DCHRN’s first full-day event took place last week on 21 April. The theme was fairly broad – ‘working with the public’ – and it allowed us to bring together four very different but, as it happens, complementary talks, as well as time for some interactive sessions. About 30 people in total joined us for part or all of the day, and as ever the mix of cultural heritage colleagues along with academic, library and collections colleagues from the University made for a really vibrant mix of ideas, questions and perspectives.
Network co-organiser Kirsty Lingstadt, previously based at Historic Environment Scotland and now the Head of the Digital Library at the University of Edinburgh, welcomed everyone and set the scene for the day.
Our first talk came from Helen Graham, who is Associate Professor of In/Tangible Heritage and Director of Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage, at the University of Leeds. Helen focused her talk on the idea of the ‘commons’, drawing on a range of recent projects, including the AHRC-funded ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ project and the Inclusive Archive for Learning Disability History project. She drew a distinction between public goods, which can be used by all without being used up; and private goods, which are finite resources which have to be managed. She argued that cultural heritage institutions attempt to fuse public and private goods through a process of creating the category of ‘audience’ who are ‘all held equally and at arm’s length’. However, such a categorisation can create problems for some objects/collections (here she gave the example of synthesisers, which degrade if not played) and for some communities and groups. Helen encouraged us to think about conservation in more active ways – to consider the capacities of conservation to achieve a richer mix of forms of participation and inclusion.
Susan Ross spoke next, introducing herself in her new role as Gaelic Wikipedian in Residence at the National Library of Scotland. She introduced us to Gaelic Wikipedia and highlighted its role not as a mirror of English-language Wikipedia, but as a place for things that matter to the Scottish Gaelic community, and a hub for disparate resources which might otherwise be difficult to locate online. NLS sees Susan’s role as a way of extending awareness and access to their collections, while Wikimedia UK is working to increase coverage of underrepresented topics and include more people. Susan gave an overview of her plans to encourage participation, and highlighted key challenges around the small size of the Gaelic-speaking community involved with Wikipedia, and the consequences of this in terms of wiki-editing practice; and the difficulty of supporting and encouraging language learners while also engaging native speakers, who might be inclined to see the outreach projects as being only for learners. We hope Susan will come back and talk to us later in the project about how things went!
Our first interactive session was a quick-fire ‘speed dating’ activity, with everyone pairing up and moving around for four different dates, each focused on a question:
- What brought you here today? How is the theme of ‘working with the public’ relevant to your work/research/ideas?
- How do we make collaborations between cultural heritage organisations and the public sustainable?
- What value would the public find in your data?
- What is your dream co-production project?
After a very nice lunch and a chance to wander around the Moray House campus, our second two speakers presented their work.
First, Lesley Ferguson, Head of Archives and Engagement at Historic Environment Scotland, gave a fascinating review of online community-focused projects HES has engaged with over the past ten years, including Britain from Above, Scotland’s Places and Scotland’s Rural Past. Lesley showed how project teams and colleagues have learned to think about sustainability in a range of ways, including adapting functionality, earmarking income streams for longer term development, and planning for transfer of oversight of projects after dedicated staff have moved on. She noted that being sustainable may sometimes mean doing less, and talked about how HES is thinking about this, including their current ambition to develop a public engagement team which can work across projects. She also identified major cultural shifts within the organisation over the years, towards much more appreciation of input from the public.
Our final speaker was Victoria Van Hyning from the University of Oxford. Victoria is the Humanities PI for the Zooniverse platform, which brings together multiple crowdsourcing projects including Operation War Diary, Science Gossip, Shakespeare’s World and Measuring the ANZACs. She focused on the potential of crowdsourcing to offer scale, speed, public engagement, new questions and (maybe!) cost effectiveness to organisations, and shared inspiring examples of major transcription and other data projects which have made significant contributions to the organisations hosting them. She also introduced us to Zooniverse’s free Project Builder tool (https://www.zooniverse.org/lab), and talked about how researchers and organisations can make use of this. Around the room a bit of multitasking was also going on, as people discovered the simple joys of PenguinWatch.
Our final session of the day was a thought-provoking design exercise led by Network co-organiser Chris Speed from Design Informatics. Drawing on his colleague Ewa Luger’s technology ethics ideation technique for privacy by design, Chris had groups of participants work with scenarios involving personal biometrics, location tracking and smart cameras in cultural heritage settings. As considerations around users, technologies and the law were added to the scenarios, the groups became increasingly creative in developing visions of technology-rich projects and spaces for the public to engage with.
I found the day thoroughly thought-provoking and inspiring. The Storify below gives some more insights into the discussions and key ideas from the day. Thank you again to everyone who participated, to my co-organisers, and to our excellent speakers.