Reaching into the real: Frank Auerbach at the National Museum of Wales

On a recent visit to South Wales I had a few hours to spare before heading into the Valleys, so I stuck my head through the door of the National Museum of Wales. It had been many years since I’d last visited, but my memory of the place was minimal.

The entrance hall in the museum was bustling, partly due to the cafe being placed there, but a few exhibitions were also placed in rooms just off the main drag. I headed straight upstairs, with no particular destination in mind, but being drawn to the beautiful bronze statue of Perseus by Frederick Pomeroy, guarding over the staircase with his gruesome prize held aloft.

Upstairs, there were more treasures to be had. I was particularly struck by two different pieces: a Frank Auerbach painting entitled Head of E.O.W, inspired by his regular model Stella West, and a sculpted head by the Welsh artist William Goscombe John, called Age.


The Goscombe work was just so lovely. I’m rarely struck by the desire to break rules, but I desperately wanted to touch this: to feel the smoothness of it, perhaps to reassure myself that it was indeed a sculpture. It seemed so alive, and the eyes had a sadness to them that really struck me: age seemed to weigh heavily on this woman. I felt quite emotional when I left her – I felt like I should stay, and hear her story, whilst there was still time for her to tell it.


The Auerbach work elicited quite a different emotion. It is oil on board, applied thickly, and the piece had, for me, a disturbing quality. It was as if the head was rising from its surface, attempting to breach the frame and enter the gallery – it seemed sinister, somehow, dark and foreboding.

When I walked out through the door, the sun was shining and a flock of bridesmaids were swooping by, in giggling synchronicity. I sat down on the steps and thought about my research, and how I could tie it in to what I’d just seen. Certainly, the images I had captured on my phone and camera (my own DIY digitisation projects) did not do the original artefacts true justice. This, of course, gives credence to the idea that it is only the physical artefact that has any credibility: that it’s better to see the real thing. There are arguments about cultural capital here to be had, but what is strongly reinforced is the digital dualist’s argument that the online world is a virtual reality, and the “real” lies in the physical.

This has mostly been discussed in relation to social media, and the real-world ramifications of behaviour conducted in the digital domain. But it plays out in the cultural sector through the implication that digital artefacts are not real, and the physical artefact has authenticity. I don’t necessarily believe this, but how do we recreate the physical in the digital world and for it to have the same sense of tactility? How do we recreate the desire to feel something? And does the boundary between the real and the digital only now exist in our minds – nothing more than a procedural memory?

Katherine Hayles asserted that we have entered the world of the posthuman, where the traditional boundaries between mind and body, man and machine have ceased to be relevant. This lack of boundaries suggests that the relationship between man and machine is not symbiotic but conjoined. This seems as inconceivable as the notion of mind and body being connected, more monist than dualist.

I fell into a bit of a philosophical hole after that, blundering my way from Hayles through to Descartes to Cartesian Dualism and causal interaction (good old Wikipedia!); how consciousness affects one’s physical reality. But what I strongly felt on that day (and still do) is that Auerbach’s painting was some kind of answer. Here was a painting, applied to a solid surface, which seemed to be reaching beyond its natural perimeters. By implication, the paint did not need the board. It was…disconcerting.

I can’t find the quote now, but I believe it was Willard McCarty who said that one of the reasons we struggle with digitisation is our frustration that we are not able to meld with it completely (please correct me if I’m wrong!). I believe that actually, it is that reaching out from beyond the frame that we have a problem with. It doesn’t seem right. I know it’s probably a cliché now, but I’m often taken back to Cronenberg’s Videodromeand that moment when James Woods is eaten by Debbie Harry’s, cherry-red televised mouth.


I’ve talked about experiential crossing in other blog posts, and whilst I think augmented reality goes some way towards facilitating that journey it lacks the tactility we require to make sense of our surroundings. What innovations are there to replicate the corporality of a sculpture – something liminal, occupying a space on both sides of the digital divide? Something like HP Sprout, or haptic technology (which seems to have been around for ages – imagine being able to feel the sensation of a manuscript folio through a screen?), or a combination of all of these things.

