THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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86 posts categorized "Humanities"

21 August 2019

Chevening British Library Fellowship working with Chinese historical texts

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Chevening is the UK government’s international awards programme aimed at developing global leaders. In 2015, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has partnered with the British Library to offer professionals two new fellowships every year. These fellowships are unique opportunities for one-year placements at the Library, working with exceptional collections under the Library’s custodianship. Past and present Chevening Fellows at the Library have focused on geographically diverse collections, from Latin America through Africa to South Asia, with different themes such as Nationalism, Independence, and Partition in South Asia, 1900-1950 and Big Data and Libraries.

We are thrilled to announce that one of the two placements available for the 2020/2021 academic year will focus on automating the recognition of historical Chinese handwritten texts. This is a special opportunity to work in the Library’s Digital Scholarship Department, and engage with unique historical collections digitised as part of the International Dunhuang Project and the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project. Focusing on material from Dunhuang (China), part of the Stein collection, this Fellowship will engage with new digital tools and techniques in order to explore possible solutions to automate the transcription of these handwritten texts.

Chinese Lotus Sutra scroll with Tibetan divination texts on the back (Shelfmark: Or.8210/S.155). Digitised as part of the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project.
Chinese Lotus Sutra scroll with Tibetan divination texts on the back (Shelfmark: Or.8210/S.155). Digitised as part of the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project.

 

The context for this fellowship is the Library’s efforts towards making its collection items available in machine-readable format, to enable full-text search and analysis. The Library has been digitising its collections at scale for over two decades, with digitisation opening up access to diversely rich collections. However, it’s important for us to further support discovery and digital research by unlocking the huge potential in automatically transcribing our collections. Until recently, Western language print collections have been the main focus, especially newspaper collections. A flagship collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute, a project called “Living with Machines,” is underway to apply Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to UK newspapers, design and implement new methods in data science and artificial intelligence, and analyse these materials at scale.

Taking a broader perspective on Library collections, we have started to explore opportunities with non-Latin collections too. Members of the Digital Scholarship team are engaging closely with the exploration of OCR and Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) systems for Bangla and Arabic. Digital Curators Tom Derrick, Nora McGregor and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert have teamed up with PRImA Research Lab and the Alan Turing Institute to ran four competitions in 2017-2019, inviting providers of text recognition methods to try them out on our historical material. Another initiative which Tom is engaged with is exploring Transkribus for Bengali printed texts. He trained Transkribus’ HTR+ recognition engine, which ended up transcribing this material at 94% character accuracy! Tom and Adi’s recent blog post in EuropeanaTech Insight (issue on OCR) summarises these initiatives.

Regions and text lines demarcated as ground truth for RASM2019 ICDAR2019 Competition on Recognition of Historical Arabic Scientific Manuscripts (Shelfmark: Add MS 7474). Digitised and available on Qatar Digital Library.
Regions and text lines demarcated as ground truth for RASM2019 ICDAR2019 Competition on Recognition of Historical Arabic Scientific Manuscripts (Shelfmark: Add MS 7474). Digitised and available on Qatar Digital Library.

 

The Chevening Fellow will contribute to our efforts to identify OCR/HTR systems that can tackle digitised historical collections. They will explore the current landscape of Chinese handwritten text recognition, look into methods, challenges, tools and software, use them to test our material, and demonstrate digital research opportunities arising from the availability of these texts in machine-readable format.

This fellowship programme will start in September 2020 for a 12-month period of project-based activity at the British Library. The successful candidate will receive support and supervision from Library staff, and will benefit from professional development opportunities, networking and stakeholder engagement, gaining access to a range of organisational training and development opportunities (such as the Digital Scholarship Training Programme), as well as staff-level access to unique British Library collections and research resources.

For more information and to apply, please visit the Chevening British Library Fellowship page: https://www.chevening.org/fellowship/british-library/, and the “Automating the recognition of historical Chinese handwritten texts” Fellow page: https://www.chevening.org/fellowship/british-library-chinese-handwritten-texts/.

Applications close at 12pm (GMT), 5 November 2019. Good luck!

 

This blog post is by Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator for Asian and African Collections, British Library. She's on Twitter as @BL_AdiKS.

20 August 2019

Reflections from the First Sub-Saharan African Workshop on Digital Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions

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Guest posting by Milena Dobreva-McPherson, Associate Professor Library and Information Studies UCL Qatar with contributions from Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA) and Fidelity Phiri, Visiting Researcher, UCL Qatar.

