Robin Boast and Peter F. Biehl
This paper is part of an ongoing exploration located at the intersection of a number of related areas of inquiry, including digital field archaeology, information and communication technology (ICT), knowledge management, and the sociology of knowledge. At the core of each of these areas is a concern with the processes by which knowledge is produced and represented. This chapter presents several projects that are concerned with the ways such processes operate in the context of archaeological information as a means of sharing diverse forms of knowledge across communities. We write from a perspective that is informed by conceptions of knowledge as performance, of objects as citations, and of the potential of the Web as a contact zone; we identify the critical need to construct environments that support the generation and representation of knowledge in, by, and for different communities; and we evaluate the potential for the narratives, values, and interests of multiple knowledge communities to be appropriately represented with archaeological information that is created using the technologies and practices of social computing. Much of the work currently being done in these areas necessarily remains exploratory, and this chapter is a contribution in that vein.
Our assertion is that knowledge is a practice; it is a knowing of how to adjust to specific social-material settings (Smith 1996; Brown and Duguid 2000). Knowledge is performance: it is embodied in practice, not something we have, nor even something we can name consistently, but something we do. Moreover, a necessary condition for the generation of knowledge is engagement with other agents—other people and other things. However, engagement involves more than perception and cognition; it involves purposiveness and interpretation—that is, intentionality. Traditionally, the performance of archaeological knowledge tends to use two modes of representation, the interpretive and the classificatory. Archaeology generally treats interpretation and analysis as separate practices, interpretation being the representational mode that contextualizes the analysis, while the analysis is largely concerned with classification. The interpretive draws on a broad range of authoritative practices—method, institutional association, peer justification, and theoretical orientation, among others—that historically and practically permeate the discipline, while the classificatory—typology, stratigraphy, mapping, etc.— acts both as the first port of call for ordering the chaos of data and the last port of call for justification. We argue that there is a conflict between these two approaches. The systematic classificatory approach denies, fundamentally, the role of an object as citation. It gives fundamental primacy to the definitive account upon which all other secondary accounts are placed. The interpretive, on the other hand, engages with the classificatory largely as a mode of access to objects as illustrations. While archaeology has become increasingly open to grassroots access and to social computing’s ability to provide for greater audience participation, an important step of reconsidering object citation and representation still has yet to be fully taken. This paper explores the possibility of this further step.
We argue that representation must involve a consideration of the diverse ontological frameworks associated with different expert communities, each with its own informed experience and interaction with the object. Archaeologists, cultural preservationists, curators, and, critically, key stakeholders must all interact around the object, and influence its selection, acquisition, classification, and presentation.
This allows for online information systems to perform as “contact zones,” spaces that foster the divergent and incommensurable perceptions of objects and incite dialogues that emerge from the different traditions within which the object has traveled (Pratt 1992; Clifford 1997). Though these “contact zones” are not unproblematic (Boast 2011), they remain potentially powerful spaces. Artifacts and sites, as pieces of tangible cultural heritage, are gateways to a number of intangible, yet critically connected practices: the telling of a story, the recitation of a prayer, the process of research, the history of the exhibition, the relation to other objects, and so on. Therefore, we wish to re-expose these intangible processes around the object through the consideration of “multiple ontologies” (Boast et al. 2007; Srinivasan 2007; Srinivasan and Huang 2005). We find this goal particularly pertinent and negotiable in the context of digital spaces and the possibilities of social computing to create new models for rethinking representation. Museums have been experiencing many changes over the past three decades, beginning most significantly with a reorientation of the primary goal of museums, called by some the “new museology” (De Varine 1978; Vergo 1989). At the core of the new museology is an assumption that the museum is neither a center of research nor primarily a collecting institution, but rather an educational instrument. The goal of the new museology was, and largely still is, the transformation of social practices through the transformation of the museum from the display of singular expert accounts to a site of diverse educational engagements. However, no matter how much museum studies have argued for a pluralistic approach to interpretation and presentation, the intellectual control over the informational core of the museum—namely, its catalog of objects—has largely remained in the hands of the museum and its staff of elite experts. The extension of the new museology into museums, over the past 30 years, has introduced a regime where the educator and the marketing manager control the voices of the museum’s presentations for a relatively narrow, selective view of “public” interest. The maintenance of the museum as academic gatekeeper has been replaced by the museum as educational gatekeeper, focusing increasingly on simply supporting current educational programs and standardizing documentation of collections only to support their role as educational illustrations. This change is clearly represented in the dichotomy between the diversity of educational performances in museums (talks, guides, school tours, and exhibitions) and museum documentation, the methodical recording of information about the museum’s objects through careful study. While the museum allows many voices to be expressed—from different experts, authorities, and even the public—rarely do these voices pass beyond a local and temporary educational performance, and rarely are they recorded in an enduring way in the museum’s catalog. Despite the numerous recent technological innovations that encourage contributions from a wide variety of distributed groups of users, traditional museum documentation practices persist, with narrowly descriptive catalog entries written by a small, select group of “expert” contributors.
In Macdonald’s reassessment of the “new museology” (2006), she argued that an undertheorized core of museum practice remains that fails to recognize the fundamental biographies of objects and their uses. That is, digital museums have done little to classify or annotate objects according to the different narratives and uses to which they are connected (Curtis 2006). This paper explores the hypothesis that this problem can be addressed by re-engaging objects with different expert accounts, and by reviving objects as agents within an ongoing exploratory dialogue (Boast et al. 2007). We assume that at least one of the principal motivations that people have when deciding to interact with an online catalog of museum objects—or of any objects, for that matter—is the goal of engaging with the objects themselves. Our understanding is that enabling users to directly engage with the objects themselves is the ultimate goal, but that resource discovery is a very important prerequisite for achieving that aim. We further argue that to engage with those objects, a mere technical description is not only insufficient, but also counterproductive. This paper therefore explores the theory that users will engage more deeply with digital museum objects when, alongside those objects, they are also presented with varied and even contradictory expert narratives (Turnbull 2003).
Numerous well-established museums are starting to experiment with the Social Web, the distributed, open-source, grassroots movement of Web users who are creating, modifying, and subverting online resources to an unprecedented degree (O’Reilly 2005, 2006). When applied to the museum context, social computing technologies have the potential to address the shortfalls of the single static object description, which has garnered a lot of criticism for traditional museum catalogs (Phillips 2005; Srinivasan and Huang 2005; Boast et al. 2007). Several notable projects are exploring the application of recent technological innovations to cultural heritage objects, in particular tagging and commenting. The Steve.museum project — a partnership between several U.S. museums, Think Design, and Archives and Museum Informatics — is an ongoing exploration of whether, and in what ways, social tagging is applicable to describing works of art. By drawing upon the descriptions, impressions, and vocabulary of non-experts, the partners in the Steve.museum project are hoping to ultimately improve access to, and engagement with, works of art (Chun et al. 2006; Trant 2006). The Reciprocal Research Network, a partnership between the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia, the Stó:lõ Nation Tribal Council, the U’mista Cultural Society, and the Musequeam Indian Band, is a collaborative project designed to extend collections-based research to source communities. While the project is still very much in development, the first iteration of their system (http://www.rrnpilot.org/) takes advantage of the commenting capability built into many web applications, allowing users to comment on objects in MOA’s collections. The Recontextualizing Digital Objects around Cultural Articulations Project is a collaboration between the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and the Heritage Center at Zuni (New Mexico, U.S.A.), the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at the University of Cambridge (U.K.), and the Department of Information Studies at UCLA (California, U.S.A.), designed to explore how digital repositories can be developed to recognize diverse forms of expertise, including the expertise of source communities, in describing museum objects. Their goal is to create a Web-based system that permits Zuni accounts to be directly incorporated into MAA’s catalog, but that also functions according to local cultural protocols about the sharing of certain types of sacred or sensitive knowledge (Srinivasan, Boast, Becvar, and Enote 2009; Srinivasan, Enote, et al. 2009).
While these projects demonstrate the potential of recent technological innovations to engage stakeholder groups to participate in digital museum projects, what is still unclear about implementing social computing technologies into museum catalogs is whether these efforts can sufficiently balance the museum’s account of objects with the input from the different sets of users in a way that yields a useful system for experts and non-experts alike. Our study aims to interrogate the very basis of the museum’s classification scheme and knowledge base, its catalog. We hypothesize that two basic design errors limit the usefulness of most existing online catalogs of collections: (1) the requirement that catalog users search using concept labels drawn from a single, predefined set of vocabularies, usually following the traditional standards and vocabulary of the museum, and (2) the more general failure to provide catalog users with opportunities to truly engage with and manipulate the content of the records representing museum objects, let alone engage with the objects themselves. These design errors are likely the result of misunderstandings of the nature and roles not just of online museum catalogs, but also of museum objects and their removal from the consideration of practices of knowledge production (Bowker and Star 1999). Building on the case studies discussed above, we further hypothesize that the extent to which an online museum catalog provides a positive experience to its users depends on the extent to which its users are allowed to engage directly with museum objects through active participation in the discourses about those objects (Srinivasan and Huang 2005; Chun et al. 2006). Examples of the kinds of direct engagement we aim to explore in these studies include (1) generating and assigning uncontrolled accounts to objects’ records; (2) discovery of objects of interest by navigating through the accounts and resources of other users rather than through the stagnant, monolithic structures within traditional museum classification; and (3) providing visual representations of objects, not just verbal ones. However, as is increasingly apparent (Kipp and Campbell 2006; Shirky 2008; Srinivasan, Enote, et al. 2009), such social computing interactions are not, in and of themselves, panaceas. Careful attention must be paid to the informational content of, and the modes of access to, the information. The following projects seek to initiate an inquiry into the power of social computing, but also to critically examine the imperative and classificatory modes of archaeological justification and representation.
Virtual representation for producing and communicating archaeological knowledge has become increasingly important in the field of archaeology and heritage management in the past few decades. But it is a given fact that there are great potentials and serious dangers in using such multimedia technologies as virtual reconstructions and 3D animations to popularize archaeology (Biehl 2005); we discuss two case studies to illustrate this. Visual representations reproduce knowledge, whether by reproducing likenesses of objects, places, or people, by organizing recorded data into visual formats for better communicability, or by reproducing the various interpretations of archaeologists and heritage managers. Van Dyke (2006) stresses that “visual representations are integral to the production of knowledge and scholarly authority.” Visual representations are often used by archaeologists and heritage managers not only to communicate information to one another, but also to make their interpretations available to the public. In recent years, one way to do this has been through outreach programs using digital media. It is true that computers have been used by archaeologists for a long time (see Boast 2002), but highly sophisticated and fast computer graphics have been available to archaeologists only in the past two decades. The 1980s marked the beginning of this trend, starting with the digital production of site plans, artifact illustrations, and the results from archaeological analyses. Computer graphics are a valuable tool, allowing researchers to represent and manipulate large amounts of complex data. Labeled “virtual archaeology” (Lehtonen 2005), this technology includes everything from reconstructions of sites and artifacts that can be created graphically from this amassed data to virtual reality reconstructions and 3D animations.
