A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

Category: audiences

Digital Engagement with Irish Artists

This term, as part of the MA program, I am completing a practicum with IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The practicum provides me with hands-on, real-world experience working on a digital humanities project and helps the host institution find solutions to a unique problem or challenge.  

Introduction to IMMA

IMMA English logoIMMA – the Irish Museum of Modern Art – is Ireland’s premier modern art institution, and is home to the nation’s collection of modern and contemporary art. Established by the government of Ireland in 1990, IMMA opened in 1991 and, since then, has featured a dynamic and evolving series of exhibitions, events, and programs, which are designed to engage the general public with the museum’s collections while supporting and promoting Irish artists.

IMMA’s emphasis on creating an enjoyable visitor-centric experience for museum guests has led to such initiatives as its award-winning Education and Community Program, the Artists Residency Program, and regularly scheduled talks, lectures and events. Through these offerings, IMMA strives to provide innovative and inclusive opportunities for a variety of audiences, including the more than 400,000 annual visitors from Ireland and abroad.

Practicum Goals

The practicum with IMMA is titled Bringing Irish Artists Closer at IMMA and is primarily focused on connecting and engaging museum visitors with a specific Irish artist and her body of work through a digital resource. In April, IMMA will open a new retrospective exhibition featuring the work of Gerda Frömel, an artist who was well-regarded during her lifetime and who first exhibited in Ireland in 1957. The digital resource will be designed both to complement the Frömel exhibition as a mobile-responsive website and serve as a template for future exhibitions in IMMA’s Modern Masters series. In addition to increasing overall awareness of IMMA and of Gerda Frömel, the practicum will seek to position IMMA as the primary source of information for contemporary Irish artists.

Challenge: The User Experience

There are a number of challenges – and opportunities – associated with this practicum, but one key issue revolves around understanding the user’s experience of exhibition, the digital resource and the combination of the two. Traditionally, a visit to an art museum might involve a visitor giving his or her near-complete attention to the art or exhibition itself. In some cases, there might be a tour, led by museum staff. In these cases, the experience is primarily analogue, with no digital component.

Tate Modern Art App

Tate Modern’s Art Terms App

With the rise in mobile applications designed specifically for museums, however, visitors may now divide their attention between the art and a smartphone or hand-held device. They may Google a phrase or name that might be unfamiliar, upload photos to a social media website or “check in” via a geolocation app. As a result, museums (including IMMA) must determine how to balance the benefits of a digital, mobile resource with the decidedly un-digital experience of viewing art.

During the nascent years of mobile museum applications, many institutions created multimedia guides for exhibitions and collections that were based, in part, on the traditional docent-led tours of gallery. In a 2009 paper for the Museums and the Web conference, Koven Smith of the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out that multimedia and/or digital “tours” with “stops” often do not take the specific user experience into account, thus limiting the usefulness of a mobile, digital resource. According to Smith, only a small percentage of museum visitors still want the “led-by-the-hand” approach. Rather, he says, “museums [must] now encourage users to self-curate.”

A mobile app or other digital resource for a museum exhibition or collection needs to be flexible enough to provide a user with choices that lets him or her drive the experience. This may mean incorporating content that can and should be viewed (or read or seen) while the visitor is at the museum, and it may also mean specifically including content intended to be accessed via the Internet before or after visiting the museum. The digital resource for the Frömel exhibition, for example, will be built as a website, but will also be accessible on and responsive to mobile devices. This decision was made deliberately, as it offers a range of possibilities for IMMA visitors in choosing how, when and where they experience the complementary information. The website option also allows IMMA to use the Frömel exhibition and digital resource as a test for future exhibitions, helping museum staff discover the format that best suits IMMA’s visitors.

Of course, the user experience incorporates more than simply how and when a visitor will use a specific mobile app or a website. The specific nature of the museum, the widespread use (or lack thereof) of mobile devices and user demographics will all influence a visitor’s experience. In working to build a digital resource for IMMA, the Bringing Irish Artists Closer practicum will explore best practices from other museums and cultural heritage institutions, while also analyzing specific data about IMMA’s audiences and visitors to present a whole and complete understanding of how best to engage art lovers and art newcomers alike with the work of Gerda Frömel.

Reimagining the Audience for Digital Scholarly Editions

According to the Modern Language Association’s Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions, a scholarly edition’s most basic task is to “present a reliable text,” one that can also contribute to academic research on a particular topic. Traditionally, scholarly editions have had fairly limited audiences, the final printed version intended primarily for other scholars conducting similar research. With the dawn of the digital age, however, the creation of digital scholarly editions is changing the nature of the audience for these works. The availability of scholarly editions online and the use of crowdsourcing to help create these editions are just two ways the digital world is blurring the lines between the traditional academic audience and a much larger, more public audience.

In 2009, at the Association for Documentary Editing Annual Conference, Andrew Jewell presented a presented a paper that explored new ideas around the reading of digital scholarly editions. According to Jewell, “the dominant model for distributing [scholarly] editions in the age of print [was] to sell large volumes at large prices” (1). But the advent of digital publication on the Internet has upended this model by amplifying the reach of a scholarly edition. Where they once would have been available only to a narrowly focused audience, many scholarly editions in digital form can now be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection.

