Hannah Nagle

Hannah Nagle is an Imaging Technician on the Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme at the British Library. She has previously worked at the Science Museum and the National Archives. Hannah has a BA (Hons) degree in Photography and graduated in 2015.

Upcycling Archives

When I was 17 I walked into the art room at school one day to find a rubbish bag full of old black and white prints sat on my desk. My teacher had salvaged it from a skip on the side of a residential street full of the belongings of a man who had recently passed away. ‘See what you can do with them,’ she suggested. She was unable to give any context to them and so, elbows deep in prints, I began to familiarise myself with this abandoned archive. Eager to see what was inside, I took no interest in trying to organise them into any sort of order. I dug prints out at random and threw them back in again. Despite this, a pattern emerged and my hands began bringing up the same picture of an old man or of a church steeple. Their maker had printed the same negatives over and over again, unhappy with his previous efforts that had produced blurred crop lines and over exposed areas. He had been determined to get it just right.

There wasn’t anything particularly special about the photographs, nor did I have any context to them which might have made them more interesting. However, I was not a natural painter and I didn’t have a lot of talent for drawing, so I was glad to have been given this base material from which to work. Gathering inspiration from artists using ‘found’ photographs like John Stezaker, I used every last print to experiment with techniques I would end up using for the next two years. Having multiple copies of the same photo gave me the opportunity to test out ideas and perfect them if they didn’t work out. I cut into them and out of them, turning previously inoffensive images into confusing and distorted versions of themselves. I sewed into them like the artist Maurizio Anzeri, and in one example, I pierced through prints and used lights and mirrors to create new images.

All of these experiments resulted in a huge body of work produced during my late teens. Developing from my work with the found prints, I began to apply the analogue techniques I’d used to alter my own photographs. I bleached, scratched, and layered my images with paint, tape, newspaper, and old photographs I bought in markets. After physically changing the prints, I would scan them and continue to work on them in Photoshop, manipulating them digitally in various ways. Nothing was left in its original form and every version of each photo I took had the potential to turn into something far beyond its starting point. I eventually abandoned this style of work when I began university. Years later however, I have found myself unexpectedly returning to it. This time I’m using found photographs of a different nature.

Photographic prints layered with paint, bleach and glitter and then digitally manipulated on Photoshop

Working in museums and libraries on digitisation projects has exposed me to a wide variety of online collections. Their potential for artistic use has always been immediate to me. Although the process of ‘finding’ them is less exciting than its physical counterpart, the huge amount of material available at any given time provides a much higher probability of finding something inspiring. Online collections working with relaxed copyright laws or Creative Commons licenses allows for this potential to flourish by providing clear guidelines on how individuals can use them. Digitisation simultaneously preserves and allows for freedom and creativity. With the option to print out or download the images I source, the opportunity is now there for me to experiment as I did with the bag of prints.

The work I’ve found myself producing now is not the same as it was when I was a teenager. I haven’t scratched or bleached anything (yet) and the work is much simpler. With an increasing interest in protest art, I have been working with juxtaposition. As a result, I have begun producing work in the form of zines. Typically self-published and using appropriated texts and images, they have proven to be a perfect way to work with online collections.

The images below are examples from some of the zines I have created. I have used various online collections to produce this work including the Qatar Digital Library and the Flickr account of the National Archives. This work shows the creative possibilities when using archives as source material. However, more needs to be done to encourage this kind of work. I’ve heard multiple times in different meetings and across different institutions, the desire for online collections to be used creatively. However, any real action to engage artists is small and does not reflect the vast size and accessibility that digitisation provides.

