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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.

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.

The Great Parchment Book article in the THE

Sarah Davenport21 June 2013

Melissa Terras, UCLDH Director, talks to the THE about the work being done at UCL to create a digital version of the fire-damaged Great Parchment Book.

"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

Day of Archaeology 2012

Anne Welsh30 May 2012

Posted on behalf of Lorna Richardson.

Following on from the success of 2011, we are happy to announce that this year’s ‘Day of Archaeology’, the public archaeology mass blogging project, is scheduled for *June 29, 2012*. Last year’s event, supported by the Centre for Digital Humanities, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the Archaeology Data Service and L-P Archaeology saw over 400 archaeologists sign up, and almost 450 separate blog posts were created, including lots of photos, video, audio and more. The Day of Archaeology project has been shortlisted top 3 for the British Archaeological Award for the Best Representation of Archaeology in the Media. The award will be presented on the 9th July at the British Museum.

You can read more about the first Day of Archaeology from 2011 on the website. The general hope for the project is that by raising awareness about the truly diverse nature of archaeology, we will also in turn emphasize the vital role that archaeology plays in preserving our past for everyone’s future.

If you would like to find out more, or sign up to write about/film/photograph your archaeological day on the 29th (or as near the day as possible), please email us at dayofarchaeology@gmail.com

Digital Humanities on YouTube

Simon Mahony21 May 2012

One of our PhD students, Greta Franzini, has put together this YouTube playlist of DH videos and made it available. I’ve been looking through and see there are some familiar names there!

This is a good way of collecting together resources – thanks Greta. Do we have any other examples?