Sunday, July 19, 2015

Heritage and social media: interview with Professor Julia Noordegraaf

Twitter: @Oosterenvan 

Our present is being written in documents, painted on paintings and captured in films. How can we make sure this documentary heritage is preserved for future generations? Experts from all over the world came to UNESCO on 1 and 2 July 2015 to discuss a Draft Recommendation that gives countries ideas on how to preserve this heritage (see this link). I spoke with professor Julia Noordegraaf from the University of Amsterdam, who represented the Dutch delegation together with Vincent Wintermans (Dutch National UNESCO Commission) and myself.

Julia Noordegraaf intervenes on behalf of the Netherlands ("Pays-Bas").

Do we preserve our documentary heritage well enough?
Let’s look at social media. Certain memory institutions keep a lot of what happens on the social media. The Library of Congress even keeps all the tweets sent since twitter was created. But the real value of archives is their user-friendliness: can the public access the tweets? And if so, are tweets accessible by theme, year or category of twitter-user? This is currently not the case. So if you want to study the twitter conversation about the Pope’s election it will be very hard to find it, let alone to map it.

Why is it so important to keep tweets and facebook posts?
Because they are our modern correspondence and diaries. In large parts of the world most people don’t write physical letters anymore. Instead they post their impressions on facebook. If nobody takes responsibility for preserving this information we will lose track of our past and our future capacity to understand it. To put things in perspective: we used to be very happy when we found a 17th century diary that tells us how people lived and thought in those days. The same applies to our posts on twitter and facebook: they are our documentary heritage of the future (see also this link).

What kind of research do you lead as a professor of heritage and media culture?
I focus on digital heritage. My first concern is how to preserve digital heritage that, because of the rapid developments in technology, might become inaccessible very soon. My second concern is that of a user of digital heritage: once we are able to preserve it well, what do we do with this growing stock of digital information?

Indeed, what can we do with all these digitalized archives?
They open completely new and exciting avenues for research. Take cinema for example. Researchers now have the possibility to search decades of cinematographic newspapers and administrative documents for specific words. So instead of analyzing cinema in terms of how many cinemas there were and which films they played, one can now study new questions like: which individuals lived near which cinema? What social class were they from? We didn't have these possibilities until recently.

Was this sociological perspective on culture really absent in research so far?
Not absent, but the link with other perspectives was missing. Research on cinema used to be concentrated either on the films itself – the artistic substance – or on the structure of the cinematographic sector and of society. The digitalization of archives has made it possible to connect these different approaches and to study them together. For example by adding “layers” of historical and sociological information on a map of cinemas to see literally who lives near which cinema, what education they received, what their electoral preferences are, etc.

Digitalization costs money. What do museums get in return?
First of all, digitalization makes archives and museums more relevant by increasing access and outreach to the audience. But it also helps science to generate knowledge that is valuable for society and for heritage institutions. For example, we collaborated with the historic Amsterdam Museum to enrich their digital collection database with biographic information about citizens of 17th century Amsterdam who were related to the Amsterdam art market. The result was a database built by researchers and students who dug up all those names from 17th century archival sources and from publications. Connecting these two sets of information now allows us to study the art of the 17th century in relation to the social and economic networks in which it was produced, circulated and used. This information in turn is very useful for museums as it brings paintings to life with biographical details about who is on it. It makes the collection more understandable, more attractive and therefore more valuable.

What about the internet: what do we keep of it?
That’s another conservation challenge indeed: will we later remember what internet looked like 40, 50 years ago? The good news is that libraries do keep parts of it. They regularly “harvest” the pages of a selection of relevant websites. The “bad” news is that they keep only screenshots. Screenshots do give you – literally – a picture of what a website looked like. But you lose the interactive aspect that makes a website what it is: a web content connected to other web contents in which you can “click your way forward”. In other words we do archive something but not in the way it appears to us and in which we use it.

Is this really a shortcoming? I mean you can’t keep the whole internet.
Imagine you want to keep a truthful record of a painting. Is one picture of the painting enough? No, because you want several pictures from several angles to see the layers of paint. Or maybe a video. You also want to know what the exact colors are independent of the lighting, and so on. This “depth” of the painting is what “surfing” is to websites, it’s an essential part of our perception of them. In fact the question of how you archive something is ontological first: what is it that you want to archive? Is it really something you can photograph?

You cannot fully appreciate this Karel Appel painting offered by The Netherlands to UNESCO....

...if you can't see how thick the paint was brushed on the canvas and what the exact colors are like (here photgraphed behind a window and exposed to daylight and artificial light at the same time)