21 January 2011

Objects and Learning from 1995

The following is another in the series of publications that came out of the innovative project, the Virtual Teaching Collection, in the 1990s. I am republishing the internal papers here so they can be of use. However, it must be realised that this paper was written in 1995, a little under 2 years after the Web was launched, and should be read in that context.
R. Boast  21 January 2011.

Objects and Learning

Cabinet and the Context of Enquiry

Edited by
Dr. Robin B. Boast

With contributions from:
Dr. S. Lucy, Dr. L. Thomas, Dr. M. Wintroub

University of Cambridge
Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology

Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council (England) (HEFCE), the Virtual Teaching Collection is a three year project  based in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Whipple Museum of History of Science.  Also involved, as consortium partners, are Glasgow University, the University of London, Middlesex University and Oxford University. 
The aims of the project are to establish a database of digital images relating to curricula in the fields of archaeology and history of science, and to provide the tools necessary for research and the construction of teaching materials.  In doing this, the Virtual Teaching Collection will give access to a range of objects which is unavailable even in the largest teaching collections.  The completion date for the project is December 1996, by which time a fully operational image database system, consisting of over 4,000 images relating to the two disciplines, will have been evaluated, and will be available for use in undergraduate teaching at the consortium sites.  A working prototype of the system with a sample set of images will be ready for preliminary assessment by January 1995.
The Development Team consists of four people: Dr. Lester Thomas is responsible for system/software engineering, Charlie Gere is in charge of interaction and graphic design, Michael Wintroub is the research assistant for History of Science, and his counterpart in Archaeology is Sam Lucy.  The directors of the project are Dr. Robin Boast from Archaeology, along with Dr. Liba Taub and Craig Rodine, both from History of Science. 
The Executive Committee consists of representatives from the consortium sites.  It comprises Dr. Jim Bennett, Curator of the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University; Stephen Boyd Davis from the Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University; Dr. Jeremy Huggett of the Department of Archaeology, Glasgow University; and Dr. Derek Keane of the Centre for Metropolitan History, University of London.

To the Museum
We go from room to room, down long corridors, and through a maze of exhibits. We pass crowded display cases. We walk at eye-level with the masterpieces hanging on the walls. We stoop and strain to read cards covered with fine print, and we stop and stare in amazement at an item that for some ineffable reason particularly touches us. Then we think about how much our feet hurt, about how much more there is to see, and we shuffle on to the next room, in search of culture, knowledge, and perhaps even entertainment.
We go to museums to be, and to become, Cultured, to learn about our past, our present, about other cultures, and even other worlds. Whether it be the school field-trip, the Sunday visit, or the tourist excursion, the spectacle offered up by the museum is considered an essential component of the larger process of “cultural enlightenment”. Yet, curiously, we are not invited to participate in this presentation of culture, of “enlightenment”, as anything other than passive subjects. Indeed, we are encouraged neither to think critically, nor to interact with the exhibits or the stories they tell. We are, in a word, tourists.

Matters of Dissent
The traditional role of the museum is being challenged. Questions are being raised. Dissenting voices are being heard. One has only to look at the furore over the “Art of Death” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1994), or the angry exchanges incited by the Smithsonian Institute’s exhibition of the Enola Gay (1995) to see that museums and their collections have become arenas for social and political debate.
Clearly, museum collections have become so controversial because they are closely related to the ways we define and understand our own and other cultures. The problems begin when more than one culture, nation or group claims an object or collection as its own; when the facts as recounted about a particular collection or exhibit represent one point of view, neglecting all others. Accordingly, much of the sound and fury associated with museums has to do with where collections come from and to whom they legitimately belong. The question thus becomes: who determines how  best to collect, present, understand and appreciate these objects? Whose interpretation is right? Whose is wrong? Who should have access? Whose views should be represented? And who should be vested with the authority to judge between the often volatile differences that might arise?
At the very time when the intellectual and moral status of large multicultural collections has become increasingly problematic, it has become apparent that such collections are crucial not only to understanding our own history and culture, but also other peoples, places and times. This is because the objects within a collection have been, and continue to be, invested with so much meaning. The irony is clear: collections have become most important precisely when they have become most problematic, when their ownership, interpretation, and use have become highly politicised and contested issues.
The teaching of archaeology has always depended upon the “material culture” found in museums, and this is also increasingly becoming the case with the teaching of history of science. Clearly, to demonstrate the richness of a particular culture, a particular time, or place, one object will not suffice. Rather, a whole series is needed if one is to examine the ways in which objects are used and understood. The problem, of course, is that such collections are increasingly difficult to assemble, and that once assembled, access to them tends to be severely limited.
The Virtual Teaching Collection is a project designed by archaeologists and historians of science to redress some of the problems and controversies associated with access, control, and interpretation of collections. To this end, a set of software tools have been developed called Cabinet. The goal of Cabinet is to ensure that students, lecturers and researchers are not only able to have access to the wide range of objects associated with our curricula, but also that they be able to explore some of the many different contexts in which these objects are used and understood. In this sense, the goal of Cabinet is not to dictate how or what should be taught in using the remarkable resources found in the museums of Cambridge, Oxford, London and Glasgow, but rather to provide an environment within which instruction and research can take place virtually anywhere and with any collection of digital representations.

