New Directions in Digital Humanities Research

Cross-disciplinary exploratory projects on four subjects as diverse as 1) medieval ossuaries in 3D, 2) automatic audio-visual analysis, 3) the relationships between digital/virtual and physical musical practice, and 4) the dangers of leaving or losing our digital legacy.

In 2015 the Faculty of Arts & Humanities held two cross-disciplinary futurism workshops on 1) Human Culture in the Digital Future and 2) Image and Vision Research for the Humanities. The aim was to identify new areas of digital humanities research by bringing together experts from across the University. The Faculty then made seed-corn funding available for the four projects that emerged from the workshops. Each project is described in more detail below.exploring-digital-humanities

The Digital Ossuary: 3D visualisation of a unique and endangered archaeological site

This project will integrate computer science and archaeological approaches in an investigation of the subterranean medieval charnel chapel of Holy Trinity church in Rothwell (Northamptonshire), which houses one of only two remaining in situ medieval ossuaries in England. The chapel was constructed during the 13th century, for the purpose of housing disinterred human skeletal remains; while this was a European-wide phenomenon, evidence of charnelling practices has largely been lost in England following the early 16th-century Reformation, and Rothwell is the most complete surviving example of a charnel chapel with in situ remains. Recent research within the Department of Archaeology has demonstrated that these charnel structures served a much more complex liturgical role than merely permitting the clearance of overly-full graveyards (which has long been presumed to be their prosaic role); they also provided places of pilgrimage and were the focus of intercessionary devotion, where the faithful could pray for the souls of the departed whilst in the physical presence of their corporeal remains. Rothwell charnel chapel is, hence, a site of major international significance, but analysis of the remains is hampered by issues of access and preservation. The proposed project has four principal aims:

  1. To develop analysis of the hitherto largely unstudied medieval human skeletal remains by collecting digital records of the charnel deposit;
  2. To enhance interpretation of the manner in which the ossuary was utilized in the medieval period, through digital capturing of the spatial arrangements within the chapel, and the range of medieval vantage points into the chapel;
  3. To present this fragile, and largely inaccessible (due to narrow stair access, now blocked medieval windows and cramped internal space), heritage resource to the public in a sustainable manner; and
  4. To facilitate preservation of the ossuary, which is in a fragile state, in the form of digital preservation in situ.

A PhD student from the Department of Computer Science will work with archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology to undertake scanning within the charnel chapel at Rothwell. They will capture data using the Leica P20 scanner to which access has been secured via the AMRC. This student will facilitate scoping of the project and assess the potential methodologies and create a prototype 3D web page-based interactive rendering/visualisation.
Project team:

  • Professor Dawn Hadley (Archaeology)
  • Dr Steve Maddock (Computer Science)
  • Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins (Archaeology)
  • Dr Rab Scott (Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, virtual reality team)

For further information please contact Dawn Hadley

Automatic Multimodal Analysis for the Humanities: connecting the aural, visual and textual dimensions

A recent study by Cisco predicted that by the middle of this decade two thirds of all internet traffic would be taken up by video. The number of video clips and hours of video footage consumed and produced has been steadily growing with the advent of self-broadcasting on-line services like YouTube. Videos are extremely rich sources of data for research, teaching or learning on a variety of topics spanning the Arts & Humanities and the Social Sciences, but annotation features in video applications are not as advanced as the ones available for digital text clients; software that is commercially available does not offer automatic annotation features (beyond face recognition) that are suitable for research, teaching or learning.

Given the increased adoption of video resources in academia, the richness of the information they contain and the cost that is associated with manually viewing and annotating them, there is a clear need to provide automatic annotation solutions for video data which allow users to easily search and retrieve the visual and textual information contained in a video clip.

A feasibility study will be undertaken with the following objectives:

  1. To explore the recent advances in automatic audio-visual and textual analysis techniques suitable for A&H research.
  2. To explore the steps that still need to be taken to be able to carry out a full-fledged hybrid multimodal analysis.
  3. To build up a team of internal researchers and external collaborators to support funding applications to realize a full-fledged hybrid multimodal analysis.
  4. To identify funding opportunities and plan future funding applications with these collaborators.

Project team:

  • Dr Dagmar Divjak (School of Languages and Cultures)
  • Dr Charith Abhayaratne (Electronic and Electrical Engineering)

For further information please contact Dagmar Divjak

Virtually Live: musical creativity/experience in physical and digital milieux

This study will explore the liminal spaces, interactions and cultural flash-points between the digital/virtual and physical within musical practice and musical experience. Starting with a matrix of physical/digital and material/experiential it will examine questions such as:

  • What are the choices composers and performers are making as to how, when and where their music is performed and experienced (e.g. a live performance in a physical venue; a physical CD; a digital download; a livestreamed performance)? This includes, for example, choices that the composer or performer makes about the use of the digital in physical world performances.
  • What motivates the choices that they make?
  • What is the impact on their experience of music?
  • How does the composer/performer manage his/her physical and digital identity?
  • How do choices about one performance/composition impact on future performance/composition, and shape the working life of the artist?

The questions will be investigated through a series of exploratory, interpretative case studies. They will selected purposively. The key focus on the experience of specific creative artist, or groups of artists; current potential cases (drawing on existing contacts of the team) include contemporary art composition; music in Second Life; the folk music industry.

The research team, with its range of expertise, will generate a uniquely interdisciplinary 360o perspective on the case studies, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods drawn from information behaviour, marketing and business strategy, psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, and composition/performance studies.

Through the case studies, the project will explore the shifting meanings, significance and nature of physical and virtual modes of musical creation and experience in an age of increased digital mediation. The findings will shape our understanding of how music will be experienced in the digital future, and will benefit creative practitioners, professional and community arts organisations.
Project team:

  • Dr Sheila Webber (Information School)
  • Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps (Music)
  • Dr Alex Peng (Information School)
  • Dr Dorothy Ker (Music)
  • Dr Bridgette Wessels (Sociological Studies)
  • Dr Renee Timmers (Music)

For further information please contact Sheila Webber

Digital Rot

This project will examine ‘digital rot’: the concern that significant aspects of human identity in western societies are now digital but our digital legacy is in danger of being lost due to neglect, poor management, its overwhelming volume and a changing technology environment. Our identity can be found in a bewildering range of online services and digital data, such as legal, civic, health, financial and corporate records; as well as personal data such as emails, photos, videos, e-commerce transactions, and social media interactions. The project will examine current attitudes, policies and trends concerning digital rot, in order to understand the impact these could have on future generations’ understanding of our era (e.g. historians and genealogists). The project is concerned with understanding the culture of data, rather than the technologies, systems and formats that underpin it.

For example, do we take preservation seriously or are we a ‘throw-away society’ when it comes to our own data (and where does it really go when we think we have thrown it away?) Also, how will families, genealogists and historians identify and make sense of the huge amount of data that will be left behind as part of the ‘virtual estate’ of deceased individuals? What will have as their business model in 50 years time?

The funding will enable a PhD student to undertake the literature research that is necessary in order to refine, focus and position our research interests. This is not an entirely new area of research: national archives and repositories have data preservation commitments, companies have competing data retention policies (e.g. Google’s ‘right to be forgotten’ versus Facebook’s ‘digital memorialisation’), and there are research projects already looking at digital memory (‘lifelogging’), personal data management and content curation as a new form of cultural consumption. We need to understand current knowledge and identify research opportunities.
Project team:

  • Michael Pidd (The Digital Humanities Institute)
  • Professor Robert Shoemaker (History)
  • Dr Andrew Cox (Information School)

For further information, contact Michael Pidd