Does Digital Humanities embrace difference? Different interpretations, perspectives & disciplines?

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Following on from the Defining the Digital in Arts and Humanities research post, this post will discuss the first half day session at the Northern Bridge Summer School held at Newcastle University in The Great North Museum on the 4-5th June 2015. The session focused on Exploring the Digital in the Arts and Humanities.  The aim was to emphasise that Digital Humanities embraces difference whether that be different interpretations, perspectives or disciplines.

So is Digital Humanities perceived as a Big Tent? The “Big Tent” was the theme of DH 2011, and since then this issue of “Big Tent Digital Humanities” has stimulated numerous discussions about the inclusive and interdisciplinary nature of the discipline.  “Big Tent Digital Humanities”, deliberately opens and muddles the focus of the field and it has even been suggested that “Everything is Digital Humanities! Everyone is a digital humanist!” (Melissa Terras 2011). Well at least that’s what those that self-identify as Digital Humanist’s have a tendency to think.  But what about those who don’t identify as Digital Humanists? Like the Northern Bridge Students.  What do they think about digital scholarship and the impact it is having?

The doctoral student participants were invited to gather in specific disciplinary groups to consider the question of how digital impacts on their discipline and their personal research agendas.  The groups were tasked with thinking of 3 ways digital is shaping their discipline.  The discussion and feedback from the specific discipline groups highlighted an exciting range of perspectives. This really hit home the diversity in Arts and Humanities research.  It was fantastic to see the differences and the commonalities when it comes to thinking about digital.

Below are the 8 specific discipline groups main points about how digital is shaping their subject area:

Theology:

  • Access of information – easy access to sources from dispersed areas. Enabling research rather than shaping it.
  • Connecting the field – networking and collaboration.
  • The Limiting access of digital – there needs to be an awareness of the digital divide.

Languages

  • Range of digital resources, accessibility and novel ways of interrogating sources.
  • Information management, specifically reference management. With accompanying advantages and disadvantages.
  • Dissemination of research – sharing research widely.

Philosophy

  • Concern of publishing unfinished material, accuracy of digital sources and information, but the digital also gives access to unrefined materials.
  • Dissemination of research – increasing conversations and access to research.
  • Ask not what you can do for the internet, but what the internet can do for you.

Creative practitioners

  • Serendipity of the bookshelf – not easy to do digitally, but if you know what you are looking for digital tools can help accessibility and findability of real objects – finding things to use in research.
  • Digital as a medium in itself but does this impact on tangibility and aura? Is this lost in digital media?
  • Using a computer to understand the human element.

Linguists and literature

  • Digital tools can be useful, but it shouldn’t be leading us. Digital resources are often used naturally, perhaps researchers don’t consider it as DH.
  • Digital can increase ability to collaborate.
  • Anxiety – Should we always be using digital, even when it is not necessarily relevant to research?

English Literature

  • Greater scope for your research library – but you can only find what you know it is there. Serendipity of bookshelf is often lacking in digital resources.
  • Media savvy generation – should be using digital resources and tools.
  • Impact of research and employability. DH is a good way to highlight relevance of research.

Archaeology & Heritage

  • Archaeology has already been using technology for a long time.
  • Changing expectations of what we can achieve – speed of changing expectations – The digital is changing expectations of research and researchers at an alarming rate. You can invest a lot of time in learning how to use new technology, is it worth it?
  • Remodelling knowledge – interacting in a more organic way.

Archaeology

  • Visualisation of data – maps, GIS etc – archaeologists have always used digital tools to help visualise their data.
  • Transformative – access, publish, analysis, process, software, interdisciplinary.
  • Critical thinking – why are we using technology – how does it help? Should we be using it?

Despite taking a closer look at impact of digital on discipline specific areas when we brought the group back together there were some key commonalities and overlapping themes:

  • We need to ‘Engage the brain’ – why are we using digital technology, and is it really helping us?
  • There is a need for critical engagement and thinking when using digital tools.
  • Digital tools enable wider dissemination, increases accessibility and findability of research.
  • Offers exciting possibilities for interdisciplinary approaches.
  • The challenge of digital attribution is an issue.
  • Serendipity of the bookshelf – how can we retain/regain serendipity in the digital?
  • Diversity of perspectives.
  • Trepidation about the use of some digital resources.
  • Engaging globally, increased opportunities, to be part of a virtual community.
  • Thinking about the nature of engagement, and what that means and offers.

