material culture

Museum 2.0: The Last American Pirate

During the Long Depression of the 1870s, a man named Edward Owens took up piracy in Chesapeake Bay. He had run out of money, his work as an oyster fisherman no longer able to support him. Born in Virginia in 1853, he chose Watt’s Island as the location for his new profession after hearing about its past of harbouring pirates. Thanks to research by student Jane Browning, Owens subsequently became known as the last American pirate. Posting her research on a blog of the same name, it was described as an ‘example of the power of these tools for an individual to track and frame their own educational experience’ and was reported on media outlets including USAToday.com. On Browning’s blog, you can view photographs of items from archives including Owens’ will and follow links to watch a Youtube video of her visiting his abandoned home and gravesite.

Except Edward Owens never existed. The whole thing was a hoax created by a group of students at George Mason University. The brainchild of Professor Mills Kelly in the Department of History and Art History, Kelly taught the students a course titled Lying about the Past in 2008. The syllabus stated ‘we’ll make up our own hoax and turn it loose on the Internet to see if we can fool anyone.’ Through creating and learning about historical hoaxes, Kelly’s aim was for his students to become ‘better consumers of historical information’, making sure they were acquired with the tools to think critically about sources they came across in their research.

The classes’ result was successfully deceptive and only revealed as a hoax once media outlets began reporting it as factual.  The smoke screen of authenticity was propped up by bad quality photos down to ‘kind of old’ digital cameras and convenient claims of broken photocopy machines with transcripts for substitutes. In some cases, documents from archives were merely set in a new context within Owens’ narrative, masquerading as evidence to back up the story.

The advent of digital technology has allowed increased access to archives, most notably through digitisation projects. Having downloadable images means people can take them, put them in another context or alter them altogether. Old images can become something new and new images can be made to look old and be mistaken for the real thing.

Artist Joan Fontcuberta has explored this throughout his work, challenging ‘disciplines that claim authority to represent the real – botany, topology, any scientific discourse, the media, even religion.In his Stranger than Fiction exhibition in 2014 at the Science Museum, his ‘Fauna’ series was presented as a replica natural history exhibition. Purported to be the long-lost archives of German zoologist Dr. Peter Ameisenhaufen, it included photographs, x-rays and taxidermy. None of the animals existed. Each specimen was an amalgamation of different species and had been given a ‘scientific’ name. These included a winged monkey called a ‘Cercopithecus Icarocornu’ and a snake with legs named ‘Solenoglypha polipodida’.  Visitors were never warned it was a fabrication.

The result is a disorientated audience. The exhibition glaringly lies to our faces in a place we freely reward with implicit trust. Despite our better judgement, doubt creeps in. Could this be real? In a setting like this it can become worryingly convincing. When the same work was shown at the Barcelona Museum of Natural Science in 1989, 30% of university-educated visitors aged 20 to 30 believed some of the animals could have existed. In the same Museum, Fontcuberta recalls seeing a father slap his child on the back of the head for saying the exhibits were fake. The father’s reasoning? The exhibits were in a museum therefore they must be real. ‘It was interesting to me that the child wasn’t educated in the truth of the museum; he wasn’t perverted by culture. This is a very important political concern.’

Throughout his work, Fontcuberta makes the point that although the amount of pictures we take has increased, it has failed to improve how well we read and perceive images and their context. Having worked as a retoucher I know that everything from models, food, cars and furniture are doctored.  With 68% of adults admiting to editing their images before they post them online, altered images are becoming the new normal. What does this mean for digital images of factual and historical documents, objects and art works on the web?

Fontcuberta’s work along with that of the students from George Mason University raises difficult but important questions. When work like this appears, we find it both humorous and horrifying. Throughout our lives we are ‘educated in the truth of the museum’ and persuaded that if it’s been photographed then it exists. The work I’ve referenced here forces us to question this and contemplate the more sinister possibilities. Fontcuberta’s aim is just this and considers his work a ‘vaccine’. ‘My mission is to warn people about the possibility that photography might be doctored and show why people need to be sceptical of images that influence our behaviour and our way of thinking.’ No matter your reaction, they expose weaknesses in ourselves and in the platforms, organisations and projects these images and information are made available from.

