Friday, February 10, 2012

What's the story?

On January 20, 2012 DECIPHER partners from Open University (OU), DIT, IMMA and NGI met in Dublin to discuss new developments in Storyspace, a prototype system developed by OU for creating and exploring stories associated with heritage objects and their related events.

OU have developed the curate ontology for describing aspects of curatorial narratives and their underlying conceptual structure; the ontology is being used in conjunction with Storyspace to model curatorial narratives on the (conceptual) story level. The ontology draws on structuralist theories that distinguish between story (i.e. what can be told), plot (i.e. an interpretation of the story) and narrative (i.e. its presentational form).

To dissect things even further, stories are represented as containing events (e.g. Gabriel Metsu died in 1667), which are described using facets such as time, location, theme etc. Plot relations illustrate the relationships and connections between events; to illustrate how events (or sets of events) influence other events (or sets of events) e.g. event x caused/enabled event y.

Within the system there are two distinct types of story, with heritage object stories being the stories that are connected to a heritage object (when it was made, what has happened to it etc.), and curatorial stories being the overarching stories that can be told using a range of heritage object stories.

Over the past few months, DECIPHER partners have been familiarising themselves with the Storyspace system and its underlying concepts. NGI and IMMA have been adding images and information on heritage objects, and their related stories, in order to represent curatorial stories from NGI’s Gabriel Metsu: Rediscovered Master of the Dutch Golden Age exhibition and IMMA’s The Moderns exhibition.

An element of our most recent discussion involved analysing plot relations and thinking about how they might be modelled in Storyspace. We came up with a hierarchical list of five types of relations, from the more general to the specific:
Related – An event (or set of events) is related to another event (or set of events)
Influenced – Used when event(s) have an effect on other event(s)
Motivated – Used when event(s) provoke other event(s)
In reaction to - Used when the "to" events were intentionally carried out in response to the "from" events
Inspired - Similar to ‘motivate’ but more specific and implying a positive influence

The next step is to add heritage objects and related stories from NGI’s Sir Denis Mahon Library and Archive collection. This addition of fascinating archival material relating to Sir Denis Mahon’s life, scholarship and art collection, as well as antique books, will lead to more diversity within the dataset, and enable us to create more interesting and complex narratives.

Under the Influence

Recently, DECIPHER partners the National Gallery of Ireland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), and the Open University have been discussing the concept of ‘influence’ as represented in art history. We had started exploring what words and phrases art specialists use to denote the nature of influential relationships and interactions between artists, artworks, and a social or historical context. I looked at four art history and appreciation textbooks to establish some concrete examples of references to ‘influence’. These texts gave some sense of the type of language used when addressing entry-level art history students (rather than, say, specialist and specific third-level texts).

The four books are aimed at Irish secondary school students who are following a two year course in preparation for their final state exams (usually from age fifteen to eighteen): The books are: Sight Insight Excite, Appreciation & History of Art, Less Stress More Success: Art History Revision for Leaving Cert, and Art History and Appreciation. Two of the books I had used in school myself, so I had a few flashbacks of nostalgia going through their pages. To give the work some manageable parameters, I limited the scope of my search to (mostly) the chapters concerning European painting and sculpture from the 1400s to the 1900s.

Unsurprisingly, the many variations of the word ‘influence’ cropped up the most in this search (142 references):

He was influenced by ...

This influential group ...

The influence of these masters ...

Under the influence of ...

After that, there were 41 references to a rejection of influence, or simply a lack of influence:

It was a reaction to Realism and Impressionism...

Breaking free of the Romantic influence ...

In no way influenced by ...

Other types of verbs that indicated some type of influence were: changed (32 references); learned (25 references); inspired (19 references); followed (18 references); admired (17 references); impressed (13 references); copied (13 references); based on (9 references); encouraged (7 references); absorbed (6 references); foreshadowed (5 references); associated (5 references); impacted (3 references); interested (3 references); appreciated (3 references).

The various authors use these verbs like a sliding scale to indicate the nature and strength of the ‘influence’ operating between artists, artworks, history and society.

One of my colleagues who is more familiar with specialised texts for third-level, said she was surprised to see that there mention of ‘informed by’, which she thought was over-used and quite neutral. So, later in the project we may look at additional ways of indicating ‘influence’ which are common in texts aimed at particular reader cohorts other than second-level students.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

DECIPHER presentation at the CIDOC CRM SIG

On the 17th November Paul Mulholland made a DECIPHER presentation to the CIDOC CRM Special Interest Group, held at the Meertens Instituut, Amsterdam. CIDCO CRM (Conceptual Reference Model) provides a formal structure for describing the implicit and explicit concepts and relationships used in cultural heritage documentation ( CIDOC CRM affords an event-centred description making it easier to represent historical periods and how people and objects change over time. This is of particular interest to DECIPHER, given the important role of events in stories and how we model these in the curate ontology.

The first part of the day featured a number of interesting presentations as to how CIDOC CRM is being used and extended in disciplines such as the humanities and archaeology. The DECIPHER presentation looked at how curatorial narratives can be modelled and how this relates to CIDOC CRM.

