Digital Humanities and the History of Emotions

by Alicia Marchant, The University of Western Australia

Searchinge out a holiday gifte for yower academic frendes? Thei maye enjoye a definicioun of the digital humanities.

(Chaucer Doth Tweet[1])

Digital Humanities is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of scholarly research, practices and pedagogies where the digital is paired with the study of human societies, languages and culture to advance new ways of thinking. The last ten years have seen a surge of scholarly interest in the digital humanities; this surge reflects the dynamic contribution digital tools play in research and teaching, particularly the ways in which sources are searched for and accessed, curated and organised. Digital humanities has developed as a discipline of study in its own right, examining the social and cultural processes involved in digitisation and the creation of digital worlds, together with analysis of digital cultures and designs, their wider implications, uses and issues.

Given the importance of the digital humanities, it was fitting for a postgraduate and early career workshop to be held in conjunction with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) Third International Conference, ‘The Future of Emotions: Conversations Without Borders’ at The University of Western Australia (UWA) in June 2018. The workshop was sponsored by a UWA Learning and Teaching Performance Initiative Grant awarded to the late Professor Philippa Maddern, and the UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Building upon discussion at the conference, the workshop focused on the crucial question: What new research trajectories do the digital humanities bring to, and open up for, the study of the history of emotions?  The workshop showcased four projects: ‘Spatial Humanities and Mapping’ (Dr James L. Smith, Trinity College Dublin); ‘The Use of Computer Science and Technology to Better Understand Medieval Scribal Practices’ (Dr Deborah Thorpe, Trinity College Dublin and Professor Stephen Smith, University of York); ‘3D Imaging and Visualisation Technology and its Wider Applications (Dr Jane-Héloïse Nancarrow, UWA); and ‘Digital Computer Games as an Educational Resource’ (Dr Carly Osborn, The University of Adelaide). Each project leader provided practical and theoretical advice on topics such as digital project management; developing cross-disciplinary partnerships; funding sources; and managing community engagement, outreach and education.  Critically, the project leaders provided hands-on demonstrations of techniques, strategies and best practice regarding the software programs, applications and resources that can be used.

Drawing on his experience of using spatial technologies, James Smith described a range of mapping and geographic information system (GIS) programs, demonstrating their uses and various attributes and value for mapping narratives and data sets.  James challenged the primacy of ArcGIS as the preferred mapping tool of choice, proposing alternative software such as Google Maps, ArcGIS Storymaps, Storymap JS and Neatline (among others), which are often more appropriate for the humanist. Each program varies in presentation and analytical components, and deciding which to use depends on whether you want to create a database or collection, make a visual resource, or fully integrate both text and map.

Ali blog James
James Smith presenting at the Digital Humanities Workshop

As analytical tools in the humanities, the applications can be used to plot historical data on maps to illustrate distribution, and have the potential to highlight space and place and temporality embedded within texts and narratives. For example, Storymap JS allows for the display of spatial movement alongside accompanying narrative, exemplified in Arya’s journey.  Here, the travels of the Game of Thrones character Arya Stark are plotted and located in order of her movements within a geographical setting, locating Arya’s life and experiences within place. These resources highlight the spatial-temporal structuring of various narratives, some of which are apparent as in travel diaries like A Sentimental Journey on Neatline, and can be used to great effect to document an individual’s role in particular historical events, such as the Battle of Chancellorsville during the American Civil War (1863).

Increasingly, mapping and spatial programs are being used by collecting institutions such as museums and heritage sites for online curation and community engagement and outreach. The Library of Congress has used Esri (compatible with ArcGIS datasets) to document the history of printing in Western Europe, and in so doing places their massive incunabula collection within a broad timeline of historical context and geographies.  As a tool for galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM), these resources provide a rich level of interpretation that reconnects the artefact with its place and histories. Digital applications have the potential to tell the story of collecting and of the collecting institution or heritage site.

The increasingly important role of the digital and virtual in heritage and GLAM circles was evident in Jane-Héloïse Nancarrow’s discussion of the current uses and future trajectories of 3D reconstruction and visualisation. Jane-Héloïse showed heritage sites that have been documented using different digital imaging techniques such as laser scanning, aerial photogrammetry (using a drone), and stereoscopic panoramic photography. The models included the long-ruined Vindolanda Excavation on Hadrian’s Wall; and sites that are currently threatened or fragile, such as Chauvet Pont D’Arc, which has been digitally captured for the purposes of documentation and preservation. She also showed several heritage sites that had been digitally reconstructed using CGI imaging, such as York’s Micklegate Priory, to allow for a range of virtual experiences of the site.

