Tanya Sheehan, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, is one of four invited contributors to the Library Company of Philadelphia’s innovative project, Imperfect History: Digital Catalog. An integral online element of the online exhibition Imperfect History, the catalog creatively engages with the project’s concept of (un)conscious bias and multiple viewpoints in reading images.

Broadbent, Samuel, 1810-1880, photographer. [Portrait of an Unidentified African American Woman].
Philadelphia, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype.
Forms part of the Dickerson Family Collection and the Library’s African American History Graphics Collection.
Cased photos [P.9427.13]

Four guest catalogers from the curatorial, art history, and studio art fields authored descriptions of the same visual material from their individual perspectives as influenced by their discipline. The objects selected for their analysis include an antebellum daguerreotype of an unidentified African-American woman, a mid-19th century allegorical print of the stages of life of a white man, and a circa 1880 watercolor of an 1851 Philadelphia street scene. 

The catalog serves as a case study of the inherent tensions and revelations invoked from a traditionally standardized, “objective” process pro-actively made subjective and diverse. In her own contributions, Professor Sheehan drew upon her expertise in 19th-century American visual culture, especially the history of photography and the representation of whiteness and blackness. In 2006 she held the William H. Helfand Visiting Research Fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.