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RCA Researchers Put Chronographics on the Scholarly Map

Researchers at the RCA are exploring chronographics – visual, spatial presentations of data through historical time – focusing on how these can be designed to address a pressing problem facing cultural institutions in the digital age, through the visualisation of data.

These repositories of our cultural heritage – museums, galleries, archives and libraries – find themselves suffering from a glut of digital data. The Wellcome Library has tens of thousands of digitised books, archives, manuscripts, film and sound, paintings, posters and other objects. The National Archives has 20 million records in its online catalogue. The Tate has put data for around 70,000 artworks in the public domain, while Cambridge University has put online 63,697 images specifically from the Board of Longitude.

As they digitise their collections, turning objects, images and texts into millions of computer-based records, how can museums and archives understand what is in their own collections? And how can they interpret these insights for the public and share them with other historians and researchers? The answer could be well-designed chronographics, such as timelines.

Professor Stephen Boyd Davis is supervising three PhD studentships, funded by EPSRC and AHRC, all of which point towards more sophisticated historical, cultural visualisations, which allow doubt, controversy, arguments and interpretations to be represented alongside apparent ‘facts’.

Doctoral candidate Florian Kräutli (who was awarded his PhD in April 2016), has a background in industrial design and cognitive computing. Funded by EPSRC and System Simulation, he is working with a range of museums and organisations on digital interactive timelines that interrogate the past. His visualisation Britten's Words was exhibited at the Red House Aldeburgh in 2015. Together with curators and archivists at the Courtauld Institute, Britten-Pears Foundation, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, London Transport Museum and other organisations, his work demonstrates just how much chronographics reveal about the past culture and collecting practices of institutions. 

Even something as simple and fundamental as the date of museum objects proves to be subtle and contentious: objects rarely have dates that are certain, and each object represents a sequence of dates both before its nominal date of its creation and afterwards. As David Rooney, Curator of Time, Navigation and Transport at London’s Science Museum puts it, ‘There are two concealments that museums have practised. One is, the concealment of uncertainties. The second is the concealment of the long lives of things... Historians have only been interested in invention – the moment of genesis. By saying, for example, “Stephenson’s Rocket is 1829” we try to conceal everything since 1829 down to the present.’

Sam Cottrell, a second-year PhD candidate, has a background in geoscience and software development and is funded by AHRC through a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership with The National Archives. His work focuses on visualising doubt, ambiguity and error in archive material. It meshes with the Archives’ work on Traces through Time, a computer science project to calculate the probability that similar names in two different archives refer to the same person or entity. Sam’s work is to make such probabilities visible and accessible. Dr Sonia Ranade of the Archives explains, 'For the new user, it can be very daunting to dive into an archival collection. Up until recently, archives have been seen as individual documents and words, and – as we’ve worked on digitisation – it has gradually dawned that they are not just documents, they are data and datasets, and they can be examined in very different ways. Data lends itself to interrogation in a way documents don’t, and so we see visualisation as a route to enabling users to step back and look at what a collection can tell you.’

Olivia Vane, the newest PhD candidate on the project, has a background in the history of science, and graphic design including web design and programming. She is funded through the AHRC LDoc consortium and is working closely with external partners at the British Library, Science Museum and Wellcome Library. Her work revisits a neglected area of visualisation – telling visual stories through data – and will prioritise conflicting narratives. She hopes to work soon on the Science Museum’s Babbage Archive. Babbage was a notoriously controversial character in his lifetime (1791–1871), and his pivotal role in the early history of computing makes him an apposite choice to explore through advanced computer-based visualisation.  

Professor Boyd Davis’s contribution focuses on the analysis of past chronographics primarily from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This involves not only looking at the original designs, but finding – and in some cases translating for the first time – the explanations and justifications written by their authors.

Publications from the project include journal articles in Visible Language, TextImage, and Design Issues, book chapters for Springer, Intellect, Gower, and Pickering and Chatto, conference papers for Scientiae, Computer Graphics & Visual Computing, Electronic Visualisation and the Arts, European Social Science History Conference, Computers and the History of Art, and invited talks for Université de Bourgogne, Information Design Association, Antiquarian Horological Society, and the ICA. Forthcoming invited talks will take place at the Institute for Historical Research and the Science Museum.  

Explore a selection of research outputs related to chronographics in the RCA online Research Repository.