Centre for Digital Heritage #CDH2013

Last Saturday I went to the inaugural conference of the Centre for Digital Heritage at the University of York. The first speaker was Professor Andrew Prescott, who gave us a salutatory reminder that the so-called Industrial Revolution wasn’t quite as revolutionary to those living through it, and that some of what we now realize were world changing developments, were not seen as such at the time. Whether we’ll recognize what is/was important enough about the current so-called Digital Revolution remains to be seen. But don’t let me speak for him, if you like, through the power of digital, you can see his slideshow here:

It was a mature and sobering start to the conference, but also inspirational. Towards the end he mentioned conductive ink that was safe to touch (or to paint on your skin if you want a working circuit-board tattoo) and pointed us towards the work of Eduado Kak as an example of how the digital and real worlds might collide in new ways:

I was particularly interested in the presentation from Louise Sorenson about a project to capture stories from families that emigrated from Norway to the US. The idea was to build a Second Life style recreation of the journey many such emigrants took (from Noway to Hull first of all, the overland to Liverpool to catch the boat to America). This would work as an inter-generational learning tool, letting people explore their forefather’s journeys, and to add to the world from their own family tales and photos or objects that might have been passed down the family from the original travelers. This experiment turned out to be one of those “a negative result is not a failure” types. They didn’t manage to capture much new data (though they did get some, shared on this blog), but learned a lot about why they didn’t, which Louise shared with us. For a start – Second Life? Remember when that was the “next big thing”? Early adopters got very excited and talked about it as though we’d all use it it, like Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse. But us “norms”, if we logged on at all, realised pretty quickly that it was hard work modelling your world, the pioneers were profiteering, selling us land and other stuff that existed only as one and noughts, and most tragically, everywhere you looked there were avatars having kinky sex.

In fact Ola Nordmann Goes West, as Sorenson’s project was called, rejected Second Life as a platform for at least two of those reasons. Instead the team opted for an open source alternative OpenSim. This allowed them to avoid the virtual property speculators and kinky sex, but didn’t solve the hard work problem. The challenge of: downloading the client; installing the client; setting up the client (with IP address, rather than an easy to remember/type URL); and, then signing up was an off-putting barrier to an audience used to just clicking on the next hypertext link. And this is competing for on-line time with more established social networks like Facebook and Flickr. Either of which might have more natural appeal to emigrant families, because they both are natural tools for keeping in touch with distant relations. Then, there’s the numbers problem.

The Ola project tells me around a million Norwegians emigrated to the US between 1825 and 1925, and that about four and half million Americans are descended from those families. Which feels like a large number. But when you slice it up to count the number of people that discover the project, the proportion of those who are interested by it, the number who get past the client barriers, and then the fraction who feel they have something to add to the story, you are going to end up with very few people.

I’ve spent a few paragraphs on this presentation because its particularly relevant to my original proposal, wherein I asked “What can real-world cultural heritage sites learn from the video games industry about presenting a coherent story while giving visitors freedom to explore and allowing them to become participants in the story making?” The Ola project is all about giving people freedom to explore and become participants in the story making, and so its a very useful example of what some of the traps I might have fallen into. Given that the sites I work with have an annual visitorship numbering in the tens of (if they are lucky, hundreds) of thousands, they’re chances of attracting even the tiny number of active community participants are even more limited than Ola Nordmann’s.

An alternative approach to public participation was shown by John Coburn. Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums put their collection on line as many institutions have done, but online collections remain connoisseurs resource: as Coburn said, “its only engaging if you know what you are looking for.” With the Half Memory project, the museums service handed their on-line collection over to creative people of all sorts to create compelling digital experiences. “Designing digital heritage experiences to inspire curiosity and wonder is more important than facilitating learning” Coburn insists.

