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Multiplicity in Digital Material Culture – Part Two – A History of the World in 100 Objects

February 4, 2010

Many different aspects of the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (AHOW) work together to succeed in prompting the user’s imagination to better understand the physicality and context of a 3D artifact. Let’s revisit my goals of multiplicity, from my last post, as they apply to this project:

  • multiple levels of supporting data – the interface includes an elaborate system of cross-referencing or searching, by location, culture, period, theme, size, colour, or material. It also includes a “Find out more” block with a link that takes me to more info at the British Museum site, and on that page there are citations for books that could be consulted for more info, and even more cross-referencing to explore related items in the museum’s collection. On the down side, there aren’t any links to related discussions on other sites, at least not that I’ve seen so far.
  • multimedia – you can choose from an audio podcast, written transcript of the podcast, photographs, line drawings, video of the object in detail, video of an interview about the object, or map showing where the object is believed to originate from
  • multiple views of a single object – while  so far they only have one still image of each object, it is very high res and can be zoomed in upon. This, however, is supplemented greatly by a video of each object, which typically rotates around it to show different perspectives and close ups of different details. I love that many of the videos begin with a hand placing the object on the platform to be filmed, so that you can get a sense of its scale. I’m a sucker for the QTVR 360 degree view (here’s one of my favorites from Cornell – pretty high res, so give it a moment to load if necessary), so I wish they had that, so that I could choose which part I wanted to look at, and for how long, and be clear about what I’m seeing in detail relative to other parts (the cuts in the video don’t always make that clear). The videos are very dramatically lit, which certainly adds to their aura of mystery, and does help to show the depth and texture of the objects. However, this is more akin to the dark interior of the museum than to the setting in which the object may have been originally used, and therefore may detract from understanding its original function.
  • multiple voices – resources include text, audio, and video comments from multiple named experts, unattributed introductory text, audio comments from unnamed others, attempts of the experts to represent the original users or makers of the object (the project is working chronologically, and as I write this they’re up to about 5,000  BC, so there’s been no opportunity yet to interview the actual users or makers – I can assume this will be included when they get to a time period for which it’s possible!) Users can comment on the associated blog, but not on the object pages themselves. There’s a fairly good cross section of voices, but I wish there was even more transparency – some text is unattributed, and I haven’t been able to find credits anywhere on the site!

Again, all of the above are in service of goals related to a further multiplicity:

  • audience interests – Users coming from a variety of perspectives can appreciate the site in different ways. While older users may navigate themselves through the resources, younger users may be guided by teachers or parents using the guides and lesson plans on the site (see below). Users who have never seen such objects before or studied a particular period are provided with a good introduction. Even users who come to the site with advanced knowledge of a particular subject can still enjoy the high resolution photos of an object they may not be able to visit in person. And the most enthusiastic users can contribute to the project by uploading photos and information about their own object, whether it’s in a museum or a personal collection.
  • interpretive or pedagogical plans – the interface allows flexible use of the available resources, so that individual users can choose whether to focus on more interpreted sections (like the podcasts) or less interpreted sections (like the photos and metadata) However, the project also has resources for teachers under the “Learning” tab, both to provide interpretation and to guide students in forming their own interpretations.
  • learning styles – the following are all included – verbal (text), visual (pictures), auditory (podcasts), and kinesthetic (video showing someone placing / holding / using the object relates it to human scale and functionality; even audio descriptions of use / motion can help the listener to imagine how he or she would use it). Truly differentiated instruction allows for users to get the same content in multiple ways, and therefore must be redundant. Otherwise users will have to access all resources to receive all the available information, and their learning style may inhibit their appreciation of all the resources. Some, but not all, of the resources are redundant; for example, the transcript of the podcast provides an alternative for those who either can’t hear or who don’t have good listening skills. While the other resources are not exactly redundant, they do cover some of the same features. I was surprised at how engaged I was by the podcasts (I listened to a few while driving, on my commute to work). They were very successful at describing the objects and portraying their use. I definitely wanted to visit the site afterward and see the images, but having heard the audio first, my viewing of the images was much more focused. Some might find it very complementary to listen to the podcast while interacting with the digital images on the website. Or, you might think that a video podcast would be better than just audio. Personally, however, I found that the audio followed by the images/video definitely benefited my ability to focus. When I listened to the audio and pictured the object, and its context, in my head, it was much more evocative to me than when I had the image right in front of me. This surprised me, because I tend to be much more visual/spatial in my learning style- and of course, my experience, my way of processing, is likely different from many others. This is precisely the value of trying multiple approaches. Of course, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at my engagement with the audio – as we’ve learned from the folks at smarthistory.org, the role of conversation is very important.
  • access points – None of us want our audience to visit our website instead of our physical collection. But sometimes it’s just not physically possible – I know I won’t be able to afford a trip across the pond to the British Museum anytime soon! And when I was there, years ago, it was a brief visit and I was focused on the Elgin marbles and Lindow man. I missed out on most of the treasures highlighted in AHOW. But even for those who can and will visit, those who will benefit from that indescribable psychic quality of being in the physical presence of an object, this kind of digital support is still extremely valuable. When you do visit, typically you can’t hold an object in your hand or see it from all sides. If you are allowed to handle an object, or even a reproduction, it can make a lifelong impression, but the experience itself is all too brief. The digital object can build upon your memory of a physical connection. Even if I could visit the British Museum, I doubt they’d let me hold their oldest object, a stone chopping tool from 2 million years ago. But seeing someone hold it in a video and hearing someone describe using a reproduction, I am much better equipped to understand the object and place it in context.

In the draft that I’ve been writing, I discuss my disappointment with the failure of larger institutions to provide innovative leadership in the presentation of material culture online. However, AHOW has changed my perspective on that, to some extent. My concern has been that the larger institutions (who have the funding for innovative projects) unfortunately also have bureaucratic baggage that holds them back, and that perhaps smaller institutions, despite smaller funds, could be more innovative with their smaller collections. By focusing on 100 objects, and engaging with some multiplicity, this subset of the British Museum does manage to be innovative. But how dynamic will it be?

Yes, my focus is also on DIY digital projects for small institutions (and teaching collections, on top of that), and in that aspect this project is a rather intimidating model. I couldn’t find any credits on the project website, but I imagine a listing of the behind the scenes team would be lengthy. However, even if you take away the attractive user interface, the timeline and the animation with the objects flying across the screen as you speed through time, AHOW’s success at multiplicity can still inspire my project, even without the luxury of hiring a professional design team.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the recent economic crisis, the next few years are prime time for smaller institutions to be open to experimentation, taking advantage of student or volunteer labor, open source software, and multi-institutional collaboration to explore the boundaries of what digital museums can be. I know that’s what I’m going to try to do with my digital collection of historic costume. Now, what about you? I believe that it’s possible to generate this kind of multiplicity even without extensive funding, by using tools like Omeka to create dynamic, flexible resources that involve input from a variety of users, including students and amateurs.

Are my goals too ambitious? What do you think? Please leave a comment below and continue this conversation.

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