Grand Challenges is a week-long summer programme aimed at undergraduate students concluding their first year at the University of Exeter. Coming from all fields of study, these young people work together in interdisciplinary research groups, alongside top academics and facilitators, to address some of the greatest, most pressing issues of the 21st century. This year, among many other compelling topics – such as mental health, climate change and fashion ethics, to name but a few – students had the chance to reflect on the unprecedented use we all make of digital information, and to explore related issues of democracy and representation, copyright and ownership.
Under the academic lead of Professor Gabriella Giannachi, a series of four challenges looked into the way digital archives operate within real institutions. Thanks to the ongoing collaborations Professor Giannachi has been cultivating through her multifaceted research activity, students were given the invaluable opportunity to work in some of the excellent local and national organisations that are actively involved in digitally archiving our heritage – namely the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), the Bill Douglas Centre, Exeter City Football Club Supporters Trust, Tate, and the University of Exeter’s Arts and Culture programme. Students were offered the chance to consult archives, handle original materials and access behind-the-scenes facilities at each organisation, to gain first-hand experience of their workings, and in particular of how original materials are digitised and brought to life online, and to develop the relevant theoretical knowledge and practical skills.
A group of nine students, coming from disciplines ranging from History to Economics and Law, worked on the collaborative Challenge involving Tate and the Arts and Culture team at the University of Exeter. Throughout this intense week-long project, they explored the Tate collection through the Art Maps online platform, and accessed the University collection on site, engaging in particular with works created by J.M.W. Turner in the 1810s, when the artist spent some time travelling in Devon. Besides the evident relation of these works with the city of Exeter and its context, academics and facilitators had selected that specific series of prints in light of the fact that both Tate and the University of Exeter held a copy of it in their collections. Focusing on the same set of artworks, allowed students to overlook otherwise significant factual and formal variables such as medium, date of creation and artist’s style, to reflect instead on the different digital treatments available in the two organisations at hand. In observing how Tate had imaginatively taken on the digitisation challenge, and in particular on how it had tackled issues such as accessibility, ownership and democratic representation of its ever expanding, online audience, the group soon reframed their own challenge as that of finding a comparable way to open up the University of Exeter’s collection, and to make it relevant to new audiences, engaging them in its interpretation.
Writing this preface, are the three University of Exeter’s PhD students – Temi Alanamu, Zoe Bulaitis and Cristina Locatelli – who facilitated this particular Challenge. We tapped into our experience in researching subjects such as (broadly speaking) archives, art education and history, in addition to our diverse experience as facilitators and teachers in formal and informal educational contexts, to help the group to adopt a coherent research methodology. While we have supported the students in structuring their research findings effectively, and in meeting deadlines throughout a week of intense and varied work, we have actively refrained from influencing the students’ focus of interest and their data analysis, to ensure the outcome of this research project was as fresh and authentic as possible. This approach has also allowed us to see familiar fields of research anew, while each individual student’s interests and commitment has given us the opportunity to challenge our own position in an extremely enriching way.
For this reason, we have asked the students to share their Grand Challenges experience on this blog, as we strongly believe their voices offer a new perspective that complements the work that the Art Maps research team has carried out between 2012 and 2014. So over to them…
We were attracted to this challenge for many different reasons, related to our specific interests and to the variety of opportunities it offered. Some of us were fascinated first and foremost by the idea of handling original works by Turner, and by the chance to find out more about the artist and his relation to Devon, and to Exeter in particular. Others were interested in the archiving aspects of the project, and in the opportunity to collaborate with prestigious institutions such as Tate and the Arts and Culture programme at the University of Exeter, actively contributing to their online presence.
