Cultural Studies Leuven

Cultural Studies and Digital Humanities

By Fred Truyen

Final d’oracio de la V sèrie Caps d’estudi | Artigues i Carbonell, Joan – Generalitat De Catalunya. Arxiu Nacional De Catalunya

Digital Humanities is an area of study involving the use of computers and computational methods in the various disciplines of the humanities. It is also a critical analysis of the impact of technology on culture. Certainly in regards to the latter the field of Digital Humanities is often close to Cultural Studies, of which it borrows key concepts such as ‘intersectionality’ or ‘remediation’.

But also in the first range of activities, pertaining to the use of computational methods in the humanities, there are many ways in which Cultural Studies is affected by the developments in Digital Humanities. One such field is the digitization of Cultural Heritage, a domain we have been very actively involved in here in Leuven.

In the project EuropeanaPhotography, we contributed over 450.000 images of early photography to Europeana, a project involving 14 partners from different European Countries. For Leuven, there were two different tasks: on the one hand the Digital Lab digitized over 20.000 images from our art historic pedagogical collection – with art historians at the University Library providing the descriptive metadata; on the other hand we coordinated the overall project and curated the exhibition “All Our Yesterdays”. The photographs offer both professional as well as amateur photography from 1839 to 1939. Digitizing early photographs brings to life the many reflections in classic texts from authors such as Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, which are part of the canon of Cultural Studies. It also reveals that digitization is not making merely a copy but actually amounts to what should be called ‘re-photography’.

As a sequel to this project we just finished – successfully, it got an excellent rating by the reviewers! – Europeana Space, a project with a very different aim, which brings us even closer to Digital Humanities activities: the creative re-use of cultural heritage content. So, a venture from re-photography to re-use.

It involved, for a number of cultural practices such as Photography, Publishing, TV, Games, Dance and Museum exhibitions, a cycle entailing: development of a pilot demonstrator and re-use tools; organising a hackathon with students, GLAM professionals and developers to exploit these tools; and going with the winning teams through a business modelling workshop and monetizing event. The photography pilot we ran features applications that bring old photography to life in new ways, such as augmented reality overlays, touristic guides or interactive viewers such as MuPop. That a student of Cultural Studies who teamed up with a computer scientist actually was one of the winners of the photo hackathon convinced us even more that a fruitful marriage of Cultural studies and Digital Humanities could yield new venues in our research.

As Digital Humanities always implies a practical component of actually applying digital techniques, the Europeana Space MOOC hosted by KU Leuven offers amateurs and professionals alike the opportunity to try it out – you can have a look at our “tell your own photo story developed in collaboration with LIBIS, our natural partner in Digital Humanities! Offering these digital humanities experiences in higher education doesn’t stop with this MOOC however. Cultural Studies Leuven is also contributing to the KU Leuven MA in Digital Humanities programme, a Master-after-master degree targeting holders of a Master’s degree in the humanities, who want to take this next step in applying computational techniques by actually getting a serious in-depth training in programming. Cultural Studies contributes its Online Publishing course to this Master programme, which has, besides an introductory course in the field of Digital Humanities, a course on programming in Python (Scripting Languages) and a course on Information Structures and Implications. Now that this programme is in its second year and we already have successful graduates – some of whom are now pursuing Phd’s here and at universities abroad – we can say that it actually reaches its goal to offer students with a solid humanities background, such as the MA students of Cultural Studies, the necessary training and background to program their own solutions and applications. It allows for novel ways of doing humanities research, with an experimental touch. Have a look at what of some of the former students of the MA have to say!