Recently UCL Qatar joined forces with the National Museums Board of Zambia to deliver a day-long workshop on Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum, Zambia. This workshop was the first of its kind in Sub Saharan Africa and was made possible with the support of the Africa and the Middle East Teaching Fund of the UCL Global Engagement Office. Initially planned for 15 professionals from the cultural heritage sector, it attracted 27 participants (see Fig. 1) coming from six towns located in four out of the ten provinces in Zambia (see map).

Fig. 1.  Participants by sector and gender in the First Sub Saharan Workshop on Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions in Zambia, 1‌ August 2019
Fig. 1.  Participants by sector and gender in the First Sub Saharan Workshop on Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions in Zambia, 1‌ August 2019

After two vibrant events about Digital Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage organisations, this was the first event bringing together a higher proportion of participants from museums and archives in addition to the libraries represented. The Building Library Labs event was the first of its kind ever held at the British Library in September 2018, followed by a second workshop in Copenhagen (March, 2019); both attracted mostly library professionals though there were a few attendees from Archives, Galleries and Museums.  

The Innovation Labs emerged as specialised library units supporting a variety of users in experimenting with digital content in the mid 2000s. However, engaging users with digital content is equally important for museums, archives and galleries. And the exchange of institutional experience across the digital cultural heritage sector is essential for professionals who work there, especially when the number of Innovation Labs around the world is growing steadily. The presenters at the event in Zambia included Milena Dobreva-McPherson, UCL Qatar, Fidelity Phiri, Mr Tuesday Bwalya, University of Zambia, Mr Fred Nyambe (Registrar of Collections, Livingstone Museum) and Mr Brian Mwale, (Chief Librarian, National Archives of Zambia). Fiona Clancy (Digitisation Workflow Manager, British Library), Mahendra Mahey (BL Labs Manager, British Library), and Somia Salim, who is an MA student in Library and Information Studies at UCL Qatar, also contributed online (see full programme with links to some of the presentations).

The call for innovation in the heritage sector was clearly communicated in the welcome address delivered on behalf of the Livingstone district acting commissioner Harriet Kawina; this had been duly reported in several publications in Zambian national newspapers (see for an example Fig.2).

Fig. 2. Article on the event in the MAST independent newspaper, 5.08.2019
Fig. 2. Article on the event in the MAST independent newspaper, 5 August 2019

The mixture of presentations discussing the current trends in user engagement with digital content and local examples of digitisation projects and how it works in reality, created a great opportunity to discuss the stumbling blocks in opening content for wider access and use. For some Zambian institutions, the main issue is a lack of a coherent and systematic digitisation efforts, and there was a shared feeling amongst attendees that there needed to be more guidance and clear policies about digitisation for them to follow, which are still not currently in place. Other institutions accumulated digital content and keep it available only internally, not looking into or even considering access and use to external audiences using online platforms on a systematic basis. 

The workshop discussions were lively and engaged; they identified that there is definitely a larger scope to learn from each other locally. In addition, there was a growing realisation amongst organisations that opening their digital content for use by an external audience is now the next step on the agenda of those who have already accumulated it. The feedback of one of the participants, which perhaps summarised this the most clearly, suggested what needs to happen after this workshop in three-steps: 

  • Put the knowledge acquired in the workshop to use ASAP.
  • Conduct a follow up workshop to determine progress in the innovation labs created.
  • Organise a massive awareness campaign to introduce potential users to the innovation labs created.

The workshop participants also experienced the traditional scheduled power outage for the day which explains why the photo illustrating the presentation of certificates is a bit dark (but hey, in the digital world we can easily fix such glitches!)

Fig.3. Participant receiving a certificate from Assoc. Prof. Milena Dobreva
Fig.3. Participant receiving a certificate from Associate Professor Milena Dobreva

Bringing for the first time to the Sub Saharan region the knowledge about innovation labs, fostering dialogue between representatives of different cultural heritage institutions, and discussing the issue of improving access to digital content is just a humble first step in what we hope will help local institutions to improve user engagement and overcome the current digital divide which keeps available digital content hidden from the world.  Read more about Innovation Labs and the digital divide.

