Thursday, 20 October 2016

Digital pilgrims and other communities

'A fascinating project-in-progress report last night from the Digital Pilgrim team of researchers based at the British Museum who are producing 3D digital models of a few of the 900+ pilgrim badges in the BM's collection. (The BM is making 2D images of most of the rest for its Collections Online database).

The models themselves are fantastic - just take a look here. They enable the viewer to get a much better sense of the object's tactility and its construction than would a 2D image.

The presenters reviewed some of the uses to which the resource could be put, and echoed the government's own Culture White Paper (2016, p.38) in suggesting 'the benefits of digitisation are obvious'.

Obvious? Well I beg to differ.

The benefits aren't obvious if they aren't specified. And the ethics behind this statement need more scrutiny. Making the collection available to more people than it is at present is surely a good thing: as the White Paper says, 'everyone should be able to enjoy the opportunities culture offers' (p.3), and if children can research Beckett badges and compare them with pop badges, then great: they couldn't have done it without digitisation. But we need to note that there are other kinds of access to these objects, eliciting richer insights and (more importantly) more durable patterns of learning.

I'm sure the Digital Pilgrim researchers will agree that making an appointment, meeting the curator, and putting on the white gloves is not only electrifying, it's also empowering. As Judy Willcocks, curator of collections at Central St Martins, recently said: 'As a rule, students seem to relish the idea of wearing gloves, as it reinforces the specialness of the interaction with collections and the respect that is invested in them as they are entrusted with rare and precious things' (in Chatterjee and Hannan, Engaging the Senses, 2015, p.49).

Educational writers have a name for this phenomenon, they call it (take a deep breath): 'legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice'. In other words, being entrusted with rare and special things is a sign that you're accepted, albeit as a beginner, into the community of glove-wearers. This is important because learning these skills is necessary if a student is going to make the subject - pilgrim badges, and art history more generally - their own; that is, to take charge of their own learning within it.

The key point here is that online access doesn't offer any means that I can see of acquiring these skills and making the subject your own. Can these 3D models, however good they are, succeed in replicating the structure of a real community built around the acquisition, development and sharing of skills? I can't see how they can. Neither, for that matter, can large catalogues raisonnes, another means of curating objects and making them available beyond their physical location, but no-one is claiming that their benefits are obvious in the way they do for digitisation projects. 

So as a lecturer I can show my students this resource, but I also need to seek ways of giving them the skills and insights to use new technologies appropriately; to see that learning about the objects shouldn't come at the expense of learning about how to learn.

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