Rethinking the Museum
Commenting upon a recent exhibition at the Smithsonian, a former curator of its Air and Space Museum asserted that “...didactic arguments have no place in a museum of history. Such discussions should not infiltrate their way into what should be, after all, a pure (factual) recollection of precise moments of the past.” We could not disagree more. The stories which museums recount are not simply factual; they reflect the opinions, points of view and interpretations of those who tell them.
The growing awareness of the “political” nature of museums, and the part they play in maintaining the cultural values of elite or privileged groups has encouraged a new openness and self-awareness on the part of some museum organisers. The questions of “Who does the culture belong to?”, “How is it being portrayed?” and “Who is portraying it for whom?” have brought about new conceptions of what museums should and should not be doing. These questions have led to attempts to redefine the relationship between museums and visitors by encouraging the visitor to interact with the collection.
Such trends can be identified in some recent innovative museums which have attempted to demystify the traditional authority of museums and their exhibits. For example, in the Archaeological Resource Centre in York visitors participate in the archaeological process, classifying and recording real artefacts, thus gaining an insight into some aspects of what archaeologists actually do. The Prehistoric Gallery at the Museum of London offers a number of different interpretations for the same phenomena, thereby making the point that there is not a “true” record of the past, but many different versions of it. The history of science exhibits at the Whipple Museum in Cambridge (1993-1994) have aimed to make plain the fact that social and political conditions were (and still are) an integral part of scientific research and explanation.

Enabling Technologies:
New approaches to virtual images and their associated data have been made possible by developments in hardware and software. Increasingly sophisticated circuit design and ever subtler microchip manufacture have lifted microprocessors to new pinnacles of performance. Packed into a couple of square centimetres of silicon there are up to three million transistors arranged using the latest innovations in processor design (RISC architecture, pipelining and superscalar operation, for example). The chips now being used have speeds of 50 to 200 MHz and perform 100 million to 400 million instructions per second. The whole aim of this hardware is not just to make spreadsheet or word processing applications that operate faster, but to be a catalyst for whole new realms of functionality and interactivity: event driven WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) software with speech, images, movies and hypertext, for example.
Computer software has come a long way since the terminal command line interfaces of a decade ago. Led by research at Xerox PARC and popularised by the Apple Macintosh, WIMP interfaces have become the norm for human-computer interaction. Because these interfaces are event driven, they allow the user to be in control of the interaction. The events (for example, opening a window or running an application) are usually generated by selecting menus or icons, typically with a mouse pointer. This is very different from the old command line interface where the user typically chose from a small selection of commands and the control of the interaction rested with the computer.
Decreasing prices of ever more powerful hardware have also lead to the development of interactive multimedia: the integration of images, video and sound into interactive software. A major problem with this integration is the high “bandwidth” and large storage space required to handle multimedia data in digital form. The use of data compression is one of the key factors needed to enable the use of digital multimedia. The last ten years have seen a large research effort in this area and there now exists a range of widely accepted standards for digital multimedia compression. For the Virtual Teaching Collection project, the following standards were chosen: For images the Joint Photographic Experts Group international standard (JPEG) and for video, Apple Computer Inc.’s QuickTime™ standard (see Research Report No. 2).
The main problems with generating software are managing its complexity and reducing the length of the software development time needed to produce these complex programs. Central to the solution of these problems is the use of object-oriented tools and techniques which have been developed over the last decade. Object-oriented software development tools allow the modular design and reuse of software components. Commercial “libraries” are available for user interface components (windows, buttons, menus etc.) and database components (object persistence mechanisms, searching and sorting). These features allow for increased speed and efficiency of programming and improved maintenance and reliability of the system.
Advances in hardware and software technology thus allow the development of new and innovative applications, and the use of computer technology in new areas. The aim of the Virtual Teaching Collection is to develop the technology to meet the challenges of object-based teaching and learning in an effective way.

