What is a photograph about?

One word I’d never heard until I started working on the Countryside21 project is ‘aboutness’. It may sound a bit like it’s not really a word but it is actually a very useful concept. We’re using it to help us better keyword the photographs that will be made accessible on the new Digital Asset Management system. The idea is to make the photographic collections much more easily searchable to picture researchers, which means that we have to put a lot more thought into what sorts of terms people might use to search for images.

Boy feeding a lamb.

A photograph of a young boy feeding a lamb.

The essence of ‘aboutness’ is that there is often a difference between what a photograph is ‘of’ and what it is ‘about’. As an example, take this image. We can say that it is ‘of’ a young boy feeding a lamb under a blossoming tree, watched by an adult standing in the background. How many picture researchers will specifically look for an image of a child feeding a lamb? Perhaps a few. But there is more to the image. We might suggest that it is also ‘about’: nurturing, innocence, confidence, learning, supervision, safety and childhood. Tagging an image with keywords based on emotions and concepts as well as physical things will, we hope, widen up its potential appeal and vastly increase its searchability.

The main aim of this part of the project is to keyword three-thousand images from the collection (including a number of photographs of museum objects) with such ‘aboutness’ keywords. So far, we’ve run an initial focus group with volunteers to help us test the concept and work out how best to organise the process of ‘tagging’ each image with the appropriate keywords. Another focus group will be run in the next few weeks, after which we’ll be ready to get started with the main set of images. In the meantime, here’s a few of the selected images – do comment and let us know what you think they’re ‘about’!

dx289_0011a, dx289_0344 and dx289_0626

What are these images ‘about’?





Crowdsourcing with the Bucklebury History Group


Crowdsourcing in the Cottage Inn, Upper Bucklebury

On Tuesday the Sense of Place team had another visit to the Berkshire village of Bucklebury to meet the local history group. This time we were joined by Rebekkah, MERL’s ‘Historypinner in Residence’, who has been helping us upload our content to Historypin and develop a Historypin App for Bucklebury which draws on the content from our Historypin channel and from the Bucklebury History Group’s channel.

We met up with the Bucklebury History Group in a cosy pub in Upper Bucklebury and set ourselves up for an afternoon of ‘crowdsourcing’. Crowdsourcing is a form of distributed problem solving, which basically means putting a problem into the public domain for anyone to solve. In our case, we were using crowdsourcing to find out more about our Bucklebury photographs from the History Group.

We selected about 20 Bucklebury images – some taken by Philip Osborne Collier, a Reading photographer who was active 1905–1960s, and some taken by a former resident of Bucklebury in the 1950s. We chose these images for several reasons, e.g. because we wanted to know where they were taken, because we wanted to know who was in them, because we thought they were nice photographs, because we thought they might spark off interesting discussions etc. We were particularly keen to get more detailed information on where the photos were taken so that we could pin them more accurately to Historypin, and thus paving the way for making use of some of Historypin’s other functions, such as taking repeat photos which allow you to fade between historic and contemporary photos of the same view.

One of the Collier photos we crowdsourced, showing the houses near Turner's Green and George Lailey's hut.

One of the Collier photos we crowdsourced, showing the houses near Turner’s Green and George Lailey’s hut in the distance.

The session was a great success! We had been planning to work in two smaller groups to try a couple of different ways of looking at the photos and recording the information, e.g. looking at the photos on laptops and on print outs, and recording the information on blank pieces of paper and on prepared forms. However, we ended up working together, gathered around a big screen onto which we projected the images. I acted as a scribe, scribbling down as much as I could about what was being said; Felicity sat with a map next to a very knowledgeable Bucklebury resident and recorded the location of each photo; and we had a dictaphone running to record any information we missed. The great thing about this was that everyone could pool their knowledge together and looking at digital images meant we could zoom in on particular areas of the photos (which were very high resolution) which we wouldn’t have been able to do had we been using printed photos.

This photo was given to the History Group by Rod Bisset, who grew up in Bucklebury. Felicity has managed to pin this to Historypin - the small tree by the bench is now a very large tree!

This photo was given to the History Group by Rod Bisset, who grew up in Bucklebury. Felicity has managed to pin this to Historypin – the small tree by the bench is now a very large tree!

