Creating Technology for Social Change

Crowd Curation: Participatory Archives and the Curarium Project

How can online platforms combine learning with crowdsourcing? Today at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the team behind Curarium explained the rationale behind their project and showed us wireframes of the upcoming design. It’s a theme we’re also considering at the Center for Civic Media; last year we featured a talk by Pamela Wright on Connecting Popular Audiences with the National Archives.

  • Jeffrey Schnapp is one of the faculty directors of the Berkman Center and director of the MetaAB
  • Matthew Battles is associate director of the metaLAB and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society
  • Pablo Barria is a developer on the homeless paintings project

Matthew Battles shows us Homeless Paintings of the Renaissance, sixteen thousand photos collected by Bernard Berenson, who wanted to find these works. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the I Tatte digitised the collection in hopes that they could be found. (view the collection here)

Can members of the public help with this? Matthew tells us about Ancient Lives, a project by Zooniverse that invites members of the public to help them transcribe ancient Greek papyri without knowing any ancient Greek. It takes about 20 non-experts working on a single fragment to transcribe it.

The public is often much better at interpreting and tagging archival material than professionals, Jeff tells us. The American Memory project, for example, will never be processed by professional archivists. Professionals are very unlikely to have the knowledge needed to annotate these archives with history, stories, landscape, and other community information. Matthew tells us about Wikimedia Loves Monuments is one great example of a project that creates a fun and interesting way for members of the public to help curate.

Can crowd platforms be used to teach. You can’t really learn Greek or about history using Zooniverse, but projects like Historypin make it possible to fit historical artifacts into their context and learn as a result.

Curarium is a project by MetaLAB to fit learning and archival crowdsourcing together. Institutions are good at digitising collections but not so good at making them matter, Jeffrey tells us. Curarium offers participants the chance to move between artifacts and their context, the macro and the micro, and to share material with others. Curarium is intended to support exhibit curators, who currently tend to put together a museum story using foamboard, photocopies, and pins rather than software.

Next, Pablo shows us wireframes of the proposed system, which is still being built. One part of the software “ingests” artifacts into collections from third party sources. Pablo shows us an overview screen that shows statistics and visualizations about a collection of artifacts. They hope that articles and slideshows can be created using a composing tool. The Curarium site itself will feature artifacts and stories created within the system. Individual users will be able to create a personal artifact library, draft documents, and publish archive spotlights with stories and context.

Next up, the Curarium team will be running workshops with curators and teaching test classes with Curarium. They’re also looking for collections beyond the Homeless Paintings archive to work with.

Tim Davies points out Renaissance Art Pinterest pages, asking about the role of community building and incentives for getting people to contribute to. Matthew responds that community building will be an important part of the story. Jeffrey responds that Pinterest boards tend to include famous works already in museums. In the future, metaLAB plans to reach out to teachers and professors interested in creating classes that include less canonical works. MOOCS, perhaps, may open new opportunities for “collection space teaching.”

What won’t be included in Curarium? Jeffrey says that although they will provide support for “plain vanilla” document creation, they’re focusing primarily on the collections side. Animated gifs and slideshows will be left to third party platforms (like Zeega).

“There are 10,000 people on Pinterest who already care about art.” Why create your own tools, asks SJ Klein. Matthew responds that projects like the Japan Disaster Archive make data available via APIs, and that merging Curarium with APIs will be a matter of time. David Karger responds that the core focus on storage and formats matters because better structured metadata can in time reduce the friction of community curation online.

So, how can online platforms combine learning with crowdsourcing? The answer is still open, as far as the Curarium team is concerned. With the right partnerships, experiments, and classes, they might be able to move a bit closer to an answer. You can contact the Curarium the team here.

Update Willow Brugh took these amazing sketch-notes of the session: