Digital reviews | Alaskan archaeology, Lancaster history and the Courtauld's photographic archive - Museums Association

Digital reviews | Alaskan archaeology, Lancaster history and the Courtauld’s photographic archive

We take a scroll through the latest digital content
Rachel Ellis
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An illustration recreates the daily life of this Yup'ik mother and daughter, depicted mending clothes

Nunalleq Digital Museum 

My favourite kinds of cultural experiences are the ones that make you acknowledge, explore or discover things that you didn’t know anything about when you got out of bed that morning. I love that I can wake up and know exactly zero things about life in a 16th-century Alaskan village. But then by bedtime, thanks to a digital project, my brain is buzzing with all my new Alaskan-based knowledge and I’m wishing I could have my time again so that I could change career paths and retrain as an archaeologist. 

The Nunalleq Digital Museum, a newly launched online museum and catalogue, makes me nostalgic for rainy day playtimes spent poring over books in my lovely school library in the early 1980s. Each page of this online museum has very strong 1970s non-fiction children’s book illustration vibes (think Ladybird books), which seems to dictate a slower way of exploring this retro-style digital space.

Children’s book nostalgia aside, the Nunalleq project has a much more serious side – a collaboration between the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak and the University of Aberdeen – born from the climate emergency. 

Yup’ik are the largest indigenous group in Alaska, and their homeland – where they have lived for thousands of years – is radically changing as a result of climate change. Permafrost thaw and rapid erosion of coastal sites has called for rescue excavations to prevent the loss of thousands of objects, which include dolls, ceremonial dance masks, jewellery, cooking utensils and sewing tools.

Six thousand everyday objects, found over a decade of excavations, are featured on the site – mostly in catalogue format, but some in the digital museum. Artists’ reconstructions, 3D scans made by the University of Aberdeen’s 3DVisLab and audio recordings bring us a view of Yup’ik life in the past, told by the Quinhagak community in the present. RE

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100 Years, 100 Objects, Stories from the Collections of Lancaster City Museums

A very old comb
A 10th century comb is one of the many objects discussed in the podcast

I adore the simple premise of choosing a bunch of objects from a museum or collection, and getting the people who know them like the back of their hand to wax lyrical on a weekly basis. It’s a fuss-free format, and one that is being effectively used by Lancaster City Museums to mark its centenary year. 

Members of the museum staff, local community groups and academics have sifted through more than 50,000 objects before whittling it down to the final 100. Two objects are discussed each week on this beautifully produced podcast.

The objects, as you might expect of a local museum collection, are brilliantly diverse. I loved the episode about a letter from Richard Owen (of Natural History Museum and dinosaur moniker fame), who appears to be a Victorian version of the singer Feargal Sharkey, speaking passionately about the health of his city’s people. 

I have enjoyed flicking through the many episodes available, simply selecting on the basis of the ones I liked the sound of. Funeral Biscuits Leaflet and Murder Buck Ruxton’s Diary immediately caught my eye and couldn’t be scrolled past. Averaging around 12 minutes of listening time, these are much shorter than traditional podcasts. But with 100 to listen to, it feels like the right amount of time – small vignettes that wonderfully weave tales from 100 years of collecting. RE

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The Courtauld’s photographic collections

A black and white photo of a castle stuck to pale pink backing paper
This Welsh castle is among the more than one million images that the public can view

I am writing about this digitisation project not because I love online digital collections databases – they are wonderful resources of course, but I can never get truly excited about what is, essentially, to me, a list of stuff (don’t hate me – I don’t do research for a living or a pastime, so I’m not the
target audience). 

The reason I’m writing about this digitisation project, carried out by the Courtauld Institute of Art over the past five years, is because of its impressive scale. More than one million images are now opened up to the public for free, because of the work of 14,000 volunteers.

The largest public inclusion project in the Courtauld’s history has engaged with some of society’s most vulnerable groups. Since 2017, almost 2,000 in-person volunteers ranging from ages 18 to 86, – and an additional 12,000 volunteers participating online – have worked closely with the London institution to catalogue and photograph every image in the Conway Library.

The library contains images dating from the inception of photography to the present day, and if world architecture, sculpture and decorative objects are your thing, then this brilliant resource is definitely worth a look.

Rachel Ellis is co-director of Thirty8 digital consultancy

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