Southeast Asian images & Texts ProjectIn the Collection

Background of the SEAiT Project

1. Introduction—Original Aims of the Project:


Throughout the 1995–96 academic year, a team drawn from diverse divisions and departments from across the University of Wisconsin–Madison cooperated in the development of a digital archive of historical photography for Southeast Asia. Under the original grant from the University of Wisconsin's Division of Information Technology (DoIT), Alfred W. McCoy with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies initiated the project, and working with staff at Memorial Library, namely Carol L. Mitchell and Peter Gorman, agreed to create an on–line archive of historical photography that would meet the following project agenda:

  1. To draw scattered historical photographs of Southeast Asia into a single accessible source.
  2. To transfer these visual resources into a standard digital format.
  3. To make these resources available for classroom use, for faculty and student research, and for a variety of other applications.
  4. To provide a model for other digital image projects.
  5. To create a bibliographic standard for archiving images.


The SEAiT project has indeed fulfilled its aims and created a unique resource for the study of Southeast Asia. In fulfilling this contract, the project has tried to engage some broader conceptual issues about the uses of historical photographs in teaching and research.

2. Conceptual Frame of the Project

Increased Accessibility:

One key aim of the project has been to transform historical photographs from artifacts into documents—searchable, citable, and, above all, accessible. After a 150 years of photography, our vast collections of historical photographs remain, for the most part, little more accessible than illuminated Latin manuscripts in the Middle Ages. If a scholar needs a photo of, say, a Filipino senator or a Malay sultan, s/he has to travel to the relevant archive, spend days searching boxes and albums without any detailed finding—aid, and then wait weeks or months until a copyist can process and mail a positive print. Like a medieval monk, every scholar who wishes to use that same image has to repeat this tedious pilgrimage. In effect, our vast holdings of historic photographs, save a select number of oft—reprinted images of the famous or momentous, are largely inaccessible for teachers and scholars.

Through digitizing and collection in a single online site, scholars will gain access to rare archival photos in a readily accessible format—thereby allowing quick search, selection, and projection for classes, instructional films, texts, and scholarly study.

Non–Commercial Project:

Given the small numbers of students and scholars interested in Third World area studies, it is unlikely that private firms could ever generate a profit by producing slide kits, CD–ROMs, and videos as they now do for historic images of Europe and America.

Because the Internet and digital photography will facilitate the proliferation of historical and contemporary photographs, Third World areas will, as matters now stand, be excluded. This void is one that the commercial market is not likely to fill.

Closing the Cultural Gap:

As our culture becomes increasingly visual in its communication, photographs of foreign cultures have the capacity to bridge gaps—across the space that divides continents and across the time that separates us from the past. The creation of such an archive, in concert with similar projects for other areas of the Third World, could play an important pedagogic role in closing distances and making foreign cultures more accessible to American students.

International Cooperation:

Reflecting the realities of colonial power, the photographic record for most Southeast Asian nations is neatly divided—those before 1950 in the archives of the former colonial powers and those after independence in the country itself. Through digitizing, we can, for the first time, bridge this divide and create a comprehensive visual record which can be shared quite readily by both contributors.

Scholarly Resource:

After 150 years of photography and the creation of millions of images, this vast resource is still little used by serious scholars of any society. The process of transforming an archived photograph from artifact into document is so costly and tedious that scholars have, to date, made little use of the vast amount of information, both subjective and objective, visually encoded in our vast photo collections. In the late twentieth century, for example, the historical monograph has developed a curious convention: at the center of each book lies a signature or two of photographs, each succinctly captioned; but, within the surrounding text, the scholar takes care never to comment, beyond the briefest of passing references. Through digitizing, photographs can be transformed from artifact into document in ways that will optimize their utility to the scholarly community.

3. Future Directions:

Future Plans:

Looking forward to the future of this project, we hope it will develop in several diverse yet complementary directions—building depth on the Philippines, adding breadth for the whole of Southeast Asia, and exploring classroom applications.

Expand the Philippine Collection:

Reflecting the strength of archival and library resources in the United States, the project can, without great difficulty, build a remarkably rich and diverse collection of photo images on the Philippines spanning the US colonial era from the 1890s to the 1940s.

Working with cooperating institutions in Manila, we could easily add the next half century to create a comprehensive photo archive spanning more than a century. In effect, the Philippines would serve as a demonstration model, showing scholars the vast potential of this rich repository of visual data on everything from changing ecology to vernacular housing.

Expand to Southeast Asia:

Working with both ex–colonial institutions in Europe and national repositories in the region, we would like to build smaller, parallel collections for the other major Southeast Asian nations. Cooperating with the CIC—a consortium of the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago—this project can become the basis of future library cooperation. At present, the database has been expanded to include photographs from Laos in the mid–twentieth century. We hope that other projects will further expand the SEAiT collection.

Classroom Applications:

We plan to refine applications of this resource for classroom applications, both incorporation in existing courses and creation of new courses on photography and history.