Digital Transformations of the Humanities

“Humanists must actively engage with, design, create, critique and hack” the environments around them in order to make sense of “who we are, where we live, and what that means.” (Digital_Humanities, p. 30)

Going digital allows historians to do the above better. “Digital” is just another tool for historians to continue their analyses of the past, just as ink, paper, the printing press and the computer were innovative new methods. Historians must be aware at all times of the dangers of the digital world – as with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages of technology, and being mindful of this is an element of a good digital historian.

Cataloging and curation are important factors to a myriad of people: digital historians, researchers – academic and lay alike, teachers, students, museum professionals and visitors, historical societies, lineal organizations, service organizations, anyone who is interested in the organization and presentation, and preservation of information and cultural artifacts that define who we are as humans. Along with this cataloging and curation goes the tagging and identification of the information of the items being presented. Proper tagging and metadata allows the information to be found quickly in the digital world, as well as relate like objects to one another.

Digital mapping is another asset of the cataloging and curation – maps create the visualization of the text, putting the person where the “action” is taking place. Many researchers are not able to be at the exact place the information they are seeking took place, and mapping and virtual collections can enable this.

Virtual gaming is something that is interesting and new to me. The idea of taking a 3D, simulated world from a game to interpret and display material is a concept that never crossed my mind. Virtual memory sites can be created and experienced from anywhere, including your living room.

But what about the dehumanizing effects of creating a game out of something of greater meaning? The case study in Digital_Humanities talks about a refugee camp experience. How do you consider the ethical and cultural sensitivities when creating this virtual world? These are the reasons for human interaction and humanists to be involved in this process, rather than computers and scientists who may or may not be aware of cultural implications for their work. But without the digital element, stories like this may never get told. Or it is showcased at a museum for x amount of time and then it goes away. The digital realm allows information to be there for everyone and stories to be told. That’s not to say the viability of museums will go away, on the contrary, an exhibit can remain far after the blockbuster show time is over.

I worked at the Museum of the Horse at the Lexington, Kentucky Horse Park during their blockbuster summer even, Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in China in 2000. (I found some stuff online about the exhibit, you can check it out here.)  It was my first experience working in a museum. What is notable about this exhibit is that it was the first time the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s terra cotta army figures had been outside of China. And they were only exhibited at the Museum of the Horse. Since then I believe they’ve been around a bit, but in 2000 they came to our museum and were packed up and went right back to China. Anyway, the point being that there will never be an exhibit like that again, and while the website and information I found to mention this exhibit are basic, there is still this presence and anyone researching Qin Shi Huang will come across the exhibit that once was. Today the possibilities of keeping these exhibits alive and active are numerous, and there is much that could be done to re-create the summer 2000 exhibit. I can imagine a map showing the areas each artifact came from, where interactively you could click on them and learn more about the region and the item itself. Or a virtual world where you could learn about the emperor and visit his tomb virtually. Or rediscover his tomb with the archaeologists in 1974. This exhibit, like so many others, could be brought to life using digital humanities methods and practices. This is truly a great time to be in the field of history and humanities. There is so much we can be doing with the cultural artifacts and material around us to make sense of “who we are, where we live, and what that means.”

Souvenir guide, docent training manual, and work shirt from Imperial China exhibit

Souvenir guide, docent training manual, and work shirt from Imperial China exhibit

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 1st, 2014 at 2:07 pm and is filed under Public History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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