The Role of Objects
To demonstrate what can be done with Cabinet, the Virtual Teaching Collection project has developed two collections: a collection of materials covering British Archaeology from the Neolithic through the Medieval periods with objects from the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the University of Glasgow Hunterian Museum and the Andover Museum; a collection of history of science instruments from the Oxford University Museum of the History of Science and the University of Cambridge Whipple Museum.

Objects in Archaeology
The use of objects is an integral part of archaeological teaching and research. With no documentary sources to provide an historical framework, archaeological knowledge is constructed by contrasting and comparing excavated artefacts. Often fine typologies and chronologies, around which frameworks of interpretation are based, are reliant on minute differences between similar objects. Thus, an intimate understanding of object materials and categories, and the development of knowledge about how they fit into structures of meaning, are two of the primary means by which ideas about the past are formed.
Virtually all archaeological teaching makes use of images of objects, in the form of slide shows to accompany a lecture, or uses the objects themselves, in the context of practical sessions. This usage presents considerable problems of access, however. With regard to images of objects, an extensive slide collection is only built up by a lecturer over a considerable amount of time, and remains in the possession and control of that person, who therefore also controls the information associated with those objects. Students are not free to use these images for their own purposes, and have no access to contextual information except through the lecturer or readings. Illustrations of artefacts are found in widely diffuse sources, such as text-books, site-reports and artefact catalogues, and in such sources they are usually divorced from the detailed description of context which is the mainstay of archaeological interpretation.
With regard to the objects themselves, many university and college departments do not have access to adequate teaching collections which their students can work with. Even in those departments with extensive teaching collections, such as Cambridge, the complete range of artefacts necessary for detailed explanation of a topic is often not held by the museum. In addition, many artefacts are too delicate to be handled by large (or even small) numbers of students. Students are also rarely permitted to use the collections without supervision.
The Virtual Teaching Collection aims to side-step these problems by making use of representations of objects in museum collections with a high level of documentation and giving the user free access to as much contextual and descriptive information as possible. In this respect, the uses to which the collection will be put, whether by the student, the researcher or the lecturer, will be determined by the aims and needs of the user, rather than by the limitations of the information itself.

Objects in History of Science
In contrast to archaeology, the role which objects play in teaching the history of science is very different. The history of science has been, until recently, dominated with telling a narrative of progressive enlightenment. The standard bearers of this “enlightenment” were represented by certain canonical figures such as Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Newton or Darwin. These “Great Men” have been depicted as single-handedly freeing “Man” from the tyranny of ignorance and superstition. Although their ideas have been explored in some depth, they have been treated as curiously ahistorical.
This picture, of late, has been drastically revised. The ahistorical genius has been firmly placed within specific historical circumstances which conditioned both the production and reception of his ideas. As a result, increasing attention has come to be placed on the specific practices and tools that he employed in producing his theories.
Traditionally, there has been a wide gulf between the work that goes into making a scientific theory, and the presentation of the theory as a scientific fact. Increasingly, historians of science are concentrating their attention on specific experiments, the ways they are structured, carried out, observed, written about and understood. This emphasis on the “work” of science directly contradicts the picture of the scientist as some kind of disembodied being who never gets his (let alone her) hands dirty with the often messy work which precedes the eventual written presentation of the elegantly performed experiment. Indeed, much of the work of science is carried out, not by the “great genius”, but rather by everyday craftsmen and technicians.
The Virtual Teaching Collection’s curriculum in the history of science grows directly out of this changed emphasis, and it has several interrelated goals. Firstly, we aim to give the lecturer, student or researcher the access which they would not normally have to the rare and precious devices used by natural philosophers, astronomers, sailors, merchants and surveyors of the past. Secondly, we wish to communicate through these instruments the sense that science is heavily influenced by specific historical, social and cultural contexts. Thirdly, we want to allow our users to explore the work of some of the canonical figures in the history of science through the instruments they developed and used. And finally, we would like to permit our users to explore the history of science according to their own particular interests, by giving them the freedom to create their own sub-collections for purposes of teaching and research. We hope that this will both promote a critical reexamination of traditional ideas and encourage original research.