Virtual (or digital) archaeology is a powerful tool for visualizing and understanding archaeological data as well as for producing and communicating it to the public (Evans and Daly 2006: 253). It is also an educational resource for the general public and students in archaeology and heritage management. Many re-creations of greatly detailed archaeological sites have been created with standard modeling, rendering, and animation techniques. Digital archaeology makes possible increased rates of publication of archaeological materials through the use of the Internet. Its “open-source knowledge” allows researchers to quickly and inexpensively produce and communicate archaeological knowledge to a broad community of international specialists, schools, and the interested public alike and even to get them interactively involved in this process.
As funding for universities, heritage management groups, and museums becomes ever more limited, the Internet is increasingly pivotal for communicating archaeology (Biehl 2005). As such, archaeological knowledge needs to be efficiently produced and performed with multimedia applications so that it can be easily accessed by the public. The public, through tourism, represents one of the world’s most powerful sources of revenue. Visits to archaeological sites are often greatly educational. Unfortunately, the nature of tourism is such that, even while economically beneficial to archaeology, heritage management, and the local economy, it sometimes also threatens the archaeological remains (Renfrew and Bahn 2008: 545–574).
One way to accomplish the dual goals of public outreach and preservation of archaeological remains is through digital archaeology and the Internet. The Internet has greatly expanded communication networks and the distribution of educational materials. The rate at which archaeological information is available online is ever-increasing. Site reports, virtual museums, digital reconstructions, and ideas are available almost instantaneously. Some even argue that the Internet is increasingly becoming the most important way to publish archaeological sites because of the wide distribution of knowledge and the frequency and ease of updates and new editions. The open-source quality of the archaeological knowledge on the Internet allows users to interactively modify, improve, and redistribute the knowledge. “The speed, range, and low cost of the internet have created new possibilities for dissemination and participation in knowledge construction and acquisition” (Hodder 1997). It offers access to raw data and the ability to form one’s own conclusions about archaeological materials. This has been seen as a move away from a hierarchical structure of interpretation to a more networked or multivocal approach.
These innovations bring with them the great potentials described above as well as serious dangers. Though multimedia presentations are a powerful tool for visualization, understanding, and communicating to the public, visual representations are biased—that is, they encourage one particular interpretation over another (Van Dyke 2006). Levy points out that “it is impossible to decide objectively between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of the past; furthermore, there has been so much human movement, cultural mixing, and culture change in Europe that continuity from the past is a fiction” (Levy 2006). And there is a final danger with digital archaeology: its Euro-American perspective. Not all countries offer speedy broadband connections to their universities, museums, or heritage management services, not to mention access from public schools or private households.
However, we would like to discuss briefly two case studies that illustrate the popularization of archaeology in the digital age and one to discuss how archaeological knowledge is produced and communicated about online-museum collections.
Projects: “Multimedia Archaeology” in Çatalhöyük (Turkey), Excavation Websites for Popularising Archaeology in Goseck (Germany), Accessing Digital Catalogues – “Blobgects”
Case Study: Multimedia Applications at Çatalhöyük—Digital Places
An important and influential website is that of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, a significant Neolithic site discovered in 1958 in Central Anatolia and excavated from 1959 to 1963 by James Mellaart and continued by Ian Hodder from 1992. The website features archived reports, databases, site management plans, illustrations, reconstructions, photographs, and video documentation, among other items. These allow interested parties to study and analyze the archaeological materials. The video documentation tracks not only the excavation processes, but also the views of the excavators. These videos are put on the website to ensure some sort of multivocality and have proven to be a good means to popularize the site and its archaeology, on the one hand, and to foster a better understanding of it among the public, on the other (Biehl and Gramsch 2002). Also included are lists of researchers and excavators, contact information, visitor instructions, forums, and blogs to encourage open communication networks.
Çatalhöyük exemplifies the methodological turn digital archaeology offers for producing and communicating archaeological knowledge. Video cameras and other multimedia equipment (Brill 2000; Stevanovic 2000; Wolle and Tringham 2000) bring to a large-scale excavation project a reflexive and fluid methodology and promote a pluralistic and “open” access to archaeological knowledge. Through this technology, knowledge producers can disentangle “the dichotomies between past and present, theory and method, interpreter and interpreted, subject and object, specialist and public, which are so troubling today” (Biehl 2002: 151). The latest trends in public outreach can also be studied at the Çatalhöyük project. These cutting-edge and innovative projects are directed by Ruth Tringham and range from “remixing” (“Remixing Çatalhöyük”) to “remediating” (see Senses of Places, the digital mediation of Cultural Heritage and Second Life).
Still, documentation is one of the most important aspects of archaeology—that is, the listing of artifacts, mapping of site locations, and recording of positions and contexts of the artifacts within the strata. To create a detailed representation of an archaeological site or artifact, detailed measurements, observations, and other types of collections of data need to be accumulated (Lehtonen 2005). The digital tool Total Station—a combination electronic transit and electronic distance-measuring device—increases the speed at which finds and features can be recorded, allowing for many more finds to be recorded in much less time. This speed and efficiency increases the accuracy and thoroughness of excavations.