One important aspect is making the interface of collections online more accessible for those with something more creative in mind. The Flickr accounts of archives and libraries, including the National Archives and the British Library, are the easiest to use for this kind of work. The focus is on the visual with a simple tile layout of hundreds of images on each page. Once you click on an individual image it’s easy to see the copyright status. Of course, this interface doesn’t suit everything on these accounts. Any digitised documents often get lost in the stream and it would obviously fail to impress academics or researchers if archives were presented in this way. However, it does suggest the importance of making an ‘image only’ viewing option available. In addition, funded off-site residencies, teaching resources for art teachers and documenting and publicising creative uses of online collections through blog posts and social media platforms are all examples of how to better engage the creative community.

Links to online collections:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_archives_of_estonia

https://www.flickr.com/photos/statensarkiver/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_archives_of_norway/

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!?showOnly=openAccess&offset=220&pageSize=0&sortOrder=asc&perPage=20&searchField=All

https://www.loc.gov/free-to-use/

https://collections.lacma.org/search/site?page=23&f%5B0%5D=bm_field_has_unrestricted_image%3Atrue

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasacommons/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/graduateinstitute_library/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cabhc/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives

https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/

Guide to Creative Commons Licenses

https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/licensing-examples/

Alternative Angles: Considering different approaches to 2D digitisation

Working in digitisation as an Imaging Technician at the British Library, I know the digitisation process is typically a standardised and uniformed procedure. Metamorfoze, the National Programme for the Preservation of Paper Heritage in the Netherlands, provides a set of standards and guidelines to adhere to when digitising. Aspects of the guidelines include colour accuracy, exposure and white balance. All images must be checked against the guidelines’ criteria in order to be classed as what Metamorfoze defines as a ‘digital copy’. The aim is to ensure reliable images are produced during the process.

It is incredibly important for heritage organisations to comply with these standardised criteria. Digitisation is now a huge part of the heritage sector and its core ethos of making a digital copy of a physical item is dependent on the same criteria being met across the sector. Deviation from these criteria runs the risk of unreliable representations and defeats the purpose of digitally preserving archives. 

All of these requirements are an essential part of my role in the sector. Various techniques, some more obvious than others, are used. Working with the blinds down to control the light and regular equipment tests, such as sensor tests, are some of the more routine requirements. Selecting the correct piece of equipment for each item you are digitising is also essential. This can be dependent on whether the item is made up of loose-leaf or bound material, how wide a bound item can be opened and what condition the item is in.

It can also involve using unusual pieces of equipment. I have used scanners with curious names such as the ‘Dragon‘ and ‘Cobra.’ I use münchener bücherfingers, or ‘Munich fingers’, to hold down pages where the normal glass plate I use would be inappropriate. Dog grooming tables have proved to be incredibly useful for digitising too, with their ability to raise and lower the level of the table to suit each item. Foam blocks, weights and velcro straps can also be found in our digitisation studio.

While we make very mindful choices on how we digitise, we also consider carefully what we digitise as well. In trying to digitise the experience of looking at or reading an item, we photograph; the book bindings; the top, bottom and edge of books; and any blank pages. Anything that we find folded up, e.g. maps, is photographed both in its folded and unfolded state. 

The practises I have listed above are often routed in the assumption that the majority of people viewing the digital copy will want to read it or look at it from a 2D perspective. However, we should not assume all online users are academics. The experience of viewing any item from in an archive is a sensory encounter and there are many different facets to a collection that are often forgotten. While working in the heritage sector, items have interested me for very different reasons. These include the pastel colours of a series of governmental papers or the particular texture of certain documents. How do you digitise or record these aspects?

Let us look at texture in more detail. Could a description be created detailing its texture or could a photograph be used to show it off? Standard lighting set-ups prioritise capturing words and images clearly. But altering the lighting set-up allows us to capture the texture of the page. This is also the case for gold foil detail often found in manuscripts.  Standard lighting set-ups can fail to capture it, presenting it as murky and brown instead. But altering the position of the lights and camera can bring this detail to life. This sensitive, multi-faceted approach to digitising can reveal aspects of the item that would be very noticeable to the user if they were holding it in real life.

