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Chronographic Collaborations

Funded by: EPSRC, AHRC 

Principal Investigator: Professor Stephen Boyd Davis  

Collaborators: Britten-Pears Foundation, Wellcome Library, The National Archives, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

What can visualisation do for cultural and heritage collections?  Key factors are value and trust.  

In a series of collaborations with museums and archives large and small, this research is exploring how chronographics – the visualisation of data over time – can make a real difference to the capabilities of curators, historians, archivists, and others who need to ‘make sense’ of historical data. Some of the work has also benefitted the general public through its use in exhibitions and on the web.

The British Museum now has over 2 million digital records, of which roughly half have one or more images; new images are being added at a rate of about 2,000 per week. Europeana, the EU digital platform for cultural heritage, currently offers over 53 million items aggregated from over 3,200 European institutions. 

To get value from this data, we need to find ways to make sense of it. RCA research students Florian Kräutli (now at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), Sam Cottrell and Olivia Vane have been using visualisation to explore a range of questions: what are the connections between items in a composer’s oeuvre, what uses are made of museum objects, what kinds of designs have been registered in which places, what were the key issues for medical officers of health in their annual reports, what happens if we ignore traditional catalogue structures and visualise cross-cutting similarities between objects in a design museum? A key principle is to work iteratively with the experts, showing them what is possible and learning from their questions.

It is essential also to create visualisations that can be trusted.  This has involved the researchers looking at the kinds of uncertainty with which historical data is riddled – doubt, controversy, error, incompleteness, vagueness – and remembering that much of history is not facts but interpretation.

Find Out More

RCA Researchers Put Chronographics on the Scholarly Map (news article)