Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Contextual Studies. With Added Viking.

I was in Sweden over the summer and took some time out to go to a re-creation of a Viking settlement at Foteviken. I, and my kids, loved it. Smiths were forging nails, tanners were scraping hides, cooks were boiling up huge vats of stew. We felt like time-travellers. Towards the exit we saw a figurehead from a Viking longship.

It looked strangely familiar, and, back in London, it became apparent why.

In the British Museum I stumbled across an original figurehead from a  Viking longship, looking uncannily like the one in Sweden. I'd seen it before.

So the question is, which one is the most significant? 

The one in Sweden is a fake, made a few years ago. But it sits in context, with the beach just below, the gulls wheeling overhead and the wind in the long grasses. It requires no great stretch of imagination for us to see and feel how life was, and how important this figurehead must have been. We're inspired and engaged, something visceral has happened, even if we don't know anything about the fearsome head. This strong emotional engagement can be the catalyst for a lifetime of interest that might lead anywhere. It provides impetus.

In the BM, there's a neat label describing it, so we have a lot of information, but it's presented in the neo-classical context of a London museum, replete with wall-eyed tourists wondering where the nearest McDonalds might be. It feels sanitised and lost. Something wild has been caged.

This was the same problem that I felt the BM had with it's Viking exhibition earlier in the year. Lots of information - no inspiration. Bloodless. Which is a terrible fate to befall anything to do with Vikings.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Treasures of Many Kinds

To Salisbury to talk over some ideas for Magna Carta next year. Along with the BL and Lincoln, Salisbury have one of the only four remaining copies of this pragmatic and unexpectedly profound document. Talking to the various parties I sense an unspoken competition as to who has the best copy. Diplomatically I write off the one damaged by the Cotton fire now held at the BL and declare the others all wonderful but different.

The last time I was here, ten years ago, I'd walked from London on my way south-west. Arriving in the city somewhat sore, I went straight to a chemist and bought some startlingly powerful anti-inflammatories that sorted out a pain in my knee. I remember sitting on the green after looking round the cathedral. 

Inside the great building I'd found a remarkable relic: allegedly the oldest clock in the world.With it's bare skeletal construction it didn't seem possible that this device could tell the time at all, let alone have done it since 1386.

Outside was the tragic sculpture of the Walking Madonna by Elizabeth Frink that made a powerful impression on me that day.

In my diary I'd written:

"I found it looking as if Mary had just come from evensong, her path leading from the cathedral doors. She was an older Mary, thin, with ribs showing, a look of bemused grief on her pinched face. She could only be the mother walking alone back from Golgotha. Her son crucified, and her old certainties turned upside down."

To see these three things, the cathedral, the charter, the clock and the statue was a privilege and together they formed a strange hymn. Time, order, worship, wonder, grief and beauty.

All in the name of work.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Apple Mac Turns 30

That was what they were called when I first got my hands on one in 1986 - an Apple Mac. I was working for a financial institution in a large grey building. We had two computers in the office - an IBM XT and an IBM AT. They sat on their own desks and the operators would approach them as a craftsman would his lathe. They did one thing (crunch numbers) and you needed to treat them with respect or else things might go Horribly Wrong.

Nomenclature is a funny thing. All computers had geeky, alphanumeric names and seemed for initiates only. So when I persuaded an Apple dealer to let me borrow something called an Apple Mac for a couple of weeks I became an inadvertent IT rockstar. Perched perkily on my desk the Mac had a greyscale screen (not green), ran a GUI rather than command-line, and had a mouse ("Look, I move this little box on a wire, and that arrow on the screen follows it's movements!"). I used MacWrite and MacPaint to basically play for ten glorious days until it was taken away again, and I was plunged back into the world of words and numbers.

But it opened a window on a world that I began to inhabit full-time 5 years later. That of designing things on screen or for screen. It changed my world. I could have been an analyst and instead I work with some of the most precious things in the world and the most interesting people.

So to mark the shift and the progression, here's a list of the Macs I've had since then.

Mac IIci
Mac IIfx
PowerBook 170
Quadra 660AV
Power Mac 8100
Power Mac G4
Mac Pro G5
Mac Pro Dual Core Xeon
Cube G4
iMac G3 DV
PowerBook G3
iBook G4
Mini Core Duo
Mini Core i5
Macbook Core 2 Duo
Macbook Pro Core 2 Duo
MacBook Pro Core i5

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tome Team

My knowledge of bio-archeology is pretty much limited to watching Tony Robinson peer at skeletons on Time Team in the company of those wise in the ways of interpreting bones. Kind of like reading the runes, but with added science.

So it was a pleasure to spend time at the bio-archeology department at York University working on a possible project around surfacing a collection of manuscripts which had miraculously had DNA extracted from them in a non-destructive way. This might allow the discovery of which kind of animal the vellum came from, where and when.

I've always loved this kind of meta-data. The book as originally made, complete with text, illumination and binding for so long represented the entire artefact.

But the marginalia and annotations are very often more illuminating than the text itself. Aldred's annotation of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Newton's notes in his copy of Principia Mathematica or Eliot's scribbles on the typescript of The Wasteland.

