4 points about connectivity and collaboration in Digital Humanities

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In October I took part in the DAH Institute at the Royal Irish Academy.   The theme of the Institute was Networks – all sorts of ideas spring to mind when you think of Networks – networked data, digital networks, networked society.  But I’m more interested in networks of people and networks of ideas.  So my talk focused on networks of people and how they collaborate in digital  humanities.

Here are some of my key points from my presentation about how to work collaboratively.   Each point is accompanied by spectacular images from Flickr CommonsRuth the acrobat is a personal favourite.

Don’t Assume.

2999279726_942b98511a_zThere are multiple definitions of what the Digital Humanities actually is – my definition of DH maybe very different to your definition (and that is great).  But when you embark upon a collaborative project – and the likelyhood is as you climb the academic ladder, or if you move out of academia to work in industry, cultural heritage etc you will have to work collaboratively.

When you embark upon a collaborative project there is a presumption that you are all talking in the same language.  You will make assumptions about the other persons discipline and vise versa.

  • At the beginning of a collaborative project spend the time just talking.
  • Don’t rely on email because things can get lost in translation.
  • It’s really important to have a common language.
  • Spend time building relationships and understandings and figuring out how you all measure success at the start.
  • Don’t assume (it makes an ass out of you and me)
  • You can set criteria at the beginning but due to the nature of research, criteria can shift and this needs to be managed and communicated which leads nicely on to…

Be flexible.


Be like Ruth the acrobat – be flexible. Learn to adapt and to compromise.  Both in terms of Time and Space – Flexibility, adaptability and accepting change and dealing with it.

Be Selfish.

(I couldn’t find a nice image to represent this)

This might seem out of context when talking about collaboration.  But it is very important to be clear about what you are going to get out of the project, and out of the collaboration.  What is going to further your aims?   Be clear about what you and your collaborators want to get out of it from the beginning.

Think Outside the box.


This is a postcard from 1925 held in State Library and Archives of Florida.  Meant to represent thinking outside the box.

Thinking outside the box, establishing multidisciplinary research teams and international collaborations with galleries, libraries, archives and museums, institutions outside academia.  Start to push the boundaries of existing technologies and methodologies.  Ask more questions.  Aim to create an environment which is open to experimentation and innovation.

Innovation and experimentation are closely related to Risk.  But how much risk is too much risk? This is an important question which needs to be explored.   I think we need to create a culture in academia that embraces risk is a prerequisite to allow significant innovation to take hold. Take risks, and don’t be afraid to fail.  Failing means we learn how to do things better next time.

There is plenty of discussion about collaboration in Digital Humanities, and everyone will work collaboratively in different ways, that is why it is so exciting.  These are my 4 key points, what are yours?

Bulb Banter: Museums bring out your bulbs!

Large Ediswan bulb UCL Museums

Large Ediswan bulb UCL Museums

Over the past 6 months I have been curating an exhibition in UCL Museums newest exhibition space, the Octagon.  The exhibition is all about digital technology and illustrates the power of emerging applications and poses questions about technology and culture in the past and in the present. Its been a brilliant experience and I have learnt so much.  During the process I have become a bit obsessed with Light Bulbs.

Light bulbs seem so mundane now, but have you actually stopped to think about how they work, the history behind them and had a close look?  They are really quite pretty and have a fascinating history! I might be a bit bias.

Bulb history the basics:

The invention of the light bulb is often credited to two men; Thomas Edison, from Ohio, USA and Joseph Swan, from the North East of England. In 1883 Edison and Swan went into partnership to form the Edison and Swan United Electric Company also known as Ediswan. The newly formed Ediswan started to sell incandescent light bulbs which became the industry standard.

Last night I shared my obsession with Light Bulbs at Museums Showoff and now loads of #bulbbanter is popping up.  I can’t really express how excited this is making me! Loads of Bulbs!!! Brilliant.

Here are some of the highlights from today:

Lightbulb lamp – Horniman Museum

Electric filament lamps made by Swan (left) and Edison (right), 1878-1879 – Science Museum 

Blackout Light Bulb – IWM 

Light Bulb – Museum of London

If you know of some interesting light bulbs in any museum collections or  happen across any brilliant bulbs, please let me know!

Installing the Octagon Exhibition – A professional curators perspective

I’ve been posting my personal experiences about the installation of the Digital Frontiers exhibition but here’s the installation process from another perspective.