Still, big challenges remain. Archaeology frequently depends on archival data produced by other archaeologists or by researchers in other fields. Often, the archival data were recorded differently than those in the current project, causing noncomparable units of measurement and incompatible data formats between the two data sources. Project databases may be selective, and even when they are assessable, they may differ in size, format, or structure. Databases that have been compiled separately and are controlled by museums, government agencies, universities, or individuals may have been created on different computer platforms (Snow et al. 2006). In addition, there is a huge corpus of unpublished literature consisting of limited-distribution reports and so-called gray literature that has been mainly produced by commercial excavation firms and government agencies, as well as images, maps, and photographs embedded in museum catalogs and archaeological reports both published and unpublished. Standardized protocols are needed as well because of the confusion caused by modern political boundaries which are nevertheless irrelevant when talking about prehistoric, early historic, or environmental contexts.
Virtual excavations are constructed using a computer tablet and a GPS unit. Visitors to a virtual site see what the archaeological site would have looked like in the past. Not only can visitors see a site in its original state, they can also change their perspective or view the site without degradation by natural or human processes. And, of course, many more people can visit a virtual site on the Internet than can visit an actual site “in person.”
Computer programs also help archaeologists to reconstruct artifact assemblages by “finding adjoining pieces in a large collection of irregular fragments by comparing their shapes” (Da Gama Leitao 2002). Documentaries, too, are very important tools, utilized in communicating archaeology to the public. They can be viewed on TV as well as through the Internet (Van Dyke 2006). As an excavation progresses, the archaeologist never sees more than a single reference frame. As portions of a site are uncovered, they are recorded as data and a new reference frame is revealed while the first is forever destroyed by virtue of the second being revealed. By modeling the data, both artifacts and the matrix of associated soils, rocks, floral, faunal, and other documented finds, the researcher can essentially paint a motion picture of the excavation and the past.
Case Study: “Multimedia Archaeology” in Goseck/Germany— Popularizing Archaeology
Archaeology as practiced in the digital age creates many more “artifacts” than simply the objects unearthed by traditional excavation methods. The recording system must accommodate multimedia in the true sense of the word— physical forms, plans, sketches, journals, slides and negative film images, video files, digital stills, audio recording, 3D models, GIS data, and satellite imagery. Multimedia is one way of addressing the representation problem by expanding the range and diversity of performances of the inscriptions from an excavation (Figures 4.1–4.4).
There are numerous technical solutions to this situation, for these are common problems in web and database design. However, the challenge is to create a solution that does not require the end users (archaeologists and the public) to become information technology specialists. It is essential that archaeologists be involved in the design process from inception through execution, and this means the solution must be understandable and operable by archaeologists. However, the solution also needs to be easily modifiable and must be robust and stable enough to sustain scrutiny from a worldwide user base. The Goseck project’s website9 is built as an “open knowledge” (Open Knowledge Foundation 2007) source that offers information both to the interested public (who may have no previous knowledge) and to archaeologists. It consists of differentiated levels of information, beginning with short introductory texts written in a popular manner, and extending through to detailed scientific reports supported by photos and videos, detailed descriptions, and illustrations of the archaeological data. Though all levels are accessible— which guarantees a general transparency—only the “deeper” levels of the website maintain a “scientific standard” of archaeological publication and provide the archaeologist-user with all available information of the excavated artifacts and their contexts (plans, photos, videos, and descriptions of finds and findings).
Elsewhere Biehl (2002) has discussed the enormous epistemological potential of hypermedia for archaeology. Rather than following an author’s linear argumentation in traditional forms of publication such as books and journal articles, readers/users of the Goseck website can browse through the information in a nonlinear way, approaching the data any way they want (Biehl 2002, 2005). Another advantage is that all data can be made available, which is normally not possible in traditional publications. Yet, despite the website’s universal access to all excavation data, in practice it is the virtual-reality objects that enjoy great popularity (see also Rieche and Schneider 2002; Samida 2004, 2006).
The fact that the layperson and the professional archaeologist can access the data from the Goseck excavation creates a new form of “knowledge transfer,” not only within the community of archaeologists, but also from the sciences to the public. In Goseck, the activities of archaeological excavation were transmitted via a webcam live on the World Wide Web (Figures 4.5–4.6).
The user can “look over the student’s shoulder” and vicariously participate in the archaeological training. The user can also learn about the daily work of archaeologists and see the first results of the excavation on the website. Communicating archaeology with interactive websites and live webcams can help us to make archaeology understandable and interesting to the public. Further, it helps archaeologists accept the responsibility for scientific transparency and sustainability in the research of regional history and monuments.
Case Study: Blobgects
Blobgects was created at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) to explore how people access and make sense of (or not) museum catalog entries online. The name “Blobgects” is a mash-up of the words “Blog” and “Object,” just as the system itself is a mash-up of the functionality of a blog as applied to a catalog of museum objects. To this end, the study was focused on exploring how people would engage with relatively conventional catalog entries, but in a format that was familiar to most people but unfamiliar in a catalog—that is, in a blog. The study focused on how certain features of access—tagging and commenting—might impact the means by which users engaged with catalog entries as digital objects.