In many ways, Digital Humanities embracing difference or “Big Tent Digital Humanities” is a nice concept and it is a useful perspective to continually explore.  The DH community is now considerably more open, approachable, and willing to embrace new perspectives than many traditional areas of arts and humanities academia.  This inclusivity, however, is not clearly reflected in the main published research areas in the digital humanities field. As Pannapacker (2011) notes:

The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table.

So, the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago (Pannapacker 2011).

So it was nice to see so many commonalities between the disciplines when thinking about how digital is shaping their subject.    This to me really highlights what DH is all about – a broad spectrum of multidisciplinary academic individuals and approaches, which come together with a shared interest in technology and humanities research.

The follow-up exercise involved taking the ideas and points raised in the first session into multidisciplinary groups to think about and compile a manifesto/charter for the Northern Bridge Training Partnership.  The challenge was to suggest ways that Northern Bridge and its strategic partners could best meet the needs and requirements of students to equip them for emerging digital scholarship and perhaps even develop a leading position in doctoral training in this area.  Shawn has written an excellent summary of this over at Digital Humanities @ the library.

A big thank you to all the conveners and to all the Northern Bridge participants for an energizing and thought provoking session and conference.

 

N.B Obviously this post is just reflecting on different disciplines and the ideas discussed during the Northern Bridge Summer School.  There are lots of brilliant discussions about gender, ethnicity, age, and sexuality and digital humanities – a few links:

Defining the Digital in Arts and Humanities Research

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Digital Humanities? What on earth is it? Tools for research? cultural expectations? understanding pervasive technology in society? We asked the Northern Bridge doctoral candidates to define and discuss.

On the 4th -5th June 2015 I had the pleasure of taking part in the Annual Northern Bridge Training Programme Summer School held at Newcastle University in The Great North Museum .  The Northern Bridge is a doctoral training partnership between Newcastle UniversityDurham University and Queen’s University Belfast, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The 2015 Summer School theme focused on Digital Humanities and it produced a stimulating environment to discuss, share and learn about the impact of the digital on arts and humanities scholarship.   Digital Humanities is becoming an increasingly popular focus for academic research and discussion.  There are now hundreds of Digital Humanities centres and there has been an expansion in digital humanities taught courses, journals, and conferences.   But what is actually understood by the term ‘Digital Humanities’ is still up for debate.

Alongside the brilliant Shawn Day (lecturer at University College Cork, Queen’s University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin), Ian Johnson (Archivist at Newcastle University Special Collections) and Deirdre Wildy (Head of Special Collections & Archives at Queen’s University Belfast) we challenged the doctoral candidates to consider how emerging digital tools and methodologies impact on their own doctoral studies.

Before the Summer School started we circulated a short questionnaire to stimulate thoughts about digital scholarship. One of the most interesting questions enquired as to what the doctoral candiates understood by Digital Humanities.   As part of the form, we asked, ” What do you understand to mean by Digital Humanities in 140 characters?” – and received a surprisingly interesting set of answers. This list of definitions proved to be a very interesting starting point for exploring the Digital in the Arts and Humanities within the Northern Bridge Consortium.

In comparison to A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities (Day of DH), which is a community documentation project that brings together digital humanists from around the world to document what they do and how they define Digital Humanities, none of the Northern Bridge consortium self-identified as digital humanities scholars.   So it was very interesting to see what ‘non DHers’ had to say about digital humanities.

Some examples from the twitters:









The definitions were tweeted using the hashtag #NBSS2015 and were processed through Textal to explore the relationships between words in the text via a snazzy word cloud interface. What came out most strongly to me was the emphasis on tools and dissemination.  Digital as an output rather than a process or an object of study in its own right.

Lots has already been written about how digital humanities might be defined (see the excellent Defining Digital Humanities edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan and Edward Vanhoutte for a full volume on the subject) and the question of ‘What is digital humanities?’ continues to be a rich source of intellectual debate for scholars.  It was fascinating to hear what the next generation of PhD students felt to be important in defining DH.  It raises some interesting perspectives about how digital arts & humanities may be represented in the future.  It’s exciting to see how the established boundaries between, and relationships among, arts and humanities scholars are being re-imagined through the use of digital technology and the dynamic forms of engagement, discussion and collaboration it is enabling.

What Can We Learn from Digital Artists’ Projects in Museums?

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Innovation and experimentation in museums has been a growing topic of conversation of late, and an increasing number of organisations have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that push the boundaries.  As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in new ways that go far beyond simply placing their works on the walls.  New collaborative projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective are becoming more common. More museums are inviting artists to bring their creative artistic practice to focus on museum collections and on creating new participatory and immersive experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum.

