Photographic Heritage

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>.

Akkasah: Preserving Photographic Heritage in the Middle East and North Africa

Akkasah (an old word for camera in the Khaliji dialect), the Center for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi, is home to an archive of the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa.

Founded in 2014 by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Professor Shamoon Zamir, the Center is dedicated to documenting and preserving the diverse histories and practices of photography from the region, and its growing archive contains at present over 65,000 images, both digital and analogue, including albumen prints, gelatin silver prints and negatives. Akkasah acquires collections of prints, negatives and digital photographs, and it also creates digital versions of collections that remain with individuals and institutions seeking to preserve and share their collections.

The Middle East and North Africa have rich traditions of documentary, vernacular, and art photography and these traditions have yet to receive the full critical attention they deserve. Akkasah’s primary aim is to establish a major hub for scholarly research on photography in the region. Akkasah is a scholarly enterprise and does not seek any commercial rights over the materials it holds. The archive is open to scholars, students and the general public by appointment. The Center is keen to work in collaboration with other institutions and individuals with a similar commitment to photography and scholarship from the Middle East and other parts of the world. Along with the creation of an archive, the Center’s activities include developing an ongoing program of conferences and colloquia on various topics related to archives, history of photography and contemporary issues in photography, producing a series of publications, as well as establishing a special collection of rare photobooks from around the world.

The Archive

In the core of Akkasah’s activities lies the archive, which includes a wide range of photographs from vernacular photography to contemporary documentary projects. The archive has published over 9500 images online via akkasah.org, including two major vernacular photography collections from Egypt (the Yasser Alwan Collection) and Turkey (the Turkey Collection). Another collection from Egypt, the Samir Farid Collection consists of over 3000 negatives of 265 old Egyptian movies from the 1930s through the 1980s. The Akkasah archive also features photographs that date back to the early days of photography in the Middle East (the Engin Ozendes & Hisham Khatib collections) taken by some of the most prominent photographers from the late Ottoman era like the Abdullah Freres or Sebah & Joaillier. Akkasah also buys historical albums from across the region with the intention to digitize, catalogue and make them available online.

Akkasah’s mission is to maintain the highest standards for photographic preservation and guarantee the preservation of photographs in perpetuity. The Center catalogues each image on the item level with an extensive set of keywords attached to each entry. Akkasah’s intends to store and preserve as much physical material as possible in-house. Along with Akkasah’s Director Shamoon Zamir, the current team members include Özge Calafato, Project Manager of the Center, and archivists Jasmine Soliman and Jonathan Burr.

Given the current state of instability and upheaval in the region, it seems imperative to increase efforts to safeguard photographic collections, but current social and political circumstances also make it difficult to pursue without encountering obstacles. Across the Middle East and North Africa, there are various private photography collections, yet it is hard to know where they are and what kind of photographs these collections include. Even collections that are part of public institutions face the same issues due to poor cataloguing or lack of access. The inability to ensure proper climate control remains a concern for most photographic archives in the region. In this regard, Akkasah is committed to both transparency and open access, with the goal to make its entire archive available online for researchers and the general public.

A custodial model for archiving

Social and political instability poses a major challenge for the preservation of photographic heritage in the region. There is little governmental support for the preservation of photographic heritage. Many of the institutions and individuals who own the collections under threat are rightly reluctant to have them alienated from their and national and cultural homes, even as they seek to have them safeguarded.

Accordingly, Akkasah has developed a custodial model in order to address this issue. In the custodial model Akkasah either digitizes a collection in situ or assists in removing a collection, or part of a collection, to NYUAD, in order for it to be digitized catalogued, and returned to the donor at any time at no cost. This model was first implemented for the Hisham Khatib Collection in Jordan. The Hisham Khatib Collection includes over 2000 historical photographs from the Middle East, with a focus on Palestine and Jordan. For this collection, Akkasah worked with Darat Al Funun, a major cultural centre in Amman, digitizing the entire collection in situ in 2017.

Another major project that used the custodial model includes the archive of College de la Sainte Famille, a Jesuit high school from Helwan in Egypt, for which over 2000 prints from the late 19th century through the 1990s were digitized in Abu Dhabi and returned to the school afterwards.

Traditionally a Eurocentric field, Akkasah aims to shift the centre of gravity in the history of photography eastwards and beyond and focus on global photographic centres, which so far have been on the periphery of the history of photography. Building and maintaining a photographic archive in a region where a lot of archives are at the risk of being disrupted, stolen or lost comes with a number of challenges. In the region, issues related to archives and archival practices are still not fully discussed. Through its archival practices and scholarly activities, Akkasah’s hope is to generate research that contributes to the development of alternative social and cultural histories of the region. Through full open access, Akkasah aims to change the prevalent culture pertinent to archives in the region, and encourage a more participatory approach with regard to preserving and sharing cultural heritage.

