How do we find Common Ground?

Exterior of the Ron Cooke Hub.
Ron Cooke Hub. Venue for Common Ground

Andrew Lewis is a research associate at the University of York, with expertise in cuneiform reconstruction, 3D printing and scanning and digital heritage.

Multidisciplinary interaction has been a key factor in the advancement of many fields throughout academia and enterprise.  These cross disciplinary relationships are symbiotic – offering benefits to all involved. For the heritage community, the opportunity for community engagement, novel interaction, and unique methods of visualisation are just a small subsection of the advantages that collaboration can afford. New techniques, new standards of practice, new technologies and tools, and new avenues of research are all born from the crucible of interdisciplinary cooperation.

The AHRC Commons event (being held on the 21st June 2016, 10am-6pm, at the Ron Cooke Hub, of the University of York) aims to celebrate this synergistic approach to research, with all members of the AHRC Commons community invited to take part. The ARHC Commons is an inclusive community, bringing together universities, creative economy, the cultural, health, and third sectors, micro businesses, SMEs, corporations, community groups, and more. There are no membership fees to pay, and individuals or groups at any career stage, from any sector or discipline are welcome to register and attend here.

As one of the zone co-leads for this event, I can tell you that the event promises to be far more than an just an ordinary conference. There will be hackspaces, wet-work rooms, lectures, debates, and demonstrations on a huge range of multidisciplinary projects spread over nine zones. The diversity of these conference zones is a marker of the inclusive scope of the AHRC Commons. The celebrate zone focusses on entertainment and performances. Stand-up comedy, poetry, storytelling, music, drama and other performances about ‘common’ experience are all presented here. In the Co-create zone, participants are focussed on conducting research through practice, collaborative arts, and fostering accessibility through analogue and digital pathways. This includes live arts and crafts, demonstrations, taster sessions, and exploration of the arts and humanities in any artistic form. The Stimulate zone takes a more traditional approach, with high profile and provocative speakers exploring the challenges and opportunities faced in all subjects related to the arts and humanities. In the Innovate zone, you will find hackathons and 360 degree digital screenings, with workshops on embracing the digital aspects of social media, and showcases of the equipment found in a modern makerspace.

Each zone at the Common ground will have a unique feel, but the underlying intention for all zones will be those of collaboration, cooperation, the dissemination of good practice in research, and public engagement. I strongly recommend attending what promises to be a ground breaking event.

You can book to attend the AHRC Common Ground event directly via Eventbrite. There are a limited number of tickets available, so book early to avoid missing out on what seems likely to be one of the most diverse and interesting academic events that you will ever attend.

Lives of the First World War: Retaining personal connections to the conflict using new technology

Lives of the First World War homepage
The home page of the IWM’s

The year 2014 saw the start of a four year long centenary commemoration of the First World War. Remembrance programmes, local events, educational trips to the battlefields and a nationwide ‘lights out’, have all been part of the 100 year anniversary of the conflict so far. These acts of communal and shared remembering can be described as forms of ‘collective memory’. This is a concept that was coined by Maurice Halbwachs to understand the  social ‘framing’ of the past. Collective remembrance has been developed by Jay Winter to describe forms of ‘public recollection’ of the past and is frequently used in the analysis of the memory of war. Collective memories can be shaped by governments, media professionals, historians, families, museums and archivists to name but a few. My own research surrounds the study of these forms of public history, noting how and why they change over time and the efforts of groups to tell alternative discourses of the past.

The current centenary of the First World War is a perfect case study to examine how forms of public history are being used to reshape the history of the conflict in modern day Britain. Despite the family ties which have enabled the war to remain an important event in British history, redefining the war to appeal to younger generations in particular has been noted as a challenge. Dan Todman outlined how the younger generations ‘have grown up with well established myths of the Great War’ but they ‘have no personal connection to it’.

