Emma Burgham

Emma Burgham

Last updated on 18 October 2023

Emma Burgham is Archivist at the Science and Industry Museum, Science Museum Group. She attended the DCDC 2023 Conference with support from the DPC Career Development Fund, which is funded by DPC Supporters.

I am the Archivist for the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, which is one of five institutions making up the Science Museum Group (SMG). In July 2023, I attended the Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) conference, thanks to a DPC Career Development Fund grant. One of the strengths of the conference is its drawing together of the GLAMA sectors. The museum sector can learn a lot from libraries and archives about digital collecting and preservation practice. Within my institution, there is a drive to prioritise digitised and born-digital archives, so I was keen to hear from a broad range of speakers and delegates working with digital material.

Working in a museum archive context, the themes of DCDC 2023, ‘exploring the interplay between the physical and the virtual’, and the ‘materiality of physical collections and digital interventions’, felt particularly relevant. SMG is committed to delivering content for a global audience, with ambitious plans to develop our digital offer and collections. I came away inspired by this look ahead to how we might draw upon our born-digital, digitised and traditional records to support a range of uses and interventions in the longer term on gallery, online and through supporting digital humanities research.

Several digital humanities researchers shared the exciting possibilities and knowledge that can be generated from metadata relating to both digital and analogue records. The first keynote address, Creative Responses to the Archive, was given by Dr Sam Salem (Royal Northern College of Music) and Prof Kate Elswitt (University of London, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama). The speakers were looking to approach ‘materiality in new and exciting ways’ and to ‘imagine a digital future for creative practice.’ Dr Salem uses AI to analyse music, breaking it down into something essential, then using technology and live musicians to create new pieces. His way of working generates huge volumes of digital records. Each project has its own ‘archive’, personal to Salem’s work. He considers these archives ephemeral, and spoke thoughtfully about the need for appraisal, ‘auditioning’ the outputs of AI to find what will become his composition. Dr Salem’s work also draws upon traditional audio archives, with work ongoing to train an algorithm on the RNCM’s own records of student and professional performances.

Prof. Elswitt also created an archive, this time with a view to long-term preservation. Elswitt spoke about her ‘Dunham’s Data’ project, which used traditional archives of the African-American choreographer Kathleen Dunham alongside new technologies and techniques to explore the “questions and problems that make the analysis and visualization of data meaningful for dance history.” The project started with the creation of detailed metadata gathered from the archives, focusing on Dunham’s performances, the international travel and people they had involved. The researchers turned this wealth of information into beautiful and informative data visualisations that allow researchers to understand and study the network around Dunham, and the scale and breadth of her career and influence.

A follow-up project, ‘Visceral Histories, Visual Arguments,’ has seen Elswitt work with dancers who teach Dunham technique to record their ‘embodied knowledge’ using motion-capture technology. Elswitt raised the record-keeping challenges relating to this material, such as the need for motion capture files to be given the correct Dunham Technique names for each dance move, rather than arbitrary names created by the software, and the challenge for her institution’s archive to preserve this new type of digital archive. Elswitt’s respectful and collaborative approach towards working with her colleagues and honouring Dunham’s legacy was a constant thread through her talk. She demonstrated both the strengths and limitations of traditional archives for dance history, and the possibilities that now exist for supplementing these with new record types – if we are able to capture and preserve them.

The conference brought out the myriad ways archival material and metadata can be used, once they’re held in digital systems. A mapping software workshop hosted by Gethin Rees (British Library) showed how place name metadata can bring together related material, for instance uniting the Library’s Lindisfarne Gospels with English Heritage’s information about the historic ruins at Lindisfarne. I was excited by the possibilities of this Open Source Peripleo linked data software, particularly as SMG, like the British Library, preserves part of the National Collection and so has records and objects (including digitised material) that we could connect to places and perhaps related collections across the country through map-based tools. I plan to discuss Peripleo in more detail with my colleagues, as there is an appetite to make connections between national collections and local areas. Rees reminded us that geography is at the heart of identity. Connecting collection items to places on the ground brings them to life for audiences. The power of place was a theme revisited by other speakers such as Andrea Kocsis and Dr Olly Ayers who spoke about the ‘Unforgotten Lives’ and ‘Mapping Black London’ locations-based projects and Sam Bartle, who spoke about East Riding Archive’s ‘What Was Here?’ app, that allows the user to answer that question using AR technology.