Fig. 4. Workshop participants Dr Milena Dobreva-McPherson, is Associate Professor Library and Information Studies at UCL Qatar with international experience of working in Bulgaria, Scotland and Malta. Since graduating M.Sc. (Hons) in Informatics in 1991, Milena specialized in digital humanities and digital cultural heritage in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where she earned her PhD in 1999 in Informatics and Applied Mathematics and served as the Founding Head of the first Digitisation Centre in Bulgaria (2004); she was also a member of the Executive Board of the National Commission of UNESCO. Milena’s research interests are in the areas of innovation diffusion in the cultural heritage sector; citizen science; and users of digital libraries. Milena is a member of the editorial board of the IFLA Journal - Sage, and of the International Journal on Digital Libraries (IJDL) - Springer and a member of the steering committed of the three biggest conference series in digital libraries, IJDL, TPDL and ICADL. Consultant of the Europeana Task Force on Research Requirements.  

 

Tuesday Mr Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA). He holds a Master’s Degree in Information Science from China. In addition, Mr. Bwalya has received training in India and Belgium in Library Automation with Free and Open Source Library Management Systems such as Koha and ABCD. His research interests include free and open source library management systems; open access publishing; database systems; web development; records management; cataloguing and classification.

 

Fidelity Fidelity Phiri is currently employed as Librarian at Moto Moto Museum and a visiting researcher at UCL Qatar. He has worked for National Museums Board of Zambia since 2001. He  holds a Bachelor's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Zambia. Fidelity  also graduated in April 2019 from UCL Qatar and  is a holder of a Master’s degree in Library and Information studies. His research interests are in bibliometrics studies and digital humanities/units  that provide access to digital collections.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Fred Nyambe for the photos and Dania Jalees for the infographic and the editing.

22 July 2019

Our highlights from Digital Humanities 2019: Nora and Giorgia

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We've put together a series of posts about our experiences at the Digital Humanities conference in Utrecht this month. In this post, Digital Curator Nora McGregor and Dr Giorga Tolfo from the British Library / Alan Turing Institute's Living with Machines project shares her impressions. See also Mia and Yann's post, and Rossitza and Daniel's post.

Tivoli
Lunchtime at TivoliVredenburg music hall, viewed from Cloud Nine

Nora McGregor

My most exciting discovery was the Libraries & Digital Humanities Special Interest Group (@LibsDH) of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) (@ADHOrg). I found my PEOPLE! This is a loosely joined cohort of folks from Libraries across the world with a peculiar passion for all that is supporting digital scholarship. We held a casual, brief and efficient gathering over lunch where talk turned to joining forces to develop a summer school (in the vein of popular and prolific Rare Books, and Digital Humanities week long affairs) to address the specific digital skills training needs of Librarians.

Giorga Tolfo

What talk were you most looking forward to, why? 

DH2019 offered a huge plethora of panels and workshops to choose from. When I first read the program I felt like a hungry person at the supermarket, craving everything on the shelves. Since I couldn’t eat everything, I had to focus on the panels whose topic I knew was or sounded relevant to the Living with Machines project, an interdisciplinary project at the crossroad between historical research and artificial intelligence in collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute.

As my role involves an in depth knowledge of digitisation strategies for newspapers and data models, my attention was immediately drawn to the Oceanic Exchanges panel, which focussed on some case studies around the spread of news and/or the translation of concepts across the atlantic ocean as it emerged in newspapers. Among these studies, one I was particularly interested in was on the concept of italianità (= italianness) in italian and US-based italian ethnic newspapers at the time of the unification of Italy.

What did you learn?

What I found most interesting, beyond the content of the singular research cases presented, was that regardless of the focus of the project, in the digital humanities community there are an underpinning shared methodology, as well as common known concerns and issues that we are trying to face both independently and together.

Among the latter there is certainly a problem with the availability and access to datasets. Due to copyrights limitations or lack of funds to digitise new material some possibly relevant datasets aren’t available, forcing in some cases the research questions to be reshaped according to what is available. The impact of this is the blurring of the distinction between historical research and storytelling. Which stories emerge from data analysis and visualisation? Are these universal or just some among the many possible ones? Are the sources biased or reliable? These are epistemological problems that need to be addressed carefully.

On the other side, in terms of shared methodology, there is an increasing awareness of the need (and effort) to focus on integration, sustainability and shareability. Hence the interest of many research teams on common data models, open linked data, use of standard languages and methodologies, scalable and reusable components.

Anything else?

Well, the fun run! I was one of the enthusiastic 25 people who set the alarm clock at 6am just to run.. for fun!

Our highlights from Digital Humanities 2019: Rossitza and Daniel

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We've put together a series of posts about our experiences at the Digital Humanities conference in Utrecht this month. In this post, Digital Curator Dr Rossitza Atanassova and Daniel Van Strien from the British Library / Alan Turing Institute's Living with Machines project shares their impressions. See also Mia and Yann's post, and Nora and Giorgia's post.

