Category: creative arts

Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities – benefits for everyone

I had the pleasure of delivering a paper at the first Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DPASSH) conference in Dublin at the end of June. This was hosted by the team at DRI, Digital Repository of Ireland, at the same time as exciting changes for them – indeed, one of the notable events of the conference was the official opening of the DRI complete with a representative of the Irish government in attendance.

This focus on something new is of course in the context of a greater overall focus on things old – or at least historical. The theme of the conference was ‘Shaping our Legacy: Safeguarding the Social and Cultural Record’ – a useful way to draw together thoughts about the impact of our curation decisions today on the shape of tomorrow’s digital collections. Whether these are collections of art, museum holdings or research datasets, their form and extent will potentially influence thought and decision-making for generations to come. 

Whilst much DCC activity engages with research practice from across many disciplines, one area that I find particularly interesting is research practice where the term ‘research data’ is one that researchers are not necessarily comfortable with. It is important to remember that many scholars in the arts and humanities are indeed very confident and comfortable with the term ‘research data’ and apply it happily in their own practice. But not all scholars feel this way, and many of those in my experience happen to emerge from the arts and humanities areas. So how do we engage with these audiences?

Going even further away from what Norman Gray has called, “the broad sunlit uplands of well-managed research data”[1], I have been investigating the value of digital curation to professional communities beyond the academic research sector. My paper attempted to draw out what happens when such a community of practice – in this case performing arts professionals – has strong economic drivers to undertake digital object management, but they have not engaged with digital curation or preservation and in most cases have not even heard these terms before. This, of course, doesn’t mean that curation and preservation activity is not taking place – rather, what it does mean is that it is taking place without knowledge of good practice, and without access to the training, support and infrastructure that was formerly provided by the AHDS and is now expected to be available within institutions.

Outlining what curation, preservation and archiving practice looks like out in the wild is, I think, very helpful for both the professional community in question (in this case, the performing arts), and also for those in the digital curation and preservation professions. Exposure to digital curation terminology and guidance gives performing arts practitioners some idea of the tasks involved in sustainable management of their valued digital objects, and how resources from the DCC such as the DCC Curation Lifecycle Model can be meaningful and useful to them. For digital curation professionals, it is useful to remember that our institutional approaches are not a universal working context, and our language is not universally understood.

These were the main arguments of my paper, based on a series of case study interviews I’ve undertaken. Presentation of the findings at performing arts conferences and events has been a useful way to spread the work of digital curation and preservation professionals in general and the DCC in particular. The Curation Lifecycle Model has actually been pretty well-received at performing arts workshops and events, particularly when artists see that it specifically advocates for the transformation of existing material and knowledge into new work: this – to researchers across disciplines including scientists and artists – is widely received as inspiring stuff. 

To bring more professional practice into the digital curation conversation, then, we need to be prepared to advocate for digital curation in discipline- and profession-specific environments such as discipline-specific conferences and industry events, as well as taking a flexible and adaptive approach to translating our messages. The more we can do to convey the relevance and value of what we do to specific professions, the more likely they are to engage. The prize? A better chance of safeguarding the digital social and cultural record – and this potentially benefits everyone.

The slides to my paper, ‘Performances, preservation and policy implications’, are available here: (and please just contact me for the script); the DPASSH website is available here:, and the event hashtag on twitter is #DPASSH.

[1] Research seminar at HATII, University of Glasgow, 29 Nov 2011.


Guest blog: Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg: Ethics and Research Data Management in Arts, Humanities and Social Science Research

“Completing the University’s EPSRC light-touch questionnaire on research data management (RDM) for Goldsmiths, University of London gave me some pause to reflect on Expectations vii and viii, which address the secure storage, appropriate sharing, archiving, maintenance and inventorying of data and what this means for my institution, which specialises in arts, humanities and social science research.

It gave me food for thought because Expectations vii and viii impact on research ethics in particular. If data is made openly available via the internet, economies of scale change significantly. So does the potential to (unintentionally) do harm, through accidentally or even unwittingly sharing the wrong type of data. Therefore data management plans must be included in research ethics applications and advice and training on appropriate sharing practices must be available to University staff in all lines of work, including professional service staff working in Libraries and IT if they are engaged in any form of RDM activity. So far so good, and dare I say, obvious, or so I thought. Not quite so, if you are working with academic staff specialising in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS).

Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that AHSS researchers vary in their discipline-specific practices and that the term ‘data’ means different things to different researchers. Levels of awareness on how to appropriately and ethically manage data, if it is defined at all, also vary markedly.

The concept of ‘data’ is one alien to many researchers working in the AHSS sphere. They either find it an objectionable term in the sense that their ‘data’ is personal information about, interviews with and images of persons whom they might know quite well, such as in ethnomusicology and anthropology. Treating this information about persons as ‘data’ dehumanises them, it is felt. Alternatively, data might be creative works of art and the documentation of creative activities that form part of a research enquiry. Similarly, the fact that AHSS researchers often prefer to distinguish themselves from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) researchers means that the word ‘data’ is not associated with AHSS research outputs or the creative process and deliberately shunned. Hence many AHSS researchers consider RDM activities to be irrelevant to their research enquiry before, during and after their work has been completed.

This, despite the excellent work undertaken by JISC funded project KAPTUR, which sought to ‘discover, create and pilot a sectoral model of best practice in the management of research data in the visual arts’, for example. Equally, the helpful guidance painstakingly created by DCC through a case study at the Open University is currently rarely referenced or found instructive by AHSS researchers that I work with, because it does not focus specifically on definitions of what data is, or could be in a specific discipline.  Researchers have frequently told me they disengage with RDM activities because the language used does not reflect their disciplinary practice. Perhaps we should provide additional examples of what research data might look like in AHSS research and see whether alternative words might be used to describe products of practice-based research to help engage AHSS researchers with the RDM process.

Now, add to this the challenge of designing appropriate research ethics application forms, the aim of which should be to help researchers consider how they might appropriately share, archive and manage their research outputs and data. Traditionally, particularly arts and humanities scholars would conduct research that presented fewer ethical questions for consideration than perhaps those identified in bio-medical research. With the introduction of interdisciplinary research however, there are theatre researchers offering therapy workshops in Chinese political prisons; students in visual cultures wanting to interview the militia in countries with a dubious human rights track record and creative writers employing investigative journalism methodologies to help inform their latest research project on an actual murder enquiry.

The potential for sensitive data being collected during AHSS research here is enormous and the ethical imperative for managing it appropriately unquestionable. Here the challenge becomes two-fold: not only must we begin defining what research data is for AHSS researchers, we must also educate AHSS scholars about the need to manage their data sensitively through designing ethical approval forms that reflect models of data management not predicated on biomedical practice, language and definitions of data. Rather, we should design guidance that broadly reflects disciplinary differences whilst still ensuring the highest research integrity possible in RDM. Otherwise we risk further disengagement from the AHSS community, which, given the sensitivity of their data may – in some cases – do considerable social harm.”

Do you make or support AHSS research that faces these challenges?  How do you define research data in your practice?  Do you agree that ethics procedures are too closely modelled on STEM subject workflows and requirements?  Tell us in the comments!


University of the Arts London, Research Data Management in Art and Design Conference, ‘Where are we now?’, London 11 Dec 2014.

Things are moving fast at University of the Arts London, and not just the students whizzing through the auditorium setting up a fashion show on the day of the event.  The University was one of four partners in the KAPTUR project, funded by the JISC Managing Research Data (MRD) Programme and led by University for the Creative Arts. KAPTUR helped bring RDM into four prominent UK art schools, worked towards a definition of research data in the creative arts, developed institutional RDM policies, carried out training and advocacy and developed a toolkit of reusable materials for RDM skills development in the creative arts context.  UAL has since continued with a collaborative approach to working on RDM challenges and opportunities.  December’s event, ‘Research Data Management in Art and Design Conference, ‘Where are we now?’ at Central Saint Martin’s, London, brought together their loose network of London-area art schools and attracted a diverse and vital audience from these partners and others, comprising artist-researchers, designer-makers, art academics, professional services staff and creative arts archivists. 

