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UCLDH to participate in £14.5m Towards a National Collection

Lucy Stagg21 September 2021

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £14.5m to 5 research projects to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new and transformative ways. The announcement today of the five major projects forming the largest investment of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme, reveals the first insights into how thousands of disparate collections could be explored by public audiences and academic researchers in the future. UCLDH is delighted to participate with The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections (Principal Investigator: UCLDH Director, Professor Julianne Nyhan, UCL and TU Darmstadt). Project partners and collaborators include: British Museum, Natural History Museum, British Library, Historic Environment Scotland, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, Community Archives and Heritage Group, Down County Museum, National Galleries of Scotland, Oxford University Herbaria, Collecting the West project funded by the Australian Research Council & metaphacts. The participatory methodology that the underpins the project will additionally allow ongoing research with a wide range of expert and interested communities over the coming years.

Case containing beetles from the Joseph Dandridge and Petiver collections

Collection of beetles, Case containing beetles from the Joseph Dandridge and Petiver collections. Some have Hans Sloane’s catalogue numbers. C0165553 ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Focusing on the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane in public institutions, this project will work with expert and interested communities including museum audiences to link the present with the past to allow the links between Sloane’s collections and catalogues to be re-established across the Natural History Museum, the British Library, and the British Museum (plus others that have relevant material). The main outcome of the project will be a freely available, online digital lab – the Sloane lab – that will offer researchers, curators and the public new opportunities to search, explore, and engage critically with key questions about our digital cultural heritage.

The project’s central questions include: How can we make specialist users and members of the public more aware of the contested nature of museum collections? What is the role of digital tools in facilitating discussions on imperialism, colonialism, slavery, loss and destruction, that have shaped the national collection? And who gets to contribute to, and shape, research on how memory institutions can reach across their institutional boundaries, subject-specialties and even countries so as to better support their audiences, visitors and users? Community Fellows will enhance the research, which will later form part of a traveling exhibition.

Project PI, Professor Julianne Nyhan, says of the project:

This exciting new project will devise automated and augmented means of mending the broken links between the past and present of the UK’s founding collection in the catalogues of the British Museum, Natural History Museum and the British Library. I am especially excited about the participatory design of the project, and the research with diverse publics that this funding will support. Our aim is to intertwine technological and participatory research, community consultation and public engagement, to embed diverse community views into the design, execution and validation of the Sloane Lab, and indeed, the future of the national collection.

Image by Colin McDowall, courtesy of Towards a National Collection

Image by Colin McDowall, courtesy of Towards a National Collection

The Towards a National Collection investigation is the largest of its kind to be undertaken to date, anywhere in the world. It involves 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions of different scales, with more than 120 individual researchers and collaborators.

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council said:

“This moment marks the start of the most ambitious phase of research and development we have ever undertaken as a country in the space where culture and heritage meet AI technology. Towards a National Collection is leading us to a long-term vision of a new national research infrastructure that will be of benefit to collections, researchers and audiences right across the UK.”

Dr Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said:

“This unprecedented investment of funding by the AHRC into these five projects will allow us to explore what the digital future for our organisations can and should be. A future where anyone can search across collections cared for in different parts of the UK, to pursue their passion for knowledge and understanding, discover their own pasts and answer their own questions. Towards a National Collection will strengthen Britain’s international leadership in this area. Each project in their own rightly deserves to be celebrated and I cannot wait to see what happens when we bring all this talent and dedication together to build the new future for our shared national collection.”

Rebecca Bailey, Programme Director, Towards a National Collection

“Today, for the first time, we can reveal the direction of travel for one of the UK’s most collaborative research programmes. Collectively, we aim to dissolve the disciplinary silos that exist in universities and public collections. Our driving mission is to open up global access to the UK’s world class collections. By harnessing emerging technologies to the creative interdisciplinary talents of our research teams, eventually everyone will have the ability to access an outstanding trove of stories, imagery and research linking together the limitless ideas and avenues in our national collections. From community archives to overlooked artists; from botanical specimens to the ship-wrecked Mary Rose.”

UCLDH research activity June 2021

Lucy Stagg30 June 2021

The UCLDH team have been busy as ever, despite continuing COVID-19 restrictions. Here’s just a few examples of recent activity:

Adam Crymble has published a monograph, Technology & the Historian: Transformations in the Digital Age (University of Illinois press, 2021) and a co-authored piece with Maria José Afanador-Llach (‘The Globally Unequal Promise of Digital Tools for History: UK and Colombia Case Study’ in Adele Nye (ed.) Teaching History for the Contemporary World (Springer, 2021), 85-98.).

Oliver Duke-Williams has been doing a lot of engagement work around the 2021 Census, including a radio interview with talkRadio. Read his co-authored blog on the The ebb and flow of UK census data

Julianne Nyhan has had various publications including  Named-entity recognition for early modern textual documents: a review of capabilities and challenges with strategies for the future. (Journal of Documentation, 2021. Co-authored with Marco Humbel, Andreas Vlachidis, Kim Sloan and Alexandra Ortolja-Baird)

Patrick White  has been co-leading a workshop series called Working With Code in collaboration with Research IT services, for Slade students making work in different coding environments such as Godot (game engine), Arduino (micro-controllers), Sonic Pi (live music production based on Ruby), and P5 (JavaScript version of Processing environment).

Tim Williams has been working on the Central Asian Archaeological Landscapes project. Their geospatial database, managed in QGIS, currently comprises 52,408 sites. Of these, 17,123 were known sites, gathered through the digitisation of archival material by our partners in Central Asia, while 35,285 have been digitised from a range of satellite imagery. They are exploring approaches to automatic change detection and Google Earth algorithms for automatic site detection. They are also using historic imagery (CORONA, Google Earth, etc.), DEMs, and scanned and geo-rectified Soviet maps, to create historical map layers, to examine landscape change, destruction, damage and potential threats to archaeological heritage. There is currently over 8TB of clean archival data on UCL Research Data storage, comprising 137,173 files scanned in 6,749 folders. Each folder is a document (notebook, passport folder, envelope with films, etc). This data is linked with the public facing Arches platform and UCL Open Data Repository. As a test, they have very recently placed 6 sets of geospatial data on UCL Research Data Repository (17.45GB) and those have already been viewed 2,540 times, with 1,973 items downloaded. From the repository there are also links to other digital material – for example 3D models on Sketchfab.

Blowing the doors off debt: mapping global interactions of a community project

Oliver W Duke-Williams27 May 2021

The film Bank Job by Daniel Edelstyn and Hilary Powell is an exploration of the world of credit and of capital creation, and the buying and selling of debt. The film follows a community project in which artists Edelstyn and Powell create their own currency, set up as a bank, and sell bank notes in order to fund the purchase at discount of over a million pounds of debt. The culmination of the film is the cancellation of that debt, both financially (the debt written off) and symbolically, in an exploding van.

Shell of a van after a controlled explosion; pieces of paper marked 'debt' are scattered around

The exploded shell of a van, with £1M of symbolic debt

Whilst conceived and implemented at a community level in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, it was an undertaking which attracted international interest. The currency created by Powell as hand-printed notes and bonds were bought by a diverse group of people, both individuals and institutions including the V&A Museum, and it was a pleasure to work with the film makers to explore some of the extent of this interest.

(more…)

Stock Illustrations, Free to Reuse

Rudolf Ammann2 February 2021

Composition with glitch capture, mojibake and moresque eements

Composition with glitch capture, mojibake and moresque pattern elements

In spring last year the UCLDH co-founder Melissa Terras invited me to join her and Gavin Inglis on an unusual project. For whatever comedy might be had from the undertaking, the project  trained artificial neural networks on several years’ worth of historical Edinburgh Fringe festival programmes to generate new virtual show listings. My brief at first consisted in developing the brand identity and building the website, but, having familiarised myself with the project, I suggested that the purely textual show listings should also be accompanied by illustrations, which I’d be happy to create and supply. The suggestion was accepted. So, at the start of the Festival in August, the project went live under the name ImprovBot.ai, and it kept churning out a dozen illustrated AI-generated show listings a day for three weeks on end.