Rossitza Atanassova

I loved the variety of the topics and formats in the conference programme and I have tweeted about some of most interesting talks I attended. I have to say movement between sessions was a bit complicated by the proliferation of stairs and escalators in the venue, which otherwise presented great views of Utrecht and offered comfy cushions to relax on during lunch! Like Mia and Nora I was inspired by the @LibsDH meetup, whilst my most surprising encounter was with the winning skeleton-poster.

Skeleton
Gender and Intersectional Identities in DH poster by @jotis13 @quinnanya @khetiwe24 @RHendery

Of particular interest to me were the sessions on digitised newspapers and related conversations between researchers and collections holding institutions. Back in the office I will reflect on some of the discussions and will continue to engage with the ‘Researchers & Libraries working together on improving digitised newspapers’ and the Digital Historical Periodica Groups. Many of the talks illustrated the importance of semantic annotations for synoptic examination of historical periodicals and I hope to apply at work my learning from the excellent pre-conference workshop on Named Entity Processing delivered by @ImpressoProject

I also found enjoyable and cool the panel on Exploring AV Corpora in the Humanities, in particular the presentation on the Distant Viewing Toolkit (DVT) for the Cultural Analysis of Moving. And outside the conference I had fun taking a walk along the artistic light-themed route to explore Utrecht city-centre. I enjoyed the conference so much that I have submitted DH2020 reviewer self-nomination!

Tunnel
Installation by Erik Groen, Ganzenmarkt Tunnel, Utrecht

Daniel Van Strien

I thought I would focus on a couple of sessions relating to OCR at the conference that I would be keen to explore further as part of the Living with Machines project. In particular I am keen to further explore two tools for OCR; Transkribus and Kraken

Transkribus was discussed in the context of doing OCR on newspapers as part of the Impresso project in the paper ‘Improving OCR of Black Letter in Historical Newspapers: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of HTR Models on Low-Resolution Images’. Although I have previously heard about the tool I was particularly interested to hear about how it was being used to work with newspapers as I have primarily heard about its use in handwritten text recognition. The paper also gave some initial idea of how much ground truth data might need to be generated before training a new OCR engine for newspaper text. As part of the impreso project a167 pages of ground truth data was created, not trivial by any means but much lower than what might be expected. With this amount of data the project was able to generate a substantial improvement in the quality of OCR over various version of ABBYY software. 

The second tool was Kraken which was introduced in the paper ‘Kraken - an Universal Text Recognizer for the Humanities’. I was particularly interested to hear about how this tool could be easily trained with new annotations to recognise new types and languages. For the most part Living with Machines will be relying on previously generated OCR but there may be occasions when it is worth investing time to try and produce more accurate OCR. For these occasions, testing Kraken further would be one nice starting point particularly because of the relative ease it provides in training data at the line rather than word level. This makes annotating the ground truth data (a little) less painful and time consuming. 



Image1


Our highlights from Digital Humanities 2019: Mia and Yann

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In this series of posts, Digital Curator (and Co-Investigator on the Living with Machines project), Digital Curator Dr Mia Ridge has collected impressions of the Digital Humanities conference, held in Utrecht from July 8 - 12. In this post, Mia and Yann Ryan, Curator, Newspaper Data, share their impressions. See also Rossitza and Daniel's post, and Nora and Giorgia's post.

As my colleague Rossitza posted beforehand, a lot of the Digital Scholarship team were at the DH2019 conference. Before we left, I asked everyone to note which sessions they were looking forward to, what they'll bring back from the conference to work, and anything interesting or cool they spotted at the conference.

Mia Ridge

I’d reviewed some conference proposals so I knew there’d be lots of interesting talks, but I was particularly looking forward to lots of conversations at the conference - some online, some in person. (Apparently I tweeted quite a lot). A lot of those conversations ended up being around improving the discoverability and research experience with digitised newspapers. There was a strong theme around thinking about cultural heritage organisations as partners in research rather than simply as ‘data providers’. If you’re a researcher or GLAM practitioner who’d like to continue the conversation, join the Periodica discussion list or check out notes from the impromptu meetup on the Friday at DH2019 Lunch session - Researchers & Libraries working together on improving digitised newspapers.

I went to some sessions that were outside my usual areas of focus (media studies, VR/AR) and others that were familiar territory (designing data structures, working with union catalogue data). I’ve shared my more detailed but very rough and ready DH2019 conference notes on my own blog. Finally, I really enjoyed the 'Libraries and DH conversation', and both the libraries and newspapers conversations will inform my work in digital scholarship and on Living with Machines.

