Friday, 30 June 2017

Custodians of Digital Memories: Digital Preservation in museums

Illustrations by Jørgen Stamp CC BY 2.5 Denmark

Many people think of buildings and physical objects when they think of a museum and its collection. What they may not consider is how technology has provided opportunities for museums to create digital surrogates for fragile artifacts, greater access to cultural heritage, and greater engagement with audiences. More and more of our cultural heritage is also “born digital”, including photographs, audio, video, and websites. What are the implications of this for the future of our digital memories?

In our personal lives, we create vast amounts of digital material without much thought about being able to find it or use it in five or ten years, half knowing that ‘maybe we should back up our files somewhere in case the laptop/phone stops working or gets stolen’. When news breaks of hospitals or governments losing digital files to viruses, ransomware or human error we are critical.

Imagine if our cultural heritage suffered the same fate. “Does anyone have a copy of Beowulf? Mine's corrupted and won't open." "Sorry, I only have one flash drive so I overwrote it with the Mona Lisa". You may think that no one would let that happen to such treasures, but it appears that the recordings of the original moon landing footage beamed from space, before it was converted for broadcast, were probably taped over by NASA. You can watch an animation about 'How Toy Story 2 Almost Got Deleted'. The need to manage all this digital material, and think about its long-term survival is long overdue.

In light of all this, and the need to assess and address digital skills gaps within the profession, The British Museum held a workshop on 26th June 2017 as part of the research it is conducting in order to develop a Heritage Lottery Fund Skills for the Future programme: The Digital Heritage Discovery. There is a recognition that museums need to develop essential digital skills, tools and workflows and tackle key challenges of digital management, from securing at-risk legacy data to maximising the value of digital assets such as photographs. This is therefore a great opportunity to both invest in a new generation of diverse museum professionals, and also help museums to develop the resources needed to face the digital challenges ahead. I attended the workshop as the Collections Manager for the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, but also with my professional experience of digital management over several years.

I was at the first International Digital Curation Conference in Bath in 2005, at a time when the term digital curation was still quite new, and the Digital Curation Centre had just been set up to provide researchers with useful tools, advice and services to help them properly manage their data. Even though there was some recognition that the task ahead was daunting because of the pace of data generation, I don't think anyone there would have anticipated how pervasive digital would become in all areas of life.

As museum professionals from around the country gathered at the British Museum on Monday, we outlined current digital preservation practices in our institutions, discussed challenges and resources required, looked at what might be considered best practice in the wider heritage sector and considered the skills that would be needed in order to develop a trainee programme in this area. There were recurring themes that emerged:

  • every area of a museum is creating digital assets, but no one is really managing them

  • most museum staff work with digital tools, but there are varying levels of proficiency with these, and training and development opportunities are self-selective

  • often museums are constrained by an institutional IT department making decisions for a governing body with different requirements, leading to a reactive approach to managing and preserving digital assets

  • funding is often focused on an end product like a website or app, with no room to experiment or even fail, and no idea of discovering what the best digital outcome might be through the development of the project.

  • Funders are more aware of the need for sustainable outputs, which have become requirements of funding applications, but without support for the infrastructure and skills needed to make digital sustainable.

It is clear that we face similar challenges, and that we will need similar approaches. It would therefore make sense to form a network through which essential digital skills, tools and workflows are developed and shared, and this is one of the aims of the funding bid the British Museum is developing. There are already good networks, sources of information and conference sessions out there, including but not limited to:

You could no doubt add others, but the sector as a whole needs to work out how to deal with the digital backlog and our digital future. It is not enough to have an enthusiastic champion on staff, and sending everyone to have training on digital-tool-of-the moment only works if everyone is using it enough to remember what they were told. In the same way that we cannot keep every historical object in our museums, we cannot save every piece of digital data; we need to have a strategy and this needs to become as second-nature as cataloguing and caring for physical objects. 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Student Snapshots: Middlesex University students get creative on camera

At MoDA we are always finding exciting new ways to engage students with our collections. Whether they are from creative writing, housing, or fashion, students keep imagining new and exciting ways to use our collections in their studies. MoDA’s curator, Dr Serena Dyer, introduces one of our latest student projects.

The Project: Employability and Engagement

Students at the Presentation Skills workshop
Earlier this year, we teamed up with Middlesex University’s employability to team to develop a new scheme to help promote student employability skills, and to give students the opportunity to get creative, talking on screen about our collections. We wanted students to reflect upon how MoDA’s collections relate to their creative practice, and to think about their emotive, personal responses to our objects.

Shortlisted applicants were invited to a workshop day with Mark Wilkinson from the Learning Enhancement Team at Middlesex University, who gave the students some fantastic training in public speaking, communication, and presentation skills.

The three successful students were then given time at MoDA to research their chosen object, before writing a storyboard for their video, helping to develop their critical thinking skills. They then came back to film the videos, both at MoDA, and in exciting locations like a local supermarket! Students were paid for the project, and for some this was their first experience of paid employment.

The Videos

Teodora Mitrovska, BA Fashion Design at Middlesex University

Teodora’s video explored a 1930s women’s advice book entitled ‘The Modern Women’ by Lillian Bradstock and Jane Condon. Inspired by modern YouTube make-up tutorial videos, Teodora experimented with some of the tips given in the book, and reflected on some of the more unusual chapters, like ‘How to use the Bathroom Intelligently’.

Sarah Kadrnka, BA Illustration at Middlesex University

Sarah looked at two designs by Winifred Mold, the first female designer to be employed by the Silver Studio in 1912. Sarah used her own experience as an Illustration student to reflect upon Mold’s artistic style and use of colour, as well as exploring the working lives of women artists in the 1910s.

Sofia Picciuto, BA Illustration at Middlesex University

Sofia also looked at two designs by Winifred Mold, but instead explored the stories that can be creatively imagined from these images. She compared the Old King Cole illustration with a design depicting medieval hunters. She associated the latter design with her own love of 1980s video games, recognising stylistic similarities.

What next?

We hope to repeat this hugely successful pilot project in the future, and would love to engage more students with our collections in this way. So keep an eye out for future opportunities!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

#katagami in practice: hands on

How do museum objects directly inspire and inform creative studio-based students? 

That is the question at the heart of MoDA’s current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese Stencils in the Art School, funded by the Arts Council.  Katagami stencils are a traditional tool for applying pattern to cloth: but how can we encourage today’s artists and design practitioners to use them in a critically engaged way – beyond simply seeing them as examples of interesting motifs?  

K1.1, Katagami stencil from the collection at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

One of the practitioners working with us on the project is Sarah Desmarais, whose research is around themes of slow-making and the relationship of craft to wellbeing.  As part of her contribution to MoDA’s project she recently ran a three day workshop with a group of Middlesex students from BA and MA Crafts.

Part of Sarah’s method is to ask participants to slow down and take their time to really look at the katagami stencils.  It’s easy to be over-awed by how intricate and delicate they are, but taking time to engage with them through close observation and drawing makes it possible to understand them on an entirely different level.  Students started the session by making drawings of some of the katagami from MoDA’s collections; then over the course of the three days they cut their own stencils, mixed a traditional rice paste to act as a ‘resist’, and dyed their fabrics using indigo.

applying rice paste through a stencil onto fabric 

an example of the finished product, hanging out to dry after indigo dying

The students found the experience extremely rewarding; it was an opportunity to learn new skills and also to reflect on the process of making and the ways in which the materials and techniques inform that process.  

a full washing line of newly dyed fabric, and a group of happy makers
By the end of the three days everyone had made something they could be proud of.  Luckily the weather was good so the indigo dying could be done outside the Grove building, so as not to get blue dye all over the workshop space!   

Sarah's workshop demonstrated the intimate relationship between the materials, the skill of the maker, and the appearance of the end product.  She'll be writing up her reflections and findings in more detail soon. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

Drawing Inspiration from the Silver Studio katagami collection

Sarah Desmarais is a participant in MoDA’s current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese stencils in the Art School.  Her research focuses on the practice of making, and how it can be used to approach the katagami reflectively, critically and creatively.  Such a response potentially goes beyond simply noting the stencils as examples of interesting motifs, technical virtuosity or traditional stencilling technique.  Her research combines her professional experience as a textile maker using slow, traditional processes, and as a crafts researcher experienced in applying ethnographic and autoethnographic methods of data collection to amateur and professional making. 