Sarah Whatley, Director of the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) and Professor of Dance at Coventry University, discussed how artists work with archives in terms of preserving, sharing and sustaining research data particularly within the institutional.  Her work on Siobhan Davies RePlay has given her ample experience in understanding how dance practitioner-researchers consider archives both as a resource and in the creative workflow.  Sarah’s talk eloquently surfaced many of the distinctive characteristics of research data in dance research and practice, noting that many artistic researchers tend not to see the fruits of research as ‘data’. She also noted that the evidence that constitutes data in dance research is often non-text based, resists easy capture and is created via non-standardised processes.  Further complexity is offered where there are multiple claims to intellectual property when a dance production or rehearsal is videoed. This makes clear the value of judiciously produced and applied contracts for all participants in dance research when video documentation is made and archived.  Sarah’s talk reminded us that artistic data is messy and can often be very difficult to fit within standard metadata.  However, this messiness can – like compost – allow for new growth to emerge.  Sarah noted that the work of the CAiRO project, based at University of Bristol and again funded by the JISC MRD programme, had been of use to her institution and students.

We then heard from Athanasios Velios of the LiGATUS research centre at UAL on a proposed semantic desktop approach to research data management for creative arts researchers.  As Athanasios pointed out there is much useful contextual information such as the length of project, hours of editing, related correspondence including social media, influencing (e.g. visited) websites, music listened to during production processes – these are all data points which could be harvested from the researcher workflow and are currently being lost.

A welcome funder perspective was added by Anne Sofield, head of business process and analysis at AHRC who provided an overview of the structure and approach of her team and their responsibilities to the UK Government.  Anne reminded us that AHRC doesn’t only administer grants but also provides a peer review college and engages with the research population through survey work.  She also made a good point about the responsibilities of data stewards, specifically that ‘if a data resource is not an asset, it’s a liability’.  What’s next for her team at AHRC? A horizon-scanning programme to examine how emergent trends might affect current policy and practice, to help manage risk in planning for unlikely but potentially high impact events, and working with the UK Government Office for Science’s toolkit.

I was pleased to chair a panel discussion before lunch.  RDM support staff took the floor in the afternoon session to describe RDM progress made to date at their institutions.  Betty Woesnner at UAL described the value of their DCC institutional engagement as a partnership that has built on earlier efforts in the KAPTUR project.  Extensive surveying at the institution found that the top storage locations were filing cabinet, shelf, folder, and external hard drive.  But now that they have an EPrints instance lined up for their repository, they are well placed to offer a more managed storage strategy to researchers, supported by training.  Betty was impressed with the MANTRA training outputs developed by the University of Edinburgh via the JISC MRD programme. Whilst it’s particularly tailored to three specific disciplines – geosciences, social sciences and archaeology, MANTRA is still useful for RDM principles applicable across all disciplines. 

Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg, research development officer and Andrew Gray, research support librarian, both Goldsmiths, also mentioned their institution’s previous participation in the KAPTUR project.  The value they gained from this was specifically in the development of their data repository with the apposite URL (data gold!), also powered by EPrints; and their data management policy.  Institutional RDM activity seems to have dipped a little after the project end in favour of focus on REF, probably reflecting a more general trend across the sector.  Post-REF, however, there has been a renewed focus on RCUK research data requirements and the path forward is, as with UAL, focusing mostly on the data produced by funded research.  Funders here are – as with many art schools – diverse, including the EU, Leverhulme, EPSRC, BBSRC, AHRC and ESRC funding as well as interdisciplinary projects.  Future plans include promoting guidance and policy, making the term ‘data’ more meaningful to arts, humanities and social science researchers, and revising research integrity and contract forms and guidance. We expect a blog from Muriel focusing on this research integrity work in the next few months. 

Adam Thorpe is co-director of the Design Against Crime research centre at UAL and discussed the data considerations of the product design process, specifically in the case of the ‘Bike Off’ project.  Adam described the working processes involved in moving from making sense to problem-solving, that result in both design exemplars and design resources.  Other people’s data, e.g. from the police, the British Crime Survey and council guidance on bike parking development as well as the team’s own data resources constitute research data in these processes but as Adam described, many additional resources also become research data and are likely to be of interest to new audiences. Such data resources include annotated online mapping of bike parking, user experience, data resulting from controlled trials, e.g. weather, bike design, locking behaviour, physical conditions around the bike stand, what the bike is locked to, time, date and place, and documentation of any difference brought about by design intervention. He noted most of these data resources take the form of SPSS files, case studies, videos, guidance documents and photos.

