Visualising Time: Data and The Archive

Friday 9th Sept, 14.30-16.00, Room CG10

Chair: Harry Leeson, London Metropolitan University/Westminster University

How might time be imagined visually? And how might chronographical/visual representations of museum collections provide new insights into the use and development of those collections over time?  Papers in this session address the question of how the discipline of design history responds to the theme of ‘time’, and also consider the challenges of the digital in enabling new ways of archiving, accessing and interpreting knowledge.

42134488_boyd_davisDesigning Histories of Design: Critical Chronographics
Professor Stephen Boyd Davis with Florian Kräutli, Sam Cottrell and Olivia Vane, Professor of Design Research, School of Design, Royal College of Art

Our paper focuses on ‘Designing History’ and in particular on visual representations of historical time. We address two of the conference themes: 1. How can the discipline of Design History analyse the theme of time? and 2. How can Design History respond to the challenges of the digital, with the new ways of archiving, accessing and interpreting knowledge? How do these innovations feed into accounting for the history of design beyond the timeline?

We question an implication of ‘beyond the timeline’ that timelines are trivial. Our work treats chronographics as potentially sophisticated tools for analysis and presentation; we argue that visual representations of time are worthy of critical discourse – and critical making (Ratto, 2011). Productive controversies over cartography as representation of place, space and territory (Kwan, 2002, Rose, 1993, Wood and Krygier, 2009) have seldom been echoed in relation to visualising history (exceptions include Drucker and Nowviskie, 2003, Nowviskie et al., 2013), although of course personal, social, physical and visual representations of time in a more general sense have been scrutinised by Bachelard (1963), Bergson (1950), Benjamin (1940), Dohrn-van Rossum (1996), Mumford (1934), Sherman (1996), Zerubavel (2004), and many others. We apply such critical approaches to the design of chronographics.

Designers of timelines and other chronographics habitually do historians and the wider public a disservice by ‘tidying up history’, disguising vital characteristics such as uncertainty (of many kinds), controversy, and the contested status of graphical time itself. In the process, they end up misrepresenting the relation of events and objects in time, such as in museum and archive collections, and misrepresent the fundamental character of historiography (Lubar, 2013). We offer evidence that applying digital techniques has made this problem worse – but has the potential to make it better.

We will present a very brief and partial history of chronographics to set the scene, highlighting the self-conscious way in which early authors of visual histories argued for the decisions they made (Martignoni, 1721, Lenglet du Fresnoy, 1729, Barbeau de la Bruyère, 1750, Barbeu-Dubourg, 1753, Priestley, 1764, Willard, 1849). We then present the argument for new critical design in this field, illustrated by case studies, including visual chronologies of design we have constructed based on national and local collections: the Cooper-Hewitt collection, data on registered designs at The National Archives (arising from the Ornamental Design Act 1842), and collections at the Geffrye Museum, London Transport Museum, MoDA and the Beazley Archive at Oxford University. We add further insights from data in related domains, working with the Britten-Pears Foundation, Courtauld Institute, Wellcome Library, Science Museum and British Museum.

Designed Objects in Time: A Visual Analytic Approach
Professor Stephen Boyd Davis, Professor of Design Research, School of Design, Royal College of Art, with Zoe Hendon, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University

In our research we explore the kinds of knowledge we can gain from digital collections held by libraries, archives and museums (Boyd Davis and Kräutli, 2015). We do so by developing and evaluating software to visually analyse collections data from a temporal perspective: redesigning the timeline.

Today, the timeline often merely serves to illustrate a linear narrative, even though it has a long history as a tool for making sense of complex temporal data (Rosenberg and Grafton, 2010; Boyd Davis and Kräutli, 2014; Boyd Davis, 2016).

Our efforts to design reusable timeline visualisations for collections required us to grapple with digital interpretations of dates and led us to question present assumptions. Early on we collaborated with curators and archivists and together we explored the philosophies and mechanisms behind assigning dates to objects in a museum context. We came to a new understanding of visualisation as a way of representing these problematics and to frame research enquiries.