PhoneBooth, from the LSE library

Ed Fay’s project, PhoneBooth, for the LSE Library, had an even smaller intended audience, students sent our by their geography lecturers from the LSE, to explore the London described by Charles Booth’s survey of 1898-9. He colour-coded every street according to the evidence he witnessed and recorded on the streets, classifying them with one of seven colours raging from Black (Vicious, semi-criminal) to Yellow (Upper-Middle and Upper Class). It reminded me as he spoke of the MOSAIC classification from Experian that the National Trust uses. The library digitized both his published results and all his notes years ago, but the PhoneBooth is an app that lets you take that data with you, and walk the streets just as Booth did. It even lets you overlay the data with the modern equivalent – no, not MOSAIC, but the Multiple Deprivation Index.

Ceri Higgins shared her experiences working with the BBC and other academics to create a documentary about Montezuma. As the programme was being put together, she grew more and more excited. This was a film that was going beyond the old tropes of gold, sacrifice, and invasion by the Spanish to reveal a broader representation of Aztec society. However, by the time it came out of the editing suite, it had become, in her opinion at least, all about the old tropes of gold, sacrifice, and invasion by the Spanish. The bad guys here were the narrativists who, using tried an tested Aristotelian principles of drama, needed a protagonist, an antagonist and plenty of conflict to sell the programme. They didn’t think the more nuanced interpretation that Higgins had hoped for (and I understand, which was filmed) would connect emotionally with the audience. Hmmmm.

Pause for a moment of self reflection.

I wish I’d managed to chat with Ceri during one of the breaks. It strikes me, given all the footage which told different, more nuanced stories, that this is a case for The Narrative Braid!

Another presentation that grabbed me was from a team led by Helen Petrie, presenting their efforts to interpret (and then evaluate the interpretation of) “Shakespeare’s church” Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon. The interpretation, a smartphone app, was nothing special, using techniques that a myriad of other developers are also trying to push on cultural heritage institutions. But the evaluation was something new. According to Petrie “surprisingly little empirical research is available on the effects of using [smartphone app] guides on the visitor experience.” It’s not so surprising actually, considering how dificult it is to record emotionsal responses without participants intellectualising them. Anyway, they started from a clean slate, creating a psychometric toolset that includes the Museum Experience Scale (and of course the Church Experience Scale). The presentation of a top-line summary of course, but I’m keen to read more about it, as I’m pretty sure I saw at least one bar-chart with an “emotional engagement” label.

Another sort of guide, and one long imagined, was described by Adrian Clark. Ten years ago he started working on a 3D augmented reality model of parts of Roman Colchester, but the technology required at the time was on the limits of what was weaarble, and by no means cheap. Now that the Raspberry Pi is on the scene, he has started work again, and hopes soon to have a viable commercial model.

We also saw a presentation from Arno Knobbe, who showed us ChartEx, a piece of software that can mine Medieval texts (in this case, property charters) and pull out names and places and titles. Then the program will also algorithmically suggest relationships between the people and places mentioned in the charters and thus suggest where the same John Goldsmith (for example) appears in more than one charter. Jenna Ng analysed the use of modern Son et Lumiere shows in historic spaces. Valerie Johnson and David Thomas explained how the National Archives are gearing up for collecting the digital records that will soon be flooding in as the “30 year rule” becomes the “20 year rule.” My supervisor, Graeme Earl introduced a section on the history of Multi-Light imaging, in honor of English Heritage’s guide on the subject. The subsequent papers covered RTI, as well as combining free range photography with laser scanning to create accurate texture maps, and very readable 3D models. One fascinating aside (for me) was that the inventor of the original technique, Tom Malzbender, originally thought it’s main use would in creating more realistic textures for computer games. We also looked at: the digitisation of human skeleton remains (makes putting them together a lot easier apparently); the 3D modelling of the hidden city walls of Durham (though personally I’m more excited by the Durham Cathedral Lego Build which started today, first brick laid by Jonathan Foyle); and the digital recording, and multiple reconstructions, of mediaval wall paintings.

There were poster presentations too. Two that leaped out for me were Katrina Foxton’s exploration of “organic engagement” with cultural heritage on the internet, and Joao and Maria Neto’s experiments with virtual agents as historic characters.

3 thoughts on “Centre for Digital Heritage #CDH2013

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