In particular, the study was designed to explore the role of unmediated catalog descriptions—that is, how well does a catalog description function as an accurate and accessible description of the object. All images were therefore intentionally omitted from the catalog entries, to ensure that the catalog descriptions were used without other mediating descriptions and so to test their validity, and to see how responses to these descriptions might perform in a social computing setting.
The catalog entries used in Blobgects were drawn directly from the MAA’s Collections Management System using the approximately 11,000 accessions (objects and photographs) from the Arctic. The vast majority of the material comes from collections made during the Wordie Arctic Expeditions of the 1930s to Greenland and Baffin Island. The material is not particularly contentious, as it was largely traded for openly during the expedition. However, there is a small proportion of the material that was excavated from sites during the expeditions. The data presented from the MAA catalog, which conforms to the SPECTRUM documentation standard, included the usual public information (see example below). This information was not rewritten or modified for the Blobgects system—for instance, the original use of “Eskimo” was retained throughout the records—in the hope of prompting discussions of the nature of existing museum records.
IDNO: Z 45064 G
NAME: Bone; Carving
KEYWORD: Tools; ?Art
DESCRIPTION: Worked Note with the objects reads: “These seven specimens were part of the priests collection from Abverdjar but from their appearance are obviously different from the rest of the collection and are probably either surface finds or mixed in by mistake by the Eskimo or at the priests house.” This record originally said this was a slate point. The slate point is marked A. The object marked G is bone. It has a dot pattern on the curved upper surface. The under side is flat. This object resembles a broken carving of a figure. S-J Harknett
SOURCE: Rowley.Graham.W (collector and donor)
SOURCE DATE: ? 1938; ? 1939
PLACE: Americas; North America; Arctic; Canada; Northwest Territories; Fox Basin; Abverdjar
CONTEXT: Date: ? Recent —; Collected by: Rowley.Graham.W.
The system has been inspired by the idea of creating a blog that would allow museum objects to be commented upon and tagged online. The Blobgects “experimental” version simply made the same metadata possible as the MAA’s standard catalog, but allowed users to modify, tag, comment, and so on. The results of the study confirmed that it is not simply the presence of social computing technologies that mattered, but the nature of the voices that use those technologies, ultimately allowing users to engage with multiple perspectives around the object. What was most apparent was the necessity, from the first encounter, for users to begin to create their own engagements with the objects unencumbered by excessive protocols or rules. In this regard, the initial prototype of Blobgects was considered a very successful failure: while it was not satisfactory as a standalone system, due to the nature and form of the information, the reactions gathered from users indicated a clear path forward to further developing digital museums that focus on making social computing capacities present while concurrently working actively to include direct interactions by relevant voices to provide context to the object in the form of a set of diverse perspectives.
This study was designed to compare results between two different user populations: a group of masters-level students in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA; U.S.A.), and a group of Inuit students at Inukshuk High School in Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory (Canada). Each of these groups is representative of an “expert community” interested in museum objects and their representation in catalogs, in that each maintains a distinct but important connection to the objects presented online, whether as part of cultural education of traditional objects from one’s community (Inukshuk) or as an object that must be shared with the public—and, in particular, with museum studies professionals—via a cultural institution (UCLA Information Studies students).
Each of the two user populations was divided into an experimental group and a control group. The experimental groups interacted with the fully functioning Blobgects system (see Figure 4.7), which displays a “tag cloud,” a set of hyperlinked descriptive terms used for navigation and access to groups of objects (for instance, clicking on “ivory” would bring up all objects with the term “ivory” in their catalog entry). This group could also search the system via a “simple” search from the home page or from a separate full-search page. Experimental group members were also allowed to add comments to entries if they wished. Importantly, the Blobgects tag cloud, rather than being usergenerated (as is the case for many tagging sites like Flickr and delicious), was instead derived from terms found in the actual museum catalog records. This feature was designed to reveal whether a system identical to the MAA’s standard catalog system, in terms of the basic metadata provided, would prove superior if it allowed for social computing capabilities (in this case, navigating the Blobgects system via tags).
The control groups, by contrast, were presented with an identical version of Blobgects but without the tag cloud or commenting capability. These users had access to only three broad category terms as hyperlinks from the main page—“photograph,” “document,” and “object”—which meant they were restricted to interacting with the catalog alone (no user-generated information was available) and search was the primary mode of accessing objects in the system. This “control” system had the same functionality and content as Cambridge’s existing online catalog, but via an interface designed to resemble the experimental version (Figure 4.8).
Because part of the research study was meant to explore whether participants were interested enough in the items that they were engaging with to bookmark them for future exploration, participants were also encouraged to make use of the social bookmarking site Delicious during the study. Delicious is a Web-based bookmarking utility that allows users to tag sites with one-word descriptors, and those tags can be shared with other users. Delicious is one of several sites that Blobgects allows users to directly tag or link to (others include digg.com, Technorati, StumbleUpon, and Bloglines. Tagging was not provided within Blobgects, though it could have been. The reason for this was to limit the test to see if the “raw” catalog entries would be sufficient to encourage further tagging within the user community. It could be argued that tagging within Blobgects would have better tested this premise, which may be a fair criticism. However, project designers felt that, in a preliminary study, the possible variables should be minimized. The results of this study are presented elsewhere (Srinivasan, Boast, Becvar, and Furner 2009).