The images are now available for creative re-use as non-restrictively licenced stock illustrations. Here’s some very brief discussion and a few pointers to the various ways of getting hold of the images.

Producing digital illustrations by the hundreds requires a certain serial approach to their manufacturing, so it helps to have archives on hand that can be drawn on for visual elements to tweak and recombine. I have documented the main elements in the ImprovBot.ai series elsewhere. In this post, let me just highlight some of the threads that tie this illustration series to previous work I’ve done for Melissa and UCLDH.

As a designer and a visual artist I have been collaborating with Melissa for more than a decade. Prior to ImprovBot.ai (see Melissa’s account of her recent adventures in AI, incidentally), we’ve worked together on a variety of projects, including her book The Professor in Children’s Literature, which I typeset and whose book cover I designed. This cover, along with a few other references to other prior art that I’ve manage to sneak in, is among the elements I’ve used repeatedly as part of the series’ ‘extras‘:

Book cover remix: Professor Branestawm and Lehrer Lämpel

Book cover remix: Professor Branestawm and Lehrer Lämpel (drawings by W. Heath Robinson and Wilhelm Busch, respectively)

The extras, as their name suggests, are perhaps not very central to the ImprovBot.ai series. By contrast, glitch captures are a frequently used element. Typically consisting of arbitrarily coloured  pixel strings, they appear in many image compositions in the series. The pixels are sampled from image files and screen renderings that have gone haywire for some reason, provoked or unprovoked. They are drawn from the same stock of materials I’ve previously used around UCLDH to complement and expand upon the Centre’s pixel-looking logo. Here’s a plain example of  the barely processed source material:

Glitch capture, enlarged from a screenshot taken of a real-life rendering issue provoked by low random-access memory (RAM)

Glitch capture, enlarged from a screenshot taken of an unintended rendering issue provoked by low random-access memory (RAM)

Some of the illustrations are more complex in their make-up, featuring other elements thrown into the mix, such as moresque patterns and mojibake:

Composition with glitch captures

A more complex composition with several elements conjoined

Availability

The whole set of Improvbot.ai illustrations is available for reuse and can be picked up individually from the project website and the Twitter feed. The images , briefly reviewed by category on a separate page, can also be browsed by these categories. The categories most suitable for re-use are probably these:

Moresque | Capture | Dataviz | Base64 | Network | Hardmod | Mojibake | Noise | Extras

Also available, but perhaps less suitable for reuse might be these categories:

Identity: ImprovBot | Identity: Improverts | The Bot, incl. Multiples Edinburgh and Multiples Shakespeare |

A zip archive of the full illustration set is available for downloading from Zenodo.org, and a subset of individual illustrations is distributed via Pixabay.com.

Licensing and Reuse

The illustrations are distributed under the CC-BY-NC licence, the image set on Pixabay under even less restrictive terms.

Some of the images might be suitable for book cover art, a blog post illustration, or they might inspire you to simply play with them and produce a few remixes of your own. We’re looking forward to seeing them show up in unexpected places!

‘Politeness at Work in the Clinton Email Corpus’, article published in Corpus Pragmatics

Lucy Stagg30 April 2018

Congratulations to UCLDH team member Dr Rachele De Felice who has had an article published in the journal Corpus Pragmatics, regarding her recent research with the Clinton Email Corpus.

The article’s full title is ‘Politeness at Work in the Clinton Email Corpus: A First Look at the Effects of Status and Gender’ and the abstract reads as follows:

This article introduces the Clinton Email Corpus, comprising 33,000 recently released email messages sent to and from Hillary Clinton during her tenure as United States Secretary of State, and presents the results of a first investigation into the effect of status and gender on politeness-related linguistic choices within the corpus, based on a sample of 500 emails. We describe the composition of the corpus and mention the technical challenges inherent in its creation, and then present the 500-email subset, in which all messages are categorized according to sender and recipient gender, position in the workplace hierarchy, and personal closeness to Clinton. The analysis looks at the most frequent bigrams in each of these subsets as a starting point for the identification of linguistic differences. We find that the main differences relate to the content and function of the messages rather than their
tone. Individuals lower in the hierarchy but not in Clinton’s inner circle are more often engaged in practical tasks, while members of the inner circle primarily discuss issues and use email to arrange in-person conversations. Clinton herself is generally found to engage neither in extensive politeness nor in overt displays of power. These findings present further evidence of how corpus linguistics can be used to advance our understanding of workplace pragmatics.