The conference demonstrated the ingenuity of the GLAMA sectors in connecting the virtual to the physical and exploring the nature of materiality in relation to digital experiences, objects and records. There were examples of digital interactives in museum galleries that united oral histories with film or digitised photographs, or 3D scans of collections objects. For me, the highlights were imaginative projects by Dr Petrelli (Sheffield Hallam University), who stressed that technology in museums shouldn’t be about the technology used, but about the stories we want to tell and the collections we bring to life. She experimented with embedding meSch technology into 3D printed or replica objects museum visitors carry with them. Visitors use ‘their’ object to activate and interact with digital content at heritage sites including Chesters Roman Fort and the Museon in the Netherlands. Petrelli found clever ways to evoke emotional responses in visitors, surprising and delighting them. By carrying a tool around, psychologically it becomes in some way an extension of ourselves. When Petrelli and her collaborators used this knowledge to develop audience experiences, dwell time increased, visitors interacted more, and feedback was very positive. Crucially, the technology is cheap and robust – the need for which was a recurring theme across many conference talks – as well as being seamlessly integrated into the visitor experience. Many of Petrelli’s design principles apply to creating positive user experiences for researchers and others accessing digital records in various ways in archives, so there was plenty for me to consider.

The question of delivering memorable content online was one that has occupied McGill University Librarian Jacquelyn Sundberg. Her talk ‘Ever onwards – meeting the needs of a hybrid users’ charted how her team has designed exhibitions since the Covid lockdown created a hybrid user-base. Some of McGill Library’s audiences interact with collections, events, and exhibitions only in the digital realm, some only in person, and some in both realms. The Library needs worthwhile digital experiences accompanying physical exhibitions, that work for digital audiences and those attending in-person. Sundberg presented two case studies: one an online exhibition that generated a physical exhibition from its content. The other was game-based experience that aimed to be parallel to a physical exhibition and provide a meaningful experience for all audiences. Sundberg compared the pros and cons of each project, assessing shelf life, ease of use, potential for reuse of content on social media, time and resources involved (including skilled staff), audience engagement and whether the digital experience was woven into the physical one. Sundberg’s evaluation criteria again had potential to be adapted for assessing the user experience of accessing digital records. This talk prompted me to consider the digital records we at SMG might be generating, and the value for museum studies of preserving some of these creative offerings as part of our archive, in time.

DCDC brought home to me the scale of potential data types we can generate. Many speakers mentioned the challenges of sustaining digital content even over the lifetime of an exhibition, let alone over the longer term that archivists must manage. There were concerns around the amount of digital material stored on third-party platforms, such as social media sites, with no interest in keeping society’s records indefinitely. Professor Chiara Zuanni raised a number of these concerns in her keynote speech, ‘Curating future stories: Digital Objects and Data Heritage.’ She discussed how many institutions suddenly found themselves having to act fast to collect COVID-related digital objects and records, without the resources or plans to manage this. Zuanni compared museum digital projects to icebergs, with cataloguing and digitisation sitting invisibly under the water and the smaller finished article that audiences access poking above the surface. She discussed the need for appraisal processes and cost/ benefit analysis when considering which digital resources should be chosen for preservation.

There were too many interesting sessions to summarise them all here, but I will try to give a flavour of a few of the other talks. Callum McKean (British Library) shared his experiences of using data analytics and network analysis tools to explore email archives. McKean created a Python script (available through GitHub) to create a GDPR-compliant dataset to allow for the study of Harold Pinter’s email archive. Like McKean, Xiaozhou Li (University of Sussex) drew on technology to analyse email metadata, recommending the KNIME analytics platform as an open-source tool accessible to those without much coding experience. She emphasised that technology has its limits, and human intervention is necessary to clean the metadata and sense-check the results of any machine analysis.

Many of the speakers had experimented with technology to see how they might open up collections. Sian Collins (University of Wales Trinity St David) worked with her university’s Digital Services team to create a 360 virtual tour of the Reading Room with the ability to inspect selected manuscripts virtually. Eleonora Gandolfi (University of Surrey) and Catherine Polley (University of Southampton) experimented with 3D printing knitted objects using patterns in the Knitting Reference Library. Their experiences of collaborating with colleagues with digital expertise to enable these projects to happen was inspiring. There was a spirit of experimentation about many of the speakers’ projects, and an honesty about the failures or drawbacks, as well as successes. Several speakers made the point that it is worth taking a risk and trying something novel, even if it might raise new questions or digital record-keeping challenges. They stressed the importance of collaboration and pooling expertise – something which this conference certainly fostered.


The Career Development Fund is sponsored by the DPC’s Supporters who recognize the benefit and seek to support a connected and trained digital preservation workforce. We gratefully acknowledge their financial support to this programme and ask applicants to acknowledge that support in any communications that result. At the time of writing, the Career Development Fund is supported by Arkivum, Artefactual Systems Inc., AVP, boxxe, Ex Libris, Iron Mountain, Libnova, Max Communications, Preservica, Simon P Wilson, and Twist Bioscience. A full list of supporters is online here.


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