Digitised newspapers
Ad hoc session 'Researchers & Libraries working together on improving digitised newspapers' Photo by @MartijnKleppe

Yann Ryan

DH2019 was my first mega-conference and I found it a really useful, if overwhelming experience. Picking talks was a bit like trying to work out your schedule at Glastonbury: at both it’s worth keeping in mind you’re always going to miss something, and anyway the best bits always happen in the spaces in between: whether that is browsing the posters or just hanging around the communal area chatting to new friends.

It was fun to see the ways in which derived newspaper data – word embeddings, named entities and so forth – are being used by researchers in practice, and I loved hearing about the ways in which this material is bringing new insights to historical themes and concepts. It was also a great place to learn about new projects: I was particularly excited by the Impresso project (a platform for browsing digitised newspapers) and the Amsterdam Time Machine.

I learned a great deal about how researchers are working with data, as well as the format and size of newspaper datasets they need or expect. The Heritage Made Digital project will release open datasets based on the newspapers we’re digitising, and hearing how others are using similar material will help to inform the best way to carry that out.

My single favourite thing was Repetition And Popularity In Early Modern Songs, a poster for a project which measured the repetitiveness of early modern song lyrics against the number of times they were reprinted. Turns out more repetitive songs got reprinted sooner and lasted longer, which is a bit like modern pop music!

28 March 2019

Algorave till Late in the Imaginary City

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Cropped imag city

These are exciting and busy times for BL Labs and the digital scholarship team, and we have a few digital/art-themed events next week - book your tickets and come along!

Friday 5th April sees the long-anticipated launch of the Imaginary Cities exhibition in the entrance hall gallery. The exhibition is the work of the British Library's artist in residence, Michael Takeo Magruder, who has been collaborating with BL Labs since 2016, transforming digitised 19th century urban maps into fantastic installations. We will post more about the exhibition next week, so watch this space. The exhibition will run until 14th July and is free to visit.

You can learn about Michael's residency through British Library Labs here (six minute video):

To launch the public opening of the exhibition, Michael is giving a talk about his work on the evening of Friday 5th April at the British Library (18:45 - 20:00). The talk is free but you need to book a place. On the same evening, we are hosting a Late at the Library Algorave in the British Library atrium (19:00 - 23:00) where algorave artists will live-code music and visuals, writing code sequences generating algorithmic beats beneath the iconic Kings’ Library Tower. The event is curated by the audio-visual artist, Coral Manton, in collaboration with the British Library Events team, BL Labs, Digital Scholarship, and the Alan Turing Institute. 

Coral is a Research Affiliate of the British Library. She's interested in the aesthetics of stored knowledge and exploring this in VR. She led a research project with the EThOS team exploring multimedia research in UK PhD theses and future multimodal theses. This project was cited in the AHRC Academic Book of the Future Report and in multiple academic publications.

Back in November 2017, Coral and Joanne Armitage rounded off the BL Labs Symposium with a mini algorave. We didn't record ourselves raving, but you can find our more about the algorave scene and what live coding is in Coral and Joanne's short presentation from the symposium here: 

Book tickets for the talk [Friday 5th April - 18:45-20:00] by the Imaginary Cities artist, Michael Takeo Magruder, here: https://www.bl.uk/events/imaginary-cities-artist-talk-with-michael-takeo-magruder

Book tickets for the Algorave [Friday 5th April - 19:30-23:00] here: https://www.bl.uk/events/late-at-the-library-algorave

See here for a post about more details about the Algorave artists who are playing at the Algorave Late event, and about the Imaginary Cities exhibition on this blog soon.

Posted by BL Labs

26 February 2019

Competition to automate text recognition for printed Bangla books

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You may have seen the exciting news last week that the British Library has launched a competition on recognition of historical Arabic scientific manuscripts that will run as part of ICDAR2019. We thought it only fair to cover printed material too! So we’re running another competition, also at ICDAR, for automated text recognition of rare and unique printed books written in Bangla that have been digitised through the Library's Two Centuries of Indian Print project.

Some of you may remember the Bangla printed books competition which took place at ICDAR2017 which generated significant interest among academic institutions and technology providers both in India and across the world. The 2017 competition set the challenge of finding an optimal solution for automating recognition of Bangla printed text and resulted in Google’s method performing best for both text detection and layout analysis.

