Re-contextualising archival material in digital humanities

This is a short outline of a talk I gave on Friday 20th February in the River Room of the Glucksman Gallery in University College Cork. It was part of a session called “Tangents: Digital Humanities”, our topic was archive and the session was set up during an exhibition (“Selective Memory”) which explored the use of the archive by artists.


My topic is designed to complement the Selective Memory exhibition on show in the Glucksman Gallery, and I set out to compare the use of the archive within digital humanities (and in my work in particular), with the use of the archive by artists.

I work with the Cork Folklore Project, an oral history and community archive. One of my tasks is to build a digital humanities project using items from the oral history archive.

Cork Folklore Project uses the life story methodology in its interviews. They are semi-structured interviews in which people tell their own stories about their lives, in their own voices. This creates rich and contextualised interview recordings that tend to last around an hour. [And sometimes people do multiple interviews.]


The end results is quite long recordings of interviews. This creates two main dilemmas:

  1. Ethical issues – interview format is quite intimate and sometimes people tell stories that are not necessarily suitable for widespread broadcast, although they would be considered suitable to be held in an archive.
  2. Long format of recording – this limits the audience (probably to oral and local historians), the web is notorious for promoting scanning, rather than an extended attention span.

The solution has been to use excerpts (standalone stories taken from longer oral histories).


This led to some anxiety (for me) about the way the work was presented.

Telling life stories for a recording or an interviewer is now seen as a performance (within a very general definition – including almost any act of self-representation). Oral histories are told by a narrator, for an audience. Because of this context is important:

Lynn Abrams (oral historian) says that we should “acknowledge that any narrative cannot be separated from its form” (Abrams 2010, 130).

But to some extent at least –I have separated the narrative from its form in my digital project, and created a new narrative form.


In the creation of new narrative forms…there are parallels with artistic work. Parallels between the work of an artist who uses an archive for inspiration and the digital humanist (building digital projects to suggest a flavour of the materials in an archive) , as both are using archival material and creating new narrative forms.

Why do we do this – mine the archive to create new pieces of culture, or to explore the past in new ways, and through new narrative forms?

Aleida Assman (2008) says that our cultural memory is made up of “canon” on the one hand, and “archive” on the other…..

Canon is seen as the cultural working memory – items in canon, endure, they are selected and active.  ….as contrasted to archive, which is seen as passive.


But this boundary between canon and archive is dynamic: active cultural memory may recede (be forgotten about) and become passive, and the material in a historical archive can be accessed, reinterpreted, framed in a new context that gives it more active meaning.

So the archive is passive but it holds the potential to become active through (re)interpretation, (re)negotiation and new meaning-making.

This is a good reason to mine the archive, to re-contextualise archival material, reinterpret it, and to create more active meaning.


I think the main differences are in the parameters and boundaries. Pushing the boundaries and subverting the rules lies at the heart of much artistic production.

In contrast, in DH my purpose is not to subvert the archive, I’m trying to promote the oral history archive, to attract new audiences and maybe recruit new interviewees.

So as a digital humanist I need to be as faithful to the original as is possible. Much (all) archival work is carried out within standardised parameters; catalogue entries follow a standardised format, and lots of work is put into the standardisation of metadata so that information about archival holdings can be shared across different institutions.

Artists don’t usually care about metadata but digital humanists have to.


Anthropologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls the kind of work that digital humanists, archivists, people who work in heritage, etc. do “metacultural production”. (Metaculture could be loosely defined as being about human cultural systems.) All heritage work is seen as metacultural, it’s a mark of modernity. (e.g. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 58)

So despite the fact that there are some similarities between artists and digital humanists in that they can use archives to create new narrative forms, there are also differences: even within the archive artists are engaged in cultural production, whereas digital humanists are engaged in meatcultural production.


Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.

Assman, A. (2008). Canon and archive, pp. 97 – 107 in Erll, A., Nünning, A., & Young, S. B. (2008). Cultural memory studies an international and interdisciplinary handbook. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (2004). Intangible heritage as metacultural production. Museum International, 56(1-2), 52–65.