As noted earlier, the study focused on how tagging and commenting might impact the means by which users engaged with catalog entries for digital objects. The most interesting outcome of this study was that the main feature of the Blobgects system, the ability to tag and to comment, had little to no effect—existing museum catalog metadata are simply too specialized to engage many different publics and “expert” communities. Through an extensive set of online questionnaires, before and after focus groups and during in-use discussions, what both sets of students told us—in particular, the students from Inukshuk—was that the classificatory order of the catalog as well as the imperative disciplinary idioms were the primary hindrances to use. It is not only that they found the classificatory structure inapplicable to their use of the objects, nor that they lacked comprehension of the navigational terms of the catalog; both of these skills can be acquired to a sufficient degree in a small amount of time. What we wish to suggest is that the students found these modes to be, first and foremost, barriers to access, forestalling any true grasp of an object until a deep understanding of the museum’s classifications and justifications had been gained. The study thus revealed the importance of narrative, dialogue, and image in contextualizing the objects, independently of catalog descriptions, and the potential these have for enabling users to move beyond definitive accounts. It also suggested that the many social computing tools of personalization and local description are not very useful without these complementary means of contextualization. More specifically, we note the following findings from this study:
• The power of narratological tags: Despite the rich, multiplicitous, dynamic nature of cultural knowledge production, we continue to create systems that mediate our interactions and preserve practices that are static, still focusing on retrieval questions that are disconnected from our actual interests and from ideas that would encourage active engagement. Even though the presence of Social Web software has positively opened up our categories from meta-ontologies, within the domain of multicultural systems and publics these systems fall short of actually sharing knowledges according to the contexts in which they are produced. We find in our study a possible way to reweave systems and cultures—that is, through narratological tags, not mere terms, but short accounts that connect through citations that can better contextualize and negotiate themselves into diverse knowledge practices.
• Diverse users with diverse inputs add meaning to the online catalog: Diverse inputs are often ambiguous relative to a descriptive perspective. Diverse expert communities add to these objects with concepts, images, and contextual information that may not be easily explanatory of the object for a layperson. Yet this ambiguity represents the reality of varied perspectives toward objects, and these ambiguities provide potential for inductive discoveries around the objects. As more users add to the digital object, the context of these seemingly ambiguous perspectives begins to become clearer and stimulate further insight.
• Tagging must fit within a conversation: We found that this process works within the online catalog system when it is embedded within a discursive conversation, a conversation between different social contexts and actors who have a connection to the object being presented. Diverse tags can serve as a mechanism by which the objects can stimulate new interactions between expert communities, and between museum visitors and expert communities. The tag is therefore not the exhaustive representation of the object, but the conduit for interaction among users and for a deeper sharing of context behind the object. The development of more extensive interactive systems is the subject of ongoing research (http://collaborativecatalogs.blogspot.com/).
• The power of images: Digital objects and digital museums may stimulate this cross-cultural dialogue when images are presented. The Blobgect experiment uncovered evidence that users are interested in interacting with, browsing, and retrieving objects via images and not just textual categories.
• Blogs versus tags: Participants are largely uninterested in status-quo tagging systems around digital objects, but the presence of the tagging system stimulates a reaction among participants to share different reactions that are not merely categorical and descriptive. Participants are interested in presenting social contexts, conversations, narratives, and images around the object, a process that may emerge more from a “blogging” framework than from a “tagging” one.
Reconceptualising Digital Objects Around Cultural Articulations
Going beyond Blobgects, and to put into practice some of the lessons learned in the study described above, the MAA has joined with the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) at UCLA and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni (New Mexico, U.S.A.) on a project called “Reconceptualizing Digital Objects around Cultural Articulations” (RDO) (Srinivasan, Boast, Becvar, and Enote 2009; Srinivasan, Enote, et al. 2009). The project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is designed to bring distant collections back together with their source communities, but also, and primarily, to explore how to rejoin the source communities’ expertise with the objects in museums while maintaining individual and community intellectual property rights and rebalancing the museum’s editorial intervention over expert accounts.
A primary goal in this project is to explore both the similarities and differences between how local communities associate knowledge with objects versus how standardized museum systems do so. The publicly available stories, comments, and descriptions about objects from the Zuni participants in the study are compared here with the catalog entries about those same objects, forming the foundation for an analysis and the recommendations for further research. Specifically, the objects used in the study were originally excavated from the Kechiba:wa site at Zuni, New Mexico, during the early 1920s, as part of the larger Hendricks-Hodges Expedition directed jointly by the National Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution (Isaac 2005). At the time of the excavations, the majority of the uncovered artifacts went to Washington, DC, but because of the participation at the time of Cambridge’s curator Louis C. Clarke, some of the artifacts crossed the Atlantic and became part of the collection at the MAA at University of Cambridge (Ebin and Swallow 1984).
As the Blobgects study argued, traditional museum catalogs have explicitly omitted the multiplicity of accounts and contexts that can be shared. This is partly due to an uncritical and largely hidden application of technology to the representation of cultural materials. That is, because all museum objects must now have descriptive metadata, catalog descriptions have inherited that focus and emphasize content standardization over all other issues (Crofts et al. 2009). The argument has been that such standardization is necessary to facilitate access and interoperability. However, content standardization comes at a high cost to the diverse local meanings of objects (Boast et al. 2007). Therefore, as part of the ongoing project “Emergent Databases: Emergent Diversity (ED2),” the RDO project has explored ways that museums can develop access systems that are able to accommodate and develop multiple ways of engaging with and understanding digital objects.
