Last week the Beautiful Data workshop organised by metaLab (at) Harvard university came to an end. Twelve intense days filled with talks, discussions, hands-on workshops and visits to local museums as well as, of course, local bars.
The highlight, for me, were the people that gathered in the well air-conditioned, dimly lit premises of Harvard’s project space arts@29garden. For a workshop of this nature you can have the best possible organisation – and boy were the metaLab folks organised – what makes it in the end a success or not is finding the right mixture of participants, speakers as well as staff. The “diverse, elite group of curators, scholars, and technologists”, as the programme described the invited participants, turned out to be a very open, social and intellectually stimulating bunch from mostly the United States, but also Mexico and central Europe.
An impressive line-up of guest speakers accompanied us throughout the two weeks. Seb Chan’s talk left a lasting impression on me and, I think, on most participants. He presented his work at the Cooper Hewitt museum on making their online collection accessible and usable on the web. It all seemed so simple when Seb walked us through the features of their new website, but the takeaway point of it all was the need to let go of perfection. Data will never be perfect, collections data certainly not; the point is to get it out there anyway and to do something with it. Museums and institutions need to partly let go of their authority and expose their imperfections, so that the public can understand and, if necessary, help out. What became evident throughout the two weeks is that collections holders themselves don’t necessarily know much about their own data and that by opening it up they could learn a lot about their own history.
David Weinberger similarly pointed out the changing nature of authority. Our knowledge has, for centuries, been shaped by books and papers: truth is what it says in the book. Today, Wikipedia took on the position of the Encyclopedia Britannica in being the turn to place for finding “truth”. Part of Wikipedia’s success, Weinbergar says, is its ability to acknowledge its own fallibility. Institutions who want to remain credible, need to begin communicating their imperfection. It can start as simple as with changing the wording on a website, like Cooper-Hewitt’s collection being “pretty confident” about knowing something, rather than pretending something to be absolutely certain.
Of course, we participants were also invited to share our insights in ‘lighting talks’ that took anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes. Personally, I enjoyed these peer presentations the most. We had Pietro Santachiara talking about the “Tourist in Rome Syndrome”; the belief that everything is important and the importance of leaving things away. Gudrun Buehl told us about their ‘aztec style’ – or forged Aztecan? – birthing statue and how it made its way into Indiana Jones. Rich Barrett-Small from the Tate presented what they got out of making their dataset available on GitHub and copyright lawyer Katherine DeVos Devine dismantled the photographing policies of the Tate and other participant’s institutions on the spot.
I can’t mention all the highlights. If I could I would write more about the work done by the metaLab folk themselves: Jeffrey Schnapp’s presentation on Curarium, Jeff Steward’s visualisation of movements and interactions within the Harvard Art Museum collection and Yanni Loukissas’ time-wise visualisations of the Harvard Arboretum dataset.
I would also write more about the project work undertaken by the participants in the second week and the amazing outcomes, which I hope will be made accessible in some form very soon. Rich’s Colour Lens, a colour based cross-collection browser is already online. Steven Lubar outlines his impression of the workshop on his own blog and the project essay by Kristina Van Dyke and Steven Lubar is accessible as well. Cristoforo Magliozzi from metaLab was instrumental in producing videos together with the participants, such as Gudrun and Pietro’s Memorable Encounter and Lanfranco Aceti and Vincent Brown’s Border Cuts.
I’ll update this post with links to further projects once they become available. For now, I end with a big Thank You to everyone at metaLab, all the participants and speakers, and last but not least the Getty Foundation for their generous support.