Museums generally focus on one particular date of their collected objects: the date of production. It is hardly ever absent from a museum label and allows a visitor to ‘locate’ a cultural artefact in the past time. Assigning a single date is, however, far from straightforward. Nevertheless, curators are often required to act certain about dates, even in the light of doubts or controversies. Digital database systems expect a date specification to comply with a predefined schema, ruling out the possibility of expressing certainty, beliefs and sources (Hedstrom, 2002). We present our findings on the digital representation of dates and how we set out to acknowledge hidden biases and uncertainties in the design of visual timelines.

As we looked at digital collections from a temporal perspective, we also found a multiplicity of temporal aspects that surround a single object. Most of these are generally absent in the exhibition context. These include the date of purchase, loans, dates of exhibitions or conservation efforts. While the museum focuses on the lives of objects before they entered their collections, these temporal attributes are telling of the life of objects as museum artefacts. Visualising this data on new kinds of timeline allows us to discover the lives of things as museum artefacts and, on a broader scale, the usage patterns and changing uses of a cultural collection as a whole. Rediscovering the lives of objects is important intellectually, but also increasingly as evidence when cultural institutions seek ways to understand and demonstrate ‘impact’ (The British Library, 2015).

In our paper we will present a case study based on the collection of the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture at Middlesex University. Usage of this collection includes exhibitions, book publications, research theses and university courses, all documented in their collections management system. This data allows us to gain novel insights into the histories of artefacts in their own time, as well as in their immediate history as museum objects. For us as designers working on timeline visualisations for researchers, such multiple histories pose new challenges that we will discuss in the broader context of our work.

42134488_savastaBeyond Timelines and Data Tables: Visualisation Tools for Design History Studies
Daniele Savasta and Elif Kocabiyik Savasta, Lecturer, Faculty of Communication, Department of Visual Communication Design, Yasar University, Izmir, Turkey
E: and T: @danielesavasta

The mantra of the information era is making sense of large amount of data. Being able to access extensive information is undoubtedly overwhelming for the researcher, who conducts a thorough data collection and/or analyses large archives. Moreover, the tools in the hands of the researcher are based on machines that carry their own limits. The outcome is usually a neural confusion and mostly a machinic reductionism.

In the PhD thesis of one of the authors, a collection of 1,161 Turkish cigarette packets were studied to understand how their design changed from 1900s up to the present. Since the study required a timeline of the cigarette packets and not all the packets had dates written on them, a supportive study was conducted for establishing their dates, in which ‘a periodical list of Turkish cigarette brands’ was prepared showing the dates that brands entered into and withdrew from the Turkish market. However, this preparation of the list brought up some problems due to the sources of the data and their representation, which can be summarised as: 1) contradicting data collected from different sources/references, 2) selection of the dates, and 3) simultaneous comparison of the data. The first problem occurred among the data gathered from different sources/references, which were the cigarette packets themselves found in the collection, the advertisements of new cigarettes in magazines, the enactments document of the Turkish state monopoly about tobacco and cigarette brands (1875-1989), and the reports and books that published periodical lists of cigarette brands. The second problem was which date to consider for the cigarette brands – date of enactment, design, production, promotion, distribution, etc. The third problem was the lack of visual and textual comparison among the cigarette packets due to the large amount of data.

An investigation on how visualisation helps the research process is not new, but it is still necessary to explore the effects of visualisation in the context of Design History and dating objects. This paper focuses on the case of Turkish cigarette packets and develops a visualisation tool to improve its understanding and dissemination. The aim is to provide a tool that allows the following: to achieve a single view of the data that was undoable before; to present uncertain data and doubtful propositions; to update the database and rebuild its visual analysis dynamically; to explore visualisation and raw data side-by-side for an open accessible narration; to discover patterns in the data that were hidden between the rows before; and to iterate different modalities of research and visualisation for different inquiries.

This paper is organised in four parts, which explain respectively the exploration of the database and its issues, the development of a specific data visualisation tool, the evaluation of the visualisation tool itself, and the possible generalisation of the tool for future applications. The conclusion discusses how digital tools can inherently appreciate uncertainty and flexibility, and how the visualisation can affect the studies undertaken in the design history field, which bring the question of perceiving data visualisation as a discussable platform more than a tool of revelation.

