seattle and will move to Broadway sometime in 2010. McNally will also be represented on Broadway this season by revivals of his musical Ragtime and his dramedy Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In March, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is mounting a mini-festival of his work titled “Three Nights at the Opera with Terrence McNally” that will include productions of his The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, and will feature a newly commissioned play focused on the opening night performance of Bellini’s I Puritani that will be titled The Golden Age.

McNally has thus far made three gifts of his papers to the Ransom Center, and researcher Raymond-Jean Frontain recently wrote an article about his work with the Ransom Center’s McNally papers. Frontain is a professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas, where he focuses on seventeenth-century literature.

So how does a specialist in seventeenth-century devotional literature find his way from the religious lyrics of John Donne to the work of contemporary playwright McNally?

“In 1993, I caught the Broadway production of A Perfect Ganesh with Frances Sternhagen, which was one of the most luminous performances that I had experienced in a long while,” Frontain explains. “The actor led me to the play. I’ve been exploring the religious bases of McNally’s drama ever since.”

Read Frontain’s article “Terrence McNally’s Connections,” in which he explores McNally’s relationship with John Steinbeck, Angela Lansbury, and others.

From the Galleries: Poe in popular culture

By Alicia Dietrich

Poe’s influence on varied and broad swaths of popular culture—hard-boiled detective fiction, horror and suspense films, song lyrics, crime-scene-analysis dramas, graphic novels—seems to prove Allen Ginsberg’s claim that “everything leads to Poe.” Immortalized in the minds of readers and fans—as well as in television, film, t-shirts, and collectibles—Poe continues to fascinate and inspire.

One classic example is Poe’s appearance on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967). In their song “I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles declared, “Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” The band also made him a member of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, placing him in a prominent position on the memorable album cover.

Many other popular musicians have paid homage to Poe: Alan Parsons—famous for his engineering of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon—set Poe’s works, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.” In 2003, Lou Reed released a concept album, The Raven, featuring musical and spoken interpretations of Poe’s works by various actors, including Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe.

Visit the Poe exhibition for many more examples of Poe’s influence in popular culture.

New exhibitions open today

By Alicia Dietrich

Two new exhibitions, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe and Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, open today at the Ransom Center.

In conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, the exhibition Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, drawn exclusively from the Center’s collections, showcases important astronomical discoveries of the last 500 years.

In this video, Mary Kay Hemenway, Research Associate and Senior Lecturer of the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin, shares insight about some of the items that provide an overview of centuries of astronomical discovery.

Poe Mania: View more than 4,000 Poe-related images, but "I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer"

By Alicia Dietrich

Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847
Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847

The Ransom Center has launched the Poe digital collection, where online visitors have the opportunity to see collection and exhibition items, ranging from manuscripts in Poe’s meticulous hand to his annotated copies of the “Tales and Poems” and “Eureka.” The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram, who curated the From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, shares his thoughts on Poe and the digital collection:

Edgar Allan Poe has always been a favorite author for visitors to the Ransom Center who want to see a few manuscripts but don’t have a formal research agenda. So many people find a personal connection with Poe. When I was nine, I discovered “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I loved the chill down the spine and Poe’s use of “big words” that sent me rushing to the dictionary. Here was an adult author who could also tell a good story!

Poe’s widespread popularity led us to mount digitized versions of all of his manuscripts at the Center, alongside printed copies of his works with his annotations and related materials. We anticipate considerable use of the digital collection by scholars and students, although much of the material has already been published. Whatever the reason for visiting the site, online viewers will be fascinated by Poe’s eerily precise and beautiful script (of course visitors to the Center can see the real thing in the upcoming exhibition devoted to Poe, opening September 8).

Many discoveries were made along the way as we assembled materials for the exhibition and the digital collection. We uncovered some uncataloged materials from the vast Poe collection of manuscripts and printed materials assembled by the Baltimore collector William H. Koester. Among these was a large group of sheet music based on Poe’s poems—these are now all online. Not to mention the book that Poe left by mistake in his doctor’s office shortly before his miserable death in Baltimore. It bears the mysterious notation “Augusta” (in quotes and not in Poe’s hand) on one page.