A fundamental component of this project is its collaborative intent. Every aspect of the research design and implementation has been enacted with the leadership of our Zuni colleagues at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center (AAMHC) at Zuni, in order to ensure that the research process is relevant to local priorities, participation, agendas, and goals. Collaborative, participatory methodologies are gaining increasing acceptance across several social science disciplines (Robinson 1995; Bishop et al. 2001; Marshall 2002), and the proliferation of participatory methodologies in social science research reflects a fundamental decentering of the research paradigm (Tuhiwai Smith 1999). Moreover, this project is situated within a growing body of indigenous new media research that is based on local needs and agendas ( Christie 2000; Salazar 2003; Christen 2006; Hughes and Dallwitz 2007). The preliminary set of objects to be circulated was selected by Zuni colleagues during a trip to Cambridge in 2006 and vetted by Octavious Seoutewa, a Zuni religious and cultural expert. This study also excluded objects with solely religious associations, because knowledge of a religious nature is sensitive in Zuni and is held by a few individuals on behalf of the community, making it an inappropriate topic for public inquiry and discussion (Isaac 2005; Jim Enote and Octavious Seoutewa, pers. comm.).
Over one hundred Zuni participants have been interviewed by the team of Zuni researchers, in a variety of locations, and these participants were sampled from the larger population around the demographics of gender, age, and occupation, decided upon by AAMHC staff to be the most relevant social categories within the community. The stories collected in Zuni are, and remain, the property of the individuals first, and the Zuni second. The RDO project has access to only those accounts where the Zuni participants have decided that the content may be public. Many of the accounts collected will not be made available to the study, but will remain within the community for community use. This study and its preliminary results are presented elsewhere (Srinivasan, Boast, Becvar, and Enote 2009), but several outcomes are relevant here. The structure and content of the MAA catalog conforms to the UK SPECTRUM Museum Documentation Standard (McKenna and Patsatzi 2009). What was most interesting about the preliminary results of the RDO study was the extreme disparity, even incommensurability, between the MAA catalog description and the many descriptions and accounts arising from the Zuni participants.
Figure 4.9 shows the descriptions gathered about four objects representative of the larger collection: a fragment of a basket (MAA Z42472), a digging stick (MAA 1924.122), a pottery bowl (MAA 1924.473), and a rock with a naturally occurring lumpy shape (MAA 1924.101B). The size of the text corresponds to the number times that the study participants used that term or concept to describe the object they were looking at, and the “clouds” are clustered by general type of description—that is, “name,” “material,” “uses,” and so on. We have used a Venn diagram to represent that there are a few overlaps and similarities between how our Zuni participants described an object and how the Cambridge catalog did the same (shown in the center). But significantly, the majority of descriptions given by the Zuni participants (left side), relating as they do to past and present uses of objects and to stories and narratives about objects, do not have a corresponding description in the Cambridge catalogue (right side).
This disparity points to more than a difference in attention to different aspects of the objects. In such contexts, where different descriptions arise around the same objects, the traditional argument is that the descriptions are focusing on different aspects of the object. This is the “elephant in the room” argument. However, Figure 4.9 suggests that there is not a single “elephant” in the room, but rather quite different contexts of description, which lead to quite different objects being discussed (Law 1999). The object representations circulating around Zuni signify social practices that are completely different from those at the museum and, hence, represent fundamentally different social actors. The objects circulating at Zuni are participants in descriptive practices that differ most significantly in three ways from those descriptive practices found in the museum catalog.
Stories and Narratives
An important part of the data gathered, which has no corollary in the MAA catalog, comes out of the stories shared by the Zuni when presented with the objects. Everyday experience of objects, around which we tell stories, is a key component of our understanding of the meaning of objects. Such stories, we argue, are crucial to cultural revitalization and for eliciting participation in the kinds of emergent cultural heritage systems that integrate and share multiple ontologies (Salazar 2003; Christen 2006).
Stories and narratives about objects can also be a way to discuss Zuni cultural objects in a way that aligns with Zuni ideas about the appropriate circulation of cultural knowledge. By focusing on personal experiences with objects, people are able to talk about important aspects of their lives as Zunis and still avoid revealing esoteric areas of knowledge. Isaac notes a similar approach to the discussion of cultural topics via personal experiences in her earlier analysis of the AAMHC, noting that the information that the staff chose to present—in other words, the “public sphere of local knowledge”—drew primarily from “personal, familial, or clan experiences” (Isaac 2005: 10–11). Excerpted below are some selections of the stories participants shared with our researchers when presented with the images of the objects from Cambridge:
I have [in my mind] an image of people using a basket to clean wheat and the smell [of] the wicker plants it is made of. [viewing MAA Z42472]
[M]y mother has a similar one [set of tweezers] that was used in the plaza ceremony with the bear dance and another dancer who had a yucca plant on him, and the bear tries to get them, but it was my mother who had the tweezer and took the fruits. We also used to make our own tweezers while staying at our Nutria farming village. [viewing MAA 24.119]
[This mortar reminds me of] grandfather making black paint. This same grandfather also survived the smallpox epidemic in the early 1900s, and [he] was passed for being dead but came back to life after three days of being comatose, [which] proved how strong he was but [he] was forever scarred by the smallpox. [viewing MAA Z42477]
The role of narrative here should not be seen as trivial or traditional—as somehow counter to “scientific” or classificatory data. Though this study focuses on a comparison between the museum catalog and the accounts of one expert source community, the Zuni, it can equally be extended to other specialist/expert communities that have developed knowledge practices around these same objects, such as archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, artists, or ecologists. These other specialist communities also give meaning to these objects through narratives, often narratives of use, but of a different nature and purpose. Like the others, these other specialist narratives also rarely make it into the museum’s documentation and are also, often, relegated to the exhibition or display, without a permanent association with the object in the museum.
