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CO.LABORATIONS | Partnerships in Media and Culture


MAPPY: a digital heritage collaboration with HistoryIT and Impakt Festival

1. About the collaboration

In September 2016 the Master program New Media and Digital Culture based at Utrecht University’s Media and Culture Studies department started a new collaboration with HistoryIT, a US based technology and services company working in the field of digital heritage, and Impakt Festival. The collaboration took shape in the new Master’s course Research Lab 1. During this methodological course, students worked on HistoryIT’s new MAPPY project about presenting historical maps in meaningful and attractive new ways. The overarching question was how we can deploy a variety of methods in order to conceptualize and prototype a smart digital storytelling and story-sharing platform based on historical maps that is adaptive and responsive.

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The aim of this collaboration between between Utrecht University’s Media and Culture Studies Expertise Centre, and the IMPAKT Festival is to experiment with an innovative approach to combine education with a hands-on digital heritage project. Students in the Master’s program New Media & Digital Culture help HistoryIT to create meaningful access to digitized historical cartography archives, and in doing so generate academic insights by critically reflecting on digital media platforms and practices. This is one of the ways in which the MCW Expertise Centre wants to forge close connections between academic education and research, and the practical field of media- and culture.


2. MAPPY presentation at Impakt festival 2016

In week 6 of the course ten teams of students publicly presented their work at the Impakt Festival. Kristen Gwinn-Becker from HistoryIT over Skype, and Kelly Mostert, who works in the field of audiovisual heritage at The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, provided responses and reflections on this work. The event was developed in close association with the 2016 Impakt Festival. Impakt was a logical partner in this collaboration with HistoryIT and MCW, because of the 2016 festival theme authenticity and because HistoryIT’s CEO Kristen Gwinn-Becker had been one of the keynote speakers of the 2015 festival.

Kristen Gwinn-BeckerKristen Gwinn-Becker

kelly mostertKelly Mostert

Teams were asked to present the following aspects of their work:

  1. Question How did you understand the MAPPY assignment? Which aspect did you interpret as the core question that you are working on?
  2. Concept What concept did you develop? How did this understanding of the question translate into the main (theoretical) idea of your team?
  3. Approach What approach are you taking? Do not describe the week per week methods but the overal methodology that informs your research.
  4. Results What are the results so far (please make this visual: rough initial prototypes, sketches, etc.)
  5. Reflection How does this lead to answers to your question? How does the practical work inform you research?

IMG_9367IMG_9414On October 27 2016 Festival Director Arjon Dunnewind welcomed everyone to the session. After the welcome, students shared the preliminary results of their quest to create engaging stories and interfaces that open up cartographic archives to a general audience. Interestingly, almost every team had taken one central concept as a guiding principle to develop their ideas around. For instance, one team focused on multiplicity of voices in historical representations, another team looked at tea trade as one of the early globalized forms of mobility, while yet another team explored the story-telling potentials and affordances of maps themselves. Despite the fact that the work itself was not yet finished, the presentations provided a glimpse into what could be achieved through this collaboration.

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3. Reflections on the MAPPY collaboration 

There are multiple ways in which MCW’s areas of expertise, HistoryIT’s applied question about MAPPY, and Impakt’s 2016 festival theme authenticity came together in this collaboration.

First, the MAPPY collaboration engages in conceptual and ontological debates about reconsidering and redefining the notion of authenticity in an age of (digital) media. The MAPPY project is, in part, an exploration of how historical archives (maps) can be digitized and offer meaningful stories for people. As media technologies, maps and narratives always balance between realism and artificial, between fact and fiction, etc. Moreover, both narrative and maps are central to our sense of self. For instance Benedict Anderson in his well-known book Imagined Communities argues that nationalism (e.g. “being Dutch” as an authentically experienced reality) could only come into being through map-making and through the spread of media telling specific stories.

Also, recurring debates in the field of digital media and culture include highly relevant angles for Impakt’s focus on authenticity, for example the media archeological fascination with the new and the old, how media foster both immersive authentic experiences and an ironic distancing and highly self-reflexive stance, how so-called participatory culture and a variety of platforms such as AirBnB monetizes and exploits authentic experiences, and so on.

IMG_9363Second, the MAPPY collaboration contributes to exploring perceived and affective components of authenticity. The project raises interesting questions about the role of media (maps, narratives) in representing and constituting what we perceive as reality. It is a well-accepted idea that media do not just represent the world in a certain way but also construct and shape the world and our perception of it. Arguably with the rise of various locative media technologies and practices, cartography has become a dominant medium to represent and shape our increasingly complex world an a variety of ways that range from data-visualizations to artistic practices. The way people understand the world today, and how we feel about ourselves and our place in the world, is shaped by these dominant and constantly changing mediated forms of mapping and storytelling.

IMG_9432Third, the MAPPY collaboration contributes to debates about the materiality of digital culture and authenticity. The historical maps themselves, as digital material artifacts, play with sensations of authenticity. The particular material qualities of the old maps as works of art (e.g. the paper or parchment used, the natural dyes and colors of the ink, handwritten calligraphy, the style of drawing, etc.etc.) constitute glimpses into another era of an unspoiled terra incognita which by now to many seems a lost world. What about the status of ‘the copy’, i.e. the digitized form: does this still have a similar authentic ‘aura’ as the original? And how original and “of undisputed origin” are these old maps anyway, as many have been produced in colonial times and therefore today are highly contested? How do you deal with this?

Finally, the collaboration develops and explores an interesting methodology (actually somewhat similar to the work of invited guests Floris Kaayk and Koert van Mensveld at Impakt 2016), which aims to create design fictions as ways to engage in critical reflections and debates about digital media and (the future of) society. In a sense here, the fabricated and “inauthentic” artistic interventions become powerful and authentic (in the sense of honest and totally committed) tools to debate the desirability of potential futures. Armed with this sensitivity, our students have worked on design considerations and were stimulated to make prototypes that act as design probes or design for debate interventions.

IMG_9447Through this collaboration, MCW’s Expertise Centre has developed and experimented with a viable approach for complementary modes of collaborating with partners in the field of media and culture in research, education, and valorization. The collaboration was meant to have everyone benefit. For partners it is a great way to obtain more in depth conceptual reflections and actual design briefs and prototypes by talented students. For the university it is an opportunity to collaborate with practitioners from the practical field and get a better sense of what are the current questions these partners are facing. And for students it is a way to learn about potential future job market and field of practice, by working on a real assignment with something actually at stake for them.


All photo credits: Sanne Sprenger.
For more information about this project contact Michiel de Lange.