It was a disarming question from a colleague: “So would this be a digital humanities project?”
“Yes,” I smiled, “I think so.”
Victoria’s Lost Pavilion – or “the pavilion project” as it’s called around here – began with an open office door and a casual conversation about an idea. One colleague with an idea for a scholarly project dropped in on another who knew a bit about the landscape of digital humanities. The conversation came to include several more participants in the department and across campus, each of whom saw opportunities to engage different field conversations and disciplinary problems. What had started with a single scholar’s conference paper about allusions to Milton in the paintings adorning a little-known Victorian garden pavilion soon developed into a collective effort to virtually reconstruct, hypertextually enhance, and facilitate the three-dimensional immersion in a historical building on the web.
“Yes, this is a digital humanities project,” I told my colleague, but not because it involves digitization, or invites different levels of institutional participation, or targets external funding for development. It does all of these things, like much extant and planned DH work. But because it carries forward the existing research interests of scholars, leveraging the digital as a platform for interdisciplinary research, and exposing a mix of interesting historical and methodological and technical problems which we have only begun to anticipate.
Victoria’s Lost Pavilion takes shape at the intersection of two streams. First, the shared interests of a set of English department faculty in nineteenth-century British literature and cultural practices, particularly related to art history and museum culture, aesthetics and taste, literary history and politics. Second, the recent success of our colleague John Wall who, with an amazing international team, had just launched the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project — a historical reconstruction of St. Paul’s churchyard featuring an immersive 270˚ projection and an acoustic model of the soundscape for John Donne’s sermons. The VPCP involves architects, actors, acousticians, archaeologists, librarians, and literature scholars. And all of them can tell unique stories about why the project interests them.
In the same spirit, our team approaches the garden pavilion as the convergence of several fascinating conversations about cultural history and the challenges of modeling it digitally. For this historical structure, we can rebuild it, we have the technology. But why do so? Because, in large part, of the curious set of contradictions it embodies, the possibilities of overlapping and competing interpretations about what and how it represents, and the chance to remediate its own experimental status in digital space. What the team shares—and what I’d say really makes this a digital humanities project—is an interest in how to model complex and often conflicting narratives. How can we use the digital not to idealize the past in high fidelity, but to expose the interconnected layers of its significance and model competing stories about what it means? And how can we leverage our interest in cultural complexity to push the digital further into humanities terrain, to operationalize ambiguity and to discover interpretation?
Of course, that’s just me asking.
For more on operationalizing, see Moretti, Franco. ‘“Operationalizing”: Or, the Function of Measurement in Modern Literary Theory.’ Palo Alto: Stanford Literary Lab, 2013. Web. http://litlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet6.pdf. Pamphlets of the Stanford Literary Lab.