While I bet many of you were enjoying the transcendent weekend we just had, I attended a really great digital humanities conference – or rather “unconference” – called THATCamp over at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design, History and Material Culture. A sincere thanks to Kimon Keramidas and Amanda French for doing a fantastic job playing Masters of Ceremony, not to mention the hard work of their equally amazing staff! The whole thing was so enjoyable I hardly missed the sunshine. For the origin story and reasons behind the formation of THATCamp, Tom Scheinfeldt, the Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason gave a decidedly un-THATCamp-y talk at Columbia University CDRS last month.
I attended eight sessions total, and although all of them were incredibly useful I’ll only cover a few of them here. The first was a workshop on Viewshare, a tool I hadn’t heard of before that allows users to import thir collection data in order to generate visualizations such as maps, scatter plots, tables, timelines and/or pie charts. I’m excited to see how our collection play across this visualization tool, and I think it will really help me to understand where our collections strengths lie. This could inform future collections interface projects I am beginning to cook up, and hopefully help me avoid pitfalls that can arise when embarking on these kinds of projects.
Beth Harris and Steven Zucker’s talk on their innovative website and podcast, Smarthistory surprised me for its tremendous benefit to my thinking about the oral histories we capture at the Yard. For those of you less familiar, Smarthistory podcasts discuss works of art in a dialog format and through an insistence upon direct observation of the works of art themselves. The lively conversation and the in-situ nature of their podcasts adds immediacy and freshness to the study of art history (something many people find lacking). After their talk I now see that these same principles can just as easily applied to my oral history projects. What may be lost in sound quality can be gained by sparking more evocative memories in our oral history narrators. I can’t wait to hear the kinds of conversations we can capture with this new perspective on oral history.
One of my favorite parts of the conference was the interlude called “Dork Shorts,” in which folks pitched the projects they’re working on in two-minute bursts. All of them were great, but Stereogranimator, developed by Ben Vershbow and company at NYPL Labs, appealed to me for its ability to reinstate the sense of perspective offered by stereoscopic views in the web environment. I have a number of stereographs in my collection, and one of the things that troubles me about them is how they get passed up for other forms of photography simply because they’re these weird little duplicate images.
The Stereogranimator allows you to generate 3D images as well as animated gifs (not shown) which approximate the experience of having a hand-held stereoscopic viewer. Yes, the image below requires you to have a pair of red/blue 3D glasses, but the fun and whimsey these 3D images inspire – particularly in kids – is right in line with other aesthetic choices we made in our galleries.
I should also note that THATCamp isn’t all tech tools, there was a lot of deep discussions about how technology changes the museum experience, and the care digital humanities professionals must take not to not disrupt the primacy of art and artifacts. We also discussed the limitations of digital interpretation, and the trade-offs between conveying perfectly accurate information vs. simplifying data to better illustrate a point. At BLDG 92 these issues plagued us when developing a number of our museum features, particularly our interactive map. I was comforted to find other professionals struggling with this as well, and was given a lot to think about as we embark on our next digital initiatives.
These theoretical sessions were probably the most valuable for me, though they don’t convey as well in the confines of a blog post. For me the experience was endlessly useful, and reinvigorated my feelings about my collection as well as digital humanities as a practice. It was also great to find other humanities professionals who are further along in their careers voicing the same concerns I face in my work. I encourage you all to seek out THATCamp sessions in the future. You won’t be disappointed.