Guest post: Unfinished is good

When I attended the first ‘Community-powered Digital Transformations’ workshop at the University of Westminster, I was listening to presentations and discussion about digital creativity with three different thinking caps on.

Firstly, as a former museum curator I listened and spoke with much of the idealism of that profession but also identified with some of its insecurities over its future role in the digital age. Secondly, as a Research Fellow, my current role with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) and the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, I was interested in the academic perspective, particularly in what frames of reference were being used to make sense of the current debate around innovation and ownership. And finally, as a Research Assistant on another AHRC Digital Transformations project, Digital CoPs and Robbers: Communities of Practice and the Transformation of Research, much of the discussion struck a chord with the main theme in this project: how digital technologies influence research methodologies and what role practitioners play in this.

Despite, or maybe because of this schizophrenia, what struck me most is that creativity is a messy process which but one which thrives on loose ends and unanswered questions.

As an open arena, the digital environment is a very diverse place but one that’s full of potential. During one of the break-out sessions at the ‘Community-powered Digital Transformations’ workshop, I was reminded of how advantageous this diversity could be. One of the delegates is a trained architect who was touchingly honest about his lack of expertise in using digital technologies, having been used to drawing using pencil and paper, the traditional tools of his trade. He admitted to being just as out of his depth in his understanding and appreciation of Kurdish cuisine.

Despite this, in 2007 he was involved in a digital project, Eat London, with women from the Kurdish community in London to create an architectural model of landmark buildings in the capital using Kurdish food. As he spoke it became clear that neither party knew where the project would lead and that that was a good thing. Just as important was the fact that neither party on their own could have made it to their destination alone. Without being schmaltzy, I think this kind of freefall is needed if communities are to be truly creative. The digital environment requires this type of interdisciplinary cooperation and, like most relationships, benefits most from an honesty and openness which is sometimes painful but essential to gaining something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Although tensions often arise from partnership-working of this kind, the difference between disciplines is valuable. In their thought-provoking book, The Difference Engine: Achieving Powerful and Sustainable Partnership (Aldershot: Gower, 1998), Anne Deering and Anne Murphy make the point that skills and knowledge gaps between partners can be very productive and should not be reduced, and that authority should be distributed between partners. Indeed, conflicts only get worse if attempts are made to iron-out these differences. Instead, the tension created by difference between collecting institutions and potential users of their resources should be used as a creative energy to make projects flourish, but this may often require a leap of faith (by both parties) in helping the ‘other’ without actually becoming like them.

This message was reinforced at the first workshop in ‘Digital CoPs and Robbers’ which took place at the University of Birmingham on 26 March 2012. Nineteen individuals from various professions and disciplines were brought together to discuss how a selection of digital material, generated from the collections owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Royal Shakespeare Company, could be used to facilitate and encourage research into Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. What emerged was that the ‘meaning-potential’ (a term used by Klaus Müller in his essay ‘Museums and Virtuality’) of Shakespeare material was regarded very differently by an actor or a digital ‘creative’ than by an academic or heritage professional. Each of the participants reacted to the same material from their own perspective and this revealed a mixture of guardedness and candour, reflecting the separate constituency models of the past. However, the differences of response weren’t clear cut and the many loose ends of knowledge, combined with an openness between disciplines, encouraged a creative exchange which enriched the overall picture.

One of the objects which participants reacted to was an early 17th century wooden sheath for a knife and fork associated with courtship at the time of Shakespeare. This had been selected for digitisation by a fellow doctoral student at the SBT and University of Birmingham, Peter Hewitt, whose research involves the exploration of Early Modern artefacts in the Trust’s collections.

By re-examining and questioning the catalogue data associated with objects like this, Peter’s deep research of artefacts is redefining the potential of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collections catalogues to promote research and creative endeavour. His approach of inviting-in as many perspectives as possible at the ‘ground floor’ as it were of the building of the artefact’s record, was supported and verified in the Digital CoPs and Robbers workshop where different communities of practice responded to digital images and data. Information on the rich decoration and symbolism of the sheath, the variety of theories about its meaning, and its incompletion (the wedding knife and fork which it once sheathed is missing), and a range of digital representations of the sheath, were all missing from the official record of the artefact but were given to participants to promote a fuller discussion. Although museums are rightfully cautious about the policing of the official record, the plurality of voices about this one object was one that was widely welcomed by academics taking part in Digital CoPs and Robbers. Such creative re-cataloguing requires a collecting organisation to be candid about the state of their knowledge but can result in the beginnings of a research and creative community around the object and a more progressive, truthful body of knowledge.

Therefore, just as a blog is only a starting point for conversation, I believe that by being honest about the gaps in knowledge that we can arrive at something unforeseen and far richer than the dubious certainties of the finished article…

Photo by Flickr user Bill D’Adostino, from a production of The Tempest. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 licence.

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