Uses, Both Historical and Modern
Based on our data, we confirm the hypothesis that objects-in-use are a critical way in which objects of cultural heritage are ascribed with meaning by source communities such as the Zuni. We argued elsewhere that people make sense of an object by how it is used, not merely by its physical description and characteristics (Srinivasan, Boast, Becvar, and Enote 2009). People are interested in considering objects in the context of practice—that is, within the the rituals, activities, and lived experiences that support the object. Narratives, described above, fit within this parameter, but so do the uses connected with the object. In total, nearly two-thirds of the interviewees referred to the uses of objects when we asked the preliminary question about describing objects and stories related to the them (99 out of 158 object interviews). Later on in the interviews, we did ask questions specifically oriented toward the uses of objects, but the fact that our participants discussed objects-in-use when asked the open-ended question “How would you describe this object?” reveals the central importance of use and usefulness in describing and understanding objects.
The Zuni are interested in how these museum objects compare to things that are in contemporary use, a type of description that is also absent from the current catalog. As shown in Figure 4.9, our respondents made frequent references to modern impacts on the production and use of traditional objects like the ones we were showing them, especially on human-made objects (baskets, pottery, etc.). Topics that frequently emerged in discussions about the human-made objects include a loss of quality and knowledge in the production of objects, the fact that people no longer make or use these objects, and also the fact that people now purchase commercial products instead of making objects for their own use.
Mobilising Objects for Contemporary Agendas
It is clear that the Zuni see their traditional objects as important catalysts to vitalize contemporary social and political programs in the community, in particular teaching and learning (Clifford 1997). At some point in nearly every interview, interviewees expressed a link between the objects that they were looking at and learning more about Zuni culture and history, mentioning a desire to learn more, or something similar regarding the relationship between cultural education and objects like the ones we were showing them. This finding is consistent with the link between objects and learning upon which museums are built and which they have reinforced for decades. Because of the limited nature of the catalog entry, it is clear that merely providing access to catalog entries written for specialists does not mean that nonspecialists can definitely learn from those entries. However, the absence of contextualization, and of comparisons to other objects, means that the “scaffolding” that is so important to the process of learning cannot take place when systems merely extract metadata from a museum’s catalog and make it accessible to the public, specialist communities, and the museum.
The RDO project is returning objects to the community, in the form of images and associated museum data, and eliciting accounts through local institutions. This is not an open grassroots commenting forum, though the project is being extended to include such programs, but it recognizes the importance, and existence, of diverse forms of expertise. Accounts are elicited from those members of the community, as identified by the community, who have a direct and deep understanding of the objects. The collected expert accounts are the property, first, of the individual, and, second, of the community. What information returns to the museum, to be associated with the objects, is in the hands of the local community.
The next phase of the project, “Creating Collaborative Catalogs: Using Digital Technologies to Expand Museum Collections with Indigenous Knowledge,” funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Studies (IMLS), has begun with the implementation of a system based on PubSubHubbub where data is PuSHed from the museum to key stakeholder systems where it is incorporated into local knowledge systems. In phase, museum data is being posted into a local Zuni Knowledge System and all the collected Zuni expert accounts will be kept and managed in Zuni, and shared only under license from the Zuni. This phase of work is developing the publish, subscribe and hub services to automatically distribute all museum information of interest to the Zuni directly into the local Zuni Knowledge System held at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center.
Conclusions: Some Suggestions of Where to Go Next
We end this paper not so much with a conclusion as with a postscript. These studies raise several issues that have always been there, but have been largely neglected. There is clearly a need for information in narrative form and for diverse contextualization to be developed. This suggests two major stages of access.
The first stage entails understanding how to present digital objects to multiple publics. Though this was not a study of semantics, we do feel that semantics is not, in itself, a useful way forward. Semantics, in the sense used by the W3 Semantic Web (Berners-Lee 1998), starts from the assumption that syntax is the bridge between ontology and epistemology. The work presented here suggests that understanding requires a consensus and participation from those using the information; that the relevance of the digital object arises not from the semantic designation of the object, nor from its role as an illustration of some definitive story, but from a context of use; that the context of these rich representations must be made apparent; and that through this dialogue with diverse images, accounts, and descriptions, others can begin to construct a meaningful understanding of these objects, sites, and practices. It is also through the process of meaningful use that others can begin to expand these understandings.
The usual response to this need has been to create interfaces to the information. Much of social computing operates on this assumption, with some real success: provide users with a platform for interaction and use, and leave them to it. However, this ignores the problem of context. Social computing offers a space for exploring the power of appropriation and reuse of digital objects, but this must be extended to consider the ability to contextualize and engage local and vernacular accounts of digital objects from multiple communities. Future research will continue to probe these critical issues and enable digital performance to serve as environments that support the generation and representation of knowledge in, by, and for diverse communities.
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