Teaching and Research Curator Nick Booth has blogged his experience of installing the exhibition over on the UCL Museums and Collections Blog.

here’s a snippet from it:

One of my main challenges was that Claire (understandably) wanted to know as much information about the objects as we could provide. Not only when she was choosing her objects, but also for the labels that she has had to write for each one. In most of the Science and Engineering Collections our object records are literally a few lines in the database, and many things (such as the ‘big egg’ from the last exhibition) are completely unrecognised, by me anyway. This meant that while trying to help Claire pin down her ideas and decide how she would interpret them, I was also having to furiously learn about what we had in the collections. This is a very good thing from a curatorial point of view, but did mean I had to answer a lot with ‘let me get back to you’. However I do know an awful lot about light bulbs now!

You can read the rest of Nick’s post here.

Some more museumy/culture related blogs & a baby sloth

After I posted originally about revamping my reader with lots of Museumy, DHy, and pretty goodness, I had a huge response and loads of people got in touch with some other excellent blog recommendations.  So here are some that I missed last time:

Chris Unitt’s blog

Dr Charlotte Frost’s blog (this clever lady has fantastic nails)

Museums at Night

Museum Commons

NESTA Digital R&D fund blog

Pattern London

The Uncatalogued Museum

Thinking About Exhibits

UCL Museums and Collections blog

Again, if there are any more blogs that you think I should be following, ping me!
Also this never fails to make me smile. Baby sloth!

Revamping the blogroll

Just before Christmas I decided to revamp my reader, and asked for recommendations on some new good blogs that I should be reading. Anything Museumy, DHy, or generally pretty were the three key ingredients.  Some I already followed, some are new.  Thanks to everyone who gave me some recommendations. I thought I would share; so here’s a list of the blogs that I pay most attention to:


Museumy Goodness

Audience Research

Electronic Museum

Engaging with Social Media on Museum 3

Fresh + New

IWM Social Interpretation Project blog


Museum 2.0

Museum 3.0

Museum Cultures

Museum Madness



Museums Computer Group Blog

oonagh murphy’s blog

Open Objects

Rhiannon Looseley’s blog

The Attic

The Museum of the Future

We are culture 24


DHy Goodness

butterfly hunt


Claire Warwick’s Blog

Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog

Digital Urban

Anne Welsh’s Blog

Melissa Terras’ Blog




Brilliant People

Dan Zambonini’s blog

Frankie Roberto’s blog



Mar Dixon’s blog

Making Strange



Beautiful Things

How about Orange

Project provenance

The Sartorialist

What Katie ate

What Katie Wore


If there are any more blogs that you think I should be following, ping me!



What is the DISH of the Day? A big plate of digital learning?

Yesterday I took part in a panel session at the Digital Strategies in Heritage conference, or DISH for short, in Rotterdam.  I was quite honoured a few months back to be approached by Wendy Earle from the BFI to take part in a panel about digital learning strategies, or lack of, and start thinking really strategically about what digital learning means in the cultural sector and where exactly digital learning practitioners sit in cultural institutions.

The panel consisted of some fabulous digital divas; Rhiannon Looseley from the Museum of London, Shelley Mannion from the British Museum, Wendy from BFI, Bridget McKenzie from Flow Associates and a token chap Steven Stegers from EUROCLIO. Oh, and me.

It was a really interesting panel that raised more questions than answers, but I think that it was really quite telling that we all had questions about the jobs we do, the experiences we provide, and the roles we play in the wider institution, and how there really aren’t any best practice guides or key institutional guidelines of how digital learning should be approached.  Or in fact evaluated.

Despite Learning being increasingly acknowledged to be a core function of museums, and the multitude of digital and online museum learning resources being produced there is still a lot of confusion about what all of that really means. As we stated in our panel abstract museums ‘have embraced the transformative possibilities of the digital realm. However, introducing digital initiatives into learning raises interesting questions that have not yet been fully discussed.’

On a practical level there are questions about responsibility and job roles; for example who is responsible for creating digital learning content within heritage institutions, and where do they sit within organizations? Tech, learning, curatorial, marketing?

But we raised other interesting questions:

  • How can non-technical educators manage digital projects successfully?
  • What partnerships have been established? Do they work efficiently? Do these partnerships include non-heritage partners?
  • What kind of learning is encouraged?
  • How is the impact measured?
  • Is a learning framework used?
  • Which audiences are addressed and how?

Then we raised more  strategic questions, including ‘what do we mean by learning in a digital context?’, ‘what kind of learning do we want to encourage?’ and how do we know if learning is taking (or has taken) place?

I was really interested in questions about digital learning and the institutional mission and where does digital learning fit in with senior management policy decisions? Also issues of how do you get institutional support for digital learning research projects, particularly if you are doing something really new? Does that fit with institutional aims?  Also talking about whether or not personalised digital learning can be implemented in siloed museum departments? Is there collaboration and transparency required to do so efficiently?