In this post she describes her experience of drawing from the katagami. 

My research concerns the distinctive kinds of learning and reflection possible through the process of making.  I’m getting to know the katagami through practical engagement.  Whilst a good part of this practical work involves printing and dyeing textiles using traditionally made stencils and rice paste, I started off by drawing from the katagami at MoDA.  Every drawing is a new exercise in learning to see, as valuable in terms of process as end product.  I know from experience that making a drawing is a good way of assimilating visual material; the process of capture through mark making is slow in comparison to taking a photograph, and spacious enough for the metabolization of visual information.  This is particularly useful when dazzled by spectacularly complex and finely executed designs and large numbers of items exhibiting a similar form but an array of variations, as with the four hundred or so katagami in the collection. 

My methodology also involves the equivalent of field notes as a way of documenting both practical process and the fleeting subjective dimensions of making activities.  While drawing, I write down thoughts as they occur.  These notes are fragmentary, reflecting the quality of thinking while doing.  I allow them to emerge in a spontaneous, free-associative way, but I’m also careful to record things that are apparently irrelevant or so mundane that they hardly seem worth writing down – the experience of boredom, frustration or resistance in drawing or slow making processes is one example of an interesting phenomenon that would disappear from the record if I were only to capture insights, experiences of aesthetic pleasure, or creative excitement.  This writing contains a number of interesting themes concerning what drawing contributes as a way of exploring the katagami, as in the following extracts:

I'm immediately aware that the full beauty and complexity of the pattern don't register until I start to draw.  Drawing forces a process of sorting and categorisation - mentally dividing areas up to produce a schematic representation - it obliges an initial consideration of how the design is constructed.  The strong features that separate one part of the design from another are pattern, tone and directionality.  To draw a design you have to understand something about it, reduce it to its component elements.  Having done that, you have a kind of algorithm that becomes available to your own design imagination.
 I find myself thinking in the case of each stencil about the repeat and how it would have been created - in some cases quite simply, as for instance where a central diagonal meander dictates, as it leaves the frame at the top, where a line must appear to continue it at the bottom of the stencil.
 I'm really interested in how much more I'm noticing through drawing - such as how a blossom motif in one place is made through a positive, dark image on a light ground, whereas elsewhere on the same stencil, it appears as a negative, light image on a dark ground - and how the designer has played with the contrast between these strategies, often in relation to whether the blossom motif is in the background, or overlapping another form.  I also notice, for instance, the irregular, meandering line created by the bridges in the same pattern (K1.3) - and how these form a subtle counterpoint to the diagonals of the main meander, which run in the other direction.  None of this has really registered until I start drawing.  Drawing seems to be a way in which one can build hypotheses about designerly intentions.  One enters into the same frame of mind, which seems to be a playful one.  Play is perhaps the creative response that counterbalances processes that are arduously slow and repetitive.

I’m building up a body of such notes in relation to my katagami drawing and textile printmaking activities.  These will be part of the ‘raw data’ that I draw on in analysing my findings and thinking further about how artefacts in museum collections can be approached and ultimately better understood through practical making activities.  

In the meantime, my experience of documenting the katagami in this way has forcefully underlined the role that drawing plays in the assimilation and transformation of design languages. As Glen Adamson (2009) points out in relation to the work of Owen Jones and his Grammar of Ornament, ‘sketches and published patterns based on them act as points of translation’ (my italics).  These observations are conducive to reflection on the processes of cultural influence evident in the Silver Studio collection, where features of Japanese design are translated into the languages of late 19th and early 20th century British textile and wallpaper design.  More broadly, drawing and writing stimulate reflection on how artists and designers assimilate and transform the design influences that circulate around them, the conscious and unconscious processes involved, and about the focused uses of collections and archives.

We'll hear more from Sarah about her work as the project progresses.

Adamson, G., 2009. Out on the tiles.  Victoria and Albert Museum blog, [blog] 30 May. Available at: [Accessed 13 February 2009].