Carlotta Capurro
Curating Digital Heritage

To better explain why it is necessary to approach digital heritage from a critical perspective, let me wear for a moment, my art historian cap and introduce you to this print of Maximilian Rapine. The print is part of the Wellcome Library print collection that was mostly acquired between 1890 and 1936 by Sir Henry Wellcome and his agents.

The Wellcome Collection has digitised most of its items and offers a digital catalogue to its “incurably curious” visitors, as they are defined on the homepage. In the catalogue, each item is presented with a high-resolution picture and a set of information about it. This information is not plain text: they are expressed in a codified format, using a set of internationally recognised vocabularies and thesaurus. They are called METADATA.

If we have a fast look at the metadata connected with this print, we learn that the full title of the work is “A man tying a woman’s absurdly high wig on to a scaffolding; another woman wearing a tall heart-shaped wig looks on. Coloured etching attributed to M. Rapine.” In this long and descriptive title, two words are catching the attention: the adjective “absurdly”, that strongly qualify the wig; and “attributed to”, which gives a nuance of uncertainty to the authorship of the work.

The DESCRIPTION field comes to our help in explaining the use of the adjective. We learn that: “The prints on the walls in the background appear to be parodies of the “Perruquier” prints in the Encyclopédie”. This means that we are probably looking at a satirical image, so the wig can reasonably be described as “absurd”.

If we go further in our metadata, we see the voice “Littering: Rapine del.” and indeed, zooming on the right corner of the image, the signature of the author is there. So, there is a contradiction between what is stated in the title and what the metadata says. And with the information in our hands, we cannot know which of the two information is the correct one.

Then we have information about the print and the technique, and finally about the Language: French. This is quite a curious attribute for an image in which there is not a single word, except for a signature.

We can assume, first, that French has more to do with the supposed provenance of the print, being Rapine a French author; and second, that language is either a required field in the metadata scheme used by the Wellcome Collection, or that in this scheme there is not a clear way to express the provenance of an item.

Bear with me another moment, because even more curious is the last field that we encounter in this description of the print: SUBJECTS. Of all the possible things that this print may represent, (a parody of the Encyclopedic structuring of knowledge? A critic of the luxury display by aristocracy? Of the fashion? An artisan at work?) the only word selected to represent the painting subject is WIG.

Why did I just spend so much time on these descriptions?

Because I wanted to enlighten that Metadata are authoritative and subjective. And even more. Being them expressed in a standardised form; they are a somehow simplified description of heritage. Furthermore, Metadata determine how an item is retrieved in the database.

So, when on the Wellcome Collection catalogue we want to look for our print, our research will probably use the keywords “PRINT” and “WIG”. This, in turn, has an impact on the context in which the digital object is displayed.

You can see that the results of our query to the database are either prints showing a wig or connected with the subject, because in their metadata they have been tagged with the world wig.

This context may or may not be relevant for our print, which has itself a biography and has been acquired by the institution due to specific selection criteria.

In this sense, the database represents a digital exhibition and a completely new digital context where digital heritage acquired different meanings from those belonging to the analogue counterpart.

Carlotta Capurro

“Carlotta Capurro is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, within the Marie Sklodowska-Curie ITN Action CHEurope. Her main interest lies in the ethics and politics of digital cultural heritage. She investigates the impact of the digital turn on European heritage institutions, analysing both the human and the technology agencies on the digitisation process. Her project researches the role of different actors in the construction of digital collections. It also analyses how digital infrastructures are imposing a new layer of meaning on cultural heritage, and how this is in turn affecting the way digital heritage is generated, used and perceived.

The road that brought me to this PhD started far away in space and time. A Genoese currently based in Utrecht, I discovered the potential of digital technologies for cultural heritage while working at my master thesis in art history. I was studying the art collections of some Genoese families during the early modern times, and I realised that many of those artworks are today preserved in museums around the world. Thanks to the 3D reconstruction, I could visualise the collections as they were assembled by their owners, bringing back together artworks that are today physically distant. Excited by the idea of learning more about the use of technology for the cultural heritage, I then moved to Belgium to work as a digital restorer and 3D graphic for the reconstruction of cultural heritage, such as archaeological sites, objects and monuments. In my work, 3D visualisation was a powerful tool for the research and understanding of the past. But I also learnt that each 3D reconstruction brings with it conscious and unconscious decisions that often are underestimated when looking at the result. Especially in the cultural sector, technology cannot be treated as a neutral tool or support. Therefore, I decided to embark in this PhD to investigate the impact that the digitisation of the cultural sector has on cultural institutions and their visitors, and how it has tranformed the creation, interpretation and consumption of cultural heritage.”