The big question for me looked at whether focusing on the user, and whether or not we can create meaningful digital learning experiences with the visitor rather than for the visitor.

Overall  the panel were talking around how museums are rethinking how we engage with our audiences, and there are shifting ideas about learning becoming about active production and participation, and now museums increasingly expect projects to include some kind of digital learning element.  But there are challenges in demonstrating the impact of these on audiences and learners.  But it is important to have a sensible discussion about how these are impacting on the educational practice of heritage organisations.  And really as a panel we came to the conclusion that this hasn’t really been done yet, and perhaps this can be the start of proper discussions about this, and how dealing with digital technology and learning can become more strategic in its approach.

you can see my presentation above, and Shelley’s is below.  I’ll link too the others when they are uploaded.

The Blur of InterFace

The Committee

For the past year we have been planning for InterFace 2011; a symposium and networking opportunity for post graduate researchers in technology and the humanities.  It’s less formal than a conference, more formal than an unconference, which aims to stimulate collaborations and new research directions between researchers who wouldn’t normally meet each other.  Despite plans being put in motion for over a year, the start of InterFace came with increasing speed and all of a sudden crept upon on us. The 27-29th July is a blurry mess. Now it’s over, I think I can speak for the whole committee; we are battered, bruised, knackered and broken.  But boy was it worth it.  Fitting so much into 2 and a half days was a challenge, but I think it showcased just how much the bridge between humanities and technology is growing and transforming what is possible by mixing disciplines together.  It was fascinating to see such a varied range of research interests and how they related to each other.

InterFace can be split into 4 key components:

  • How to Sessions to provide hints and tips about different aspects of the PhD and Research process; including looking user studies; how to get published and how to get funding.
  • Workshops to provide hands-on experience of key methodologies in the Technologies and Humanities.  This year we looked at Visualisations, Network Analysis, Cultural Heritage and the Semantic Web and GIS and Spatial Tools.
  • Idea Generation/Social Side – I have to admit the speed dating event at the first reception I was very sceptical of, but it actually worked really well. Although it was a tad too noisy.  It was a great way to get to meet people quickly, and familiarise yourself with who was who and doing what at the conference.
  • And Lightning Talks. This was a core component of the programme, where each attendee gave a quick fire two-minute presentation on their research. The session was fast paced, lively and dynamic.  Two minutes might not seem like a lot, but you can actually shoehorn a lot of your research direction and key ideas into that time frame. We had brief introductions to so many fascinating topics including: BioArt, Musicology, Infographics, Procedural Modeling, Interactive Poetics, Mobile Web, Network Analysis, 3D Documentation and much much more.  Such a diverse group of attendees came, many of which didn’t know of Digital Humanities as a discipline, or whether or not they fitted into the new wave of DH or indeed whether it was worth being between two disciplines of humanities and technology.

What I really enjoyed (despite not being able to talk to as many people as I would have liked) was expanding my own understanding of what the new generation of Digital Humanities is going to be like in a few years time when all of the current InterFace delegates will hold doctorates and will be out in the big bad academic world.  I love that it is going beyond linguistics and textual analysis and now dealing with complex issues of sound, light, location, objects and people.  The next few years are going to be incredibly interesting with such a range of research interests scrabbling for attention.

A big thank you goes out to all of the attendees for entering into the spirit of InterFace, where everyones ideas are important and just as valid as the next.  Particularly for everyone who managed to stay to the end and remain articulate!   To all the speakers who gave their time and expertise, we really appreciate all the hard work they put into their presentations.  Special thanks go to Melissa who delivered an excellent keynote whilst being on maternity leave.  To our three fabulous volunteers who kept me and the rest of the committee sane…ish.  Also to my fellow orgainsers;  Alberto, Alejandro, Andreia, Matteo, Raffaele, and Richard.  Finally to Leif, who stepped in at the last minute to deliver a workshop and for coming up with the idea of InterFace in the first place.  Thank you

Academics & the Internet: Guardian Higher Education Network Panel

Today I took part in a live chat panel on the Guardian Higher Education Network about how academics could/should/and do use the Internet. The irony was not lost that the ‘live chat’ took place as static comments on the Guardian website.  This highlights exactly why there needs to be more institutional understanding of the tools and technologies available and selecting the one most fit for purpose.  The Guardian are working on getting a new platform for this type of discussion.  Anyway the content of the discussion was very lively and we bounced around several topis including, Wikipedia use, crowdsourcing in general, OER’s, social networks and the challenges of archiving and curating the web.