It seems that organisations such as the Imperial War Museums are turning to new technologies to enable the public to gain a greater connection to the personal histories of the Great War. Their Lives of the First World War project in particular, is innovative in its blend of memorial culture and internet genealogy. When the IWM was originally formed, it took care of artifacts, letters and medals donated by the relatives of deceased soldiers.  The original premise of housing the items belonging to ordinary people and making personal histories of war part of a national story, is prevalent in the aims of this new online endeavour. Users are encouraged to add their own memories and actively input documents and images to the individual pages, one for each participant in the war.

Acting as a sort of Facebook for the First World War generation, Lives of the First World War is something that could potentially enable a greater connection to the conflict amongst younger generations, due to its interactivity and future use as an online memorial and family history database. The platform evidently taps into the popularity of online genealogy. As Jerome De Groot notes the web allows for ‘collaborative genealogy’ where users can share, discuss and add documents as part of their research using websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past. Lives of the First World War adopts this model by creating profiles for every person with added medal roll card details and the ability for users to add further digitalised documents and collaborate with other users.

The project also serves to add to the original meaning of the Great War memorial by including all service men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth who participated in the conflict. It also includes all those that survived after the conflict. Peter Barham ‘excavated’ the forgotten stories of shell shocked soldiers of the Great War in his book Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. One of his goals was to include these men in the public understanding of the conflict, as he feared remembrance of those that had survived the war had been overshadowed by the memorials to the dead. Lives of the First World War also addresses this issue by creating an online memorial to all. The homepage of the website states ‘we believe that each and every one of the 8 million who served in the Great War deserve to be remembered’. By forming a memorial such as this, the apparent divisions which existed between the remembrance of those that survived and those that died can be removed. It also has potential to increase awareness of the Commonwealth soldiers who served as they are also added to the database. This is clearly an aim across many organisations working on centenary projects and is outlined in the British Futures Report.  The inclusion of Commonwealth soldiers aids to reshape the memory of the war to fit with the heritage of a modern multicultural community who may have ancestors from other nations who participated in the war.  This ‘permanent digital memorial‘  fits the society in which it is being created, just as the stone memorials did in 1919, which were designed to enable personal and communal grieving in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Although that the website seems to be an innovative way in which to create a memorial for all, there are some ambiguities present in the design. Perhaps inspired by the popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, users are able to ‘Remember’ each individual soldier with a click of a button. This tool is markedly similar to the popular ‘Like’ buttons on social media websites. It is unclear what purpose this button serves. Is it to highlight famous soldiers who inevitably have thousands of users ‘Remembering’ them such as Siegfried Sassoon? Is it fair that servicemen and women who have no living relatives and whose pages have not been added to, are to be potentially forgotten on the website as in real life? A sort of popularity contest for who is being most ‘remembered’ is not the best way in which to promote remembrance in an equal way. Yet, given the connection to social media websites, it is probable that the ‘Remember’ button is simply another feature to try and attract younger audiences who could interact with the lives of their ancestors in a familiar way to how they present their own lives using social media.

This initiative by the IWM clearly represents an active attempt to sustain the collective remembrance of the conflict in Britain for the future using the latest technology. As Winter and Sivan emphasise, the memory of war is ‘dependent on people to act’ and to continue ‘mobilising resources which keep memory alive’.  If history is not retold in this way by groups in society, historic events can be forgotten. The Imperial War Museums are clearly using the centenary to ensure the younger generations in Britain can find ways to interact with the history of a conflict which is now outside of living memory. The overall popularity of the site is unclear. Is it reaching the target audience? Clearly, school groups have been encouraged to fill in the profiles of soldiers from their locality. Family historians have also added photographs and memories, but many soldiers’ lives have not been added to by living relatives. Perhaps the true value of the initiative will be revealed in 2019 after the end of the commemorations. Although there are uncertainties surrounding the website, it represents an attempt by the leading organisation of war remembrance to engage with younger audiences and reshape the memory of the war in a more interactive and inclusive way.

Harriet Beadnell is a PhD student at the University of York and a graduate of the MA in Public History. Her research explores the role, representation and identity of Second World War veterans since 1945.


Is the digital past at risk from time meddlers?