A more unusual example is Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. Although paintings are 3D objects, they are digitised in a way that represents them in a 2D form.  An important feature of ‘The Ambassadors’ is the anamorphic skull. When you first look at it, the skull appears as a strange and abstract grey shape spread across the bottom of the canvas – it seems completely out of place until you step to the side of the frame. This intentionally distorted image is reliant on the ability of the perspective of the viewer to change, as the skull reveals itself when viewed from an oblique angle. How can you digitise this movement from straight-on to side-on, so that online users can experience the same process of realisation that the visitors to The National Gallery enjoy? To digitise this would require deviation from the way that paintings – or indeed any flat surface – are usually captured.

One organisation which has begun to explore this issue is the Science Museum Group. Their ‘One Collection’ project has seen vast amounts of their collections digitised. A quick browse of their collections website demonstrates that they are taking a more creative approach to digitisation. They have a huge variety of objects and documents, from thimbles to steam trains, which goes some way to explain the reasoning behind their process. However, some of their 2D items have been photographed in a similar way to their objects and they address some of the issues I have discussed above. One criticism is that, as shown in the examples below, the capture of the physicality of the documents has been prioritised over their readability. Therefore, it is arguable as to what extent they are ‘digital copies’.  Yet, they do provide a range of examples of images that could be captured and included alongside digital copies to fully represent a 2D item.

This image from the Geoffrey Perry archive provides a better idea of how disparate items interact with each other within the same collection. Such ‘group’ images appear frequently on the Science Museum Group collections website. They provide useful information about the physical aspects of a group of documents whilst also displaying visually interesting information about how colours and graphic design interact within one archive. 

Image by Science Museum Group (unaltered)

Returning to our example of texture, the documents here have been laid out in a way that gives information on the texture and transparency of the paper. In comparison, the photographs of building plans shown below have completely rejected the standard digitisation procedure, prioritising the communication of detail and the delicate nature of the larger documents over their legibility.

In conclusion, although digital copies of 2D works usually consist of one or two images, a sensitive approach to digitisation can provide a more realistic digital representation of documents, maps, photographs and artwork. The inclusion of additional images that show other aspects or details of the item, such as its texture, can ensure that the digital form truly reflects the original object. This, in turn, leads to a more engaging and interesting experience for online users.

RESOURCES

https://www.metamorfoze.nl/english/digitization

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors

https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories

https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/documents/aa110092112/lnwr-liverpool-road-station-manchester

https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/documents/aa110099120/drawings-and-technical-information-produced-by-w-f-stanley-and-co-ltd

https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/documents/aa110093443/geoffrey-perry-archive-relating-to-operation-of-the-kettering-group

COPYRIGHT

Images by Science Museum Group, copyright in  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Museum 2.0: The Last American Pirate

During the Long Depression of the 1870s, a man named Edward Owens took up piracy in Chesapeake Bay. He had run out of money, his work as an oyster fisherman no longer able to support him. Born in Virginia in 1853, he chose Watt’s Island as the location for his new profession after hearing about its past of harbouring pirates. Thanks to research by student Jane Browning, Owens subsequently became known as the last American pirate. Posting her research on a blog of the same name, it was described as an ‘example of the power of these tools for an individual to track and frame their own educational experience’ and was reported on media outlets including USAToday.com. On Browning’s blog, you can view photographs of items from archives including Owens’ will and follow links to watch a Youtube video of her visiting his abandoned home and gravesite.

Except Edward Owens never existed. The whole thing was a hoax created by a group of students at George Mason University. The brainchild of Professor Mills Kelly in the Department of History and Art History, Kelly taught the students a course titled Lying about the Past in 2008. The syllabus stated ‘we’ll make up our own hoax and turn it loose on the Internet to see if we can fool anyone.’ Through creating and learning about historical hoaxes, Kelly’s aim was for his students to become ‘better consumers of historical information’, making sure they were acquired with the tools to think critically about sources they came across in their research.