Jane-Héloïse described the processes used to capture and create the models, then provided participants with a hands-on demonstration using photogrammetric imaging technology to create virtual 3D objects. Taking the example of a medieval charter seal held in the UWA Library’s Special Collections we constructed our own 3D virtual seal, and were shown the equipment, photographic techniques and the process of cleaning up the images,  finally uploading the end result to digital repositories such as Sketchfab where it can be viewed or 3D printed.

3D Image of the Medieval Charter Seal, created by Jane-Héloïse Nancarrow.

Jane-Héloïse’s skills in photogrammetric imaging technology have been developed in recent years through work on her CHE project ‘Emotions3D’ in which she collaborated with museums in the United Kingdom to produce three-dimensional digital reproductions of various artefacts, including a puzzle jug from the St Bartholomew Hospital Museum and Archive, and the world’s oldest football held at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. While the benefits of this technology for collecting institutions are evident as a way of documenting fragile and threatened materials and artefacts, and in enhancing interpretation and accessibility, Jane-Héloïse’s collection provides a critical demonstration of the ways in which digital approaches can open up new research trajectories in the history of emotions. This is not just about documenting the physical attributes of the objects such as the spots of wear and tear, but also considers the emotional resonance and affective layering that has shaped the object and its uses, and that highlights the framework of value that forged its position within a collecting institution.

How do you create a virtual world that captures a moment in history with a high level of accuracy, and a history of emotions theoretical framework embedded within? This question was at the core of Carly Osborn’s discussion of the complex series of processes involved in the creation of the video game The Vault. The game was created with the primary purpose of education and engagement to highlight the place of emotions in history. Created through a partnership between CHE, the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London and Monkeystack, The Vault constructs a meaningful world in which the participant locates a series of clues and puzzles that reveal narratives about emotions. Carly’s discussion included the negotiation and project management required to maintain a project with partners who have a range of desired outcomes, including commercial success and the need to produce a unique product that speaks to the gaming community. Carly described discussions that occurred about how tears, sadness and grief could be portrayed within a video-game framework, without compromising the history of emotions methodology that underpinned the whole design.

Scene from The Vault © Monkeystack

Immersion and experience of the virtual was a theme that recurred throughout the workshop: from The Vault’s immersion of players in a meaningful world that they can explore and learn from, to Emotions 3D’s capturing of an artefact that can be turned upside down and examined through digital means. The last of the four projects considered the ways in which technology can capture an experience and re-create a moment. In an extraordinary cross-disciplinary project, Deborah Thorpe – a specialist in medieval literature and scribal practices – has teamed up with Stephen Smith – an electronic engineer who specialises in medical technologies and diagnosis – to ask: How can you capture the moment in which a medieval scribe is writing? The main subject of their collaboration is an analysis of the work of the ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’, a thirteenth-century scribe who produced work with a pronounced shake to his letter formation, to examine how digital technologies can capture the scribe’s writing technique, measure the frequency of the shake, and diagnose its possible neurological cause, possibly Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor. The result is the development of a tremor simulator using a high-tech quill that measures frequency of the tremor. Participants at the workshop were able to explore the technology and watch a demonstration in real time. Given that Parkinson’s disease remains notoriously difficult to diagnose, the project has made a significant contribution to modern medical research where their work has informed new diagnostic models.

Debs Thorpe and Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith and Deborah Thorpe working on their documentary ‘Tremulous Hands: Handwriting and Neurological Disorders, Modern and Medieval

While the study of the history of emotions is innately cross-disciplinary, the digital humanities workshop showcased projects that were exceptional in the extent to which new trajectories are being sought and developed. The degree to which digital humanities tools and frameworks can be utilised for the purposes of education and public engagement with world-wide impact was evident, as was the possibility of using such resources, as the four projects have done, to highlight the importance of emotions in the past and today, and into the future.

Alicia Marchant is the Project Officer (Heritage) for the ‘Rivers of Emotion’ project with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100–1800 (CHE) at The University of Western Australia (UWA), and the recipient of a CHE Project-to-Publication Fellowship. She completed her PhD in Medieval and Early Modern History at UWA in 2012, where she examined depictions of rebellion in English chronicle narratives written between 1400 and 1580. Her current research focuses on the history of emotions, heritage, materiality and dark tourism. Alicia is the co-convenor of the ‘Affect, Performance and Immersion in Cultural Heritage’ Research Cluster, and has been an Associate Investigator with CHE in 2013, 2014 and 2016. She has published widely, and has an edited collection, Historicising Heritage and Emotions: The Affective Histories of Blood, Stone and Land, that will appear with Routledge in 2018.

[1] Chaucer doth Tweet (@LeVostreGC), 8 December 2012

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