The Archive Unbound Report

4 May 2017, Cardiff University

The second symposium of the Cardiff Digital Cultures Network focused on the future(s) of the archive, the translation from analogue to digital archives and the impact of born-digital archives on our understanding of such constructs. Organised by Dr Jenny Kidd and Prof. Hanna Diamond, we were delighted to bring together a range of scholars from across the UK, who are working at the heart of these questions, while undertaking exciting projects that unbind the archive in a numerous ways. Following a brief introduction to the agenda and ambitions of the Digital Network by its director, Prof. Anthony Mandal, the full day of talks by a dozen speakers began, with subjects including women’s history, Victorian illustration, medicine, community participation, locative experiences and creative engagements with large academic databases.

The day began with Sara Huws (National Museum of Wales) and her paper Outside the Archive, in which she discussed the impact that archives have had on her practice as a digital professional and activist, and outlined some of the projects that she has developed through working ‘outside the archive’. Beginning from the provocative position that the ‘only people who actually discover things in an archive are those outside of it’, Sara’s presentation explored her work at St Fagans and the born digital museum (which Sara informs us was ‘set up by mistake’), the East End Women’s Museum.  The aim of the East End Women’s Museum is to ‘record, represent and amplify women’s histories from the East End’ in a way that is ‘accessible, relevant and interesting’. It is a wonderful organisation that is profoundly inclusive and where story and narrative is foregrounded in reclaiming these histories. Do check out the website and follow the project on Twitter @EEWomensMuseum. Sara then outlined her thoughts on ‘crativism’ which asks people who cannot take part in in mainstream activism, ‘what can we make?’ Concluding the with incredible statement that ‘there are no statues of women, alive or dead in Cardiff’, Sara’s paper set up the day in a very rich and valuable way.

Following Sara was Stephen Gregg (Bath Spa University) with his paper Handiwork: Metadata & Genre in Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), where Stephen articulated that, contrary to popular belief, ‘the digital is messy phenomenon’. Stephen urged us to stop thinking about databases as flat and to begin to think about what lies behind them. How, for example, is metadata created?  Using the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (EECO) and the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) as case studies,   Stephen interrogated the tensions between scholarly accuracy and commercial imperatives in these resources. He reminded us that the digital historical artefacts that we see on our screens are the result of human labour (which is often out-sourced), and that when we use databases such as EECO we should always be aware of the ‘hidden human agency’ that has gone into creating them in the first place.

The final speaker in the first panel was Lara Taffer (VCS Cymru), whose paper was called Collaboration & Community: Creative Reuse of Archival Material for Community Arts. Lara’s work, which you can read more about here (, is hugely impressive and important. It takes its inspiration from various digital humanities projects, information management theories, community arts projects, and ideas of how to engage local communities. As Lara notes, then, ‘the Stories/Straeon Project seeks to truly unbind the archive from stereotypical views of the past.’ It is a collaborative project centred on contributions of youth volunteers (ages 16–25) from the local community. Since February, the volunteers have been conducting research and digitising material relating to the history and legacy of WWI in Cardiff. They have also been collectively creating and curating a database of their items using the open access platform, Omeka to create multimedia arts projects based on their research and digitised items which will culminate in a series of community events at Glamorgan Archives, the Cardiff Story and Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives. Lara’s paper presented the numerous implications of the project ranging from the importance of community engagement, crowdsourced digitisation and to creative reuse of cultural heritage material for a community arts project. This work is incredibly significant and is changing the lives for all involved.

Kicking off the second panel were Danica Maier (Nottingham Trent University) and Andrew Bracey (University of Lincoln). Their paper, Rummage to Bypass: Alternative Ways of Accessing the Archive, interrogated the question ‘what is lost of the materiality through the digital?’ Their own project, Bummock: New Artistic Responses to Unseen Archives, ‘investigates, researches and uses unseen parts of archives as catalysts for the creation of new artworks’. The aim of the project is to develop ‘alternative ways to access an archive, to uncover unseen things that normal routes would not allow’ and to ‘develop and disseminate new ways for researchers to access archives’. Danica and Andrew’s work emphasis and foregrounds what happens when artists engage both practically and theoretically with the archive as a concept and in a very hands-on direct way with stored items and documents. Through their emphasis on ‘rummaging’, Danica and Andrew propose a much more playful and creative response to archival practice.

Following on from Danica and Andrew was David Skilton (Cardiff University) who proposed a computer-assisted analysis of cuts in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Duke’s Children (1879–80). Skilton asked the question ‘can Trollope’s novels be analysed using computer linguistics?’. What are the comparative rates of occurrence of certain words in The Duke’s Children? What, if anything, can this tell us about Victorian culture and Trollope as a writer? Skilton’s project is only in its preliminary stages, but it has the potential to invigorate Trollope studies and provide a model for future researchers looking to do a similar work with other novelists.

One of the themes of the day was how creativity and playfulness when applied to archival work can reap hugely valuable and compelling dividends. This was exemplified by the work of our next speakers, Bethan Stevens and Georgina Mind (University of Sussex) and their paper Diabolical Collaboration: Dismantling and Re-assembling the Archive. Bethan and Georgina’s work is based around the Victorian wood engravers, the Dalziel Brothers. Their work has produced The Dalziel Project, which is a catalogue of the entire Dalziel Archive (a massive achievement), a virtual exhibition and a series of creative workshops that investigate how this archive can be used creatively.  Bethan and Georgina’s paper explained the project in full and demonstrated just what a treasure trove of often untouched material that is just sitting there in the archives. Their paper also illustrated (pun intended) how academic outreach work can be successful and significant: their ‘Re-imagining the Dalziels’ workshop, for example, asked young people between the ages of 13-16 to re-imagine the work of the Dalziels and to add their own interpretations to it. It is amazing work so do make sure to check out the website and the all the events Bethan and Georgina have ran there.

In keeping with the innovative use of technology and playfulness that this series of symposia has exemplified, our first speaker in panel three, Sara Sylvester (Cardiff University) wasn’t actually present in the room at when she delivered her paper, Close encounters of the Parafictive Kind: Bringing the Archives to Life as Fictive Art. Instead, Sara had pre-recorded a video and her disembodied presence, in keeping with her work, was a wonderful mix of art installation, scholarly rigour and incisiveness. Sara argues that, ‘In order to remain relevant to society at large, arts and cultural organisations will have to keep pace with the ongoing cycle of change and disruption’. This means that institutions will have to engage with new audiences in innovative ways. Sara contends that one such way to engage these audiences is through parafiction and fictive art. By considering the potential of social media, photography and creative writing through the works of contemporary artists, Sara demonstrated how the general public could use archives to tell their own stories and to make new archives. Moreover, she wants to begin a dialogue between the public and institutions so that they feel empowered to be creative, start new projects and do their own research. Concluding, Sara asserted that such collaboration could inspire ‘new developments in the arts, leave a strong and lasting impression with new audiences to demonstrate what archives are for, how they are used and why they are so relevant as well as create a legacy’.

The next speaker in this final panel was Jenny Kidd who talked about her incredible new project in collaboration with the National Museum of Wales and yello brick, Traces / Olion. Traces is an app that takes users on a physical journey around St Fagans National Museum of History. It is a brilliant piece of site-specific story telling which, as Jenny demonstrated, uses audio to create a narrative which blurs the distinction between past and present, fact and fiction. As Jenny asks, ‘can a digital heritage encounter be subtle, quiet, even invisible?’ Created to be experienced by two people, each participant goes on a separate journey around St Fagans that interweave in ways that are invisible from other visitors of the museum. Like Sara Sylvester (and, indeed, many of our speakers), Jenny is very keen on creating new relationships between cultural institutions and the public. As she observes, ‘The public’s interest and trust in museums and heritage sites, and their affection for places like St Fagans, continues to be very high. Traces/Olion offers a unique opportunity for visitors to try something different, and maybe to feel something different, within the grounds of St Fagans. We are interested in the potential of such heritage encounters to seed new kinds of relationships between people and place.’ By emphasising playfulness and performative Traces allows us to experience the familiar in moving and powerful new ways. You can download Traces from the iTunes store or Google Play for free.

Our final speaker in our final panel was Keir Waddington (Cardiff University), whose paper was called An Experiment in ‘Medical’ Thinking: The Digital Archives, Medical History, and the Classroom. Keir talked about how one of the projects he was involved in, the UK Medical Heritage Library could be used in education. It was an insightful talk that raised numerous issues: digital poverty in Wales – not everyone has broadband so students can’t access these resources and how big digital collections often ‘warp’ our sense of what the medical past is. As Keir pointed out, there is a privileging of certain types of records, from certain types of places and there is often an emphasis on how ‘things are supposed to be, not as they were’ alongside knowledge becoming ‘deracinated’ due to the cut and paste nature of the digital. Keir’s talk, despite celebrating remarkable resources as the UK Medical Heritage Library, heralded a much more cautious approach to the digital than previous speakers and asked us to be just as critical with the digital resources we use, as we are with a scholarly article or monograph. These resources, like everything else, are always culturally and historically specific.

Andrew Prescott (Glasgow)

As ever, Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow), the day’s keynote speaker, was characteristically insightful, engaging and brilliant with his paper The Cathedral and the Bazaar: What Lessons for Humanities Scholarship? Andrew began by exploring Eric Raymond’s book The Cathedral and the Bazaar which, he explained, was a manifesto for the open source movement in computer development: ‘Raymond contrasted the highly planned and controlled development of commercial software, which he compared to the way in which a coterie of medieval masons used their esoteric knowledge to build medieval cathedrals, with the organic and ad hoc development of open source such as Linux, whose structure Raymond compared to that of a bazaar.’ Andrew argued that humanities scholarship is still in a cathedral mode: ‘a priestly caste produces carefully crafted and perfectly finished products’. Pertinently, humanities scholarship (including digital humanities) is often self-serving and very far from the hacker/open source ethos of Linux. Are there ways, Andrew asked, for humanities scholarship to adopt the model of the bazaar? Provocative, stimulating and challenging, Andrew’s talk can perhaps be best summed up by one of Jenny Kidd’s tweets:


Thank you to Andrew, all our speakers and delegates for one of the most enjoyable days I’ve been involved in academically. Great stuff.

— Michael Goodman

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