The Historic Environment Image Resource crowd-sourcing project HEIR went online 5 months ago. This post is a round-up of what we have learnt about the image collections, crowdsourcing, and public engagement since then. It is also a post about why it is important to re-introduce forgotten photographs back into the research resource.
Old teaching slide collections are continuing to be under threat of being de-commissioned. Where lack of space, finances, image decay, copyright issues, and the perceived redundancy of old media forms in the digital age are combined, it has often been too difficult for holders to justify their retention. (See, for example, Krivickas, J. and Meyer, E. ‘Future or fate: the slide collection of the Robert Deshon and Karl J. Schlachter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning’, where although only 26% of the images were available digitally in ARTstor, the complete lack of source information about the images led to the decommissioning and de-accession of the entire slide library).
What has been perceived to be an insurmountable problem by some, HEIR has seen as an opportunity: to challenge perceived wisdom, re-assess redundant technology, and find new ways of re-entering a forgotten resource into public and scholarly debate. Only 5 months into crowd-sourcing, it has already turned out that the old lantern slide photographic collections of the Oxford University Department for the History of Art, the Schools of Archaeology, Geography and Plant Science, the Ashmolean Museum and Harris Manchester College were well worth holding on to long after they became ‘redundant’. 131 taggers have tagged over 600 images and generated over 1000 discussions, many of them containing specialist knowledge, research, or identifying unknown locations of our images. Some have even commented on having seen similar images before and chasing up references. And HEIR has not even been promoted publicly yet.
What is more, scanning and combining the images of different Departments, Divisions, Colleges and Museums on one accessible platform – HEIRdams – has enhanced the cross-divisional and multi-disciplinary research potential of the resource.
For departments, the benefits of participating in HEIR are clear: they are able to maximise and capitalise on having this material available in the digital format for the first time. Within the History of Art Department, for example, the immediate benefits of getting involved included exciting re-discoveries, such as some rather lovely hand-coloured slides; interesting exchanges over Twitter; or the inspiration for a piece by one of the students who worked on the project that you can read about on the History of Art and Visual Resources Centre blog.
Once online, departments are rapidly capitalising on the database in their own ways and thinking laterally: the Ashmolean Museum was delighted to project a tailored sequence of slides as part of the Being Human Festival in November 2015, exposing their ‘old’, ‘redundant’ teaching materials to a brand new engaged audience.
Beyond Oxford, Royal Holloway University of London has initiated a whole new research project ‘Site seeing: Pompeii in 19th and early 20th-century lantern slides’ based on these re-discovered images.
HEIR’s Mobile re-photography App has added an additional layer of interest and engagement with the images, allowing our students, researchers, and the public to explore the old images in their modern setting.
Others have used the app to explore the relationship between image and photographer – see Dina Akhmadeeva being re-photographed as photographer captured in an historic image of Venice.
Perhaps the most surprising element of crowd-sourcing for us have been the discussion pages on HEIRtagger. While we envisaged some comments by the public, we had not anticipated the sheer scale of interest generated by the images, the breadth and depth of knowledge we are being presented with, or the amount of time and research taggers are prepared to spend on the images that engage their particular interest. Our ‘crowd’ are our co-researchers, and the next phase of the project will include thinking about how to bring their wide-ranging research into the database in the most useful and accessible way.
Finally, we thoroughly enjoyed presenting a paper in collaboration with Victoria Brown from the VRC (Visual Resources Centre) on the project at the DCDC15 conference – the twitter comments after the event suggested that our work has provided food for thought for other institutions with comparable collections.
Old teaching photographic collections offer so many possibilities for research, including the history of disciplines, representations of the past, links between photography and art, and the relationships between art, architecture, tourism and travel. We hope the HEIR project will inspire new research in the History of Art – let us know if you have made use of these rescued images!
HEIR is based at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford and directed by Dr Sally Crawford and Dr Katharina Ulmschneider.