Museum Informatics

Wednesday, April 4, 12:30-1:45 pm
Innovation Hub Program Room (Shores, first floor – map)

Involving Users in the Co-Construction of Knowledge in Museums

Beginning in 2015, the Lightbox Gallery at Harvard Art Museums served as an exhibition space for two installation projects combining data visualization with collections management. The first, Lightbox, “use[s] digital tools to reveal connections between objects and play with traditions of display” (HILT). The second, S.M.S. NOs 1-6s, offers a digital re-rendering of William Copley’s 1968 multimedia portfolio. Themselves digital complements to existing exhibitions at Harvard and Wellesley College, both projects reflected overlapping interests in manipulating metadata to study (and document the study of) visual culture. Both projects acted as highly participatory interfaces in which information networks could portray “cybernetic systems of aesthetic immanence.” In fact, both projects featured museum curation as their installation object and invited participants to perform meta-curation.

In “Collections and/of Data,” Matthew Battles and Michael Maizels liken these meta-installations to the “distant reading” practices of text-focused digital humanists, arguing that the process of visual curation allows researchers to observe (in data patterns derived through technical systems) how museum identities gradually shift. Digital Scholars is pleased to welcome Dr. Paul Marty, Professor in the School of Information at Florida State University, to help us consider the critical import of these shifts in museum identity.

Situated in the middle space between museum studies professionals and cultural heritage librarians, Dr. Marty focuses his own scholarship and teaching on recontextualizing the territories in which museum resources operate, a question that he sees as central to digital museology. In a hybrid session, part discussion and part application, Dr. Marty will introduce us to a collection of different crowdsourcing projects developed by museums and cultural heritage organizations — supporting transcription, translation, annotation, and curation — so as to better explore the various ways that museums are engaging their visitors as active participants in the knowledge creation process.

All are welcome. Participants are invited to bring tablets or laptops, and to read the following in advance:

We hope you can join us.


Fictions that Exist Now

On 3/23/18, Jentery Sayers spoke about “prototyping the past” through the lens of his teaching experiences. The medium is the message, and no medium can escape its author’s biases.  By recreating what Sayers labeled “fictions that existed in history,” students may also be recreating the biases of the past and have the opportunity to see the past differently.  Often it is difficult to look at items used today and see the tensions latent in them.  By recreating items from the past, there is a possibility that biases inlaid into creation may be revealed.

As a learning and thinking exercise prototyping becomes a powerful tool to show the past differently.  During the presentation, Sayers spoke about wanting to avoid the “fetish of novelty” and instead recreating items of the past to see the items and the past differently.  The past to us is inaccessible, and our understanding will always be incomplete with contingencies.  By recreating the past, students may draw meaning that could change their understanding of the world, even if the recreation is not 100% accurate to the original design.  The items being prototyped matter less than the thought process behind creation.

In my Twitter wanderings before the presentation, I found an article on Sayers’ Twitter page that interested me as a board game enthusiast. F*** Colonialism by Jeremy Signor sheds light on the tendency of board game community to romanticize the “Age of Discovery.”  Many board games such as Settlers of Catan, Agricola, and Puerto Rico are resource management games that require the player to begin to understand the game’s mechanics through the eyes of a colonizer.  Puerto Rico even goes as far to have small brown discs called ‘settlers’ that work plantations and are carried to the new world on a tightly packed boat where players then distribute the settlers based on the players needs.  These games don’t just base themselves on a painful part of our past, it forces the player to think like a colonist without critically engaging.  Specifically, Puerto Rico that shows its obvious connections with no shame.

As Jentery Sayers suggested, these games show an ideological preference that should make players uncomfortable.  Reading this article before listening to Sayers’ lecture on prototyping prompted me to engage with how these fictions demonstrate an ideology. What ideas are present behind the basic premise of the game that seep through and may normalize ideas that should instead be critically examined.  Finally, how could these games be different?  If I could, how would I recreate these games through a different lens?

Medium is just a tool to influence thinking.  The message changes and sometimes subtly shifts depending on medium.  Statements can be made without being obviously stated, opinions can blur the lines with fact, and emotions can change beliefs.  Messages are hidden within mediums, and these need to be complicated and broken down.  Through prototyping the past, Jentery Sayers gives his students an opportunity to see the past in a different light.



Chachra, D. (2015) Why I am not a maker. The Atlantic []

Chan, T. (2017) The author function: Imitating Grant Allen with queer writing machines []

Sayers, J. (2015) Prototyping the past. Visible Language Journal, 49(3) []

Sayers, J. (2016) Dropping the digital. Debates in the Digital Humanities

Sayers, J., Elliott, D., Kraus, K., Nowviskie, B. & Turkel, W. J. (2016) Between bits and atoms: Physical computing and desktop fabrication in the humanities. New Companion to Digital Humanities, ed S. Schreibman, R. Siemens, J. Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell

Signor, J. (2017) F*** Colonialism. The Board Game’s Soul.