After exploring the Tate collection through Art Maps, focusing in particular on Devon-related works by Turner, we were offered the chance to see up close some of the original Turner prints belonging to the University of Exeter’s collection – which holds about 600 artworks by this artist alone – also relating to Turner’s time in Devon. We were fortunate to be introduced to these works by Professor Sam Smiles, Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, world-renowned expert on Turner’s work and curator of the forthcoming The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free at Tate Britain. After interviewing Professor Smiles, we decided to focus our attention on one single work titled Exeter, part of the collection of engravings Picturesque Views in England and Wales, and dating 1827–38. Time constrictions were certainly a contributing factor in our decision – one week is a really short time to embark in such a challenge! That said though, what really made us decide in this sense was rather the realisation that the whole group considered extremely important to be able to visit in person the place depicted in the artwork, and wherever possible, to talk to local dwellers about their experiences and feelings towards the place depicted, the artwork and their respective historical significance.
While browsing the Art Maps platform, and contributing to Tate’s crowdsourcing effort, we reflected on the traditional model of archive, which uses many artworks to compose a ‘picture’ that is descriptive of a specific subject or place, and decided to shape our project around the idea of turning such a concept upside-down. Our intention was to work on the single artwork we had selected, and to demonstrate its potential as an inexhaustible, but totally self-contained art map. In other words, rather than looking at the print as a piece within a bigger archival ‘whole’, we set out to reverse the model and present that single print as the whole, and the archive as a living part of it. At the same time, we turned the depiction of a particular location into a starting point for the exploration of multiple, unexpected paths leading not only to other geographical places, but also to different times and personal stories.
We decided to split the artwork into three layers of content, also to reflect our different skills, styles and interests. Three groups of as many people were created, and while Bethany, Doroteya and Yeeshim focused on the area of the Quay, in the print’s foreground, Brad, Josef and Namuun looked at the houses depicted in the middle ground of the artwork, called Colleton Crescent, and finally Chloe, Thurstan and Rachel explored the Cathedral in the background, and other related themes in the work of Turner and in the history of the city. All groups connected with local dwellers, producing audio and video interviews that would eventually compose the print’s self-contained online community archive. By comparing those areas at the time of Turner and nowadays, we were able to explore the connections between different historical contexts and the changing economic circumstances throughout the centuries, and to gain an understanding of the ways people back then and now conduct their personal and working lives within each.
The project’s output, presented online under the Arts and Culture’s website, followed a similar structure and presented the three sections described above, following a more general introduction about the project, Turner’s artistic career and the city of Exeter. The same content was also visualised through this Prezi presentation, to enable users to navigate the community archive at their leisure, without following a prescribed route but rather being guided by their interests and previous knowledge.
Our target audience was intentionally left quite broad, as we wanted our project’s output to appeal to anyone interested in Turner as an artist and as a man of his time, and in the city of Exeter and its growth. We aimed at stimulating people of all ages to go beyond the mere aesthetic appreciation of the print, to delve deeper into the history and contradictions of its subject, and possibly find new, personal narratives and interpretations between Turner’s work and the history of Exeter.
To our surprise, we managed to find the exact spot where Turner stood while sketching the view that would subsequently become our chosen print. This offered us the chance to experience Exeter from the artist’s point of view, and to realise that many of the features that can be seen there today, were actually already present in the 1810s. At the same time though, we confirmed what Professor Sam Smiles had anticipated in his interview – which also features in the project’s output – that it was Turner’s habit to integrate different sketches into a print, which in this instance brought to the inclusion of a footbridge in the artwork, which did not exist at the time. Among the many unexpected discoveries that marked our exploration, one of the most intriguing remains the fact that some of the houses in Colleton Crescent were converted into a theatre and a ballet school just after Turner painted them, but then returned to their original residential purpose. While no trace of such rich history is visible from the outside of the houses, some of us could talk with the current residents there and were made aware of it, demonstrating the importance of making this kind of knowledge available to the wider public.
Although the short amount of time we were given to tackle this project was certainly the most challenging aspect of the whole experience, we were pleased to realise how much content we managed to unearth and put together in so little time. In particular we are proud of having been able to offer a new perspective on Exeter the print, and Exeter the city, perhaps opening the way to similar explorations for other artworks in the context of Art Maps and beyond.
The Digital Futures – Grand Challenge Students