In any case, this was a very deep thought process for a Saturday afternoon in Cardiff, especially as the sun was starting to go behind a cloud and it was time for me to board a train. I was very glad to have visited the museum, and to have had the opportunity to see the Auerbach painting, which I highly recommend if you’re in the city.


Digitisation & experiential crossing

Image taken from The City on the Edge of Forever, Star Trek, Episode 28, Season 1

“The barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think; a bit like a frozen lake. Hundreds of people can walk across it, but then one evening a thin spot develops and someone falls through; the hole is frozen over by the following morning.” | Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

In my PhD research I examined in a little detail the phenomenology of learning spaces, the places within which we experience our artefacts and how they impact on our acquisition of information.

When the geographer Edward Relph discussed the phenomenology of space he understood that, for a human to have a “full” experience, a place must operate on several different levels, and that “individual and group meanings [are] created through one’s experiences and intentions in regard to that space” [Key Texts in Human Geography, Hubbard, Kitchin & Valentine].

Picture your favourite reading place. It may be a comfy armchair next to a roaring fire. It might be the hallowed hush of a library. We walk into that space with an expectation that we will learn something. If we read something away from our favourite reading nook, do we have the same experience? Do we intake information in the same way?

We could argue that our expectations as to what the perfect reading space is must be fulfilled in order for us to understand and to create meaning.

This would consequently have an impact on digitised artefacts, in that we have an expectation that the spaces within which we access cultural items must and should be awe-inspiring, grand, and valuable in some way. It is also, perhaps, one of the reasons that a physical artefact is valued over the quieter, perhaps more introspective encounter we have when we view something that is digitised. It does not provide, for some, the accepted physical setting, or have the same meaning attached to it that the physical item does. We construct the world around us subjectively, and thus things have to adhere to the rules as we understand them to be.

In a recent articleThe Guardian discussed the idea of experiential crossing. Apparently, “a fifth of readers report characters from novels cropping up in their daily lives, hearing their voices even after putting books aside” [The Guardian, Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds“]. I find that absolutely fascinating. Does that mean that the power of the reading experience transcends the way we construct our learning spaces?

“Participants (n = 1566) completed measures of reading imagery, inner speech, and hallucination-proneness, including 413 participants who provided detailed free-text descriptions of their reading experiences. Hierarchical regression analysis indicated that reading imagery was related to phenomenological characteristics of inner speech and proneness to hallucination-like experiences.” | Alderson-Day, Bernini & Fernyhough, Uncharted features and dynamics of reading: Voices, characters, and crossing of experiences

The study also suggested that there were tactile or olfactory experiences amongst a small proportion of the participants: feeling a character’s whisper against one’s skin. Ultimately the report determined that “quasiperceptual events [occurred] across a variety of sensory modalities: personified, intentionally and cognitively rich agents; and characters that both triggered and echoed previous experiences and extra-textual connections”.

That’s a fantastically academic way of saying that the reading experience for some participants reached out from the usual phenomenological space we exist in when we read, and created an intuitive-experiential moment, one that is emotionally driven.

Seymour Epstein said that we process information in two ways: analytical-rational, and intuitive-experiential. Reading is probably usually the latter. I think that this is what the digital lacks; that emotional connection, that moment of transcendence beyond the rational into the experiential. Voices are always attempting to reach us from the text – the digital, being analytical-rational, muffles those attempts at conversation.

Perhaps, if we replicate the experiential domain in the digital, enough that we experience those artefacts in the same way as we might in a museum, or in the reading rooms of a national library, then the emotions we feel when accessing a digital manuscript will one day be akin to the reading of vellum and ink.

