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Multiplicity in Digital Material Culture – Part One

February 2, 2010

Of all the subjects I’m eager to write about, the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (AHOW) is the one that has inspired me to finally launch this new blog. Well, that and the fact that I’m attending a symposium at the Bard Graduate Center this Friday on the Artifact in the Age of New Media, and I’m trying to get my thoughts in order before I go. The BBC project brings together many aspects of my concerns for material culture online, and I’m curious what other people think about it. From what I’ve seen so far, this project fits very well into the model of multiplicity that I’ve been developing to describe my ideal, completely hypothetical, digital collection of material culture.

A little background: This has been my year of thinking about digital material culture, and I thought it was about time that I shared some of what I’ve learned this year with the rest of the world. Last March, I was able to explore some of these issues as they related to the Digital Objects in the Classroom conference that I helped to host at Vassar College. Next, in May, my team from Vassar took this subject to NERCOMP. Then in June, I had the good fortune to attend The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, where I was able to host a session on material culture and get the conversation going once again. This has all continued to percolate for the last few months, and I’m still amazed at how much conversation there is about digitization, yet how little about representing the specific nature of three-dimensional artifacts.

But the fact is, all this theorizing has been holding me back from just getting down and dirty with my own digital project, and thinking generally about digital material culture has taken time away from thinking about digital costume. I’m in the midst of trying to digitize the Vassar College Costume Collection (a research collection of authentic historic clothing) and starting to write grants for an aggregated collection of historic costume from institutions across the country. I’ve been wanting to get my thoughts out in the world, hypothetical as they are, so that I can move forward from theory to practice. If you want to read the full draft of what I’ve been writing on this subject, let me know, but for this blog, I realized that writing about the BBC project would give me a great opportunity to summarize my thoughts and apply some of my ideas to an actual, rather than hypothetical, project.

I’m going to present this in two parts, introducing my hypotheses in the first post, then applying it to the BBC project in the second.

It seems like there are exciting new digital collections popping up all over the place – yet when it comes to representing 3D artifacts, I’m still usually disappointed. The objects I work with – costume – are particularly complex, and particularly under-represented online. Most collections simply follow the model that was created for 2D objects, which started with digital libraries of texts and moved to photographs and 2D art, such as drawings and paintings. There has been great success with representing those formats, especially since a single high resolution view is often sufficient, but the evolution to represent 3D objects is going to require a different model. The recent BBC project, “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” is one of very few I’ve seen that are moving digital material culture forward.

A great potential exists: to represent material culture in more of its complexity, both in terms of physical perspective (how it is seen) and intellectual perspective (how it is understood). When I consider this potential, I can best describe my goals in terms of the idea of multiplicity:

  • multiple levels of supporting data – rich metadata, links to other related resources (both within the site and from other institutions)
  • multimedia – photographs, drawings, text, audio, video, patterns, models
  • multiple views of a single object – QTVR 360 degree view, video of object in motion, detail photos inside and out
  • multiple voices – curator, conservator, donor, producer, consumer, expert, enthusiast

All of the above are in service of goals related to a further multiplicity:

  • audience interests – different ages, different perspectives
  • interpretive or pedagogical plans – different stories to be told, lessons to be learned
  • learning styles – verbal, visual, auditory, kinesthetic
  • access points – as Seb Chan puts it, “online, onsite and offsite”

Perhaps all of this seems somewhat obvious – but if that’s the case, then why are so few projects taking advantage of such potential? This multiplicity would be ideal for all web content, but for material culture I believe it is particularly necessary. A two-dimensional screen cannot fully represent a three-dimensional object, but by making a variety of connections to other objects the user has experienced physically, it can prompt a user to imagine the object’s physicality in his or her mind’s eye. Multiple layers of content are necessary to reinforce the physicality and context of a digitized object of material culture, in order to stimulate imagination and critical thinking for individual users.

If history can be described either from the top down or the bottom up, many artifacts are somewhere in the middle, especially when looked at as objects making physical the relationship between producers and consumers. They provide a physical sense of the past that relates to a human scale, separate from the literacy related to documents. To represent such objects virtually, the goal should be to inspire the viewer to imagine physical interaction with the object in its own time, and thereby imagine its place in the culture, economy, or politics of another time. This, in turn, can inspire the recognition of relationships between past, present, and future.

“you don’t see with your eye
You perceive with your mind”

-from the Gorillaz song “Clint Eastwood”

The visual on the screen should not be all that a user sees, but rather merely a prompt to help him perceive it in his mind’s eye. This is best accomplished if the user is reminded of previous experience with a similar physical object. The element of imagination is particularly important in terms of historical context. Most modern viewers will first view an object from the perspective of their own time and culture, and will need other verbal and visual cues to help them to imagine it in its own time and culture. Maybe the user can’t interact with the physical object, to turn it to see a different view or run his hand over it to feel its texture, but a combination of different media can join together to help the user imagine such actions and therefore better appreciate the object. There is a danger in taking the two-dimensional nature of online images, or even the “two and a half” dimensional nature of Quick Time Virtual Reality (QTVR) images and other animated models for granted. Visual and verbal cues must help the viewer to understand the difference between the surrogate they are viewing on the screen and the actual object, particularly in terms of scale. These digital objects may be appreciated in their own right, but if their viewers are not reminded of their own personal experience with actual physical objects, then their understanding can never be complete.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how AHOW succeeds at increasing understanding using a variety of just such prompts to the imagination.

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