Even if you work your way through the collection and go on to read or re-read his works and letters, I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer. He remains fascinatingly elusive. There is, for example, the matter of his mysterious death from unknown causes, still under debate. Some critics regard him as a talented humbug, while others claim that he is the most original American author of his century. Take, for example, the manuscript of one of his lesser-known stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” which is in the exhibition and online. No one can really tell if this is a carefully crafted work of literary irony directed against the excesses of Romantic prose, or an example of Poe’s own tendency to overblown rhetoric. For me, this very elusiveness is the essence of his appeal.

Poe Mania: Can you out-decode Poe?

By Alicia Dietrich

In 1839, while working as an editor for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe encouraged his readers to send in cryptographs, or short encrypted texts, that he would then attempt to solve. He explained that the “ciphers” should be simple substitution ciphers, that is, readers should substitute a particular symbol for a particular alphabet letter every time it appeared in a statement. The readers responded, sending, by Poe’s estimate, “nearly one hundred ciphers.” He claimed to have solved all but one, and that one, he argued, was not a true cipher.

Poe was so captivated by cryptography that he incorporated it into his story “The Gold-Bug” in 1843. In this story, the character William LeGrand must solve a puzzle to find a buried treasure.

Learn more about how to solve cryptographs and then practice your decoding skills on the Poe Project website.

Poe Mania: Be the first to see photos of the Poe exhibition

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center Galleries have been closed the past month for the installation of the Ransom Center’s fall exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.

The exhibition doesn’t open until next Tuesday, but you can visit our Flickr page to see behind-the-scenes photos of curators and staff preparing the galleries and to get a peek at some of the items that will be in on display.

Apply for a fellowship at the Ransom Center and "watch works develop in their different stages"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center announces its application process for the more than 50 fellowships that are awarded annually to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must apply by February 1, 2010, and demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Recent fellow Daniel Worden, who received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, describes his experience at the Ransom Center:

This summer, I worked in the Norman Mailer papers at the Harry Ransom Center, through the support of a Dorot Foundation Fellowship. This research trip allowed me to begin work on my new book project, “Cool Realism: The New Journalism and American Literary Culture.” This book will focus on literary non-fiction from the 1960s and 1970s that adopts techniques from fiction writing. Norman Mailer is key to this project, and the Ransom Center’s collections proved to be a perfect starting point for my research.

Since I was primarily interested in Mailer’s non-fiction writing, I was able to focus the first two weeks of my research on a few key texts, namely, The Armies of the Night, The Fight, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. On my first day at the Ransom Center, I was thrilled to find an early introduction to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s book about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, that compared his journalistic method to Truman Capote’s, as realized in In Cold Blood. Mailer argued in this draft introduction that he relies less on fact and more on “mood” in documenting events. It is precisely this type of comparison, and the resulting ideas about what constitutes “true” writing and meaningful journalism, that I was hoping to find.

Working at the Ransom Center was a joy. The curators and librarians were incredibly helpful, and I was able to accomplish much during my stay because the environment at the Ransom Center is so conducive to archival work. As an added bonus, Austin is such a vibrant city—there was always something to do after the reading room closed.

Watch the video of Worden discussing his research and describing how one “can watch works develop in their different stages.”

Poe Mania: Parody Poe for the chance to win

By Alicia Dietrich

“The Vulture,” a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”
“The Vulture,” a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

Written by: Alicia Dietrich

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has been one of his most popular poems since its publication in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror newspaper. This popularity has led to a number of parodies, or humorous imitations, of the poem. The tradition of writing parodies of “The Raven” dates back at least as far as 1853, when Graham’s Magazine published “The Vulture: An Ornithological Study.” Its first stanza begins:

Once upon a midnight chilling, as I held my feet unwilling
O’er a tub of scalding water, at a heat of ninety-four;
Nervously a toe in dipping, dripping, slipping, then out-skipping
Suddenly there came a ripping whipping, at my chamber’s door.
“’Tis the second-floor,” I muttered, “flipping at my chamber’s door—
Wants a light—and nothing more!”

Visit the Poe Project website to compose your own parody of “The Raven,” and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win Poe-centric prizes.