The classes’ result was successfully deceptive and only revealed as a hoax once media outlets began reporting it as factual.  The smoke screen of authenticity was propped up by bad quality photos down to ‘kind of old’ digital cameras and convenient claims of broken photocopy machines with transcripts for substitutes. In some cases, documents from archives were merely set in a new context within Owens’ narrative, masquerading as evidence to back up the story.

The advent of digital technology has allowed increased access to archives, most notably through digitisation projects. Having downloadable images means people can take them, put them in another context or alter them altogether. Old images can become something new and new images can be made to look old and be mistaken for the real thing.

Artist Joan Fontcuberta has explored this throughout his work, challenging ‘disciplines that claim authority to represent the real – botany, topology, any scientific discourse, the media, even religion.In his Stranger than Fiction exhibition in 2014 at the Science Museum, his ‘Fauna’ series was presented as a replica natural history exhibition. Purported to be the long-lost archives of German zoologist Dr. Peter Ameisenhaufen, it included photographs, x-rays and taxidermy. None of the animals existed. Each specimen was an amalgamation of different species and had been given a ‘scientific’ name. These included a winged monkey called a ‘Cercopithecus Icarocornu’ and a snake with legs named ‘Solenoglypha polipodida’.  Visitors were never warned it was a fabrication.

The result is a disorientated audience. The exhibition glaringly lies to our faces in a place we freely reward with implicit trust. Despite our better judgement, doubt creeps in. Could this be real? In a setting like this it can become worryingly convincing. When the same work was shown at the Barcelona Museum of Natural Science in 1989, 30% of university-educated visitors aged 20 to 30 believed some of the animals could have existed. In the same Museum, Fontcuberta recalls seeing a father slap his child on the back of the head for saying the exhibits were fake. The father’s reasoning? The exhibits were in a museum therefore they must be real. ‘It was interesting to me that the child wasn’t educated in the truth of the museum; he wasn’t perverted by culture. This is a very important political concern.’

Throughout his work, Fontcuberta makes the point that although the amount of pictures we take has increased, it has failed to improve how well we read and perceive images and their context. Having worked as a retoucher I know that everything from models, food, cars and furniture are doctored.  With 68% of adults admiting to editing their images before they post them online, altered images are becoming the new normal. What does this mean for digital images of factual and historical documents, objects and art works on the web?

Fontcuberta’s work along with that of the students from George Mason University raises difficult but important questions. When work like this appears, we find it both humorous and horrifying. Throughout our lives we are ‘educated in the truth of the museum’ and persuaded that if it’s been photographed then it exists. The work I’ve referenced here forces us to question this and contemplate the more sinister possibilities. Fontcuberta’s aim is just this and considers his work a ‘vaccine’. ‘My mission is to warn people about the possibility that photography might be doctored and show why people need to be sceptical of images that influence our behaviour and our way of thinking.’ No matter your reaction, they expose weaknesses in ourselves and in the platforms, organisations and projects these images and information are made available from.

How, as online collections continue to increase in size, can museums and archives assure that images of collection items remain uncompromised? Strict digitisation standards and an ethos of capturing everything ‘as is’ contradicts the trend for filters people are applying to their own images. Should we be educating and encouraging people to respect the standards we work to when sharing images online? Online collection use and social media engagement are becoming increasingly relevant to a museum’s or archive’s success. Developing user activity online inevitably means relinquishing some control and allows inventive and brilliant repurposing of archives and museum collections. However, it will become increasingly important to find a balance so that the facts remain clear and digitised items avoid being corrupted while they move through the web.

 

Sources:

http://lastamericanpirate.net/

https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/joan-fontcuberta-stranger-fiction

https://www.fontcuberta.com/

http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/joan-fontcuberta

Header image:

Historical maps of Hormúz Island, British Library: Map Collections, IOR/X/3127, in Qatar Digital Library <https://www.qdl.qa/archive/81055/vdc_100000006836.0x000001>.