The fascinating research done by Kathryn Rudy to determine the most read and used parts of a book, which can be determined by the wear and dirt of certain pages also reveals a whole new side to the life of the book. There's a great TED talk by her here.

So the analysis of the page itself propels us to a point where we can find out what animals were used, what time of year they might have been killed and whether the manuscript was consistent in it's use of material. It's likely to pose as many questions as it provides answers.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The North

To Newcastle University to discuss presenting some great local material. Getting out of the train from London, the temperature is definitely several degrees colder. This is "The North" as the signs on the M1 so bluntly put it. Locals might insist they are from the North East, which is quite a different thing.

I was early for the meeting so spent some time walking around Newcastle, and was struck by the range and quality of architecture. Dynamic modern buildings up at the university, moneyed sandstone parades of Victorian shops and towering redbrick warehouses on the steeper roads straggling down to the Tyne.

But it was the incredible Tudor survivors down at the quay that stunned me. Much like the short stretch by Chancery Lane in London, these came as a surprise. But a wonderful one.

Some, like Bessy Surtees House are well-preserved and in use (in this case by English Heritage).

Others were sound but unused. The roofs looked watertight, but the windows were occasionally boarded and the rooms empty. Peering through dusty windowpanes from the street, they looked unmolested and original. So what to do with them?

The quay is a little cut off from the city centre, and on the cold day of my visit, I was the only one down there. The enormous bridges tower above you and you feel somewhat out of place. This dislocation has probably been the reason they're not in use.

But in most cities these buildings were swept away in Victorian redevelopment or post-war reconstruction. So to have them at all is a gift. But it feels like a gift that has been left on the shelf, waiting for someone to realise it's value.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Rochester Revisited

Back to Rochester to start work on the Textus Roffensis, one of the most significant documents in England along with Magna Carta, Domesday and one or two others. To find out why, google it, but it's basically the foundation of our current legal system and includes transcriptions of laws from as early as the 6th century, the document itself being 500 years older.

But the task we're faced with, as with Magna Carta, is how to convey the significance of what is a very opaque book. Page after page of Anglo-Saxon and Latin with nary an illumination to lighten our darkness.

I think the answer is conjuring up people's imagination. To try to immerse them in that Anglo-Saxon world of wild tribalism and post-Roman chaos. The darkness, the violence, the invaders, the pervasive sense of insecurity. The holy men retreating to their fastnesses on the edge of our little island.

And who's to look out for us? To whom are we accountable?

In to the ferment comes a book of law, setting out right and wrong, compensation and civilisation.

Miraculously it has survived almost 1000 years and our job will be to animate it like some bibliophiliac Dr Frankenstein. Helpfully the book will be displayed in the crypt, and, if we can get the space right, the evocation will be simpler.

So much of examining the past is an exercise in imagination, which, if successful, allows us to see our present in new ways. Hopefully we can help.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Turning the Pages Deep Zoom

In response to some conversations at the IIIF conference in Paris earlier this summer, we decided to take a look at producing an enhanced version of Turning the Pages that would have 4 key features:
- HTML5 based
- use an API to call in any repository items rather than use the existing proprietary TTP database
- allow magnification to the native resolution of the source scans (whatever that might be)
- accommodate PNGs, TIFFs, JPGs or JP2s as source files

This project would take the long experience we have of producing compelling page turn experiences with that we developed for the iNQUIRE framework of surfacing deep zoom images, especially those created from a variety of source file formats.

Going through these one by one:

It's clear we had to build on the work done in TTP 3.0 and make this a web app that will run on any platform and be easy to reskin and customise, so HTML5/Javascript and CSS were the way to go.

Previous versions of TTP have provided a great user experience but been connected to a proprietary MS SQL Server database populated by the TTP CMS. This made it really easy to use, but hard to scale. The objective for TTP_DZ is for digital libraries to be able to just call up a URI (for example for a folder of images) and TTP would dynamically create the books on the fly. Rather like the Open Archive Book Reader works. This approach would allow us to scale to millions of books in an automated fashion.

One of the issues with rare books and manuscripts is the need to see as much resolution as possible. Traditionally we've used as high a resolution JPG or PNG as we can get away with, which has been good enough for the general public, but scholars want more. So we want to be able to provide the great TTP user experience, plus be able to zoom in to native resolution scans, all in a seamless way. No clunky image swapping or downloading of new page images.

Many of our clients are transitioning to using JP2s as their repository and delivery files format. We wanted to be able to accommodate this and serve up deep zoom pages derived from JP2s.

This project is a work in progress and the first build is now live here: http://armadillo.onlineculture.co.uk/deepzoom/ttp.html

This version hits a couple of our goals: it's HTML5 and it uses Deep Zoom versions of pages as required (i.e. beyond a certain zoom threshold). At the moment it's hard-wired in to the page images so the next thing we'll be working on is the abstraction from that model. It's also just using the standard TTP 3.0 interface  for now - we may add some more scholarly features as we progress.

As a prototype, we welcome all feedback, so tell us what you'd like to see and we'll add it to the list...