Virtual Collections
It is evident that the true potential of information technology has yet to be realised, for although museums and institutions concerned with material culture have embraced computing technology, the uses to which this technology has been put, and the results that have been obtained, are relatively disappointing.
Indeed, the end result of their forays into information technology often differs little from the publication of a well-indexed book. As such, they reproduce many of the shortcomings of “actual” collections in the sense that they are closed linear systems which offer the user no chance of real interaction. The contents and links are decided and fixed by the writers or designers, and the user remains a passive recipient of knowledge. Even more limiting, attempts have been made to reproduce the physical space of the museum. Using virtual reality techniques which enable the user to “walk through” the museum in essence transfers the inadequacies of the museum experience directly onto the computer.
Computers have revolutionised our ability to store and manipulate complex information. Their potential now permits us to reexamine the various ways in which collections are made, used and understood. Associations and connections which were once hard and fast, and seemingly fixed by the very order of things, can now be challenged. Information and objects can be assembled and manipulated, and narratives can be explored, or even rewritten, according to new and diverse criteria.
Applying these ideas to museums and their collections allows us to open out systems of classification and organisation which were previously rigid. And, though for many purposes there is no substitute for the experience of the actual artefact, the ability to virtually place objects in different contexts has the potential to transform our understanding of these objects when we do actually see them in museums. Cabinet is the first software tool, that we know of, that is designed for this form of user driven recontextualisation of collections.

Cabinet and The Virtual Teaching Collection
Outlined above is a brief review of past, present and future roles of museums and their collections. The critique of such roles has enabled the development of new ideas about collections, and thus has given rise to new uses for them. The Virtual Teaching Collection, with the use of Cabinet, aims to build on this critique. We realise that it would be impossible to entirely avoid the pitfalls associated with these ideological dilemmas, and that in any case it would not be desirable to do so. Indeed, the recognition that we are not working in an objective, non-ideological, medium, is the starting point for the development of this work. The diversity of our users, and the richness of our chosen curricula in archaeology and history of science, demand that interaction take place on a number of different levels.
This points to the unique capacity of Cabinet to do what a museum cannot. Objects in museums can only occupy one place and one context at a time, and thus they can only be situated in the particular linear narrative which is imposed by the physical order of the museum’s rooms. The ‘space’ in a virtual collection, on the other hand, operates in a very different way, for it enables objects to exist simultaneously in very different contexts, and be manipulated within them. This would be altogether impossible to duplicate in a conventional museum.
Freed from the constraints and restrictions of the linear display, objects can thus be viewed in new and different ways and understood with reference to a number of different narratives. What Cabinet offers users is the possibility of determining their own paths through the collection, and viewing the objects in a multiplicity of contexts and narratives. In this, Cabinet arguably offers not just more functionality than other software concerned with material culture, but an entirely different approach, which is far more appropriate to the needs of users now and in the future.
Cabinet derives much of its inspiration from applications developed from within computer culture. Spreadsheets, graphics programs and word processors are not only appropriate uses of the computer’s power, but offer truer interaction and, arguably, a greater sense of pleasure than multimedia, virtual reality and other more heralded developments. What Cabinet offers, then, is a set of tools with which to construct, examine and contextualise collections, rather than a fixed medium. The user can search for a specific item, browse the collections using visual and iconographic representations of their contents; examine the distribution of objects by place or date through visual cues; make sub-collections according to a variety of parameters, and construct arrangements of objects at will. Such collections can be annotated and made into paper documents, slide shows, hyper-documents and other teaching materials.

In conclusion, Cabinet, and the Virtual Teaching Collection, can perhaps best be seen to function as an extremely portable collections of representations, accompanied by a versatile set of tools with which to construct, examine and organise them. This catalogue can be personalised according to individual needs and specific requirements. At the same time, for those with little or no knowledge of our chosen curricula, objects in Cabinet will provide distinct advantages over authentic objects in a museum, for it will allow for the possibility of integrating objects into larger explanatory contexts of primary and secondary texts and images. These contexts can be construed narrowly, e.g. in terms of short narratives, anecdotes, and bibliographies, or more broadly by merging the possibilities of a textual archive with our collection of virtual objects. In either case, the point will be to anchor these narratives firmly to the image-objects in our collection, for without such an anchor there is the very real danger that the freedom and the versatility of our medium will collapse into incoherence. Accordingly, we will both offer the user a wide degree of latitude, while at the same time allowing the less sophisticated user the possibility of choosing defaults which are designed to offer more structured narratives and traditional interpretations.

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