Marina Joyce and the concept of truth

I’ve just read a fascinating article in The Guardian on the diffusion of emotions through social media and, subsequently, the work of Stefan Stieglitz and Linh Dang-Xuan entitled Emotions and Information Diffusion in Social Media – Sentiment of Microblogs and Sharing Behavior, published in 2013. It immediately resonated with me, as I’ve given consideration to our understanding of truth throughout my own research, and am intrigued by our relationship with it.

In the first instance, let’s talk about the recent Marina Joyce matter. Joyce is a YouTube blogger whose recent behaviour changed so dramatically, or so it seemed to her fans, that the rumour began to spread via Twitter and other social media forums that she had been kidnapped by Islamic State and was being coerced by them, through the use of physical violence. The hysteria reached such a state that the police were forced to investigate the matter, and even Joyce’s subsequent video in which she attempted to reassure her followers that all was well, was scrutinised and disbelieved. The #SaveMarinaJoyce hashtag trended worldwide. Ultimately and, with depressing inevitability, the very fans who worried and reacted to the point of panic turned on Joyce, when it appeared that the simple fact of the matter was that she was possibly suffering from some form of mental illness. This turnaround in the thoughts and feelings of fans towards Joyce also came with its own hashtag: #BoycottMarinaJoyce.

Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 22.03.55

As The Guardian article reminds us, this sort of hysteria is not unknown, and has historical precedent: the Salem Witch Trials is the example cited by the newspaper, but there are others.

What is interesting is the speed with which the issue was picked up on by followers, and the evidence that was seemingly gleaned from the videos in support of their supposition.

But a report also cited in The Guardian suggested what many of us already knew: that the young are not always discerning users of the internet, unable to differentiate truth from fiction, and “too often influenced by information that they should probably discard. This makes them vulnerable to the pitfalls and rabbit holes of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams.”

The answer is not greater censorship or a tighter control over internet content. The task is to ensure that young people can make careful, skeptical and savvy judgments about the internet content they will, inevitably, encounter. This would allow them to identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes, and better navigate the murkier and greyer waters of argument and opinion.

Truth, Lies & the Internet: A report into young people’s digital fluency, Bartlett & Miller [2011]

It therefore becomes ever more important that what we produce and publish online is truthful and honest. This is often very difficult when we’re talking about the reproduction of cultural artefacts, as digitisation does, for some people, undermine the authenticity of an original artefact. Walter Benjamin was telling us far back as the 1930s that replication of an original artefact as a photographic image “is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.”

Bartlett & Miller suggested that “decisions about information quality [are] based on site design, rather than more accurate checks…15% [of 12-15 year olds] don’t consider the veracity of results but just visit the sites ‘they like the look of'” [Bartlett & Miller, 2011].

This might not negate the mass hysteria that sometimes occurs in cases like that of Marina Joyce, but the internet is certainly a breeding ground for inaccuracies, and it is only be perpetuating truth that we can attempt to undermine that.

I firmly believe in the democratisation of knowledge. But at the moment, often, democratisation gives rise to reams of data and information that is unchecked, and lacks gatekeepers. “In a complex, specialised and esoteric world, we must trust in experts. John Hardwig calls this the ‘novice/expert problem’. An important and fundamental strut of epistemology today is therefore the application of ‘pedigree criteria'” [Bartlett & Miller, 2011]. In seeking those gatekeepers, and experts, we are perpetuating the same old hierarchies, relying on people that we assume have intellectual authority. It is a complex issue. What is the answer? It seems trite to say, tell the truth. Because how can that be managed in  a world with 200 million Twitter accounts? [Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013]. And particularly, when social media is increasingly used for political debate?

Our artefacts must be truthful. And for the most part, they are, enhancing our understanding and providing a route for those who may never get access to an original manuscript.

What happens when the truth is manipulated? It can feed into emotional contagion and fan hysteria: it trends, with its own hashtag; it creates reflections in the eye of the beholder that don’t exist; the gun in the corner of the room. When we digitise, we undermine truth, so we need to ensure the consumers of digital artefacts are digitally fluent, aware that when they traverse the internet they are often negotiating Balkanised states of information in which discussion is bounced around groups of like-minded individuals, and thus distorted.