While you do hear stories about these types of projects meeting some resistance from within the museum for seeming to be trivial, ‘arty-farty’ or without intellectual content, in my opinion more often than not these collaborative creative projects largely succeed in transforming museums into spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity.

This post looks at the process of working on Decoded 1914-18 as part of the umbrella Wor Life project at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Between October 2014 and February 2015 Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice came together to explore some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental digital art projects in museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with digital artists.  The final project – Decoded 1914-18 produced a programme of AV installations and events that explored the First World War and its effect on those living in Tyne & Wear. Seven artists took inspiration from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) collections to create artworks and performances which examined and interpreted Tyne and Wear in the First World War in innovative ways. It was a fantastic process and I learnt a lot, and I have well and truly been bitten by the power of AV for visitor engagement.

In an excellent blog post entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?”, Annelisa Stephan states:

“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”

This is very much something I would agree with after working on the Decoded 1914-18 project.

So here is what I learnt about working with digital artists in museum spaces during Decoded 1914-18:

N.B.

Before I started at Durham University I held the position of the Assistant Digital Officer at TWAM, my role was to work with the Digital Coordinator (the excellent John Coburn) to deliver a programme of digital projects that would innovate digital access to TWAM’s collections and increase public engagement.   Decoded1914-18 was one such project.

 

1. Museums Need to Embrace Risk

Working with digital artists to create visitor engaging projects inside the museum is fundamentally different from, and more challenging than, simply commissioning works of art. It means working collaboratively and bringing artists and creative practitioners into the organisation, and equally involves bringing museums in to the risk-taking of the creative process.

The aim of Decoded 1914-18 was to invite a fresh perspective to discover and reimagine stories and material from museum collections.  The project focused on creative arts practice where museum collections, artists and innovative digital practice merge to create a new kind of digital audiovisual experience.  This collaborative innovative creative practice fundamentally disrupts the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, visitors.   This was no mean feat. Not only did we have an aspirational project to deliver but we were also trying to do it with a difficult and challenging subject matter (the impact of the First World War on the North East), across a range of TWAM venues. It was a risk – and to TWAM’s credit, one it was willing to take. Rob Stein in 2012 suggested that creating a culture in museums that embraces risk is a prerequisite to allow significant innovation to take hold.  A certain amount of risk is always associated with digital projects because they are ‘new,’ ‘innovative’ and ‘cool,’ but there are uncertainties about how much risk is too much risk. How far can the boundaries be pushed with one project and how much tolerance does the museum have? These are questions that all museums are now facing and questions which Decoded1914  tried to tackle in a relatively short amount of time and budget.

 

2. Artists Disrupt the Institutional Voice

One of the most dramatic effect of digital artists’ interventions in museum spaces is to disrupt the institution’s voice, content and collections so they can be seen, reimagined and presented from a new perspective. This can transform the museum from a place of information and authority to one of experience, engagement and curiosity.

For example, one of the Decoded artworks took place in the basement museum store of the Discovery Museum, completely changing the space from a working museum collection store not normally open to the public to an immersive art experience.  This was challenging and involved a lot of risk management but the final artwork was well worth the oodles of risk assessments.  Including artists in the exhibition process means taking risks and letting go of authority, and challenging staff working practices. All good things in my book.

 

3. Friction is a Good Thing

Differing perspectives create tension and friction, sometimes unpredictably so.  But tension can be incredibly good for the collaborative and creative process.  If everyone worked in the same way, it would make for a very boring world. For Decoded we worked with a range of artists and creative practitioners.  I was surprised how much friction there was on some projects, whereas others went smoothly without incident. Now I don’t mean friction in terms of disagreements, misunderstandings or negativity.  It is more of a friction in terms of approach and expectations.  There was a disconnect between museum timescales and artistic timescales.  It was really refreshing to work with varying perspectives on timescales and project management and throughout the process we learnt a lot about expectations around museum collections availability, documentation and retrieval.  Despite some difficulties the friction between artists and museums is really interesting.Our ideas were challenged, tested, and in turn better projects were produced. This is the kind of useful friction that leads to new ways of working.   It highlights the challenges of working in a museum, and particularly highlights the need for museums to evolve their understanding around public expectations of collections access in projects.  Friction pushes all staff and can innovate all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the creative process.

 

4. Adapting and Compromise

Flexibility, adaptability and accepting change became key components of the Decoded project.  The nature of creative practice means that things can change quite quickly and often, for example in terms of what is possible. As a result of such changes, there can be impacts upon such things as collections material availability, installation, and evaluation. There is therefore a need to be able to react quickly to changes to the project, by both the artist and the museum, but also to find the space to accommodate these. It is important to constantly refer back to the aims and objectives of the project, and to reflect. Both artists and museum staff need to become very good at adapting to change and adjusting the process accordingly to match that change.

