On curating and curation

Yesterday, a new exhibition was opened at the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen. The exhibition is called ‘Treasures in The Royal Library’ and it is the Danish National Library’s first permanent exhibition in recent times. It highlights Danish cultural heritage throughout 1400 years and provides an opportunity to see the Royal Library as the country’s treasury from the 600s until our present time. The exhibition shows a selection of the most exquisite, largest and most valuable manuscripts, books, letters and other works of both Danish and foreign origin from the library’s collections:

The Royal Library in Copenhagen has brought its most precious treasures out of the vaults and placed them in the hands of Russian artist Andrey Bartenev. The result is the new permanent exhibition Treasures in The Royal Library, where Gutenberg’s bible, the notes of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the diaries of fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen and a wide range of other invaluable cultural treasures are immersed in pop art jungle.

The exhibition is composed especially with a particular room at the Royal Library in mind and it is staged by Russian avant-garde artist Andrey Bartenev. Bartenev’s intention is to forge links between the very oldest writings, books and manuscripts and modern information culture.

At the opening of the exhibition, Bartenev was present and did a ‘performance speech’. Both his performance and the staging of the room that holds the exhibition are symptomatic of the way in which curators today are considered as important and creative as the artists/writers and their works of art themselves. Standing in that room in the Royal Library yesterday, I was thinking how beautiful the old books and manuscripts are in and of themselves – and I could not help wondering whether this way of ‘wrapping’ them in modern avantgarde culture is really necessary? The intention is to get a larger audience interested in books and manuscripts. But avantgarde culture is not the most accessible kind of culture to begin with…

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The Danish writer Ib Michael has just published a book in English – or rather, he has had one of his books translated from Danish into English. It is now out as an e-book with the Danish publisher, Gyldendal.

The title of the book is The Pope of the Indies and its plot is based on historical facts, mentioned in an actually existing, old manuscript,  held at the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

As Ib Michael himself describes it, this is an attempt on his part to get a bigger audience – an audience much bigger than the one which would be available to thim had he only published in Danish. It is also, he claims, a sign of things to come. Only this way, will writers from a linguistically small country be able to be heard in the future. English is the lingua franca and with all the possibilities for dissemination that the digital media give us, writing and producing art in Danish will most likely die out.

As far as the publisher is concerned, however, the cost of translation is such that this may not prove to be a financially viable way in the end. But what an interesting thought all the same!

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Alone together?

In a presentation of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together:Why we Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other (2011), the publisher (Basic Books) explains that:

Alone Together is the result of MIT technology and society specialist Sherry Turkle’s nearly fifteen-year exploration of our lives on the digital terrain. Based on interviews with hundreds of children and adults, it describes new, unsettling relationships between friends, lovers, parents, and children, and new instabilities in how we understand privacy and community, intimacy and solitude. It is a story of emotional dislocation, of risks taken unknowingly.

The publisher also invites us to watch Sherry Turkle’s March 2012 TED talk. I just did and the talk made me very interested in reading Turkle’s book. Turkle is right, I think. Her message that we are connected, but alone – that the social networks give us ‘pretend empathy’ instead of the real empathy that comes from relating to people in real life, and that the lack of real-life conversations that we’re no longer having with each other compromises our skill for contemplation – is precisely why some of us humanities scholars are such reluctant converts to digital humanities.

We need to talk much more about where the new technology is taking us – about what its possible costs are, Turkle argues. How true. I do urge everyone to listen to her!

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A friend recently drew my attention to Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age by Roy Rosenzweig (1950-2007) who was professor of history and founder of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

In this book (which is a collection of essays), Rosenzweig addressed both the advantages and the problems with doing history online. It is a wonderful book that I highly recommend – one of the few scholarly works I have come across that talks about the impact on the digital media on how we think and do our research. There are many books out there on the democratizing potential of the digital media – their importance for teaching and for the dissemination of knowledge. But not many writers have analyzed what the digital media will do to our research in the humanities.

Rosenzweig was very positive about the New Media – but not before discussing some of the problems involved too. His scholarly work was a weighing of positive and negative and in the end, he came down on the positive side.

