J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Boston Massacre as Never Seen Before

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia just opened an exhibit of Don Troiani’s paintings of the conflict.

Troiani is not only a talented realistic artist but also one of the country’s most dedicated collectors of historical clothing, weapons, and other artifacts. His work reflects the best thinking about what things really looked like at momentous moments.

WHYY just ran an interesting story about how the museum is making its Troiani exhibit more accessible to people who can’t see those details in the paintings because of limited vision.

There’s a lot in the article, and this is just part of what it says about the presentation of one painting:
The tour at the museum started with Troiani’s painting of the Boston Massacre, the first episode of violence of the American Revolution in 1770 when British soldiers opened fire on an angry rally of Boston residents.

With the help of Trish Maunder, director of Philly Touch Tours, [testers] Mayeux and Bonenfant were first shown how large the painting is, roughly 2 feet by 3 feet. Walking along the width of the painting with their fingers on the frame, they feel in their paces the scale of the work. . . .

“We are standing in this painting behind a group of British soldiers, so imagine them in their bright red coats. There’s about six inches of snow on the ground,” said Tyler Putnam, the museum’s manager of gallery interpretation, describing the painting. “We’re looking at their backs and they are surrounded by a huge crowd.”

Because the perspective of the painting is behind the line of British soldiers, the viewer cannot see their faces in favor of the opposing colonists, whose panicked faces are lit by flashes of black gunpowder explosions.

Putnam then passed around the tactile graphic papers, so Mayeux and Bonenfant could feel the layout of the painting’s composition. Created by the Braille printhouse Clovernook, the paper had been embossed with different types of textures to indicate the surrounding brick buildings, the snow on the ground, and the flashes of gunpowder. A Braille legend in an upper corner identifies what the textures represent.

Although there are several dozen figures in the painting — the crowd of colonists reaches deep into the background of the canvas — the tactile graphic had to be greatly simplified so it could be coherent to fingertips. Only six figures are in the graphic. Most of the information Troiani had put in his painting was eliminated.
The picture above shows the graphic translation of Troiani’s Massacre scene, which folks can view here.

At the left is a sword-wielding civilian, possibly town watchman Benjamin Burdick, and then sentry Pvt. Hugh White in his overcoat. Then two of the seven grenadiers and Capt. Thomas Preston. At the right is another civilian, the apothecary Richard Palmes swiping at Preston with his cane. [Incidentally, Palmes is an important figure in the new book Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth by Claire Bellerjeau and Tiffany Yecke Brooks.]

As the news story says, the tactile graphic leaves out a lot—most of the soldiers and all but two of the large crowd. The two visitors who tested this method of interpretation clearly preferred in-depth description and discussion, though of course most museums can’t provide that all the time.

As the article says, “The tactile graphics are in a trial phase.” As I think about this particular image, I think the layers might be the most important information—the line of soldiers in the foreground, then the first line of locals facing them, then the rest of the crowd, and finally the Town House and other buildings with their straight lines and angles in the background. That would require flipping through three or four tactile graphics. But it was a complex event, after all.

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