The conversation moved so quickly, it was really hard to keep up! One of the most interesting questions came from Sarah Porter from JISC

Is higher ed a good environment for innovation?

the overwhelming reply suggested HE is good for creation but not for implementation of innovative digital technology.  Which gives an awful lot of food for thought.  Has academic research shifted from creating new and innovative cutting edge stuff, to doing small scale ‘proof of concept’ development that can be taken forward by industry? John Day seems to think so (read his excellent talk here – via Eric Meyer).  Has academia lost its way? I don’t think so, I quite like undertaking proof of concept research which then can be shared more fully, rather than it being implemented within the university only. But I am new, perhaps I don’t know the ropes yet.

Do check out the discussion there was a lot of interesting topics raised.

Insomnia, museums, sensemaking and roller derby

A week ago I was under the illusion that I would have time to read, to study and to review.

How foolish was I. I had forgotten just how full on Museums and the Web is let alone, the disaster that is my brain after going back in time, causing jet lagged insomnia for the week. I’m writing this in Philadelphia airport lounge after a full throttle museums and the web 2011. I still have plenty more to digest. That’s the thing with MW, you have action packed days filled with great ideas, excellent case studies and even better conversations with people doing awesome things in the Museums and Web world. And then at night, after dinner, drinks and more conversation, you retire, gasping for sleep, yet it never arrives. Great, that means you have time for everything else, a bit of PhD work or a bit of reading. But alas that is not the case. Your insomniatic brain turns into a rain cloud where anything that potentially could be considered productive causes thunderclaps and lightening strikes in the synapses, leaving you similar to a wide awake brainless zombie. So instead of reading or working I discovered televised roller derby. I love it! It’s a brilliant sport! Brutal and challenging; fast paced and exhilarating! I really hope it hits the UK, failing that London must have a club somewhere that does it. I want to boot up and roll out.

Anyway, so yes I made the mistake of bringing a lot of work with me; articles on Sensemaking, someone else’s PhD thesis as well as a Stephen Fry novel about a time travelling PhD student. You can tell by my paraphernalia what I’m concentrating on at the moment can’t you?

So no, whilst being tucked away in a conference bubble I did nothing but conferencearise and watch roller derby. However there is something good to be said about being trapped in an airport for a few hours before a flight without much to do. I am now two chapters down into the Thesis, and have made copious notes, which I’m really quite happy with. I have also managed to read some of the excellent Steven Fry isms. Making history, somehow manages to encapsulate some thoughts and feelings I am going through, in an eloquent and hilarious way. Mostly around whether I’m a dork, cutting the dash of someone hip, if self consciousness on the inside can be cured by training yourself not to blush on the outside, and the fact that numbers do indeed suck.

When I grow up I want to be…

Image: UCL Grant Museum of Zoology/Matt Clayton

I’ve always wanted to be a lot of things when I grow up; an archaeologist, a museumist, a backstage manager, an academic and a zoologist. So far, I have actually managed most of these in some form or other! A Great achievement! But one always remained elusive… the dreaded z…

I have always loved science and animals, they make my eyes dance with excitement. But I have always thought I was terrible at science. A case of imposter syndrome rather than lack of ability.

A big part of my love of science, zoology, history, archaeology and museums came from my childhood visits to one of the most amazing museums: The Hancock. The Hancock Museum was (now the Great North Museum) my favourite museum ever. I visited so much when I was little. I could be there for hours. I can remember exact details, about the building, the layout, the exhibitions and the objects. I learnt so much. It was amazing.

Now I am know for my excitability and my exuberance with whatever gets thrown at me. And I do get excited by a lot of things. I am like a puppy. But even I didn’t think I would be able to experience that excitement, that absorption in a subject, that fascination and complete awe as I did when I went on a behind the scenes tour of the Hancock when I was about 6. That was until 17th March. Thursday night saw the launch party of the Grant Museum of zoology.

I am so grateful for the QRator project that allowed me to mix three massive passions: museums, digital things and animals. What I am amazed about is how much I have learnt mostly by osmosis (hark at me with my scientific terms) about zoology during the length of this project. I caught myself saying when Claire W pointed at a skeleton and stated that it looked like a horse – without blinking, or being anywhere near a label I blurted out ‘that’s a Quagga, its extinct but it is sort of related to a Zebra’.

According to the fabulous Jack Ashby zoologist extraordinaire and Access and learning manager at the Grant Museum “It’s never too late to be a zoologist”.
So this is my next personal challenge: can I become an amateur zoologist simply by throwing myself at as many Natural History collections as I can? Only time will tell.