By Sara Radice
Visual and exhibition designer; research fellow at Aspi-Archivio storico della psicologia italiana, Università degli studi di Milano-Bicocca
The open archive: toward virtual exhibition of archival contents
Accessibility and use of digital archives
The need for appropriate and effective communication and dissemination tools, which can respond to different audience expectations, is clearly expressed in literature and widely recognized by cultural professionals, and, as GLAMs – galleries, libraries, archives, and museums – increasingly promote alternative and various ways of interpreting their collections, often encouraging those interpretations that mirror visitors’ perspectives, interpretation itself reflects upon the decisions behind selecting alternative context of meaning. This is particularly true in the contemporary digital era in which novel forms of cultural mediation, enabled by emerging technologies, have changed people’s expectations when dealing with heritage, by altering the traditional relationship between cultural assets and users, who become now more and more actively involved when experiencing cultural contents, both in actual and virtual environments.
Within this scenario, digital archives are increasingly considered a fertile field of experimentation of principle and practices of the design discipline for the valorization of cultural heritage, as the potential discursive nature of interactive databases enable users to engage with information in novel ways, hence calling into question the current epistemological foundations of the documentary structures. Furthermore, moving from a standardized linear narrative format by incorporating diverse media, visualizations, and simulations, has major implications for the types of interpretive evidence collected, recorded, digitized, and created around archival collections, which might be reconsidered taking into account how polysemic interpretive models are enhanced by digital tools (Cameron, 2012, p. 225-226).
However, despite the digitization of enormous quantity of artifacts of various types, the uses that GLAMs make of digital artifacts “still closely resemble printed catalogues and exhibition brochures with a few technological flourishes rather than a fundamental change in approach” (Walsh, 2007, p. 31). The digitization of documents, in fact, only constitutes the first step towards a novel notion of the status of the archive itself that more and more is being described using terms like “open”, “virtual”, and “mobile”, as opposed to the terms “closed”, “physical”, and “fixed”, which in the common sense were traditionally associated to the notion of the archive. There are many examples of online archival information systems adopted by cultural institutions and other public or private entities with the aim of better valorize their archives. However – although achieving high standards of scientific research and using appropriate representations of the structure of the archive, and making extensive use of high resolution images – many of these systems often reveal weaknesses for those audiences not already skilled in the archives domain, because of the lack of digital tools dedicated at the mediation of the row archival contents. The effectivness of the digital archive in engaging the public may be related to its potential of being “animated” (Lunenfeld et al., 2012, p. 48), fostering novel forms of use and interaction, which tend to respond to the emerging expectations of contemporary audiences.
Understanding user expectations
Being sensitive to archives’ users, determining who they are and how they perceive the online experience of visiting is therefore the first step for improving the quality of the cultural offer. In user-centered design, the system of personas – fictional characters created to represent the different kind of users inside a specific demographic segment that potentially can use a service or a product – is a useful tool for the evaluation of the user’s desires and restrictions that may effectively be used to orient the decisions in the design process. Relying on the motivational profiles defined by diverse authors (Falk, Moussouri & Coulson, 1998; Sachatello-Sawyer et al., 2002; Arts Council England, 2008; Falk, 2009), some of the following audience constituencies might be considered when dealing with archives users:
- the “professional”, who have very conscious reasons for exploring the archive;
- the “knowledge seeker”, who typically is a student in a related field;
- the “hobbyist”, who typically has higher levels of education and wishes to satisfy personal curiosity;
- the “socializer”, who although not particularly interested in the topic, explores the archives to fulfill other people expectations;
- the “occasional passer-by”, who accesses the archival collection while performing online researches in other disciplinary domains.
Identity motivations can help GLAMs understanding their audience, letting to important implication for the design of digital exhibitions, which are aimed at fulfilling the gap between the cultural and assets the people who might be interested in them.
Design and digital cultural heritage
While there are several codified strategies and an extensive literature about the types and modes of physical exhibitions, and despite several digital projects have been carried out in recent years, there is not yet a systemized methodology that can be applied to organizational strategies for what concerns the exhibition of digital archival collections. Virtual environments cannot just replicate the traditional communication and stylistic patterns, but needs to be designed through the use of novel languages. In fact, where the space is virtually limitless issues concerning display and organizational strategies become more challenging than in the actual galleries where designers and curators have to deal with physical constrains.
With reference to the description given by Nicks (2002, p. 359) of the main thematic structures used in museums for arranging exhibitions core ideas and themes, five possible visual metaphors of representation for displaying digital cultural assets have been identified:
- “Physicalization” structure that presents topics within a re-created physical or intellectual virtual environment that provides context for enriched understanding and facilitates the navigation among contents;
- “Catalog” structure that addresses each topic independently within a single gallery or area of the virtual exhibition, using a similar order of presentation for facilitating comparative analysis.