A general audience, however, has different needs than a scholarly one, and may even approach the edition with different intentions. In fact, many casual readers of a scholarly edition may not have even specifically sought out the resource, but rather stumbled across it accidentally. Jewell offers the example of his own Willa Cather Archive, noting that a reader may find the archive “because search engines lead them to hidden bits of knowledge deep in the site” (3). A wider, more diverse audience for a scholarly edition also means the text and content will be consumed in new ways. A printed scholarly edition may follow a traditional, linear format; in a digital world, readers skim, search, scan and skip over parts that may not interest them.

Moreover, readers can access digital editions through any number of Internet browsers, mobile devices or tablets. Each option changes the experience of the edition in subtle ways, even when the content available remains the same. As Jewell correctly points out, “we cannot fully predict how readers will interact with digital publications…[and] we cannot expect every view of that website to be the same for each user” (6). The very nature of the Internet means each visit to a digital edition website will result in a different kind of engagement with the text, with the idea of “the audience” changing each time as well.

The evolving nature of a digital scholarly edition’s audience is not limited to reading and accessing information, though. Some scholarly editions are blurring the boundaries even further by actively involving the audience in the creation of the text itself. In 2010, Cathy Moran Hajo, Associate Editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers, wrote, “Web 2.0 tools are increasing in sophistication and enabling large amounts of people from all walks of life to participate in the creation of editions.” Hajo was, in effect, referring to crowdsourcing and in the years since, an increasing number of cultural and academic institutions have turned to crowdsourcing to complement and contribute to existing projects.

Crowdsourcing in the humanities (or, indeed, in Digital Humanities) aims, in part, to “expand the scope of the community membership beyond academics, and into the interested and engaged general public” (Siemens, et al.). Crowdsourced projects specifically reach out to the audience and invite them into the scholarly editing process, by having them either enrich existing materials or help create an entirely new resource (Carletti et al). In doing so, these projects are not simply looking for free labor, but instead, according to Carletti et al., are “collaborating with their public to augment or build digital assets through the aggregation of dispersed resources.”

Transcribe Bentham, one example of a crowdsourced scholarly edition project, has relied on volunteers to help transcribe thousands of manuscripts from philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The rationale behind opening up this project and scholarly edition to the larger public was due partly because the initiative hoped to “democratize the creation of, and access to, knowledge and humanities research” (Causer and Terras). Beyond opening access to the research, however, crowdsourcing connects passionate, interested individuals with these scholarly projects. The vast majority of crowdsourcing volunteers are not rewarded monetarily, and so many participate simply because they have a deep, personal interest in the subject. And as Ricc Ferrante, Director of Digital Services & Information at the Smithsonian Institution Archives points out, “passion breeds evangelists, breeds new volunteers, and new discoveries,” all of which can, in turn, lead to new knowledge.

There are some who may question the value of an open-access, online digital edition or the use of crowdsourcing to create such an edition. These individuals may maintain that scholarly editions should remain in the realm of the scholar. Ultimately, though, the blurred audience lines can be considered a good thing, as it expands the reach of a particular subject and opens up the humanities to new understandings. For Jewell:

“The defining feature of the broader audience that encounters free, online documentary editions is diversity: it comes from around the world, from a variety of perspectives and educational levels, and with a variety of goals.”

With more diversity comes more readers, more perspectives, and more people discovering new content that they may not have before encountered. Digital tools and technologies create a larger audience for scholarly editions, providing an enriched, varied and dynamic way of accessing and experiencing humanities data. The challenge, then, for scholarly editors, is to “move beyond the ivory towers of research libraries to high schools, town libraries and even to the comfort of private homes” (Hajo). By extending the reach of a digital scholarly edition and blurring the line between a traditional audience and a more expansive one, researchers and editors can ensure that their work is truly open and accessible.


Works Cited:

Carletti, Laura, Gabriella Giannachi, Dominic Price, and Derek McAuley. “Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration.” MW2012: Museums and the Web. 17-20 April 2013. Portland, OR. Paper. Web. 2 December 2014.

Causer, Tim and Melissa Terras. “’Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’: Transcribe Bentham and crowdsourcing manuscript collections.Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage. Ed. Mia Ridge. Ashgate, 2014. 57-88. Web. 2 December 2014.

Ferrante, Ricc (@raferrante). “@McMer314 @sandilo60 @phcostel #askletters1916 …and passion breeds evangelists, breeds new volunteers, and new discoveries = new knowledge.” 2 December 2014, 1:08 PM. Tweet.

Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions.Modern Language Association. MLA, 2011. Web. 2 December 2014.

Hajo, Cathy Moran. “The Sustainability of the Scholarly Edition in a Digital World.International Symposium on XML for the Long Haul: Issues in the Long-term Preservation of XML, 2010. Paper. Web. 2 December 2014.

Jewell, Andrew. “New Engagements with Documentary Editions: Audiences, Formats, Contexts.Library Conference Presentations and Speeches. The Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2009. Web. 30 November 2014.

Siemens, Ray, Meagan Timney, Cara Leitch, Corina Koolen, and Alex Garnett. “Toward modeling the social edition: An approach to understanding the electronic scholarly edition in the context of new and emerging social media.” Literary and Linguistic Computing. 27.4 (2012): 445-461. Web. 2 December 2014.

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