Attending the CIDOC CRM SIG also provided a good opportunity to learn more about the work being carried out in harmonizing CIDOC CRM with FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records).

DECIPHER presentation at the DERIVE workshop

On the 23rd October Paul Mulholland presented a paper at the DERIVE workshop held in conjunction with the International Semantic Web Conference (ISWC) 2011 in Bonn. The aim of the workshop was to explore how event-based semantic descriptions can help in the representation and organisation of knowledge and media. The one-day workshop contained an interesting range of presentations covering how events can be formally represented, visualised, extracted from text and used to support navigation. Of particular interest to DECIPHER was the work of the Agora project ( whose digital hermeneutics work is investigating how historical events are interpreted and used to build narratives. Also, representatives of the EU FP7 GLOCAL project ( demonstrated how events structured hierarchically can be visualised and used to support narrative presentations.

The DECIPHER paper at DERIVE ( presented the curate ontology ( and how it can be used to describe findings from the analysis of curatorial practice.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Second Level

The Art Teachers Association of Ireland Conference 2011 provided a great opportunity to talk directly to second level art teachers about DECIPHER’s development. The conference took place in Dublin in early October. It was good to make contacts within the secondary school art sector, and begin to develop a cohort of education professionals and their students who could take part in later trials of DECIPHER.

After talking about DECIPHER, I was lucky enough to sit in on Lynn McGrane’s presentation about her work as Education Officer for Dublin Contemporary 2011, Ireland’s international art exhibition, which ran throughout September and October. Some of the points in Lynn’s presentation resonated with DECIPHER’s research into museum practice and curatorial processes, especially in the area of communicating and mediating contemporary art in a learning context.

Contemporary artworks, by their nature, do not benefit from hindsight or several years of past scholarly research. Most contemporary artists have a direct input into how their artworks are presented, and many refrain from using text panels in the gallery space which convey anything more than the basic “tombstone” information about each artwork. Of course, living artists can still be consulted about their artwork and practice; whereas information related to artworks and artists from centuries ago can be obscured by the mists of time. Despite this, information to do with era, location, types of relationships and wider contexts are often more firmly asserted when artworks were made in the deeper past.

Information about contemporary art can be quite subjective or speculative. The contemporary use of conceptual practices and non-traditional media also presents a challenge, particularly to the classification of some newer artworks when they are acquired by collections.

This difference, between the nature of the data available about contemporary art and more historically-based artworks, has become an interesting point of consideration for DECIPHER.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Decipher team meets with advisors

At the end of June the Decipher team met in the offices of Alinari in Florence for a management meeting. This was also our first opportunity to meet with and discuss our early efforts with our Advisory Group. Dr. Patricia Donlon, is the chair the Advisory Group. Dr. Donlon was the director of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan, Ireland. She is also a former Arnold F. Graves scholar at DIT and a former Director of the National Library of Ireland. The other members of the Advisory Group are; Prof. Lily Diaz, leader of the Systems of Representation research group in the University of Art and Design Helsinki, Media Lab with a particular research interest in Digital Curation; Mr. Nick Poole, who is the Chief Executive of the Collections Trust in the UK and Mr. Christoph Bauer, who is the Systems Administrator and Archivist at Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF).
The Decipher team outlined the work to date and gave a demonstration of Decipher's Storyspace software prototype. The advisers gave enthusiastic and valuable feedback on our early plans. In particular they offered some constructive criticism of our "branding" which has influenced our planning for the formative evaluation stage of the project which is due to begin in mid-2012.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Hack4europe! winners

June turned out to be a very busy month for Decipher. On June 9th a team from DIT joined forces with a team from System Simulation to develop a mobile app for Europeana. Hack4Europe! is a series of hack days organised by the Europeana Foundation and its partners the Collections Trust, Picasso Museum, Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Center and Swedish National Heritage Board. The hackathon roadshow was held simultaneously in 4 locations (London, Barcelona, Poznan and Stockholm) in the week of 6 - 10 June and provided an exciting environment to explore the potential of open cultural data for social and economic growth in Europe. Each hackathon brought together about 30 developers from the host country and the surrounding area.
We were given access to the diverse and rich Europeana collections containing over 18 million records, Europeana Search API (incl. a test key and technical documentation) and Europeana Linked Open Data Pilot datasets which currently comprise about 3 million Europeana records available under a CC license. We were then encouraged to try out our ideas for creative reuse of the Europeana content and build an application showcasing the social and business value of open cultural data.
The Decipher team's "Casual Curator" based on ideas and technology from Decipher was judged the best "social inclusion" prototype and was invited to the Digital Agenda Assembly on 17th of June in Brussels where EU Commissioner Ms. Neelie Kroes gave the award during a special ceremony. The prototype uses Open Data from Freebase to focus searches on specific cultural domains and use the results to semantically support further searches in the Europeana dataset. The final result can be visualised on an Android tablet.