Making as Breaking

In his recent talk (From Lab to Classroom: Live Methods and Prototyping in the Arts and Humanities), Jentery Sayers traces the contextual origination, methodological orientation, and pedagogical thrust of his work at the University of Victoria’s Maker Lab in the Humanities (or MLab). While MLab does represent an academic variation upon the “makerspace model,” it also works against prescriptive teleologies/ontologies of “making” as popularly conceived within tech culture. Attempting to balance “immersion with critical distance,” Sayers proposes an ethic of speculative iteration upon the practice of communal “artefacting” toward divulgence of a central research question: “what can people learn from prototyping technologies that are broken, lost, missing, or no longer in circulation?” Through the application of prototype as heuristic/hermeneutic, Sayers hopes (and, indeed, has already begun) to break down reductive distinctions that exist within DH and related disciplines, ultimately collapsing (or at least, troubling) the difference between “making” and “breaking.”

This semantic matter is taken up—explicitly or implicitly—in much of the surrounding literature. Instead of attempting to reclaim the designation at hand, Chachra rejects it altogether in her 2015 article “Why I Am Not a Maker,” teasing out the assumptions inherent in the label. While the maker movement is often portrayed as countercultural, Chachra contends that it is merely reinscribing “familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.”

In “The Author Function,” Chan also challenges these problematic binaries, advocating greater recognition of and appreciation for “indeterminacy, contradictions, and possibilities”; however, she here focuses more upon technological affordances and applications than terminological self-identification. Like Sayers, Chan pushes for speculative engagement with the plausibility/preferability of certain technological futures, specifically as relates to neural networking and corpus linguistics.

Theorizing more generally this notion of “Speculative Computing,” Drucker identifies the fundamental premise: “a work is constituted in an interpretation enacted by an interpreter.” Once again, we see this same notion reflected in Sayer’s work at MLab—a shift from the “procedural and mechanistic” toward the “dynamic and constitutive.” Beyond computing, Eliot et al. posit in “New Old Things” that matter itself represents a “new medium” for historical research and humanistic endeavor. They point to hacker, maker, and DIY communities as potential models for new kinds of experimental, experiential projects across “digitized and materialized forms.”

Before this sort of synthesis can be achieved, however, it can be useful to isolate domains, as Sayers points out in “Dropping the Digital.” Promoting a temporary “ruination,” or procedural de-rhetorizing, of digital humanities toward identification of that which “makes them compelling in the first place,” Sayers argues that there are “computational skews” and exclusions within the general economy of DH that go unnoticed without careful examination of underlying metrics and terminologies.

In “Prototyping the Past,” he proceeds to explain how speculative crafting can be instrumentalized toward inclusionary ends, offering potential routes of inquiry/advancement into “entanglements of culture, materials, and design.” Eschewing historical fetishization in favor of conjectural contingency, this ethos of prototype accommodates and embraces potentially anachronistic “breaking” within a communal-conjectural frame of “making” whereby the liminal spaces “between bits and atoms” can be explored, interfaced, and perhaps even—in a sense—closed.

Works Cited

Reimagining Prototyping

For Dr. Jentery Sayers, situating makers culturally, as well as spatially, offers productive disruptions, in turn leading to new and interesting avenues of discussion in the undergraduate classroom. In his upcoming visit to Digital Scholars, Sayers will discuss the value of prototyping both as pedagogy and as technique for critique and investigation. In advance of this talk, he has linked to course syllabi for classes that work extensively in the idea of prototyping, one concerned with old/obsolete patented technologies and the other with board game designs. The prototypes encourage the prototyper to get intimately familiar with their charge, and allows for hands on manipulation that provides feedback that would be nearly impossible to get without them.

In the classes, students are encouraged to think critically and rhetorically about the object they are prototyping, doing things such as exploded models that show how each part relates to another and to the whole, and to think and reflect about the implications of those relations, as well as to reflect on the material nature and realities of the construction of the piece and what that indicates about the sociocultural conditions that surround the object (i.e. some materials that are ubiquitous today and would make the object better/more effective might not have been available at its conception, and perhaps that is why it is no longer in circulation/use).