How, as online collections continue to increase in size, can museums and archives assure that images of collection items remain uncompromised? Strict digitisation standards and an ethos of capturing everything ‘as is’ contradicts the trend for filters people are applying to their own images. Should we be educating and encouraging people to respect the standards we work to when sharing images online? Online collection use and social media engagement are becoming increasingly relevant to a museum’s or archive’s success. Developing user activity online inevitably means relinquishing some control and allows inventive and brilliant repurposing of archives and museum collections. However, it will become increasingly important to find a balance so that the facts remain clear and digitised items avoid being corrupted while they move through the web.

 

Sources:

http://lastamericanpirate.net/

https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/joan-fontcuberta-stranger-fiction

https://www.fontcuberta.com/

http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/joan-fontcuberta

Header image:

Historical maps of Hormúz Island, British Library: Map Collections, IOR/X/3127, in Qatar Digital Library <https://www.qdl.qa/archive/81055/vdc_100000006836.0x000001>.

The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 700–1200

In November 2018, the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France launched two new websites that offer access to digitised copies of medieval manuscripts. The two libraries worked together to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts from the period 700–1200, sharing them online for the first time.

The project focused on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel over half a millennium of close cultural and political interaction. These 800 manuscripts were selected to build on existing digitised manuscript collections, based on their artistic merit, research value and wider public interest. The project manuscripts comprise a wide range of texts, including liturgical, biblical and theological works, and legal and scientific treatises that reflect the interest of monks, abbots and clerics, who were responsible for much of book production in the period before 1200.

The project drew upon the expertise of curators, cataloguers, conservators and imaging specialists from both institutions, who have learned from one another through a programme of knowledge exchange and reciprocal visits. Each manuscript was checked by a conservator before it was filmed, and any necessary preservation work was performed, to ensure that all manuscripts could be digitised safely. All the manuscripts have been newly catalogued to include up-to-date bibliography, the identification of texts and descriptions of the artwork. These descriptions can be viewed on Explore our Archives and Manuscripts for British Library manuscripts; and on Archives et manuscrits for Bibliothèque Nationale de France manuscripts.

British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

Two websites

In November, the libraries launched two innovative websites that complement each other. Using the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France hosts a site, France et Angleterre: manuscripts médiévaux entre 700 et 1200, that allows side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection. This new website will enable users to search the manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to annotate and download images.

The second website, hosted by the British Library is a bilingual online resource, Medieval England and France, 700–1200, that presents a curated view to the project manuscripts in English and French. The site features over 140 manuscript highlights from some of the most important of these manuscripts. It includes 30 articles on a wide range of themes, including medieval science, manuscript illumination and the development of vernacular languages; as well as discussions of prominent figures from the period, such as Thomas Becket, Hrabanus Maurus and Anselm of Canterbury. The site also features a series of videos, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, detailing the stages of making a medieval manuscript; two interviews with Professors Julia Crick (King’s College London) and  Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) about manuscript production during the period; and an animation inspired by a medieval bestiary (British Library, Harley MS 4751).

Highlights now available online include the lavishly illuminated Winchester Benedictional, created around the year 1000, as well as the 12th-century collection of St Thomas Becket’s letters, including the earliest depiction of Becket’s martyrdom. There are exquisite Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from the centuries before the Norman Conquest of 1066 that include Psalters, saints’ lives and Gospel-books, and spectacular manuscripts in the Romanesque style, including the giant two-volume Chartres Bible (12th century). The magnificent Canterbury Psalter (12th century), with a tri-lingual translation of the Psalms in Latin, French and English, was made in Canterbury. The book is sometimes known as the Anglo-Catalan Psalter because some of its illustrations were left unfinished and were completed several centuries later in Catalonia
This exciting project was made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky commented that:

“This project brings together riches of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the British Library and makes them available to researchers and the broader public in innovative and attractive ways. Our Foundation is privileged to support this collaboration, which continues the cultural exchange and profound mutual influence that characterises the history of these two nations over many centuries.”

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity that supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts.