Keep updated with the latest additions to the Akkasah Center on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Image Banner: A group of men and women standing on the stairs of a building, Late Ottoman era. Photographer unknown. Turkey Collection, AD_MC_007_ref287 . Visit here. Copyright ©Akkasah Center for Photography, NYU Abu Dhabi. 

ACOR Photo Archive, Amman, Jordan

The American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) Photo Archive has recently digitized and made available six collections of photographs spanning diverse subjects in archaeology, social history, anthropology, art and architectural history from 1944 to 2008 from across the Middle East and North Africa.

The ACOR Photo Archive is open-access and all of the 15,000 photos online are available to download for free.  The vast majority of these photos were not previously catalogued, known about, or accessible to the public. Two years in to the four-year digitization project, the ACOR Photo Archive is now accessed from countries all around the world, with most of its users split between Jordan and the U.S. The ACOR Photo Archive Project is funded by a Title VI (2016) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The ACOR Photo Archive Project was initiated to digitize images mostly from Jordan, including donated collections and those of former research center directors. Inspiration for this project came from a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of cultural heritage in the region in the context of the wars in Syria and Yemen, amongst the loss of human life. The Photo Archive Project sought to resist this destruction by turning attention to the resources in ACOR’s basement – the photographic record of now-infamous places such as Palmyra/Tadmur in Syria, as well as less well-known feats of ancient engineering like Marib Dam, Yemen, pictured before they were damaged in the conflict.

The Triumphal Arch of the Great Colonnade, with the Arab castle visible in the background. Palmyra/Tadmur, Syria, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

South sluice, Marib Dam, Yemen, 1995. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

From the outset, as ACOR is based in Jordan, quieter forms of destruction – through development pursued without care for the urban environment in its entirety or through the prioritization of some histories over others – were also a factor in the desire to digitize the archives. Comparing the two images below of the Oval Piazza at the Roman and Islamic archaeological site in Jerash, Jordan gives an insight into both the rate of development, and the prioritization of certain historical remains over others.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1998. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

An unexpected highlight of embarking on the ACOR Photo Archive Project was the enthusiasm with which other institutions in Jordan received ACOR’s heritage digitization efforts. In 2017, ACOR hosted a workshop for fellow heritage and library professionals creating a forum to share and address specific challenges relating to digitizing heritage of Jordan and the wider region. Challenges included how best to describe archival material so that researchers, students and the general public would be able to find it easily, no matter their educational background. When you are handling representations of sites typically inhabited by at least two civilizations with vastly different names for their settlements as well as the variations found when one script is transliterated into another – Arabic to Latin in this case – things quickly become complicated. Some places, such as the Islamic Umayyad (7th-8th century) lodge and bathhouse, Qasr ‘Amrah, in Jordan’s Eastern Desert are also known by a second name in Arabic, Qusayr Amra. This complexity makes it essential to collate extensive metadata (information about data, such as photos) covering all scholarly traditions that discuss the subject matter of the photo, in order to render images findable through simple keyword search. This process transforms individual image collections into a visual bibliography of the region.

Technical training in digitization, particularly slide, print and negative photo scanning, is in demand in Jordan, where archival sciences programs equivalent to those elsewhere are not yet available in the otherwise sophisticated cultural heritage management sector. As a result, in 2018, the ACOR Photo Archive team led in-depth training designed to turn scanning novices into digitization professionals working according to the best-practice recommendations of the U.S. Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines (2016).

As the Photo Archive team began adding layers of descriptive metadata to each image, they realized that they wielded control over how the images would be received and interpreted by archive users. The information presented alongside the images would frame how these were to be interpreted by researchers, school students, and even perhaps future generations. In the postcolonial context of overseas research centers in Jordan, this is a significant responsibility. The initial plan for the ACOR Photo Archive did not include metadata in Arabic. However, the Photo Archive team quickly realized that this had the potential to prevent Arabic-speaking researchers and students from benefitting from the newly available material. Instead, the team insisted upon Arabic-script functionality when commissioning a Content Management Platform – ‘Starchive’ by Digital ReLab – to host the ACOR Photo Archive online.

As the Photo Archive developed into tens of thousands of images presented online, Samya Kafafi, Project Coordinator for Metadata, added descriptions and references for further reading from publications in Arabic – serving as a platform in which the work of Jordanian and international scholars are presented with equal weight. Presenting images of cultural heritage from across the region alongside the premier academic scholarship on its topic became a priority for the team, and is something we are continuing to develop today, as the ACOR Photo Archive grows. Although the archive is run by one of the premier research libraries in Jordan, its potential to serve younger learners was highlighted at the Jordan School Librarians’ Conference (November 2018), which inspired teachers to incorporate the ACOR Photo Archive as a key resource for school projects.

Looking ahead to the next two years of the project, ACOR’s goals are to continue to make more images accessible – a target of 30,000 by late 2020 – as well as to hold photo exhibitions both online and in Amman, to foster further exchanges with experts on subjects included in the archive, and to continue to train young Jordanians in the practices of archiving and digitization.

Keep updated with the latest additions to the ACOR Photo Archive on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.