What’s your truth? Mine is somewhere between seeing, and believing.

Pokémon GO and the cultural sector

If the mantra of the cultural sector is now: “Gotta catch them all!”, then Pokemon make particularly pertinent representatives. 

Gotta catch them all?

Many of you will remember the original Pokémon phenomenon: my cousins, who were small boys during the height of the craze, would frequently watch the show whilst visiting our grandmother. There were the usual anime tropes: “big eyes, small mouth”, the Americanised theme tune, and lots of cheering. With its catchphrase ポケモンGETだぜー!which translated to “Pokémon Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, Ash Ketchum (the lead character, known as Satoshi in Japan) and his array of friends, who changed regularly across the seasons, sought to capture and train some of the huge array of Pokémon – 729 named varieties – so that they could be made to fight one another in stadiums, in front of huge audiences.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the subjugation of an entire species for the entertainment of another, even if that species is fictional, but hey ho. In any case, “Pokémon is the second-most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, behind only Nintendo’s Mario franchise“. To me, it certainly wasn’t as good as the cartoons from my childhood: She-Ra, Mysterious Cities of Gold, DuckTales. There seemed to be altogether too many close-ups and freeze frames: it was over-bright, and what the Hell was that yellow thing? Bear in mind, this is coming from a woman who was quite capable, in her youth, of suspending disbelief enough to watch Biker Mice From Mars. 

It was, and is, easy to dismiss the phenomenon as a means of making money (and it did, through its swap cards and Nintendo games, make billions of Yen) but aside from the fact it is fantastically entertaining and clearly a huge pop culture experience, it also has fascinating connotations with religion. In The Guardian article entitled If Pokémon Go feels like a religion, that’s because it kind of is, Hannah Gould, an anthropologist, wrote:

Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion, teaches that the world is inhabited by thousands of kami, or gods. When made offerings of food and incense, kami bestow good luck in business, studies and health, but when disrespected, they can turn vindictive.

Pokemon are akin to these kami: they can be found all around us, capricious as any gods. And the adulation children still have for the Pokémon universe is often as powerful as those who believe in an afterlife. 

More fascinatingly, Gould cites Anne Allison, a scholar of contemporary Japan, and her work Millennial Monsters, when she comments that Pokémon:

demonstrate(s) a kind of ‘techno-animism’, which imbues digital technologies with a spirit or soul…This type of animism is embedded in commodity consumerism, where emotive ties between people and things are used to push products. But it is equally a means of fighting the dislocation of modern life by allowing consumers to create meaning, connection and intimacy in their daily routine.

I would suggest that Pokémon GO is an extension of this desire to reconnect with the “real”, as so much of it is dependent upon a participant’s activities in the physical domain. It muddies the waters between here and there, by using a phone’s GPS system to project an augmented reality onto the real world as seen through your camera lens. It is the sort of juxtaposition between the real world and the digital that captures, albeit fleetingly, our needs and desires. Perhaps, in this currently confusing world of BREXIT and 24-hour news, we need to have virtual reality in the form of a grinning, yellow, hyperactive Pikachu, transposed onto the world as we pass through it.

Capturing a Charmeleon: using GO in the cultural sector

Taking the old and making it new: the essence of the digital humanities.

One of the key elements of Pokémon GO are the significant stopping points within the app, designated by the designer Niantic and often being monuments, libraries or other sites of historic or cultural and local interest.

So how can the cultural sector ride this phenomenal wave of interest that’s currently being borne out? In the first instance, as a venue, you would need to determine whether you’re near a PokéStop or a Gym. If you’re on the map as a stop, then you are very likely to see an increase in visitors, whether they’re coming through the door or walking around the grounds. At such stops you can collect Pokéballs, or snacks for your creatures, or receive medical treatment. 