- “Timeline” structure that assumes that an ordered and controlled presentation is needed to ensure the comprehension of the relationships among contents;
- “Map” structure that allows users to navigate through an interactive map which can be both physical (with geolocalized contents) and intellectual, facilitating thematic comparison among contents, which are often presented synchronically;
- “Serendipitous discovery” structure that allows users to navigate throught contents randomly, also without previously exacly knowing what they were searching.
Hierarchical architecture of contents and serendipitious explorations: the case of the research centre Aspi-Historical archive of Italian psychology
The project here presented is the outcome of two researches funded by Regione Lombardia in 2014-2015 and developed by the interdepartmental research center Aspi – Archivio storico della psicologia italiana (Historical archive of Italian psychology) at Università degli studi di Milano-Bicocca: “Mind sciences in Milan and in the Milan area. Census and enhancement of the archives funds”, and “The open archive. Strategies and digital and semantic tools for the valorization of the documentary heritage. Four case studies from the Lombardy area”. Among the objectives of these research projects, a specific goal was to investigate how novel digital narrative structures may support a more effective valorization of heterogeneous collections of complex assets – such as the Aspi collections– that together represent the multifaceted nature of the contemporary archive.
The identification, collection, preservation and promotion of documentary sources related to the history of 19th and 20th centuries Italian science of mind is the permanent scientific project of the centre Aspi; a multidisciplinary team composed of archivists, historians of psychology, historians of science, designers, and computer scientists, takes care of the organization, conservation and valorisation of the archives, and over the past ten years the centre Aspi recovered, digitized and made available online the original contributions of the most respected Italian scholars in the disciplinary domain of the sciences of mind.
Thanks to these research projects, the Aspi web platform (http://www.aspi.unimib.it/) was completely renovated for what concerns the softwares used for the back-end managing of archival collections and online publication, the architecture of information, and the front-end design. Thanks to the adoption of the open-source software CollectiveAccess, developed for managing and publishing museum and archival collections, the diverse sections of the web portal are better integrated, giving form to an integrated system consisting of critical apparatuses of historical and scientific contextualization, instruments, original documents, photographs, and their relationship. The integration of all these types of content, correlated with the original archival documents, allow an easier experience of navigation, not only for scholars and experts of the disciplines’ domain, but also for other general audiences, which can easily access the available documentation about the history of the science of the mind.
A specific objective of the project was, in fact, to set the Aspi web portal as a virtual place where both scholars of the diverse disciplines that contribute to the sciences of the mind, and the wide public would have access to the original archival document through an interface that offers diverse point of access to the contents according to the various profiles and interests of the public. These issues were regarded from the perspective of the design discipline, adopting a user-centered approach, which considered both the Aspi core audiences – those groups who have a special understanding of the collections – and other current and potential users. In particular, co-design workshops were useful to improve the modalities of exploration and selection of contents, by introducing – along with the more traditional hierarchical architecture of information – a model of visual and serendipitous exploration of data and their relationships, using timeline and map methaphores both physical and conceptual, in order to allow multiple levels of approaches to the history of the sciences of mind.
Questions for further discussion
Within the outilined scenario, and relying upon the hypothesis that, although through diverse approaches, users’ active engagement might enhance the experience of heritage, would giving users the possibility to interact with archival data increase public ownership?
- Would it help cultural institutions to achieve those goals that they would not have financial resource to achieve on their own (e.g. correction and transcription tasks, contextualization, complementing collection, classification, folksonomic tagging, etc.)?
- What if digital archives would let users to contribute to online collections, for example through the re-contextualization of items according to their personal criteria?
- Would this participatory approach possibly disclose public attitudes about the significance of a particular document? And what would happen if it were dissonant with the meaning attributed by the cultural institution?
- Will the institutional authority be undermined? Or, conversely, would this kind of approach encourage a discursive reconsideration of cultural assets in a way that is responsive to audience’s attitudes and backgrounds?
The author aknowledges the team of the centre Aspi – Archivio storico della psicologia italiana, within which these researches have been carried out, for the efforts dedicated to the projects “Mind sciences in Milan and in the Milan area. Census and enhancement of the archives funds” and “The open archive. Strategies and digital and semantic tools for the valorization of the documentary heritage. Four case studies from the Lombardy area”, funded by Regione Lombardia in 2014-2015.
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Sara Radice is a designer and a researcher in the cross field of design and cultural heritage. Ph.D. in Design, her areas of expertise include exhibition and visual design. She currently works as freelance designer and collaborates within the interdepartmental research center Aspi – Archivio storico della psicologia italiana, Università degli studi di Milano-Bicocca on projects related to the valorization of digital archives. She is lecturer at ACME – European Academy of Fine Arts and Media, and teaching assistant at Politecnico di Milano. Since 2014, she works at the project museum&CO, which aims at researching, promoting and designing novel strategies for audience engagement within cultural heritage, using participatory design techniques. In 2013 she has been research fellow at the metaLAB at Harvard, and from 2011 to 2014, she has been part of the research group Design for Cultural Heritage at Politecnico di Milano within which she has been involved in national and international research projects related to heritage valorization.