One of my favorite quotes concerns the possible need for different methodologies within the discipline of history:

The historical narratives that future historians write may not actually look much different from those that are crafted today, but the methodologies they use may need to change radically. If we have, for example, a complete record of everything said in 2010, can we offer generalizations about the nature of discourse on a topic simply by ‘reading around’ ? Wouldn’t we need to engage in some more methodical sampling in the manner of, say, sociology? Would this revive the social-scientific approaches with which historians flirted briefly in the 1970s? Wouldn’t historians need to learn to write complex searches and algorithms that would allow them to sort through this overwhelming record in creative, but systematic, ways? The future gurus of historical research methodology may be the computer scientists at Google who have figured out how to search the equivalent of a 100-mile-high pile of paper in half a second…

In a new digital world, would historians then be held to the same standard of ‘reproducible’ results as scientists? (pp. 23, 25)

For cultural historians such as myself, is this good or bad news?

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Is the Sky also Rising in Europe?

Has the internet decimated the entertainment industry, or are we living in a new renaissance for both content creators and consumers? Depending on who you talk to, you may have heard both stories.
This report explores the true state of the entertainment industry and concludes, quite simply, that the sky is not falling on the entertainment business, consumers or content creators themselves. Instead:

The Sky is Rising

In a very interesting report from January 2012, Michael Masnick and Michael Ho take ‘a detailed look at the state of the entertainment industry’ (the sub-title of the report, which is entitled The Sky is Rising). What they find is that there is reason to rejoice – opportunities abound in/with the digital media. Creativity is furthered, not obstructed as certain members of the ‘old’ and established entertainment industry have tried to make us believe over the past few years. Their call for copyright expansion may best be seen, Masnick and Ho argue, as a way to protect themselves and hold at bay the wider entertainment industry which is growing at a rapid pace.

More content creators are producing more content than ever before.They’re also able to make money off of their content and consumers have more to choose from today than they have ever had. Before we start to regulate our way out of what is presented to us by the established entertainment industry as grave copyright problems, it is therefore important that concrete facts be put on the table.

In fact, the debate has to be changed altogether:

Unfortunately, it feels like much of the debate about copyright law over the past few decades has been based on claims about the state of an industry that simply don’t match up to reality… We hope that this report will help shift the debate away from a focus on a narrow set of interests who have yet to take advantage of the new opportunities, and towards a more positive recognition of the wide-open possibilities presented by new technologies to create, promote, distribute, connect and monetize. We’re living in a truly amazing time for the entertainment industry, and it’s time that our national debate reflects that reality.

The data presented by The Sky is Rising is based on the US. One wonders what things look like in the European context?

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An Ark Full of Books

“Technology changes, language changes, having multiple repositories is good,” one reader responded to David Streitfeld‘s interesting article, “In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books,” in The New York Times a couple of days ago.

In this article, Streitfeld writes about the Physical Archive of the Internet Archive, founded by Brewster Kahle and located in Richmond, California. The archive is an attempt to store the 20th century in case of digital disaster – or in case digitization improves and there is a need to copy the books all over again.

As some see it, Streitfeld reports, the probability of a massive loss of digital information, and thus the potential need to redigitize things, is lower than Kahle thinks. According to Michael Lesk, former chairman of the department of library and information science at Rutgers, though, “it’s not zero.” “If serious ‘1984’-style trouble does arrive,” Streitfeld quotes Mr. Lesk as saying, it might come as “all Internet information falls under the control of either governments or copyright owners.”

How very interesting that ‘1984’-style trouble might come in the shape of either government or copyright control – and that copyright control is seen as being potentially just as much of a risk as government control!

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New book out soon

I have a new book coming out soon (April 12 2012) from Edward Elgar. It’s title is:

Civil Religion, Human Rights and International Relations: Connecting People Across Cultures and Traditions

I have edited the book and have written the introduction and Chapter One, “Human rights: a possible civil religion?” The other contributors are:

Mark Philip Bradley (Univ. of Chicago); Paul W. Kahn (Yale Law School); Bruce Kuklick (Univ. of Pennsylvania); Andrew Preston (Univ. of Cambridge); Joel H. Rosenthal (President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, New York); Vibeke Schou Tjalve (Univ. of Copenhagen); and Jay M. Winter (Yale Univ.)

The book is dedicated to Tøger Seidenfaden, who contributed a chapter to the book before he sadly died in January 2011 at the age of 53.

Civil Religion, Human Rights and International Relations: Connecting People Across Cultures and Traditions
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Stanley Fish blogging on DH

Stanley Fish is one of those humanities superstars that American academia has a few of. Harold Bloom is another. Fish has his own column in the New York Times – only, as he admitted the other day, it’s not so much a column as a blog.