If you’re a PokéGym, then your venue will be a place for users to fight and train their Pokémon. You can also take over these venues, if your Pokémon are strong enough. I’m not quite yet (you have to be a Level 5 trainer), but you can essentially capture the flag at these Gyms, and become the anointed trainer there. 

The National Archives in London is one such cultural organization designated as a Gym in the Pokéworld. 

One GO user, Alex Finnis, has written an article on areas he’s tracked them through London. St Pancras Station is a PokéGym, for example, and Hyde Park is a rich hunting ground for the creatures.

You can also lure Pokémon to your location: once you have set a Lure, then Pokémon will be drawn to it and thus, those who seek them will soon follow. Some businesses in the United States have enticed players into their businesses by offering discounts on products for those who set lures; the more Pokémon, the more people trying to catch them, and visiting your business or cultural organisation.

Niantic are yet to accept submissions for businesses to become portals, as each stop or gym needs to be a public space and to be permanent, but monetising this must surely be the next step.

Hell no, Pokémon GO!

You may, of course, feel that engaging in augmented reality dumbs down the cultural sector: entertainment disguised for our consumption as education, but nothing more than crumbs allocated to us by the superior classes. With our faces glued to a smartphone screen, we rarely look up; and now, when we do, a corporation controls what we look at.

There are certainly arguments against its use. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery, both designated PokéStop, have asked that users avoid playing the game at the sites, as doing so was inappropriate to the sanctity of those places. And the Academic Medical Centre (AMC) in Amsterdam has asked that hunters avoid the hospital, after players were found wandering around restricted areas.

Are those the sorts of visitors we want to our libraries, our exhibitions, our rare collections? The answer is, most assuredly. Tech-savvy participants in the cultural experience are what push us forward. 

But engagement is, of course, more than simply packing numbers through the door, but also encouraging them to really immerse themselves with our collections. But how best to incorporate it into an exhibition? How can it be used appropriately, and effectively? 

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we plonk a Jigglypuff in the British Library, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong in using GO as a means of making  gamers familiar with cultural institutions that they would never have dared enter previously. And augmented reality has been used to great effect by organisations such as the Museum of London in the past with their StreetMuseum app. 

One of the interesting things about the Pokemon GO phenomenon is that, whilst using AR can often feel like an isolating, individual experience (one is usually bound to a particular area in a museum, or wearing Google Glass), there are a significant number of users reporting on the way in which hunting for the virtual creatures has actually brought people together in the real world. 

Tonight I caught a Bulbasaur. It was clinging to my lounge curtains, so I threw a ball at it and captured it. It was a singularly edifying experience, as experiencing culture should be. I am hooked. 

DayofDH 2016 will take place on April 8th, hosted by LINHD

A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities (Day of DH) is a project looking at a day in the work life of people involved in digital humanities computing. Every year it draws people from across the world together to document, with text and image, the events and activities of their day. The goal of the project is to weave together the journals of participants into a resource that seeks to answer, “Just what do digital humanists really do?”

Source: DayofDH 2016 will take place on April 8th, hosted by LINHD

David Bowie is crossing the border.

Neon Creations, “David Bowie is crossing the border”, commissioned by The Hub Ltd for the David Bowie is exhibition at the V&A.

All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings. | David Bowie, 1995

The singer, songwriter, painter and actor David Bowie, aka David Jones, died today aged 69. I woke to the ominous red “breaking news” banner on BBC Breakfast News, and was so shocked that I shouted out loud, something inarticulate: my partner assumed something terrible had happened to me, and it had.

I was introduced to Bowie’s music by an ex boyfriend who had exemplary taste (obviously, he was dating me *implied winky face here*). I’d always had a vague understanding that Bowie was someone quite important, but here, in the early 2000s, my love of him was born. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 6 Music for most of the afternoon and have been close to tears on several occasions: The Man Who Sold The World, Starman, Ashes to Ashes. They are songs that still resonate: still remind me of the shy young girl I was at the age of 20, sitting in our little house with the cats and the CD player and the candles and the wood burning stove, waiting for my boyfriend to finish work, with the world howling in the darkness outside. I’m crying again listening to Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, who is himself close to tears, talking about what Bowie meant to him. They’re playing an Elbow cover of The Bewley Brothers now.

