Digital boost for work of arts

Electronic tools will give humanities researchers new ways to explore and collaborate. Katey Pigden reports

June 18, 2009

Imagine the research possibilities of being able to view three-dimensional scans of museum objects, write dance moves electronically or study ancient documents that were previously considered too damaged to decipher.

E-tools are being developed to allow researchers to do these things, aiding scholarly work in subjects that are not usually associated with such technology, such as museum curation, dance, archaeology and music. The tools are also opening new possibilities for researchers who want to process a large amount of data or share resources more widely.

They are emerging from the Arts and Humanities e-Science Initiative, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Joint Information Systems Committee.

In 2007, seven research grants totalling £2 million were awarded for collaborations across the boundaries of the arts and sciences to develop e-tools for diverse subjects. Earlier this month, the fruits of the scheme were discussed at a meeting in London.

Virtual curation

Stuart Dunn, a research fellow at the Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre at King's College London, organised the meeting. He said: "Historically the humanities have had far less funding for e-infrastructure than the sciences, and researchers in the humanities dealing with digital texts have felt understandably inhibited by this."

Although most of the projects are still in development, one has come to fruition in prototype form.

Researchers at University College London have created e-Curator, software that enables three-dimensional recording of museum artefacts by enhancing two-dimensional techniques for recording images.

Sally MacDonald, director and principal investigator on the project, said it offered the tantalising prospect of bringing museum practice into a digital world, transforming traditional techniques for object documentation.

"Researchers in different institutions could compare similar artefacts without travelling to see them, or they could monitor decay and environmental damage over time."

The technique could be particularly useful for studying objects in travelling exhibitions, she added.

The project has used pattern recognition to capture and analyse data. It employs a specially designed scanner and a supercomputing infrastructure for data and storage management.

Claire Warwick, programme director for electronic communication and publishing at UCL, is an expert in the area of digital humanities, particularly in the development and use of electronic texts and digital libraries.

Speaking at the meeting, she said the possibilities of e-Curator were impressive. "I think the potential of 3D scanning for museum objects is vast, but we're only beginning to understand how it might work and how people might use the scans."

Digital dance

This sense that the real potential of e-tools in the arts and humanities is still yet to be explored and exploited applies across the range of other topics.

The e-Dance project at the University of Bedfordshire is set to be completed later this year.

It promises to open up a new field of internet choreography, allowing practitioners and researchers to document dance movements via computers rather than traditional notation. Its motion-tracking tools and video-conferencing technology make collaborations easier.

Helen Bailey, principal lecturer in dance at Bedfordshire and leader of the project, said the aim was to give the discipline "a set of tools to make research processes more transparent and transferable".

There are five other projects in the pipeline.

The e-Science and Ancient Documents project, which is being carried out at the University of Oxford, is developing computing tools to help epigraphers decipher and interpret damaged ancient texts; the Purcell Plus project at Goldsmiths, University of London is aiming to make musical scores, recordings and textual commentaries on music available online; the Archaeotools project at the University of York is designing a system to develop digital tools for indexing and classifying archaeological records and literature; and the University of Southampton's MusicSpace project is seeking to improve access to music resources for musicology.

In addition, the Medieval Warfare on the Grid project at the University of Birmingham is using computer modelling to help explore battle plans from history, using the Battle of Manzikert, which took place in 1071 in Turkey, as the prototype.

All the e-Science research projects are due to be completed by 2012. Further funding to make the results fully available to researchers is being sought.

For more information, visit www.ahessc.ac.uk.

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