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Cover photo: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

Documenting relational collections

For hundreds of years scholars and humanists have understood the importance of connected collections. Yet much of our documentation for archives and museums has become disconnected, this separation exacerbated by different technologies and distinct professional identities. Drawing on research for the recently-published “From catalogues to contextual networks: reconfiguring collection documentation in museums,” this article moves through the history of collections to the present day, and argues for the development of more relational, connected practice into the future.

In the late sixteenth century Francis Bacon wrote of the ideal tools for learning: a library, a botanical and zoological garden, a laboratory, and a large collection of natural and man-made items (Bacon, 1688, pp. 34–35). Similarly, American collector James Smithson understood knowledge as a whole, “each portion of which throws light on all the other” – an idea now engraved on the façade of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Today these ideas have been combined with contemporary understandings of complexity, postcolonial theory, participatory practice, and the contextual nature of knowledge, to produce the ‘relational museum.’

Our documentation and systems are often quite different. The focus has been more on classification, inventory management, and the creation of distinct disciplines and professions. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the numbers of museums exploded around the world, scholarship and research was becoming more specialised. Meanwhile, librarians were developing their practice, as were archivists and museum staff. Associations were formed and specialist training was developed, with distinctions between libraries, archives, museums, and galleries reinforced by the physical separation of collections and exhibition spaces.

Technology contributed to the split. Automation developed in libraries, museums, and for manuscript collections evolved into distinct systems and standards. Cataloguing rules and classification structures were tailored to particular formats and specialised areas of research. By the end of the twentieth century many large collecting institutions have implemented separate systems for documenting and managing artefacts, specimens, publications, and archival records. Some have separate systems for different departments within the same institution. The result is that the archival material related to a particular artefact, or the publication produced following analysis of a specimen, are held and managed quite separately. While some may know there is a connection, the majority of users will need to work hard to discover the link.

In contrast, over the same period theorists of collections and material culture have become increasingly interested in exploring the complex systems within which all things exist. Linguists, anthropologists, ethnographers, archaeologists, sociologists, feminists theorists, and physicists have developed theories ‘relationality.’ The term is used to mean more than a simple relationship between two things. Instead, the identity and meaning of things is seen as emerging from their entanglement with each other and with the world.

Though archival theorists and museologists have started to incorporate some of these ideas in their work, there is more to do if we are to effectively capture the evolving, complex meanings of our interconnected collections. We need to develop our standards, systems, and processes in ways which better support rich, complex linking between collection materials and the contextual entities (people, organisations, places, events) which help us to understand those collections. Museums needs to learn from archivists by developing layers of aggregate description, while archivists need to better understand the value of item-level documentation and access as part of cross-institutional discovery systems.

As for collection description more broadly, a relational approach requires several developments in practice. Embedded, hierarchical classification structures should be replaced by related, non-hierarchical networks of time-specific terminology. The connections between things should be expanded from thin links to rich relationships containing descriptive information, dates, source material, and more. Descriptive data and fielded information needs to be contextualised by information on authors, times, places, and events rather than being treated as anonymous, unchanging, or universal. And communities, researchers, and other user groups need to be involved as part of capturing different perspectives and knowledge systems in, around, and between our collection items.

The ideas presented here are undoubtedly aspirational; but they are also the direct result of engagement with contemporary thinking about material culture, museology and archival theory. True relational description undoubtedly raises challenges. More complex information structures will have significant consequences for internal and public interfaces, for resourcing, and for the ongoing maintenance and storage of the knowledge our institutions hold. But without change we are only giving our communities part of the story.

Early descriptive practice, combined with a focus on professionalisation and the development of separate technologies and standards has meant that collectiondescription has failed to keep pace with the disciplines it is designed to support. Change is required. While it takes effort to trace, capture and make visible the relationships between artefacts, people, documentation and other things, by failing to do so we are failing to capture the significance and meaning of our collections. More effective, relational documentation of collections (including archives) will benefit our institutions, develop the value of our collections, engage visitors in new and interesting ways, and better support future research.

To see the extended article: Jones, Michael. ‘From Catalogues to Contextual Networks: Reconfiguring Collection Documentation in Museums’. Archives and Records 39, no. 1 (24 April 2018): 4–20.