By Jon Frey
The schedule for April 9 involved a morning of group presentations and discussion based on the visit to the National Archaeological Museum (NAM) followed by an early evening talk by Dr. Agiatis Benardou from the Digital Curation Unit, ATHENA RC, University of Glasgow and Athens University of Economics and Business.
The morning talks were arranged according to the four hubs (objects, people, styles and ideas) and covered a wide range of artifacts and perceptions of the NAM. The objects hub used the Antikythera shipwreck to discuss the choices the museum made in displaying the artifacts from a single unique deposit in different arrangements at different points in time. The ideas group made an interesting comparison between the prize objects in the collection and countless other artifacts that often go overlooked in the many display cases throughout the museum in an effort to explore the ideas of Greek antiquity that the museum was expressing. The people hub engaged in a fascinating comparison of two artifacts—the Archaic period Phrasikleia Kore and a plaster cast of a woven basket from Akrotiri—to explore the importance of context in telling the stories of the people and events that were responsible for each ending up buried for centuries. Finally the style hub focused on various instances of objects that feature a spiral as part of their overall appearance as a way to suggest a possible approach that breaks style down into its component elements of design. Such an approach may well lend itself to a computational approach to analyzing which components are essential in allowing art historians to conclude that an object belongs to a certain period/style.
As with every other presentation day, it was again the case that the group simply did not have the time to address all of challenging questions and ideas that these presentations raised. Thus, in the time that followed, we turned our attention in large part to the events, ideas and conflicts that have shaped the appearance and practices in the NAM today. The NAM is a very traditional museum. Outside of the temporary exhibition hall, the displays of works of art and archaeology have not changed in decades. The digital presentation of the museum’s holdings on the Internet is limited to a display of the highlights of the collection with brief narrative descriptions. As the previous blog post has made very apparent, the situation is very complex, but the way this institution chooses to present itself is also not accidental. But the result all the same is an institution that does not give the impression of being amenable to exploration beyond a time-honored itinerary.
This inevitably leads to questions about the role of digital art historians in bringing their skills, ideas, and technologies to communities that may not share their interests. If we are excited about what “the digital” can do for cultural heritage and art and if we are committed to ideas of openness and transparency in places of significance to world heritage, what can we do, responsibly and sensitively, to convince our colleagues in other cultural settings to join us?
Perhaps by luck, but more likely by design, Dr. Benardou’s evening presentation provided an interesting way to think about this question. Working from a summary of the numerous ongoing digital initiatives in Europe, Dr. Benardou drew attention to a number of issues (e.g. the need for semantic linking of independent ontologies, the importance of sustainability of digital archives, and attention to digital materiality) that must be addressed by the digital humanities community if it is to achieve its goal of improving the research environment in the humanities.
As before, only a few of the many points she raised could be addressed in the discussion that followed. The topic of greatest relevance to the present blog post concerned the question of user interfaces. Conversation focused on the fact that, all too often, digitization projects focus almost all of their time and resources on building the largest and most complete collections possible, but address the user experience only as a last-minute afterthought. Interestingly enough, some of these digital resources have succeeded in spite of their discouraging user interfaces. Yet, in these instances, the value of the content outweighs the user experience such that researchers are willing to put up with the difficulties of accessing the data. At the same time, the opposite is not the case. An attractive user interface will only hold a user’s attention for a short time if there is no meaningful data to be accessed. In the end, Dr. Benardou explained that an effective digital framework contains three main components—content, tools, and community.
This observation suggests an interesting way to think about the NAM. As is clear to anyone who has visited, this museum enjoys both content and community. The lines at the ticket booth and galleries crowded with tour groups attest to the latter while a survey of the object labels show that this museum has addressed the former by collecting some of the most iconic works of art and architecture from numerous sites around the Greek world. Could it be that its strength in these two categories has allowed the NAM to neglect the third? And if so, how might the digital humanities / art history community convince institutions like the NAM to begin to focus more deliberately on the tools, i.e. the interfaces and utilities, that could elevate the experiences of its current and potential audiences?
I suspect that like those internet resources that are “good enough” because they deliver us the information and communities we need for our research, the immense weight of the NAM’s history and traditions mean that it is unlikely to change overnight in response to this type of critique. Nor would it ever be wise to attempt a negative solution to this problem by reducing a museum’s (or a digital resource’s) strength in any one component in order to force it to focus on another. Rather, the solution may be for digital humanists to focus on other related institutions that need help in improving their content, tools, or communities. I suspect that in the case of smaller museums that are not on the circuit of commercial and educational tours, our help could be put to good use. First, we may wish to consider building content by working with museum directors and curators to provide digitized copies of artifacts that might help to better represent the history of a location. Secondly, we might consult with these individuals to see what types of digital tools might improve a (virtual) visitor’s experience. Finally, in the third case, we could use our extensive digital networks to help build communities of support for these less frequently visited museums. In the end, by engaging those in the fields of cultural heritage and art in a discussion of how they would like us to help, we may well end up setting an example that even the larger institutions like the NAM would begin to follow.