Further Reading

Bachelard, G (1963) La dialectique de la durée. Les Presses universitaires de France.

Barbeau de la Bruyère, JL (1750) Mappemonde historique ou carte chronologique, géographique et généalogique des états et empires du monde, Paris: Buache. Available here (Accessed 24 March 2016).

Barbeu-Dubourg, M (1753) Chronographie, ou description des tems. Paris.

Benjamin, W (1940) On the Concept of History. Transl. Redmond, D (2001) (Accessed 24 March 2016).

Bergson, H (1950) Time and free will: An essay on the immediate data of consciousness. Transl. Pogson, FL, London: George Allen & Unwin.

Boyd Davis, S (in production) ‘Time Machines’ in: Pilcher, J (ed) Culture, Technology and the Image, Bristol: Intellect.

Boyd Davis, S and Vane, O (in production) ‘Using Data Visualisation to tell Stories about Collections’, in: Proc. Electronic Visualisation and the Arts 2016, London: British Computer Society.

Boyd Davis, S (2016) ‘To see at one glance all the centuries that have passed’ – early visualisations of historic time, in: Black A, Lund O and Walker S (eds), Gower Handbook of Information Design, Farnham: Ashgate.

Boyd Davis, S and Kräutli, F (2015) The Idea and Image of Historical Time: Interactions between Design and Digital Humanities. Visible Language, 49(3), 101-119.

Boyd Davis, S and Kräutli, F (2014) Scholarly chronographics: can a timeline be useful in historiography? ESSHC, Vienna.

Dohrn-van Rossum, G (1996) History of the Hour: clocks and modern temporal orders. Transl. Dunlap, T, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, J and Nowviskie, BP (2003) Temporal modelling: Conceptualization and visualization of temporal relations for humanities scholarship. Proc. ACH/ALLC 2003, Athens, Georgia: Assoc. Computers and the Humanities and Assoc. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 29 May-2 June; 26–28.

Hedstrom, M (2002) Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past. Archival Science, 2(1-2), 21-43.

Kwan, MP (2002) Feminist visualization: Re-envisioning GIS as a method in feminist geographic research, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 92(4): 645–661.

Lenglet du Fresnoy, N (1729) Méthode pour Étudier l’Histoire. Nouvelle edition, 4 vols., Paris: Gandouin 1729, Vol. 1, Available Here (Accessed 24 March 2016).

Lubar, S (2013) Timelines in Exhibitions. Curator: The Museum Journal 56(2): 169-188.

Martignoni, GA (1721) Explication de la carte historique de la France et de l’Angleterre. Rome: British Library General Reference Collection C.106.f.19.

Mumford, L (1934) Technics and Civilization, New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Nowviskie, B, McClure, D, Graham, W, Soroka, A, Boggs, J and Rochester, E (2013). Geo-Temporal Interpretation of Archival Collections with Neatline, Literary & Linguistic Computing, 28(4): 692-699.

Priestley, J (1764) A Description of a Chart of Biography, Warrington: Eyre. British Library: 611.d.30, 3.

Ratto, M (2011) Critical making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life, The Information Society, 27(4): 252-260.

Rose, G (1993) Some Notes towards thinking about the spaces of the future; in: Bird, J, Curtis, B, Putnam, T and Tickner, L (eds) Mapping the Futures: local cultures, global challenges, London: Routledge, pp.70-83.

Rosenberg, D and Grafton, A (2010) Cartographies of Time, Princeton Architectural Press.

Sherman, S (1996) Telling Time: clocks, diaries, and English diurnal form, 1660-1785, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The British Library (2015) Unlocking The Value: The British Library’s Collection Metadata Strategy 2015-2018. [online] Available here. Accessed 23 March 2016.

Willard, E (1849) Willard’s Historic Guide. Guide to the Temple of time; and Universal History for Schools, New York: Barnes & Co.

Wood, D and Krygier, J (2009) Critical Cartography, in: Kitchin, R and Thrift, N (eds), International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp.340–344.

Zerubavel, E (2004) Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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