The past couple of blog entries that Fish has given his readers concern Digital Humanities. Having looked over the program for the next Modern Language Association (MLA) meeting (which would take place in early January 2012) for new trends in the humanities, Fish wrote in late December, for example, that one new trend seemed to be DH:

But if there is to be hope, there must be a path it can travel; and if there is to be redemption, there must be a redeemer. Who or what shall it be? Again, according to the program, it can only be one thing — the digital humanities, which does make an appearance in some of the panels that pose the question of the profession’s health and survival.

What exactly this DH is, Fish then discussed in another blog – the one already referred to. It opens in this way:

This is a blog. There, I’ve said it. I have been resisting saying it — I have always referred to this space as a “column” — not only because “blog” is an ugly word (as are clog, smog and slog), but because blogs are provisional, ephemeral, interactive, communal, available to challenge, interruption and interpolation, and not meant to last; whereas in a professional life now going into its 50th year I have been building arguments that are intended to be decisive, comprehensive, monumental, definitive and, most important, all mine.

And here, in a very few sentences, Fish succeeds in saying something important about what blogging does to the discipline of humanities writing. For his views on whether or not DH offers new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals or completely changes our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be, we shall have to wait for a third blog, Fish tells us. I look forward to this third blog – hoping that Fish may be able to come up with an interesting answer to one of the most crucial questions concerning  DH.

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Sweden and the Church of Kopimism

Welcome to the website of the Church of Kopimism! We have been Slashdotted, and are therefore temporarily showing a static webpage. If you are interested in becoming a member, please revisit us in a couple of days when the storm has settled.

( http://kopimistsamfundet.se)

This is the message you get if you try to find out more about the most recent addition to the Swedish religious landscape, the Church of Kopimism.

No wonder the website of the Church has been slashdotted – who wouldn’t be interested in reading and finding out more?

It is very strange, indeed, this story coming from Sweden – a story of how, in the midst of a worldwide debate about Internet piracy, Swedish authorities have granted official religious status to the Church of Kopimism, which claims it considers CTRL+C and CTRL+V (shortcuts for copy and paste) to be sacred symbols, and that information is holy and copying is a sacrament.

The BBC quotes the self-appointed leader of the Church, 19-year-old philosophy student Isak Gerson, as saying:

For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament. Information holds a value, in itself and in what it contains and the value multiplies through copying. Therefore copying is central for the organisation and its members. Being recognised by the state of Sweden is a large step for all of Kopimi. Hopefully this is one step towards the day when we can live out our faith without fear of persecution.

We know that Sweden is a pretty secular society – but still: What is religious about copying – and does this sort of thing not devalue both the notion of religion and discussions about information and the role of copying?

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What is college for?

A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest–most college students–start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don’t get even that.

This is the conclusion reached by Erik Hayden after having read a new report, issued by Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which says that college students are spending less time studying than earlier students and are “failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master.”

This is dismal reading – especially to anyone teaching at college or university level. And perhaps even more so to anyone teaching in the humanities. However, I take heart from a wonderful article by Gary Gutting  from The Stone (a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless), “What is college for?” Referring to the incessant talk about the “failure” of higher education, Gutting argues that whereas the lack of academic engagement among many college students is real enough, there is something that both students and teachers have fundamentally misunderstood about colleges and college learning:

First of all, [colleges] are not simply for the education of students.  This is an essential function, but the raison d’être of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically…

Teachers need to see themselves as, first of all, intellectuals, dedicated to understanding poetry, history, human psychology, physics, biology — or whatever is the focus of their discipline…

Students, in turn, need to recognize that their college education is above all a matter of opening themselves up to new dimensions of knowledge and understanding.  Teaching is not a matter of (as we too often say) “making a subject (poetry, physics, philosophy) interesting” to students but of students coming to see how such subjects are intrinsically interesting.  It is more a matter of students moving beyond their interests than of teachers fitting their subjects to interests that students already have.   Good teaching does not make a course’s subject more interesting; it gives the students more interests — and so makes them more interesting.

Gutting’s article, which was posted only 4 days ago, has resulted in a whole number of comments by readers of the Opinion Pages of The New York Times. It is quite clear that opinions differ very strongly on these matters – but it’s good to see that people do seem to care enough to involve themselves in a discussion about them!

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