You can download and read the full article on Springer

Will Big Data kill the Census? Financial Times, 11 April 2018

Lucy Stagg16 April 2018

Dr Oliver Duke-Williams (UCLDH team member, and Senior Lecturer in Digital Information Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCL) has been giving his thoughts on proposed changes to how the Census is collected and the impacts of this on the resulting dataset. His comments were published in a Financial Times article entitled ‘Will Big Data kill the Census?’, published on 11 April 2018:

Oliver Duke-Williams, senior lecturer in digital information studies at UCL, who works on Census data, is concerned in particular about the longitudinal study, which has followed 1 per cent of the UK population in each Census since 1971. “The strength of it is that every 10 years you can add more data to it, so it’s a very rich dataset. If we switched to an administrative data methodology, you would not have that continuity anymore.”

Read the full Financial Times article

UCL Advanced Imaging Consultants (UCLAiC) undertake imaging projects on a range of heritage materials

tcrnkep12 January 2018

Chiddingstone Castle ancient Egyptian coffin lid, probably 25th Dynasty.

Chiddingstone Castle ancient Egyptian coffin lid, probably 25th Dynasty.

It’s been about a year and a half since UCLDH announced the establishment of UCL Advanced Imaging Consultants (UCLAiC, with a core team of Melissa Terras, Adam Gibson and myself) and began offering Reflectance Transformation Imaging and Spectral Imaging services from the UCL Multi-Modal Digitisation Suite research facility based in central London. We have since been undertaking imaging projects on a range of fascinating heritage materials. From Roman lead tablets and Egyptian mummy portraits to Persian and Mediaeval manuscripts and modern works of art, the advanced techniques we use are helping to reveal hidden writing, underdrawings and other marks that are difficult to see with the naked eye.

As we wrap up work from 2017, we are pleased to report on one of the highlights from the past years’ projects, namely multispectral imaging on a 2500-year old Egyptian coffin lid held in the collections of Chiddingstone Castle in Kent, England.

This wooden lid, shaped to represent the human form, is covered with a thin layer of yellow gesso and the head and chest are embellished with red, blue and yellow paint. A column of hieroglyphic text runs down the centre of the lid, from the brightly coloured broad collar down to the feet. Intended to ensure the sustenance of the deceased in the afterlife, this offering formula is formed of hieroglyphic signs painted in black outline with a blue-green infill. The glyphs on the foot area, however, have become very faded and damaged over time yet this is the very location where the name of the owner of the coffin would have been written.

Lower part of the coffin lid showing preserved hieroglyphic text and largely ‘invisible’ name on foot panel.

Lower part of the coffin lid showing preserved hieroglyphic text and largely ‘invisible’ name on foot panel.

Keen to learn if the name could be recovered, Chiddingstone Castle commissioned me to conduct multispectral imaging on the damaged foot area. Our multispectral system (supplied by R. B. Toth Associates), uses a medium-format, 60-megapixel PhaseOne IQ260 Achromatic camera to take a series of high-quality digital images. Illumination is provided by low heat, narrowband light emitting diodes (LED) at 12 different wavelengths from ultraviolet to near infrared, with the application of a 6-position motorised filter wheel (developed and integrated by Dr Bill Christens-Barry of Equipoise Imaging). Together with the assistance of SEAHA PhD student, Cerys Jones, the multispectral system was transported from the UCL Multi-Modal Digitisation Suite to the Castle in order to conduct the imaging onsite.

Cerys Jones and Kathryn Piquette calibrate the UCL multispectral system.

Cerys Jones and Kathryn Piquette calibrate the UCL multispectral system.