For Sayers, the use of prototype within scholarship can be used for artifacts of the past in order to get a more intimate and hands-on knowledge about the object and the cultures that used the objects, which are impossible to get from accounts and blueprints, or might have been impossible even with an artifact due to the fragility of the artifact that would not allow for manipulation. With prototyping, scholars can get a literally working knowledge of the object, understand its use and how it influenced thought and knowledge production. It can also give insight into the process of creating that object, as he notes that it is not a linear, point A to B process but rather a recursive and multilayered process that involves many outsiders (Sayers et al, “Bits and Atoms” 6-8).

Sayers’ texts for this talk, both his own and those from others, situate making as a knowledge-making activity, and discuss how it impacts and is impacted by the surrounding culture through misunderstanding and prejudice. Chachra and Chan both discuss at length how the dominant culture at the time devalues the work they see as feminine, coding it as superfluous or insignificant or inconsequential. Chachra makes the point that making is codified using the dominant cultural values of male work and power as well as capitalistic production-for-profit, which allows those who are identified as makers “a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.”

Both Chan and Chachra expand of this to look at how those who are not considered makers are devalued and, in the case of Chan’s example of female secretaries, dehumanized. The female-coded work (such as relational or caregiver work) is not termed making and thus not valued, even if it is the undergirding work upon which “makers” can actually be able to make, as Chachra points out with her example of the community management done within Silicone Valley (which, as she points out, can be the factor “on which the success of many tech companies is based”).

In both Sayers’s piece “Dropping the Digital” and Tiffany Chan’s “The Author Function,” the idea of disturbance is brought in, both in terms of how something is manufactured and in terms of how this disruption can lead to important changes, culturally. Sayers argues for the “dropping” of the digital in “digital humanities” through his ruination technique, which he does to look at “how its absence shapes meaning and interpretation,” whereas Chan looks more at how a reordering or reinterpretation via machine (in this case, a predictive keyboard trained on the text of author Grant Allen) illuminates original meaning and context whilst also providing new avenues to explore.

Whilst reading through Chan’s piece in particular, I was reminded of the recent predictive keyboard, Botnik, and its (hilarious) rendition of the Harry Potter texts; while I am sure there is a good deal of social and political observations to be made about this application of JK Rowling’s texts, what I was reminded of moreso was the subsequent flurry of activity as people jumped to respond to this new set of text with drawings and videos  and these new interpretations have spawned discussions that encourage people to go back in to the original texts to try to locate how and why the AI pulled specific words or phrases.

Although both Chan and Sayers’ projects take different approaches (one deductive and the other inductive) and yield significantly different textual results, both offer a way to reimagine and reinterpret the past in order to consider what else might we look at or into in the future. It allows a new perspective that can both highlight positive aspects that had not been seen or considered before, and it can also help to locate problems in the undergirding structure that are based in the contemporary or current cultural paradigms that we approach the texts from.


Chachra, D. (2015) Why I am not a maker. The Atlantic []

Chan, T. (2017) The author function: Imitating Grant Allen with queer writing machines []

Sayers, J. (2015) Prototyping the past. Visible Language Journal, 49(3) []

Sayers, J. (2016) Dropping the digital. Debates in the Digital Humanities

Sayers, J., Elliott, D., Kraus, K., Nowviskie, B. & Turkel, W. J. (2016) Between bits and atoms: Physical computing and desktop fabrication in the humanities. New Companion to Digital Humanities, ed S. Schreibman, R. Siemens, J. Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell


Material Culture, Material World

In the readings leading up to the discussion with Dr. Sayers, words like making and proto-typing are used in conjunction with re-investigating the past.  These same methodologies can also be applied to the questions and cultures of the present as well as those of the future.  I am largely a creature of the past, so I will focus on that.

The study of material culture of the past can give us a window into human activity and culture temporally, as well as spatially.  Art, architecture, literature, housewares and tools regardless if they are made from lithics, metals, ceramics, or organic material helps us investigate the past.  Wait, wait, wait.  Am I writing a post on an Archaeology forum or a Digital Humanities forum?  Well, yes.  The concept of using ancient documents for the purpose of making material objects to prove a hypothesis has been happening in archaeology for many years.  This experimental archaeology is a systematic and controlled method of interpretation of artifacts discovered in the archaeological record.  By testing the validity of archaeological assumptions, archaeologists are expanding the database of empirical knowledge about ancient humanity.  For example, Thor Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.  His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so.  Heyerdahl and a small team went to Peru, where they constructed a raft out of native materials in an indigenous style as recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadores.  The trip began on April 28, 1947. Heyerdahl and five companions sailed the raft for 101 days over 6,900 km (4,300 miles) across the Pacific Ocean before making landfall on Raroia, in the French Polynesians, on August 7, 1947 (Heyerdahl 1950).  There are too many experiments to list here, but this is the earliest that I have knowledge of and Digital Humanities can and should adopt these methodologies to interrogate and enhance their own questions.  Using 3D modeling, scholars have been able to make detailed analysis of material from the archaeological record, commensurate with their full dimensionality, that would be impractical because of the limited accessibility of the original artifacts.

