Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Crowd Sourcing Research...

The advent of digital collections online from museums has sped up the pace of material culture research immensely.  Case in point, weeks ago I was working on a piece and was confounded by something in the research photographs I was looking at regarding needlelace on 17th century samplers.  In the space of three hours, I had searched for samplers of the same type on dozens of museum websites and downloaded photos into an archive on my computer while perusing them.  After this I was able to make several generalizations about the techniques used and solve the problem I was working on.  All without leaving my living room.

If I have a hypothesis, it can sometimes only take a few hours to locate over a hundred examples and generalize.  Pintrest is great as it can help search out some of the more obscure examples that others have crowd sourced into one spot.  Our NING site has helped this internally with the Cabinet of Curiosities course, hundreds of students interested in the same thing all applying their knowledge in one place; including the existence of items they know about or in some cases, quickly translating sections of papers or text in foreign language that some of us can't read.  It has been amazing.

So it was with real interest that I read this BBC article about a study regarding the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's warship that was raised.  Among the interesting things they are doing in the newly opened museum is digitizing certain remains.  In this case the skulls of the dead sailors.  This data would normally be hoarded inside the museum or universities as part of a graduate student's thesis.  Instead, they are putting it all up online in a way that will allow others to take measurements off the skulls and   do their own research.

They are calling this digital archeology, the use of scans of the objects instead of the objects themselves for the examination.  There are many subjects, such as the iceman, where direct measurement puts the subject at risk, and techniques such as this could be highly useful to researchers .  But what is not known is whether the direct contact with the subject provides additional information that informs the conclusion.  What this study is aiming to do is compare the assessment of those who use the digital information to those assessments of researchers working with the skulls in person to see how well correlated the conclusions are.  I find this really interesting!  Certainly I have always found that depth perception in photographs is lacking and so I always want to also see an object.  Scale is another thing that is so hard to represent even when a scale bar is on the photo.

Perhaps we should consider stereo-photography for our stumpwork.  Or VR imaging.  One of the kids on our robot team has a Virtual Reality system he got this summer and has been 'living' in that world all summer.  We were laughing at the table this week about how we needed to mount two webcams on our telepresence robot (a hacked Roomba) and have him code up a way for the images to be sent to his VR goggles and he could drive around the robot room in our house from his bedroom, sending changes to the competition robot and running it - watching the results on his VR as if he was in the room.  (Yes, the conversations at the dinner table are kinda weird sometimes).  What if we could somehow examine pieces of complex 3-D embroidery with one of these new technique - brining the in-person experience to more people who can't gain access or afford to travel.  And what else would be learned?

Digital Archeology.  It is kinda funny to think about that term as there has been a mini-wave of publicity of what I do here in Boston after an article ran in the Boston Globe (I will post soon).  So at many gatherings the subject has come up.  One person quipped that the best way to describe me was "The Indiana Jones of Textiles".

I am not sure at times which part of that is more apt.  The disheveled look?  The fact I wore a fedora for years while I was young?  Using non-traditional techniques to do experimental archeology?  But I think that the visual of Indy being chased by the ball might be the most resonate.  Sometimes I feel that way - that everything is getting big and out of control and I have to be on the run to stay ahead of it all.  :-)

Can't wait for the results of this study on the Mary Rose skulls.  Innovative thinking like this is great!


  1. LOVE the image of you running ahead of that big ball in your Fedora. The only thing is I don't remember you ever using a whip?

  2. Alice in Wonderland had a similar problem - she had to run as fast as she could just to keep up. To get ahead she had to run faster...

  3. If you're interested, here's an article on digital archaeology and how it's being used in the former Roman empire: