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How digital tech is helping to capture history, as it happens

Michelle Pavey

Strategy Director

I am probably not alone in feeling like I am living through a series of intense Hollywood blockbusters right now. From the down-right absurdity of domestic and international politics, the worldwide protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement through to the apocalyptic climate change-induced weather, oh and that teeny tiny global pandemic. For many of us, it really feels like we have front-row seats for a period of time that will go down in history and be taught to many generations to come.

So with that in mind, and as digital nerds and lovers of arts, culture and museums, we got to thinking about how history is captured in a digital era. I think of history and my school years, learning about the Tudors and Stuarts from massive textbooks and possibly visiting a museum to draw pictures of armour and crowns. It is fair to say, A LOT has moved on since then. Not only has the way we digest history changed (thanks internet) but what we consider to be worth capturing has had to change too. Previously the emphasis on historical collection was on physical pieces (letters, art, literature, clothes and so on) but in the last 20 years, society, how it functions, interacts and engages has become vastly different to pre-2000 and so is what we will identify as artefacts of history.

We are all able to capture and share history in real-time 🔗

Most people have access to a device that gives them the ability to use the internet and therefore a whole host of content sharing platforms. Individuals now have the power to not only access live news and unfolding events but to create and become a part of the news too. We can all capture images, video and audio and share them in real-time. So what does this mean for the preservation of ‘moments in time’ for future generations? Digitally we are able to obtain and give access to a far broader breadth of information than we have ever been able to before, if (as a lot of institutions are) we move quickly and look to retain a variety of different mediums of ‘history’. We live in an age of social media, each of these has hundreds of thousands of pieces of user-generated content uploaded daily expressing individual’s views on what they are experiencing. This is history being documented as it happens and is arguably a more honest and authentic view of how events are truly unfolding. However this also brings up a significant challenge, with the impermanence and speed of change of the internet and how it is used, how can you collect and retain pieces of history that may disappear the next day? Not to mention navigating through disinformation and ‘fake news’!

We already have platforms such as the internet archive and the UK web archive which document web pages and media from across the years, but what more can be done?

Recently there have been some really good examples of how museums and organisations are seeking to link between the more traditional physical exhibitions and artefacts and tie them together with their digital counterparts.

The Coronavirus Pandemic 🔗

The coronavirus pandemic is an example of how many experiences and artefacts are currently being captured and will continue to be as we move through the year. People have gone to digital platforms to share their experiences and connect with other people. A quick search on any hashtag or search engine will show you images, videos, tweets, Instagram posts of how people are surviving the pandemic. It’s because of this that some museums have already sought to capture this information for future exhibitions. The Museum of London recently acquired a dozen viral tweets which embodied the mood of Londoners during the first lockdown. These tweets formed a part of Twitter UK’s ‘History in the Tweeting’ report, which looked at how social media was used during this time and how it will shape personal interactions and sharing in the future.

Tweet: “Just saw a very sweet slice of quarantine life. Two young lovers in jogging gear in Springfield Park, clearly pretending to be doing their exercise for the day so they could steal a moment together. Not ashamed to say I had a slight catch in my throat as I called the police.”

Meanwhile, the Science Museum has acquired the vial and syringe from the first vaccine administered in the UK, alongside signage, guidance and PPE. They are also requesting that people share digital artefacts with them as they continue to compile their collection. They are not alone in this, many teams across the world are working to preserve this information right now and seeking the public’s assistance to help them do it.

Tweet: “This morning at University Hospital, Coventry the biggest vaccine campaign in the NHS kicked off as 90-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer #Covid19Vaccine”

The global fight against systemic racism 🔗

The killing of George Floyd in May 2020, shone an undeniable light on racism’s prevalence in modern society and forced people to not only sit with that uncomfortable truth but also to acknowledge it, educate themselves and to stand against it. With the help of digital platforms, the movement was able to quickly expand globally and gain rapid momentum, proving it was not just America’s problem, but the world’s.

During the summer and autumn months when the movement was gaining a lot of exposure and support, people were starting to think about how to gather the street art, literature, poetry, videos, images and action that were coming directly out of the movement to understand how it will shape the narrative about racism and how we make a difference in the future. The critical part of this is that this content is coming directly from the communities affected. Black creators who were previously silenced or ignored are now having their voices and works listened to, shared and acknowledged. This is hugely significant in terms of how this content is collected and recorded because it is a step-change from what has previously been a white-washed representation of historical events and, importantly, is an accurate, real and uncensored view of people’s experiences. Experiences that you cannot ignore because they are now at the forefront of every medium the public engages with. A quick google search will show you there is currently 83,300 professional images available on Getty from the BLM protests. This doesn’t even take into account the images, words, videos, links to further content and opinions shared across social media using hashtags or the use of the black squares across Instagram to show support and spread awareness.

Instagram post by Urban Art Mapping documenting a Black Lives Matter street art in Madison, WI.

So what is being done to retain this information? Alongside the more traditional curation of physical exhibitions at museums and galleries, there are a number of digital platforms being built to capture street art and protest signage before it disappears. From the ‘Save the Boards’ work which is hoping to save the physical graffiti, words and expression created by people during the protests, they aim to create a physical exhibition but also build 3D scans to enable them to host a virtual exhibition and retain the artwork digitally. This bid to retain the artwork online is also the focus of the George Floyd & Anti-Racist street art database and linked ‘ urban mappingInstagram account which features the street artwork from across the globe (they are curating Covid-19 artwork too). This is really important work and will largely dictate what is available physically and digitally to teach future generations about what actually happened.

Instagram post from Save the Boards showing a board that has been saved

Politics 🔗

Seriously what on earth has been going on for the past five years politically. It has been a wild ride and admittedly the UK has been at the front of that rollercoaster, BUT as always not to be outdone, America has shot into first place with some pretty outrageous behaviour in most part at the hands of Donald Trump. He has given historians, political commentators and basically everyone in the world an abundance of digital fodder to paw over. Never before have we seen a world-leader openly and frequently share such divisive opinion and thoughts in such a public and bold manner. Trump has become legendary for his Twitter rants and his ability to incite hatred and chaos via social media. This has escalated to the point where Twitter has now banned him from their platform as his tweets were becoming dangerous and had empowered his followers to commit reckless acts and crimes. Comedy Central worked quickly to build physical and virtual libraries of Trump’s most interesting tweets. This is a really engaging concept of viewing a digital platform in a more traditional format whilst also retaining its virtual nature and the ability for a wider audience to be reached online.

Exterior of the Donald J trump Presidential Twitter Library - Which was a joke

With all of these innovations being taken to preserve different formats of history in a meaningful and contextually representative way, we really look forward to seeing how what we are experiencing today will continue to be captured and how it will be shared in decades to come, both digitally and at museums and galleries. Although in fairness, for now, I do not really want to relive 2020 any time soon…

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