Discovering Authenticity

Getting to the heart of places that matter.

Author: Angela Labrador

Supporting Fuzzy Dates, Approximations, and Uncertainties in Arches

When working with heritage inventories, historic archives, and archaeological site records, dates are some of the most important pieces of information that we manage. However, we often deal with instances in which our temporal data are “fuzzy”—sometimes we only have precision down to a month, a year, maybe even a century—sometimes we only have approximations or are uncertain about the information we do have on hand.

Some dates are difficult to decipher. Photo: National Museum of American History, "American Enterprise" Exhibition (2015)

Some dates are difficult to decipher. Photo: National Museum of American History, “American Enterprise” Exhibition (2015)

Computer systems such as databases typically don’t like fuzzy dates—they assume a level of certainty and precision that historic data are hard-pressed to match. But given a blank form field, humans aren’t very good at entering fuzzy date information in a consistent manner. The US Library of Congress has recognized these challenges and has drafted an extension to the ISO 8601 date standard they call the Extended Date/Time Format (EDTF).

Arches, an open source heritage inventory system, developed by the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund, is the first of its kind (and its class) at providing a standards-based inventory system specifically designed from the ground up for built heritage resources.

While learning how Arches works and testing it out in house, we found that adding EDTF support to Arches date fields would possibly benefit users who need to manage a wider range of dates in their inventory system: dates such as “about 1800” or date ranges such as “1934 – present”.

And because Arches is an open source system, we were able to seize the opportunity to develop the feature and contribute it to the growing Arches community!

You can access our more detailed documentation and download the code at our Github. And we welcome further contributions and issue reports there!


Heritage Authenticity: You’ll know it when you see it

Reams of official reports, mountains of monographs, and a babel of professional heritage jargon still have not succeeded in precisely and universally defining the essence of authenticity.  You can’t fault the heritage professionals for not trying:  The Venice Charter (1965) tried to outline the conservation practices that protect it; the Nara Document (1994) tried to globalize it; and the World Heritage Convention Operational Guidelines have established the procedural round hole into which every square heritage peg must be jammed.

An authenticity certificate - Wouldn't it just be easier this way?

Wouldn’t it just be easier this way?

But could there be another way for site and destination managers to think of heritage authenticity– not only as the accurate dating and description of a historical monument or artifact– but as a meaningful relationship between people and a place?

An average person may not be able to define “authentic” heritage concisely or clearly, but give them  a camera and tell them to document what heritage means to them, and they’ll be shooting pictures of their sense of authenticity in no time. Give them the freedom to express what places and things matter, and you’ll have a collection of images that speak more eloquently than a tall pile of policy guidelines.  Individually, they represent personal perspectives, but taken together they are the distinctive mosaic of meanings that give life to a cultural tourism destination or heritage place. 

Photography is a powerful – and handy – medium to use to empower visitors and community members to express their feelings about the meaning of their heritage.  And there are several powerful ways to use it.  Not with professional photographers or with expensive equipment, but with inexpensive digital cameras (or mobile phones) and carefully planned activities.

In coming posts we’ll talk about several specific tools and techniques for eliciting heritage values and inventorying significant heritage attributes in your community or destination using digital cameras.  They include Photographs as Memory PromptsPhotovoice, Digital Storytelling, and the use of Social Media as an evolving visual archive.

By using them, you’ll see how these tools can help you powerfully and memorably communicate the distinctive character of your heritage destination or site.

Dreaming Big about Open Cultural Data

How about a massive digital heritage project where all participants are welcome and the ideas are yet to come?  In contrast to the many EU and NSF digital heritage projects where the end deliverables are explicitly stated, the  {cod1ng da v1nc1} project— a joint undertaking of the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, Wikimedia Deutschland, and Digis– have thrown open 15 data sets from cultural institutions and 2 APIs (an API or “application programming interface” is what allows developers interact with online data or software) to develop innovative cultural heritage applications.

Coding davinci

Four challenges have been offered up for the most creative solutions that any willing participant wants to tackle:

Mash it!  applications that create new insights by combining different cultural data sets.

Move it! applications that allow more inclusive public participation through things like augmented reality, user experience, and social media

Discover it!  applications that provide playful learning experiences

Improve it!  applications that improve the usefulness of digital data by cultural institutions of all kinds

Goals like these have been aimed at many times before, but never in such a free form way.  The four challenges are the centerpieces of a 10-week hackathon in which programmers, computer geeks, and cultural data engineers from all over Germany are invited to try their hand at changing the way digital heritage is used.

Project concepts have already begun to flow in.  Once the idea is posted and collaborators recruited, it will be a mad dash of brainstorming, programming, and testing until the finished projects are unveiled in July.  Hackathons are already well known in the world of information technology; Google, Yahoo, and even government agencies have held hackathons to harvest public creativity and gain innovative solutions to particular challenges.  Thousands of proposals have been posted and hundreds of professional and avocational programmers have taken part.

Here are two early ideas that benefit both the users and the cultural organizations themselves:

Goethe2Go – geotagging meets gamification

The project idea is for a mobile app contest in which participants race to identify hidden historical spots in their city, and in doing so provide valuable crowd-sourced location data to the cultural institution.  We could imagine such an application to be extremely useful for organizations with archival photographs of architectural elements, buildings, and street views that are lacking locational metadata.  It is a win-win for everyone.


This project idea attempts to overcome the fact that digital archives are steadily growing, but users don’t necessarily know how much of the collected material would be interesting or valuable to them.  How can someone find an archival item that they don’t know exists?  The proposed answer here is the creation of a new search interface in the form of mosaic patterns, arranged according to the degree of relatedness of their content that can be set by the user.  Like the Visual Thesaurus, it could offer not only a new way of accessing museum collections but also provide surprising and enlightening juxtapositions of content that the searcher did not anticipate.

Coding da Vinci - Der Kultur-Hackathon.  Photo: Volker Agueras Gäng

Coding da Vinci – Der Kultur-Hackathon. Photo: Volker Agueras Gäng

We’ll keep an eye on the hackathon as it proceeds.  But it is already opening the door a bit wider to truly participatory cultural archives.

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