David Bowie was the internet before the internet…a sort of clearing house for ideas. | BBC Radio 6 Music

I have recently been reading The Panizzi Lectures: Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts, by D F McKenzie. In that lecture, McKenzie talked about the poet Milton’s use of the word “violl” and the “idea of the book as a sacred but expressive form, one whose medium gives transparent access to the essential meaning…there is a tradition in which print-inclined authors assume this.” [McKenzie, p.24]. The phial, or the text in this interpretation, is “less than sacred text, the destabilised, the indeterminate, or the broken…” [p.27]

It seems to me that Bowie was an artist for whom culture was a feast for him to partake of. As the opening quote to this post shows, he saw that art was changed by each interpretation: that there could be no definitive, ultimate version of anything, and that perhaps, therefore, each new incarnation was just as important as that which came before it. Bowie’s work was rare amongst popular artists, in that you can create your own interpretations of his songs: often his lyrics were ambiguous, meaning that you could, perhaps, break the phial, desecrate the sacred, and make something new of it, a new reading that could be personal to the listener. It seems appropriate to use this analogy, too, because of course:

Milton’s spelling of the word, in addition, reminds us of the viola, and contains therefore “a typical Milton pun: it is as if, in reading a book, we should also be moved by the harmony of the work, what Shakespeare called ‘the concord of sweet sounds’. [McKenzie, p.24]

I don’t believe Bowie was overawed by the canonical: he seems to have held a reverence for it, but reinterpretation was more important to him than the preservation of the perceived sanctity of a piece of art. This is represented quite profoundly in the V&A exhibition David Bowie is, which is currently on a worldwide tour. In it, Bowie’s history seems to embody the essence of the digital humanities: music with its roots in jazz, punk, Euro-disco and electronic German art-rock; “mixed media, cinema, mime, Tibetan Buddhism, acting and love” [About David Bowie]: science fiction, Brechtian theatricality, Surrealism, William Burroughs; Andy Warhol, murder, technology, the outsider: he was also responsible for the first ever song distributed through the internet (1996’s Telling Lies). 

Bowie has come not just to represent his innovations but to symbolize modern rock as an idiom in which literacy, art, fashion, style, sexual exploration and social commentary can be rolled into one. | Rolling Stone Magazine.

In addition to all that, he painted the face of masculinity: twisting the “traditional” norms related to gender and sexuality, encompassing the “spaces in between” that Norbert Wiener so eloquently talks about when describing the essence of the digital humanities. That may seem like a tenuous analogy, but it is the reason I wrote this blog post: Bowie existed in those spaces, applied technology in new and fascinating ways, took what was traditional and created something new. He broke open the phial and released the sweet sounds within.

Who were Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop? And what of Cherry Vanilla, Wayne/Jayne County, and Leee Black Childers? And why was it so important to read On The Road, see this film A Clockwork Orange, or hear Kraftwerk, Anthony Newley and Mott the Hoople? It turned out discovering David Bowie came with a reading list to immerse oneself in and retrace the steps he’d walked in, to perhaps decrypt this strange news from another star… | James Gent, Happy Birthday Starman: A Tribute to the genius of David Bowie.

My friend James Gent has written a far more fitting tribute to the Thin White Duke, albeit a week before Bowie’s death: it can be found here and shows Mr Gent at his eloquent and emotive best, describing Bowie as the person who “freed all us suburban outcasts” [@jamesgent76].

We must continue to turn and face the strange in his absence.



