Before it’s too late

There is always someone in the family that knows everything, who recognises every face in every old picture, who could tell you where they were taken and what the occasion was, who could narrate an old family film to within an inch of its life.

In my family, that person was my Great Auntie Jo.

I had some amazing experiences around old family and local stories with my Gran before she died a few years ago. Not enough, but they were important for us – a chance to understand each other’s lives a bit better, to compare stuff, laugh a lot and find out some secrets that weren’t for full family viewing.

A few weeks ago, I spoke on the phone to my Auntie Jo, a wonderful woman of well over 90, to say that I wanted to come and spend some time with her to talk through all the photos and videos of family, friends and the farming communities our family has always been part of. She was excited. We hadn’t seen each other for ages and she loved the idea of sharing boxes of old materials and a head full of memories. Like me, Jo wasn’t that interested in family trees. But, also like me, she loved a good story and every one of the things she had collected came with a story or two.

Earlier this week, Jo had a fall and died in hospital soon afterwards. I had never made my trip. Busy lives got in the way, seemingly more important things took priority.

As a family, losing Jo has been very hard. For me, it comes with some extra sadness. I never got that time with her and she never had it with me. Tragically, those boxes and boxes and photos will mostly only ever be pictures, rather than stories – Jo was the last person in the world that could tell you about lots of them.

For me, for my family, for our communities and our society, we lost the chance to understand more about ourselves through Jo’s memories, to feel more connected to places and people.

This is a loss that happens every day, hundreds of times over. Memories slip out of reach and are lost forever.

Historypin began with lots of positive experiences that inspired me and other members of that initial team to put something into the world that could multiply and aggregate those experience. This painful experience, of something urgent not done soon enough, can be put to equally good use I hope.

The Participatory Museum

In a blog post entitled The Participatory Museum published last week, Historypin’s Nick Stanhope and Nick Poole of Collections Trust examine the emergence of “a very simple but very important new idea about the social and professional function of museums.”

While the two Nick’s come from rather different worlds, “Nick Poole from work around cultural collections and Nick Stanhope from work in local communities,” together they look at how “web 2.0” standards are maturing into a much more sophisticated engagement approach for cultural heritage.

What emerges is a participatory museum, which uses the skills of curatorship, documentation and preservation to work with audiences to develop social capital. The museum benefits because it gets its collections digitised, tagged, shared and used. The user benefits because they can both make a material contribution to their culture and acquire new skills in the process. Society benefits because people go through their lives with a personal understanding of and attachment to the work we do.

Read the full article on the Collections Link blog.

Occupying spaces

Occupy London camp in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, 16 October 2011. Shared by democratic heritage

Last week Occupy London was forced to vacate St Paul’s Churchyard after their five month occupation. The aftermath has raised some interesting questions about what and how museum curators should start collecting materials from an event which will soon start to be interpreted and analysed through a historical lens.

One thing that particularly struck me was the challenge that all archiving institutions are facing: how to capture and store born-digital materials. Especially from an event like Occupy London where so much of it’s communication, organisation and identity was digital rather than physical.

But what I found most interesting was that this protest, which has prompted so much and debate and is now being collected for posterity, had temporarily occupied a physical space. Yet no physical trace of it remains in the place that was so central to it. This is the cases for many spaces in our landscapes where people have come together and something has happened – a protest, a street party, a meeting. Sometimes these spaces are marked by a plaque or passed down in local stories, but more often than not they go unknown or unnoticed.

And this is one of the things that excites me most about Historypin – the ability to re-populate spaces with content and stories that show the multitude of moments that have happen in our public spaces. And through the Historypin app, to be able to vividly re-create and explore these moments whilst standing in the same spot, hovering in the fasinating gap between past and present.

Even more importantly, I think Historypin offers an opportunity to capture and preserve moments and stories of our shared spaces that might otherwise be lost. Occupy London will always be part of the history books, because it is recognised in its time to be worth paying attention to. But often it is the things that seem least noteworthy that can be the most valuable. It could be this photo in St Paul’s Churchyard, rather than the one at the top of this post, which excites the historians of the future.

Violet Davis, St Pau's Churchyard, 1956 shared by Violet Davis

Opinion: Considering SOPA in Cultural Heritage

I’m guessing you’ve already heard of the two bills that have been introduced before Congress in the United States, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House. It would be hard not to notice the uproar this has sparked on the web, with sites like Wikipedia, Craigslist, and BoingBoing going dark; Google organizing a massive petition; and companies large and small making statements of protest.

We certainly join the many librarians, archivists, museum professionals and creatives that we work with in voicing our concern. I love what Rachel Hodder wrote about the impact SOPA may have on cultural heritage for the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative at Michigan State University. And the Digital Public Library of America made a powerful statement on their site today, stating:

We are against the theft of intellectual property, but SOPA/PIPA will hurt, not help. Some of us feel strongly that libraries should never close, even in support of our deeply held beliefs. We show our respect for that position by posting it here, and one by community consensus to go dark.

Of course, cultural heritage institutions around the world are under assault in many ways, not least of which from drastic cuts in funding in lean economic times. Yet contrary to so many companies in the entertainment and publishing industries, the many stewards of cultural memory content around the world are responding NOT by holding tighter to their assets or litigating or lobbying their way out of failing business models, but instead are innovating and opening and sharing like never before. We’re seeing this in movements like the grassroots Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums we’ve been a part of; in efforts surrounding orphan works in publishing; and in an increasing tide of academics, researchers and institutions publishing with open licenses.

Copyright and licensing is obviously a complicated issue, and one that we at Historypin continue to put a tremendous amount of thought and care into as we work with a myriad of individuals and institutions around the world sharing creative works. Yet there’s no question that legislation like SOPA and PIPA would very likely have a devastating effect on sites like Historypin that encourage community, conversation, creativity and innovation. And that seems worth fighting for.