In the 1965 Doctor Who story The Time Meddler, William Hartnell’s Doctor takes on a meddling monk, portrayed by the reliably brilliant Peter Butterworth.

Although hanging out in 1066 the Monk is a time traveller and plans to use an ‘atomic cannon’ to avert the battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge by wiping out the Viking fleet of Harald Hardrada. His aim is to ensure that King Harold Godwinson, not William of Normandy triumphs at Hastings and that history is thereby rewritten – the Hundred Years War avoided and “jet airliners by 1320”. Of course Hartnell’s Doctor swiftly puts at stop to this “disgusting exhibition” and the Monk’s plan to disrupt history is foiled. The past is immutable.

But history, or rather the body of evidence we use to construct history, isn’t immutable. It’s prone to fire, flood and other kinds of natural and unnatural disaster. Collecting books in a library so they can be cared for and consulted together is a fabulous idea unless you lose the library. We’re reasonably comfortable with the idea that there might be gaps in the documentary record. What’s a little more unusual is if people start filling them in.

In 2008, the National Archives announced that it had foiled an attempt by a historian to insert faked documents amongst files in its collections. The historian cited the documents he had himself manufactured in support of his claims that Heinrich Himmler was murdered by British intelligence and that the Duke of Windsor (the former Edward VIII) was instrumental in the fall of France in 1940. This was a highly unusual case and although tampering with the documentary record in this way has always been possible – medieval monks have been accused of beefing up references to Jesus in their copies of Josephus – normally libraries and archives have trouble with people making off with documents rather than adding them.

The digital realm seems to offer a solution to at least this latter problem: the infinite duplicability of digital material seems to offer a situation in which data can never really be lost. In practice this is simply not the case. Luke McKernan has shown how ephemeral YouTube content can be and the great work of the self-proclaimed “rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths” at Archive Team only emphasises that when no one gets to a closing site in time, its data is gone for good. And with dynamic content much harder to capture than static text and images, many archived sites are shadows of their former selves. They are representations of a digital artifact but the artifact itself has in some sense been lost. In some cases an archived website is a facsimile akin to a photocopied parchment.

We need to be mindful of these discrepancies. But there are others. As I write this, while it is possible to delete a tweet it’s not possible to edit one – and for good reasons. On Wikipedia I can see every edit that’s ever been made to a page. And digital archives such as those held at Kew or in Washington DC use a range of techniques to ensure the integrity and fixity of their data. But no such checks exist on data before it has been archived and the context of a digital item is consequently even more crucial than a physical one, while simultaneously being less straightforward to determine. I can edit this blog post at any time without leaving a record. In the UK, the PM’s speeches online may well be edited to remove party political content. The White House will tidy things up when the President fumbles exactly how Aretha Franklin told us to find out what respect meant to her. So when we read a transcript online is it a transcript or a ‘transcript’? In film preservation, we can trust the AFI and the BFI to hold original 1977 prints of Star Wars. But most of us have to make do with compromised, edited versions. Special Editions aren’t terribly useful if the question we’re trying to answer relates to the content or reception of the original.

What is the case is that the ease with which a digital artifact can be reproduced also means that it is far easier for a source item which has been tampered with to propagate its inaccuracy. Sometimes these propagated inaccuracies are completely innocent. Monica Green and her colleagues have described how an image of leprosy from James le Palmer’s Omnia Bonum became widely used (by the Museum of London, documentarians and in journals such as Nature and Past and Future) to illustrate plague, to mildly red faces all round. Once separated from its metadata, the nature of a digital image can become mutable. We’re a long way here from Stalinist photo editing – although I do like the Telegraph’s version of Kim Jong-Un as astronaut produced in ironic celebration of the Korean Central News Agency’s reputed fondness for a nice bit of Photoshop.

For the digital present, the advice to historians remains as it has always been: know your sources. Rigorous methods will protect the historical narrative from time meddling.

Jo Pugh is a doctoral student working with the University of York and the National Archives. His work focuses on how researchers navigate large digital collections of cultural heritage material.