 

5. Encouraging Dialogue, Provocation and Confusion

By working with digital artists to reimagine museum collections, it encourages dialogue, provocation, and confusion for staff and for visitors. Confusion is a profound tool, because it prompts museum staff and the visitors to ask questions.  Seeing museum collections through an artist perspective has really challenged my perceptions of what is possible when it comes to digital interpretation.  It has made me think beyond text and image and to look at the abstract, the immersive and the noisy.

 

6. Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

Decoded resulted in a two week temporary installation, it was ephemeral by its very nature. It’s not unusual for artists’ projects in museums to be ephemeral, which makes documenting them essential. They are full of lessons that can guide future projects inside and outside the museum, so despite the short nature of the installation, it is important to document the process and the outcomes.   For Decoded we decided to use video to document the process of the project as well as to act as a legacy for each of the Decoded artworks.  This rich video documentation serves as a archive of ideas that can be used as inspiration for future digital projects.

 

A big thank you to all the artists,TWAM and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice, and Dominic Smith.  It was a great project!

I’d love to know what you think. What else can we learn from digital artists’ projects in museums? What have I missed? Are the learnings different with an artist in residence project compared to a collaboration for a specific theme? 

 

What is Digital Change in Museums anyway?

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Or to put another way: Do we need to understand Digital Change in Museums?

I’ve been thinking about digital change a lot lately. Change is very difficult to do, let alone manage, and what happens when you throw digital into the mix?  We continuously wonder and marvel at the possibilities digital presents, yet we seem to be constantly separating ‘digital’ out as an individual entity and therefore struggle to make sense of its impact on our lives. And if individuals find it difficult to understand, adapt and accept these digital transformations, how do cultural organisations deal with digital change?

But the more I think about digital change, the more I begin to wonder what on earth is it?  Is the term ‘digital change’ a bit of a misnomer? Is it still true are we really struggling to understand digital? Personally I feel like we are at a tipping point, where digital isn’t something separate anymore but is something which is embraced and no-one runs screaming from the building when the term is mentioned.

Today digital touches everyone and everything. It is part of everyday life – communications, retail, entertainment, education, medicine etc. So why when it comes to museums and change is it seen as something separate, and actually quite daunting?

Over the past few weeks there has been the Arts Council and Culture 24 Digital Change: seizing the opportunity online’ event at BALTIC – Centre for Contemporary Art and the Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2015 by Baroness Martha Lane Fox – both discussing the need for change when it comes to understanding technology and the internet.

But what does Digital Change actually mean to cultural organisations?  How is it defined? How is it understood?  And what is the appropriate response?

It may very well mean one thing to large national cultural institutions – “Digital as a Dimension of everything” from the Tate springs to mind and large ongoing digital transformations at the nationals are prime examples, leading Ross Parry to believe that the cultural sector is at the beginnings of being ‘Post Digital’.  But what about the smaller organisations? The museums in the regions? Are they ‘Post Digital’? Do they understand digital change?

One thing the Digital Change conference at the Baltic discussed was the fact that doing digital well is difficult. “It takes skills that cultural organisations often don’t have in-house, it costs money they don’t have and it’s hard to measure if anything is really having an impact.”  This doesn’t sound like something that has been accepted and embraced now does it?

But really should we be talking about digital change or just change?

Instead of thinking digital change perhaps we should be thinking about organisational change and how it is managed within museums. Ultimately how we think about and understand change affects our ability to anticipate, shape and direct it using digital technologies.

Within museums there is a sense of fluid, fast-moving change arising from the proliferation of digital technologies. Signs and talk of change are everywhere.  But, there’s no avoiding that museums are generally conservative, and change and innovation are often lost in translation in between the realms of bureaucracy, financial streamlining and supposed time and resource efficiency savings. This friction is clearly a frustration for those angling for change.

Perhaps we should reconsider the overemphasis on digital and of digital strategies and planning in our discussions and management of change processes within museums.  Instead, we should focus our attention and effort on the dynamic, interactive and conversational basis of organisational change.  One of the best books I’ve read about museums and change is Robert Janes’ Museums and the Paradox of Change.  It suggests understanding change is more about encouraging responsiveness and learning, not necessarily strategic planning.  If you haven’t read this book, I do recommend it.  It’s a really honest and open account of organisational change within a museum.

Once we understand organisational change processes then we can start to think about our ability to predict, shape and direct it using digital technologies.