Top ten for heritage digitisation projects

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Digitisation usually refers to making collections data, including images and other media, available online. But it may also refer to making any quantitative (e.g. historical datasets) or qualitative information (exhibition and learning resources) available and discoverable via the web.

A digital collection usually comprises an object record describing the object, its composition or makeup and other descriptive elements. It may have an associated image, video, audio or document with it. Sophisticated digital collections will display links to related objects and information. Some are aggregated into larger digital repositories which allow you to search across several collections such as Culture Grid or Europeana.

The digitisation movement in the UK heritage sector started in earnest under the New Opportunities Fund Digitisation (NOF-digi) programme, funded by the National Lottery between 2001-3/4. One of my previous projects, Hantsphere, was part of this. NOF-digi projects taught heritage and cultural technologists a lot about good and bad practice, and most importantly about sustainability. A significant amount of data remains undiscoverable and in some cases has been lost altogether through lack of onward funding and resources within the organisations that ran these projects. Continue reading

A bad curator blames their tools

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

I have been a member of the Social History Curators Group (SHCG) for a few years now. Of all the professional groups and societies dedicated to museum and collections work I have found SHCG to be the most useful. Most degrees and qualifications in museum studies (or indeed heritage management) lack opportunities for sustained subject-specialist training unless it is part of an internship, vocational attachment or similar activity. That’s why SHCG and other curatorial networks are so important.

FirstBASE is SHCG’s recently launched online resources centre, an invaluable library of information for anyone dealing with social (and industrial) collections. SHCG also organises training events and when I saw one advertised for identifying tools I leapt at the opportunity. Here is my review, which will also appear in a forthcoming SHCG newsletter.

Training Review: What is it? Identifying mystery objects: trade tools

Venue: M-Shed, Bristol, 4 March 2013

I didn’t know a twybil from an adze before the training. By the end of the day I could enthusiastically explain the difference between a dado plane and a plough plane.

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Curating the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and Scilly

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (credit: Hypatia Trust)

My first commission since relocating to Penzance, Cornwall was an audit of the little-known Elizabeth Treffry collection held by the Hypatia Trust that serves to document the lives and works of women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Meeting Hypatia

Having heard much about the Hypatia Trust and its founder, Dr. Melissa Hardie, publisher, author and collector, I wandered into Trevelyan House on historic Chapel Street on a cold January morning to find out more. A warm welcome and two hours of chat resulted in the start of a working relationship and friendship that I hope will last for many years.

…to collect, and make available, published and personal documentation about the achievements of women in every aspect of their lives.

(Ethos of the Hypatia Trust)

The situation I was greeted with goes something like this. The Hypatia Trust exists to further the knowledge of and about women and her achievements. It has a strong basis in understanding women in their regional or geo-historical contexts and so Hypatia exists in several locales, including Hypatia in the Woods in Shelton, Washington in the USA. Its ethos is strongly based in academic and intellectual pursuits and so collecting, especially books, is central to its activities.

Melissa Hardie, in the name of the Hypatia Trust, has already donated significant collections to libraries across the world from Exeter to Bonn, with the sole motive to improve the knowledge and visibility of women in social and historical studies. Other landmark achievements are the creation of the West Cornwall Art Archive with Newlyn Art Gallery and the innovative Cornish Artists Index, a freely accessible online database of artists in Cornwall and their works, past and present.

Elizabeth Treffry Collection

Elizabeth Treffry Collection at Trevelyan House

Finding a room of one’s own

And so the Elizabeth Treffry Collection is one of Hypatia’s several efforts to turn the tide of male-dominated narratives of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by actively gathering knowledge about women’s lives and works in Cornwall and Scilly (not just those of Cornish and Scillonian women but all those who have made their lives and home there) and communicating it to a much wider audience through publication, education and participation. The collection’s strengths are in art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but its stretches far beyond Daphne Du Maurier and Dolly Pentreath, embracing the Cornish Land Army, women scientists, religion and more besides. And this was part of the attraction of wanting to get involved, to learn more about the relatively silent women’s stories in these enigmatic regions.

The collection comprises books, journals and archives (and a few artefacts) and mainly resides at Hypatia HQ at Trevelyan House with more stuff kept at the Jamieson Library of Women’s History, based in rural Newmill just outside Penzance. Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust wish to tackle the urgent need to find it a new, permanent home where the collection can be publicly accessed, intoning Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘A Room of One’s Own‘.

But before this search could begin in earnest, and an associated fundraising campaign could commence, a better idea of what the collection comprised and what its future might look like was required. And so I was invited to help Hypatia establish a professional basis for the curation of the collection by conducting a basic audit to quantify it, describe it and make recommendations for its future care and uses.

You can download and read the report to understand more about the collection and what I think its future could look like but I wanted here to write down some of my thoughts about auditing collections and the value of collections in our cultural lives.

Download Curating Elizabeth Treffry Collection report (PDF, 976KB)

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Ethics: Is it acceptable to use illicit material for academic research?

This ethics question was originally posed by Caitlin Griffiths of the Museums Association in September 2006. I was undertaking continuing professional development for my AMA (Associateship of the Museums Association) at the time and felt, with my role in both academic research and heritage, that I had strong views on the subject. My response was published in the October 2006 issue of Museums Journal. I was also undertaking my PhD at the time.

Question: Although it is clearly unacceptable to acquire or display illicit material, is it acceptable to use this material for academic research?

Originally published in: Comment (ethics): ‘Although it is clearly unacceptable to acquire or display illicit material, is it acceptable to use this material for academic research?’, Museums Journal, 105 (10) (October 2006).

My response

If it is morally unacceptable for a museum to acquire and display
illicit objects then it is likewise unacceptable to conduct academic
research on them. If the tide of ‘trade’ in illegally acquired
objects is to be stopped, or at least allayed, then researchers and
universities must unequivocally take the ethical higher ground. There
is no reason why academic research needs to be carried out at any
cost, devoid of any social and political (small ‘p’) responsibilities.
Academic institutions and museums should, in any case, work more
closely together than they currently seem to. Those who have, have
shown how academic research can help trace the rightful location of a
cultural artefact, whether a painting spoliated during World War II
(1939-45) or ancient funerary objects from an Iraqi museum. This may
be the only case for allowing scholars to work on certain objects of
known or suspected illegal origin. Even humanities academic research these days
requires commitments to certain ethical standards by funding bodies.
If it is not already, I suggest that funding bodies join the cause of
putting an end to the trade in illegally-acquired artefacts by
requiring a commitment from academics to report suspect material to
its holding institution and omit them from their research programmes
altogether.

Tehmina Goskar
Centre for Antiquity and the Middle Ages
University of Southampton