Siemens datacentral. Tekniska museet. Foto: (PDM)

Hacking heritage

After looking at activities an institution itself can conduct to encourage re-use of their data, we now shift the focus to the perspectives of people outside of GLAMs. Hacking GLAM collections can be a way of creating new knowledge and tools, reflecting upon access to cultural heritage and find new possibilities for collaboration, data analyses, and visualisation. To get to know the world of hacking heritage collections, Tim Sherratt (hacker and historian at the University of Canberra) introduced us to his work and Maria Svensk (Swedish National Heritage Board) presented Hack for Heritage.

The concept of hacking

Tim Sherratt introduced us to the concept of hacking (presentation/slides). He described it as opening up online collections by “pushing the boundaries of code” in the humanities. In the hacking projects Tim has worked on so far (see an overview below), he has focused and reflected upon how access to digital cultural heritage is constructed, filtered and constrained. Hacking is hence also a tool to find workarounds and explore the practices of granting or denying access to online GLAM collections. His presentation was full of examples of issues of access to GLAM collections and his hacks for them. 

A hack can, for example, be an alternative interface: Harvesting digital information via an API enables users to create their own tools to make GLAM data easier to use for their (and others’) purposes. Hacking can thus surface GLAM collections where it was hard to find and search data before. APIs also enable bots to show a range of objects on social media to new audiences – some are even interactive and help you with your questions. 

Bringing content to the surface and spreading awareness for your data can also be the aim of hacks. For this purpose, your data has to be in a format that makes it re-usable. Otherwise, your collection’s data format can become an issue for people wanting to use and analyse your data. Thus, hacking can also help users to get the data in the right format. 

 “If there are only low-resolution images available for download, what you can do with them is limited. Even the way the material is presented online can restrict what we’re able to do with it.” Tim Sherratt

Kvinnliga bågskyttar på Folkungavallen. Bild Linköping.Foto: (PDM)

The audience of open cultural heritage data

An interesting point was whom institutions are targeting with tools such as APIs – and who has the technical skills to use them. The sector could support its audience in highlighting examples of how to work with their data and why it could be valuable to learn how to code. Tim’s GLAM workbench is one point to start hacking GLAM collections and get inspired – another example are hacking events such as Hack for Heritage, an event series presented by Maria Svensk (Swedish National Heritage Board) (presentation).

The Swedish National Heritage Board runs a project called Kulturarvsinkubatorn (Cultural Heritage Incubator) to support technological innovation and development in the cultural heritage sector. It brings together entrepreneurs, companies and institutions to work on digital products and services, and they organise for example innovation camps and Hack for Heritage. This event is a possibility for people from diverse backgrounds to develop ideas and hacks based on open cultural heritage data. To get a grasp of the ideas and prototypes, you can have a look at their summary of the third Hack for Heritage held in 2019 (in Swedish).

Take-away lessons

  • Hacks can be short-cuts, workarounds, visualisations or other tools that try to solve existing problems or issues.
  • Hacking cultural heritage data can mean to take a new or different perspective at GLAM collections data with the help of digital technology.
  • Hacking does not have to be a lonesome activity: Hackathons are events where people sharing an interest in for example digital heritage data come together to find new solutions or create tools.
  • Cultural heritage institutions can help their audience to get creative with their data by sharing their data openly, in a high resolution and with rich metadata.

Further information

Tim Sherratt’s GLAM Workbench, a collection of tools and examples how to work with GLAM data

Tim Sherratt (2018): Hacking heritage: understanding the limits of online access. In: Hannah Lewi, Wally Smith, Dirk vom Lehn, Steven Cooke (eds.): The Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites. London: Routledge.

Examples for hacks with SOCH’s material

Examples for GLAM bots on Twitter

  • Tim Sherratt’s Trove News Bot, surfacing material from Trove’s newspaper collections
  • Hilding bot by Marcus Smith, showing images by the Swedish photographer Hilding Mickelsson
  • Art bots built by Andrei Taraschuk