Day One: Methods for approaching visual content, users, and partnerships in digital cultural heritage research
Written by Katherine Clough,
Conference blogger, Newcastle University/ V&A
The first day of the conference provided an abundance of digital culture heritage research with 22 talks on offer across the different sessions of the day split into two streams, following a keynote by Prof Sarah Kenderdine. Conference organisers Dr Kostas Arvanitis (University of Manchester) and Dr Areti Galani (Newcastle University) welcomed everyone and highlighted the two-day event as designed to cultivate a community of practice environment among researchers at different stages of their research. A presentation of 12 posters at the end of the day also provided further opportunity to scope additional emerging research (discussed in a separate blog post).
This blog post summarises highlights from across the first day, with the full programme and abstracts available elsewhere on this website. An overall theme that emerged from my experience on day one was the range of methodological skills in doing digital culture research. The sessions I attended were Visual Methodologies, Researching the User, and Reflecting on Partnerships.
The distinguished archaeologist, curator, and researcher, Prof Sarah Kenderine (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) launched the conference with her keynote full with dazzling highlights of her digital heritage projects on the topic of ‘New models for experimental museology’. Five key concepts of aura and authencity, modes of spectatorship, visualising cultural data, archaeology of the body, and deep mapping, provided the structure for navigating theoretical concepts alongside the impressive body of professional digital practice presented. One key aspect of Kenderdine’s research that particularly struck me was her innovative approach to ‘rethinking the screen’ alongside ideas of spectatorship in digital exhibitions. Her highlighted projects included critical reflection on the use of small screens, such as hand-held iPad devices as portable windows into virtual reproductions of heritage sites (Mogao Grottoes), as well as displays that curve and surround the visitor in immersive environments, from fish eye projections on concave domes (Look Up Mumbai), to panoramic displays (Hidden Pasts / Digital Futures) and multiscreen installations (mARChive).
Kenderdine’s project on augmented reproductions of the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, was not only interesting as an example of highly executed virtual-tourism that allowed the visiting and exploration of an endangered site, but also interesting for its use of innovative self-evaluation software (iShoU) with exhibition visitors. The iShoU evaluation app collected embodied and sensory information from the audience by inviting them to interact with scales and visual graphics on an iPad touch screen, rather than using a more prevalent word-based survey, with the completed results amalgamated, analysed, and visualised as additional cultural data in real time, demonstrating the potential efficiency of using digital tools as both presenting and capturing responses to cultural heritage. Capturing and digitising embodied knowledge is a major theme of Kenderdine’s latest research on creating a digital moving archive on the (in)tangible heritage of Kung Fu using motion sensory photography, film and animation. Overall, this keynote demonstrated the exciting potential of digital cultural research in the context of experimental museology using highly toned methodological skills, as well as introducing many theoretical concepts that (re)emerged throughout the presentations and questions in the rest of the day.
Following the keynote, delegates had to decide between concurrent sessions held in the Kanaris Lecture Theatre and the Discovery Centre at the Manchester Museum. The morning Visual Methodologies session in the Kanaris Theatre explored ways of analysing visual content online, whether photographs uploaded on social media sites, on museum websites, or the appropriation of digital images by the internet ‘meme-community’. The two papers given by Maria Arias (University of Manchester) and Dr Orsalia-Eleni Kassaveti (National & Kapodistrian University of Athens) used visual methods to explore the ideas of space/place and cultural heritage through online picture sharing.
Using data on Instagram posts received from the UAE government, Maria Arias described her processes of selecting and cleaning data to analyse visual expressions of Doha Art museum visiting experiences using content analysis. Kassaveti’s paper’s outlined how her work investigated identity expressed through photos on Flickr uploaded in an Athens square in Greece, as part of the larger CoHERE research project.
Dr Helen Gorrill’s (University of Edinburgh) paper and Meredith Whitfield’s (University of Manchester) video presentation both offered reflection on methods for understanding digitised paintings available online. Gorrill explained how she and Prof Judith Mottram (Lancaster University) surveyed the use of colour in a sample of contemporary paintings completed after 1980 available on museums websites from Europe and North America to identify larger patterns and trends across the collections and present comparative studies in a series of visual graphics.
Meredith Whitfield’s video presented her research on the appropriation and layered meanings of art history memes – digital images of (mostly historic, less well known) paintings overlaid with text to become, often humorous, forms of visual communication shared by people online through hashtags and reposts on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
The skills for visual and digital analyses of material online for cultural heritage research represented in this session complemented and expanded upon methods outlined for approaching social media from the pre conference training (which focused on Facebook and Twitter).
Researching the user and reflecting on partnerships
While studies of online material access cultural data on users through their own posted content, the afternoon sessions in the Discovery Centre further considered ways of researching the user and reflecting on the role of partnerships in digital heritage research. Jess Hoare (Cardiff University) and Brian Moss (Newcastle University) presented different methods for digitally recording their studied cultural heritage sites visitors beyond the text based surveys used in audience research.
Hoare’s research seeks to capture internal embodied experience through her experimental use of Fitbit style sensors (an Emphatic E4 developed at MIT for research purposes) to measure emotional responses through bodily processes (electrodermal activity, EDA) as visitors view works of art in the gallery. Moss’s research captured embodied experience of walkers using heritage trail apps on their mobile phones through point-of-view video recordings via cameras attached to their chests; this enabled the physical interaction with the phone, and navigation of the app, as well of the landscape, to be recorded alongside walking interviews with participants. Thus digital methods are shown to extend the ability to capture information about people engaging with cultural heritage in ways that built upon Kenderdine’s opening keynote.
Ross Parry’s (University of Leicester) paper traced the developing status of the museum user as evolving from ‘operant’ in the 1960s (a passive cog in an institutional machine), to increased recognition as an ‘individual’ from the 1980s, and proposed that museum visitors today are best described as ‘actants’ – visitors with agency. This raised interesting questions about power relations, and ethics in the questions at the end of the user research session, but that paved the way for the topics covered in the following session on research partnerships in digital culture heritage.
Juhee Park (University College London) outlined a comparative study of agency at different levels of networks in three UK national museums and their affects on digital projects, highlighting the importance of considering institutional factors that influence digital culture heritage research. Prof Paul Marty (Florida State University) emphasised current trends to acknowledge the invisible work of many digital heritage research projects, and the ethical concerns of using underpaid but skilled student interns for digitisation, coding and cleaning data.
Harald Fredheim and L. Meghan Dennis (University of York), and Sarah Feinstein and Prof Margaret Littler (University of Manchester) offered some examples of successful partnerships, through the use of academic fields-schools on taught programmes at the University of York, and collaborative display projects in Manchester, respectively.
Skills, methods and professional practice were noticeable through all the sessions I attended on the first day of the conference. Discussions around issues of ethics surrounding both the use of data on individuals, and the relationships between researcher and participant continued into the conference sessions on the following day.