The interplay of game theory and scholarship intrigues me.  Video games have been a popular way of bringing the past to life.  For example, in Halo 4 the consumer gets introduced to aspects of life in the 1950’s.  This knowledge transfer happens, albeit mostly unbeknownst to the user, while playing in a virtual world.  A more recent example is the popular game Assassin’s Creed where, I am told as I have yet to play the game, the user can enter a mode of the game where tours of ancient spaces can be engaged.  These tours involve historical fact and are said to come with a list of source materials included that users can explore on their own outside of the game.  In the long list of tabletop games that Dr. Sayers provides, I have played nearly half.  I am very excited to see the ways in which I can bring one of my favorite leisure time activities into not only my classroom, but my scholarship as well.


Works Cited

Heyerdahl, Thor
1950    Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Rand McNally & Company.


Prototyping as Pedagogy

Friday, March 23, 2:30-3:45 pm
Williams 013 (English Common Room, basement level)

From the Lab to the Classroom: Live Methods and Prototyping in the Arts and Humanities

Fabrication objects and physical computing objects — digital matter — have been the historian’s medium since communication scholars first cast digital inquiry as a “matter of intercepting and decoding transmissions from some remote place and time … [a way] to ground conversations about the past and our relationship to it” (Elliott, et al, 2017). Yet, beyond fabricating objects related to historians’ own interests, the making and remaking of digital matter can offer a medium for teaching and learning even among novice groups. Digital Scholars is pleased to welcome Dr. Jentery Sayers (via videoconference) to discuss some of the critical and practical implications of involving arts and humanities undergraduate students in prototyping and fabrication.

As a pedagogy that emerges from assertive approaches to speculative computing, prototyping offers students “live methods” (Back and Puwar, 2012), or methods that privilege multiple registers of knowledge-making (including, but not limited to, talk and text). With an emphasis on Material, Dr. Sayers will survey the benefits and risks of establishing “a practice of making things think, sense, and talk” (Sayers, et al, 2016, p. 4) in two particular courses — “Technology and Society,” and “What’s In A Game?” — drawing primarily from experiences teaching speculative design, indie games, and, more generally, techniques for prototyping pasts and futures.

All are welcome, and participants are invited to read and browse the following in advance:

And for additional reading or optional interest:

We hope you can join us.

Postscript to Our Meeting: Dr. Sayers has generously offered the dedicated github page for distribution []

“The Woman Behind the Webtexts”: Cheryl Ball

Dr. Cheryl E. Ball has been working with editing webtexts, also known as scholarly media, since 2001 and has published numerous webtext that are still today relevant to challenging generic and technological conventions. “Webtext” is a technique that was developed in 1996 as a plain html screen that people could log on to and with the added feature of having a few links so one could jump between pages. In the article “Editorial Workflows for Multimedia-Rich Scholarship,” Ball and Douglas Eyman give a brief overview on how to establish and publish webtexts for scholarly use.

Ball also uses webtexts methods when she is teaching her writing class at Illinois State University. In “Assessing Scholarly Multimedia: A Rhetorical Genre Studies Approach,” Ball states that “[t]he major project that I assign students in multimodal composition courses is to compose a webtext, which can include many possible genres, technologies, media, and so forth, but will always be scholarly-creative and aimed at an academic audience” (Ball, 63-64). Ball takes an interest in teaching students these skills that may have never had the opportunity to learn the. She makes the methods simple by making the webtext easy for the intended audience to understand. Ball also discusses issues that arise when working with larger groups while doing a webtext. She states that in larger groups the conversation is harder to maintain due to all the emails that are circulating at a given time. Ball now prefers to work in smaller groups of about 5-7 people so that all the points can be organized and touched on in a timely manner.

One thing that Ball referred to that I loved was how digital humanists should “consider it our responsibility to make judgements about the morality of acts, artifacts, systems, and processes, but not on the morality of people and organizations. Judging the latter is dangerous and misleading: nobody judged immoral is beyond redemption, and no one judged moral is beyond error.” Alluding to many different subjects that are not only from blogs, social media sites, and internet propaganda but also academic texts, it is important that we as scholars do not bash the person behind the work but have a critical conversation of their work without attacking, because this can also backfire.

I am personally looking forward to seeing this genius behind the production of these thousands of webtexts. Ball is truly what we aspire to be in the academia world of digital humanities.