Fast forward to 2019 and, thanks to Jadavpur University in Kolkata, we have added more ground truth transcriptions for competition entrants to train their OCR systems with. We hope that the competition encourages submissions again from cutting-edge OCR methods leading to a solution that can truly open up these historic books, dating between 1713 and 1914, for text mining, enabling scholars of South Asian studies to explore hundreds of thousands of pages on a scale that has not been possible until now.

AletheiaGroundTruth

              Image showing a transcribed page from one of the Bengali books featured in the ICDAR2019 competition

As with the Arabic competition, we are collaborating with PRImA (Pattern Recognition & Image Analysis Research Lab) who will provide expert and objective evaluation of OCR results produced through the competition. The final results will be revealed at the ICDAR2019 conference in Sydney in September.

So if you missed out last time but are interested in testing your OCR systems on our books the competition is now open! For instructions of how to apply and more about the competition, please visit https://www.primaresearch.org/REID2019/

 

This post is by Tom Derrick, Digital Curator for Two Centuries of Indian Print, British Library. He is on Twitter as @TommyID83 and Two Centuries of Indian Print tweet from @BL_IndianPrint

 

19 February 2019

BL Labs 2018 Teaching & Learning Award Runner Up: 'Pocahontas and After'

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This guest blog is by Border Crossing, the 2018 BL Labs Teaching & Learning Award Runners Up, for their project, 'Pocahontas and After'.

BorderCross image 1

Two images, each showing two young women dressed to show their culture, their pride, their sense of self. The first image dates from 1907, and shows The Misses Simeon, from the Stoney-Nakoda people of Western Canada, photographed by Byron Harmon. The second was taken in 2018 by John Cobb at Marlborough Primary School, West London, and shows a pupil of Iraqi heritage called Rose Al Saria, pictured with her sister. It was Rose who chose the particular archive image as the basis for her self-portrait, and who conceptualised the way it would be configured and posed.

This pair of photos is just one example in Border Crossings' exhibition Pocahontas and After, which was recently honoured in the British Library’s Labs Teaching and Learning category. The exhibition - which was seen by more than 20,000 people at Syon House last summer, and goes to St Andrews in February - represents the culmination of a sustained period of education and community work, beginning with the 2017 ORIGINS Festival. During the Festival, we not only held a ceremony for three indigenous women to commemorate Pocahontas at Syon, where she had stayed in the summer of 1616: we also brought indigenous artists into direct contact with the diverse communities around the House, in the two Primary Schools where they led workshops and study sessions, in the wonderful CARAS refugee group, and through our network of committed and energetic festival volunteers. In the following months, a distilled group from each of these partners worked closely with heritage experts from the archives (including the British Library’s own Dr. Philip Hatfield), Native American cultural consultants, and our own artistic staff to explore the ways in which Native American people have been presented in the past.

Their journeys into the archives were rich and challenging. What we think of as "realistic" photographs of indigenous people often turned out to be nothing of the kind. Edward Curtis, for example, apparently carried a chest of "authentic" costumes and props with him, which he used in his photographs to recreate the life of "the vanishing race" as he imagined it may have been in some pre-contact Romantic idyll. In other words, the archive photos are often about the photographer and the viewer, far more than they are about the subject.

BorderCross image 2

BorderCross image 3

As our volunteers came to realise this, they became more and more assertive of the need for agency in contemporary portraiture. Complex and fascinating decisions started to be made, placing the generation of meaning in the bodies of the people photographed. For example, Sebastian Oliver Wallace-Odi, who has Ghanaian heritage, saw how Ronald Mumford’s archive photo had been contrived to show “British patriotism” from First Nations chiefs, riding a car bedecked in a Union Jack, during the First World War. Philip showed him how other photos demonstrated the presence of Mounties at the shoot, emphasising the lack of agency from the subjects. Sebastian countered it with an image in which the red white and blue flag is the symbol of the London Underground where his father works, and the car, like his shirt, is distinctly African.

What I love about this exhibition is that the meaning generated does not reside in one image or the other within the pair - but is rather in the energising of the space between, the dialogue between past and present, between different cultures, between human beings portrayed in different ways. It seems to me to be at once of way of honouring the indigenous subjects portrayed in the archive photographs, and of reinventing the form that was often too reductive in its attempts to categorise them.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project. Photos from the British Library digital collections.

Michael Walling - Artistic Director, Border Crossings. www.bordercrossings.org.uk

Watch the Border Crossing team receiving their Runner Up award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 3.46 to 10.09):

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.