We applied 12 different wavelengths from ultraviolet to near infrared. Initial results were achieved using infrared (IR) illumination. These wavelengths, which are longer than visible light, are absorbed by carbon-based inks/paints and thus provided increased contrast between the outlines of the hieroglyphs and the surrounding surface. Thanks to the flexibility of our MSI system and Cerys’ familiarity with the specific optical properties of the pigment Egyptian blue, we tested further combinations of wavelengths and filtering. Visible induced infrared luminescence (VIL) proved vital for visualising the faint traces of paint surviving in the interior of the hieroglyphs, and we were thrilled to successfully recover the shapes of the majority of the hieroglyphs spelling out the deceased’s name.

Cerys Jones and Kathryn Piquette examine the multispectral imaging results.

Cerys Jones and Kathryn Piquette examine the multispectral imaging results.

With this image data in hand, I was able to research the name and, with the assistance of other Egyptologists, determine that the hieroglyphs most likely spell out “Irethoreru”. This name was relatively common  among males during the 1st millennium BCE and can be translated as “The Eye of Horus is against them”. The name was presumably intended to protect its bearer against his enemies, although without specifying whether these enemies were material or otherworldly. UCLAiC are pleased to have contributed to the re-discovery of the name of this ancient Egyptian who lived over 2000 years ago. This exciting work also recently appeared as part of a BBC report on UCL’s research on non-destructive technical imaging for recovering ancient hidden writing (see also: UCL News) and is also reported on the SEAHA blog.

Detail of foot panel under visible light (left), infrared (IR) illumination (middle) and visible induced infrared luminescence (VIL, right).

Detail of foot panel under visible light (left), infrared (IR) illumination (middle) and visible induced infrared luminescence (VIL, right).

While the mystery of the name has been solved, there is yet much to learn about the Chiddingstone Castle coffin lid. It was acquired by Denys Eyre Bower in the mid-20th century but unfortunately its original provenance is not known. The lid is probably part of an outer coffin that held an inner coffin which, in turn, held Irethoreru’s mummified body. One wonders whether elements of his burial equipment made their way into other UK/European museums and collections. Indeed, many Egyptian artefacts from the Third Intermediate Period and beyond (c.1000–c.300 BCE) bear the name “Irethoreru” (which may also be rendered as “Iret-hor-irou”, “Iret-horru”, “Iret-[en]-Hor-eru” or “Iretenhoreru”). Further detailed research, advanced imaging and materials analysis will be necessary to discover whether any of these funerary objects relate to Chiddingstone Castle’s Irethoreru. If you think you might have further information that could help Chiddingstone Castle learn more about their coffin lid please contact: curator@chiddingstonecastle.org.uk.

For further information about the imaging services and training courses offered by UCLDH Advanced Imaging Consultants, please visit the page or contact advancedimaging@ucl.ac.uk!

The E17 Art Trail

Oliver W Duke-Williams9 June 2017

Two UCLDH related events are picked out in local press coverage as highlights of the E17 Art Trail, 3 – 18 June 2017:

‘Painting with Light’ (9th June) is being delivered by Martin Zaltz Austwick and me, together with friends from CASA and Geography. In this workshop we will produce a series of images floating in space using an experimental device known as a PixelStick, while discussing the history of St Michaels Church and parish. The PixelStick produces images that are visible yet indecipherable to the naked eye, but are revealed when viewed through long-exposure photographs.

‘Invisible Numbers’ (10th June) is a collective of several artists; part of it is about a locally born (and UCL alumnus) computing pioneer, for which I’m doing a talk on early British computing.

The Digital Music Lab: A Big Data Infrastructure for Digital Musicology

Lucy Stagg20 March 2017

A paper describing the infrastructure of the Digital Music Lab framework has been published in the ACM Journal on Computing and Cultural Heritage (JOCCH). The paper is available to download from UCL Discovery. The project also got a write-up in Motherboard

Digital Music Lab is an AHRC project aiming to to develop research methods and software infrastructure for exploring and analysing large-scale music collections. The £560k project is being carried out collaboratively between City University London, Queen Mary University of London, University College London, and the British Library.

"Big data and the death of the theorist", article in Wired

Sarah Davenport25 January 2013

UCLDH co-director Melissa Terras is quoted in an article on the effect big data is having on academic disciplines.

Read the whole article here: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-01/25/big-data-end-of-theory