Charlotte Hodes, professor in Fine Art at UAL, discussed the narrative of her creative processes in a recent project, ‘Grammar of Ornament’.  Charlotte’s visual research data includes her scanned and digital drawings, sketchbooks and collages which serve as an archive which she trawls to create papercut and ceramic work incorporating complex layered and coloured fragments.  Fathering, ordering and recording this material serves to document her research.  Charlotte finds the ‘chaos’ and serendipity of the studio an important site of inspiration which she feels is sometimes in tension with concepts of research processes.

Our last speaker was Neil Cummings, professor in Critical Practice at UAL.  Neil described his working processes in the development of his project, ‘Self Portrait: Arnolfini’ which used and developed a variety of data sources through his historical and scenario planning research methods.  Neil is an advocate of open source and open licensing and shared a number of examples where these approaches can be used in research practice and in the sharing of the data and outputs resulting from creative research. Neil’s website is at, and the resulting publication is available as a PDF at

In wrapping up the day, Simon Willmoth, Director of Research Management and Administration at UAL, commented that there is clearly a wide range and diversity of types of data being generated and that institutions need to work with researchers to record and outline creative research processes. How these processes are recorded and deposited in relevant repositories including institutional repositories is a challenge to be worked out.  

Simon noted that the event is part of a dialogue which has been started amongst creative arts institutions and which UAL would like to continue across the sector to share best practice.  How do we go on with that dialogue? With the network? Expanding the community of practice? Would a workshop on engaging researchers be useful?  How about another on copyright and IPR in RDM?  Simon will be pleased to hear by email from those interested in such initiatives.


Thinking about the event on my way home, I reflected that in my experience, ‘the (creative) arts’ and ‘the sciences’ are often viewed as opposite and irreconcilable extremes of the spectrum of academic discipline areas.  Alongside this polarisation, there are also expectations about how the sciences are comfortable with the handling of research data, whereas the creative arts don’t generate or use research data.  I have long felt that the similarities in processes in the creative arts and the sciences are much more significant than the differences. 

  • At both creative arts and ‘hard’ sciences events, I hear of the central importance of experimentation (‘experiment > observation > reflection > further experiment’) in establishing findings. This holds true in many sciences and is very much the case in the performance, design and fine art processes we’ve heard about at this event. 
  • The sciences and the creative arts have both realised that documentation of workflow (and software, models and tools) is relevant to the curation of research data for reuse. 
  • All disciplines face challenges with the wide variety of data types that comprise research data.  I think of the objects created in sculpture, fashion and other arts, and the comparable traditions of specimen labelling in archaeology, and the biological and geological sciences. 
  • Adam’s talk made me think about a phrase I’ve heard a few times in discussions about scientific research data: ‘the most interesting thing that might happen with your research data will potentially be done by someone else.’  The design process really does demonstrate the importance of how data can be repurposed in practical as well as academic ways. 
  • Sarah Whatley pointed out that there is difficulty in disambiguating the process from the product in some artforms such as dance.  In other cases such as the product design case study presented by Adam Thorpe, there are very clear workflows and a discernible disambiguation between the processes and the product.  This is a useful reminder that to lump ‘the arts’ together as a set of homogenous processes is just as much a mistake as to do the same with ‘the sciences’.

The difference between creative arts and sciences is often, at this point in time, the level of comfort in using the term ‘data’ to mean ‘evidence underpinning a research assertion’.  Once that is tackled, much can be gained from reaching out to other research disciplines with similar data challenges.  It is not that ‘data’ is necessarily the easiest term to use, or that there are no cultural differences between different research disciplines, but the engagement of creative arts researchers with the data conversation already happening across many other disciplines can only help to reap existing knowledge, expertise and solutions to many data challenges.

Video of this event is available at