What are Archives? Cultural & Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, edited by Louise Craven

I am currently reading What are Archives? Cultural & Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, edited by Louise Craven and with contributions from Michael Moss and Andrew Prescott, amongst others. The text focuses on the archive and the archivist, and their mutual roles in a digital world. Craven’s own chapter, the nattily titled From the Archivist’s Cardigan to the Very Dead Sheep: What are Archives? What are Archivists? What do They Do? focuses on “five specific areas which have experienced transformation or significant development in the past ten or so years.”

During my viva voce it became apparent that my focus on the archive as a form of internment was problematic, and probably offensive to archivists who consider their role to be one of guardianship, not prison wardenship. I saw the archive as a form of house arrest (Sian Echard’s term) because it suited my argument about the lack of access to culture and the provision of the digital as a substitute to the original. I didn’t take into account the very positive role of the archive, and of “record-keeping…as an indicator of the development of civilisation.” [Craven, p.12]: my focus was on the Derridean notion of the hierarchical structure of the archive, and how that hierarchy is used to police access: “its authority, its titles, and its genealogy, the right that it commands, the legality or the legitimacy that depends on it” [Derrida, Archive Fever: a Freudian Impression, p.10].

Craven’s chapter presents the record office as a place of custodianship, in which “theories of knowledge and ownership of knowledge have irrevocably shifted” [Craven, p.8] and archive collections have to be reconsidered within this new paradigm. She discusses how an archival document actually has many meanings, dependent upon the use that document is put to by the user. A letter, for example, “was at once the most intimate and most treacherous of all archival documents because it is open to so many interpretations” [Eagleton, 1982, pp.54-55].

That must be problematic when attempting to seek out an audience for a digitised artefact. By digitising you are fixing something into a single role, when most archival material can have many different purposes and meanings. By thereafter putting it on a website that is meant to attract genealogists, for example, you are focusing on one of its potential interpretations at the cost of all the others. The document becomes fixed, and its many potential permutations are discarded.

Currently there is little empirical evidence as to the impact of archival images available on the Internet, but the figures alone are staggering: since digitised images of documents were first made available in 2004, there have been 66 million downloads from online sources of TNA documents…The experience online is quite different. The relationship between an individual and the digitised image here seems to be more like that experienced by a person watching a film…”giving a sense of enclosure”…[Craven, pp.18-19]

We know that the digitised artefact often does not present the original as it exists in the “real world”. The light is different: things are changed in order to present the best possible image to the viewer. The danger is that the viewer fails to realise that the download they have will be quite different to the original. Furthermore, as Craven notes, the procedures employed within the physical archive often impede the use of digital resources – online catalogues, for example, “have been identified as barriers to the constructive use of digital resources” [Craven, p.21].

Another interesting element of this chapter is when Craven discusses the outward signs of importance that a manuscript has, which are removed by the digitisation process:

Paper records have a set of ‘signs’ which we absorb automatically: just as typefaces tell us things about the meaning of the words they convey, the outward form of paper records tells us about the significance and authority of the content within. A book bound in red leather says “I’m important!”, the way documents are folded in a bundle, the format of a pipe roll, the use of treasury tags…the archivist’s intervention here – putting the documents in order, describing them and producing finding aids – simply reinforces this notion of importance…signs of conservation are similarly significant…electronic records have no such signs, no way of saying “I’m important!”. [Craven, p.22]

Michael Moss describes digitisation as “undermining the fiduciary responsibility of the archivist” [Craven, p.23]. I suspect that many archivists (so too academics and traditional scholars) feel threatened by the digital, and what could be seen as the erosion of archival practice. Furthermore, Craven’s conclusion mentions the fact that archivists are being asked to “become skilled in old and new technologies and to make decisions on cultural and heritage grounds without giving them the knowledge and skills they need to do so” [Craven, p.25].

The next chapter is by Andrew Prescott, and discusses Foucault’s idea of heterotopias, a notion that I think will further support the discussion within my thesis of the places within which we do our learning. I will write further on that within the next week or so. In the meantime, my evaluation of the archivist’s trade and the rebalancing of my work to acknowledge their role as conservationists, rather than wardens, continues apace.