What is the Scope of your Story

7 February 2013 Comment

Guest blog by Dr Natalie Harrower, Manager of Education and Outreach, Digital Repository of Ireland.

In October 2012, the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) and the Decipher Project assembled a team of researchers, and entered Hack4Europe! 2012 Dublin. The purpose of the hackathon was to make use of the newly released Europeana API (Application Programming Interface), and our team entered with the intention of connecting Europeana’s data with curation tools being developed by Decipher. Exactly how we were going to program the connection and how we hoped to exploit Europeana’s vast collections only emerged over the course of the two-day event.

Decipher’s platform Storyscope is being developed for museum professionals and the public to provide tools to research, develop, and present stories that connect cultural objects across diverse museum collections. The software includes an attractive visual interface that allows users to not only collect and arrange online objects, but to shape these collections into compelling narratives. The Storyscope developers understand that objects are enriched and given meaning through their connections, along with the annotations that surround these connections.

As our team’s programmers worked on Storyscope to access the Europeana API, the rest of the team started developing a narrative around objects relating to Ireland and the Great War, which was one of the hackathon’s stated themes. One of our team members, Cormac Farrell, knew that his great grand-uncle Charles M. J. Ryan had fought and died in France, and Cormac had some of his medals and other memorabilia in his possession. Starting with the dates on Ryan’s death certificate, we were able to find related objects on Europeana, and started to build a narrative around the activities of Irish citizens at the Western Front.

Buttons from Ryan’s uniform

Storyscope also enables users to upload personal objects; in this case we added photographs of Charlie Ryan, and scans of letters he wrote to family members at home. Focusing on the last month of the war, our team was able to trace the lives of several individuals from varied backgrounds who were all in the Somme region on 4 October 1918, which is the date that Charlie Ryan died. By the end of the two-day event, we had curated a 'dossier' of objects that touched on the lives of a young lieutenant from the Royal Munster Fusiliers (Ryan), a private from the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers, a war nurse from County Down, and a German soldier who took extensive photographs of the battlefields. The narrative we created paints a picture of the brief intersection in time and space when these individuals, all far from home, crossed paths in one of Europe’s most significant moments in history.

Soldiers at the Western Front

By combining Storyscope with Europeana’s API, users are able to search Europeana directly through Storyscope, and add other digital objects to enhance Europeana’s vast collections. In addition to the technological possibilities provided by this innovation, the social benefits are clear. Through this sample narrative, our team was able to draw connections between people from different cultural backgrounds through the lens of First World War experiences, revealing a 'common ground' that once proved so divisive in European history.

You can view a screencast of the Ireland at the Western Front dossier, and software concept explanations on Decipher’s Vimeo channel.

TD Jimmy Deenihan, Ireland’s Minster for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, presenting the DRI team with the award for 'Application with the Greatest Social Impact'

The DRI team was composed of the following hackers: Cormac Farrell (DIT), Dermot Frost (TCD), Damien Gallagher (NUIM), Natalie Harrower (RIA), Mark Maguire (IMMA), Paula McGloin (DIT), Jimmy Tang (TCD), and James Wogan (RIA).

The Digital Repository of Ireland and the Decipher Project continue to collaborate on innovative projects. The Storyscope prototype is undergoing trials with museums professionals, and the results will be presented at the Museum and Heritage Show in London on 15-16 May 2013. For more information on Decipher, contact James Wogan, and for more information on the work of the Digital Repository of Ireland, contact Natalie Harrower.