The Open Access Antiquarianism Manifesto
(A Variant of the OAA Kickstarter Blurb)
You know how in movies and TV shows about archaeology and history–they’ll show you a teensy glimpse of a giant storage room filled up with artifacts and treasures? A room that is full of all kinds of historical goodies that are locked away from general public consumption.
Well that happens. Those rooms exist all over the world.
Museums, archives, universities, and private collectors have millions of ancient artifacts stored “safely” away where no one has a chance to look at them. But times, they are a-changing, and slowly and wonderfully, those store rooms of artifacts and archives of documents are being digitized. And as digital and 3D printed replicas, they have a chance to be looked at, to be admired, to be studied. Cultural heritage sites, too, are being digitized and visualized online—creating new digital tourism and research opportunities of excitingness.
But even with this optimistic progress, there are huge roadblocks getting in the way of an open access digital past. Sometimes the digital data isn’t ever published online because of ownership issues and academic intrigue. And when it is, the wonderful realm of digitizing processes like laser scanning and structure from motion are plagued by resolution capabilities when it comes to actually publishing data—and so what everyone ends up looking at is a tiny, decimated piece of the digital version. But what’s more prevalent, and even more concerning, is that once all of these lovely digital artifacts are out there, there is little to encourage anyone but experts to do anything critical or interesting with them.
How do we know about this bottleneck of technology, expertise, and political red tape that revolves around the creation and publication of digital cultural heritage? Well, for the last few years my colleague and I have been front-line fighters in the on-going digital archaeology battle for control of the digital past. A battle that you probably didn’t realize was brewing between academia, museums, and the government and private groups that “control” cultural heritage sites and artifacts. As an archaeologist and computer scientist, we teamed up to tackle the issues surrounding 3D modeling sites and artifacts. We’ve been attempting to unite the technology and engineering industries with humanities, art history, and archaeology groups and purposes, to coalesce the research and development of future technologies into something that also helps us collect data and preserve our past. Working at some of the most famous cultural heritage and archaeological sites all over the world (from Palazzo Vecchio to Petra), we’ve been sorting out how to collect 3D data from archaeological sites, building the software systems to visualize it, and considering what ought to be done with it once it exists.
Like many of the fabulously forward thinking museums and libraries who have been digitizing their collections first in 2D and more and more recently in 3D, we want to see this information available. We want it to be open access and ready for interpretation by anyone willing to put in the legwork online instead of just experts. Kids, coach potatoes, retirees—anyone has potential to start delving into this digital data and revealing its unnoticed secrets. We want teachers to be able to 3D print the ancient artifacts and landscapes that they talk about in history class so that students can literally touch the past and explore it on a phenomenological level never before possible. We want a democratized science and a past that is for the people. All people, not just experts with fancy software and special security or academic clearances.
And while we’ve written about this in academic venues and discussed it all over the world at the biggest digital heritage conferences over the past couple of years—it’s time to pull it out of the academic politics it has been entrenched in and start provoking wider conversation.
And what better way to do that then with art?
Dealing as we have done in what’s known as archaeological visualization, the technology we have built for archaeology’s sake is implicitly also technology for art’s sake. And so we’d like to put on an art show that will consider the notion of open access to a digital past by pulling together 2D and 3D data and re-using these scientific and historical snippets in new, challenging contexts. We want to poke at the authenticities of digital artifacts and the new happenstances of them being able to be made “real” again via 3D printing, the tangible made intangible, only to be made tangible again. We want to explore the notion of the past being part of our everyday quasi-virtual modern existences. We want to prod at the software and engineering issues that have created such challenges for building layered realities of digital data and the paradata and metadata challenges that make cultural heritage diagnostics such a pain in undertake in a proper reproducible scientific manner.
But most importantly, we want to explore who owns the digital past: the government? The software companies who build the databases and 3D models? The school that excavates a site? The professor who works for that school? The museum? The museum go-ers? The data viewers?
To do this, we’d like to build an old-fashioned Cabinet of Curiosities filled with multimedia pieces built with the scientifically and historically accurate data that is coming out of the world’s open access archives. Centered around a series of faux-tique furniture upholstered in fabric printed with laser scanned archaeological sites (real, physical and literal ‘arm-chair archaeology’), we’d like to put out an amalgam of “curiosities” engineered from traditional artistic mediums crossed with the latest multi-media movements like 3D printed artifacts and sites, the point cloud systems we’ve built for our past cultural heritage diagnostics projects, crowd-sourced art projects that involve our funders, and interactive, augmented, and immersive technology systems.
If you’re curioser and curioser about the bubbles, the Baptistery dollhouse, the globe forest, and the other projects we’d like to include in this initial Cabinet of Curiosities show, we’ve included higher level detail of each “curiosity” at our Open Access Antiquarianism website.
We’d like to use this art show to inspire more people to start digging into digital cultural heritage data and considering the interplay of ethical data informatics, digital authenticities, conservation policies, and digitization engineering and technologies that need to come together to build a sustainable and accessible digital global past.
Like the antiquarians of the past centuries, we’d like people to start delving into these increasingly unlocked archives to encounter their history, and we’d like them to join in the battle over ownership of the digital past. Because the past should be for the people.