As a result of the crowdsourcing session, we now have much more accurate information on where the photos were taken and Felicity has been spending the day re-pinning the photos to the correct places. We’ve also generated some more contextual information about the photos, which Rebekkah is going to work on uploading as stories. We’ve also learnt how a crowdsourcing session actually works. Crowdsourcing is something Rebekkah does quite frequently for Historypin, but none of us had ever tried it before, so it was really good to give it a go and get some ideas on what worked well and what didn’t work so well, which can feed into other crowdsourcing sessions. I think that was probably the most positive outcome – that the Bucklebury History Group would like to do another session, so that’s hopefully something we’ll do in the spring. We’re also hoping to use what we’ve learnt to run a crowdsourcing session to look at some of the other photographic material we have at MERL – in particular, holding an intergenerational session with Young Farmers (and older farmers) to look at photographs from Farmers’ Weekly.

We had also been hoping to trial the Bucklebury App while we were there, but unfortunately I couldn’t get enough 3G signal for it to work reliably. I did manage a quick go using the pub’s wifi and was really pleased with what I saw. We’ve still got some more work to do on the App before we’re ready to make it public – including making use of the more accurately pinned photographs, and developing collections – but we’ll keep you posted on that.

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Helen Relf of the Bucklebury History Group for making the arrangements for the session, and to Rebekkah for coming along and showing us how to crowdsource! And, to end on a positive note, one of the photos from the History Group’s channel is Historypin’s ‘Pin of the Day’ for today (17 January) so be sure to take a look.

The team welcomes our resident Historypinner!

Anyone who has followed the Sense of Place blog since day 1 back in February will recall that I mentioned working with Historypin, a website which encourages communities to share images of their locality by ‘pinning’ them to virtual maps.

I also explained that one of the aims of the Sense of Place project is to work with Historypin in finding a method of also pinning MERL object collection data onto these maps, to provide them with an enhanced geographical context.

Although it appears that we have gone a little quiet on this front, we have been making steady progress behind the scenes and are pleased to announce that we now have our very own ‘History pinner in Residence,’ Rebekkah Abraham.  Rebekkah is the Historypin Content Manager for We Are What We Do and currently has the pleasure of travelling out to Reading every so often to work alongside the Sense of Place team at MERL.  We are very pleased to be working with her too.

She is now busily working away on the technicalities of exporting data from our object cataloguing system, Adlib, through to Historypin, to ensure that information from the relevant fields is transferred successfully providing as much information as possible for the user.  This will include the object name, a brief description and history, the maker and production date where applicable.  These exports will mean that when updates or amendments are made to our records, they are automatically updated in Historypin.

This project presents a new challenge for Rebekkah and Historypin as the website is currently only designed to upload photographs and their related information, which means some development is required.  However, once this is achieved, there will hopefully be scope for many other museums from around the world to plot their collections geographically in a similar way.

A visible development of this work is now available to explore in the form of a MERL Historypin ‘channel’ which holds everything from the MERL collections which has been uploaded so far.  Do take a look as its far better to grasp what Historypin is capable of by trying it out, rather me rambling on about it in a blog post!

For a number of reasons, which have been mentioned in several previous blog posts, the village of Bucklebury in Berkshire has been identified as an ideal location to begin plotting photographic and object content to on Historypin via this channel.  This will then allow us to have a defined geographical area which we can try-out various Historypin functionality with.  These could be tours, collections, stories and potentially a mobile phone app, which will highlight the rich collections that the museum is lucky to own, originating from Bucklebury.

Bucklebury also has a thriving History Group and they now have their own channel too.  This means that they can begin to upload the many images which they have collected over the years, making them more accessible to anyone who is interested.  They already have some beautiful photographs from the 1953 Coronation celebrations which took place in the village.
Of course, there are some problems for us to iron out.  These things are never as straight forward as you might imagine. Many of the objects in the MERL collection have multiple places associated with them (where they are made, used, acquired etc) and representing this complex biography is one of the objectives of the project.  We still need to work out how this will work in practice when they are plotted to a map, ensuring we do not end up confusing researchers and other interested parties further.

Historypin also currently works by plotting photographs in a location and at a specific historic date.  Many of the objects in the collection have no or very little information regarding the date they were made or used and it would be difficult to add this data to such a large selection of objects accurately, within the constraints of this project.

Nevertheless, it feels exciting to be able to share some progress with you, which you can actually have a look at and explore further!