Author: Nicole McNeilly
On 10 March 2022, as part of the international Mingei Day, we held an online seminar with invited experts from the Mingei project and peer organisations and projects, including the Europeana/Connecting Europe Facility project CRAFTED. The Mingei Platform was presented in the form of four short demonstrations that bookended four themed discussions. This article sets out the main themes discussed.
Mingei was set up to meet the challenge of digitising and representing crafts and should be seen in the context of a network of peers and experts in Europe (and of course, further afield) who are employing digital technologies – from motion tracking to geo-tagging – and ontologies to meaningfully share the ‘recipes’ of crafting processes and the stories that explain its social and historical significance, as described by Mingei project coordinator, Xenophon Zabulis (FORTH, Mingei) and Mingei Platform developer Carlo Meghini (CNR-ISTI, Mingei).
Eirini Kaldeli (NTUA, CRAFTED project) invoked the challenge of representing different types of crafts heritage and the knowledge and know-how that must be included to meaningfully represent this heritage digitally. She connected this to the standards required by the Europeana Data Model (EDM) while describing activities designed to strengthen existing ontologies (vocabularies) that explore and standardise the many existing crafts terminologies. Also reinforced was the need for collaborative learning in this area, to which the seminar was a contribution in this vein.
Putting narrative at the centre of crafts representation
The Mingei project takes an innovative step in crafts preservation by putting narrative at the centre. It established a channel between the human and the digital assets through the formal representation of the stories and the meaningful management of the heritage data. This represents a significant change, according to Carlo Meghini, and reinforced by Marinos Ioannides (UNESCO Chair Digital Cultural Heritage, Cyprus University of Technology). He stated that the greatest challenge faced by those working in digital heritage crafts preservation is not only the digitisation of the tangible or intangible but both together with the memories that give this meaning, in a way that allows these memories to be understood by all audiences and so that anyone can learn from them.
There are challenges, however, to the EDM (to which Europe’s digitised heritage available on Europeana must conform to). Xenophon Zabulis argued that it does not yet adequately allow for the capture of diverse narratives and the representation of all of the vocabulary used and captured in Mingei and other projects. It also lacks the presentation of events. In the past, as Carlo Meghini explained, the data were not there to tell extensive crafts stories (often not in catalogues or even formally documented). Capturing stories provides richer representations but it also poses ongoing technical questions (many of which are now being addressed). Eirini Kaldeli explained that this need has been identified by the CRAFTED project and new formats (e.g. galleries) help to explore the narratives behind the crafts.
‘…the craft is alive only if someone performs the craft’. Arnaud Dubois
Even with the most advanced digitisation and representation of heritage crafts loses the essence of the craft without performativity, according to Arnaud Dubois (CNAM, Mingei). While there is some fear that ‘digital’ might replace crafts practices (which Arnaud explained came from a confusion in some instances between digitisation and automation or robotisation), craftspeople nonetheless acknowledge the need for heritage digitisation for preservation and to gain a wider audience. Eirini Kaldeli suggested that organising hands-on workshops alongside digitisation efforts is key to creating impact for wider audiences, because, as Nikolaos Partarakis (FORTH) explained, there is no way (yet) to digitally transmit the pain, effort and feeling of craft practices. Digital knowledge cannot replace the practices needed to perfect the craft, but without preserving this knowledge, we might lose opportunities to train future generations.
What about artificial intelligence?
Marinos Ioannides asked the panel the question of what artificial intelligence (AI) can be used for. Machine learning has pushed forward advances in crafts representation and preservation and, for example, in automating annotation. This technology can help those searching for knowledge find and filter appropriate knowledge sources. Eirini Kaldeli introduced the ‘human in the loop’ concept, which is the fruitful combination of human and artificial intelligence. Human intelligence can strengthen the results of AI algorithms and further train them, and AI can automate mundane tasks. Humans can annotate data and produce domain-relevant training data, further advancing AI. Carlo Meghini noted that AI can help with more error-prone human tasks, but that the definition of intelligence remains a question. Arnaud Dubois noted that AI brings new ways to document complex knowledge, but that this benefits from multidisciplinary (human) approaches to the complexity of human experience. Marinos Ioannides then reflected on the use of AI to support humans in managing complexity but that we shouldn’t forget the unlimited boundaries of human learning and the human drive for preservation.
The application of the Mingei protocol is also generic enough to be applied to other heritage contexts and in different disciplines, and the protocol guides those responsible for preservation to extract narratives from individual objects to uncover and present additional knowledge relating to both tangible and intangible elements. The Mingei protocol defines what is expected by all scientists involved in the documentation process, supporting much-needed multidisciplinary collaboration.
It is still not possible to express or replicate the interaction of the craftspeople with their material because this changes in every instance and stage of the process of the craft. Yet what can be expressed is the need to emphasise performativity, the recreation of relationships between people and matter, as well as to acknowledge that there are some elements of the process of the craft that cannot be understood or captured.
Learning from ancient history and philosophy, the seminar shared insights into the key questions and state of the art in digital heritage crafts preservation. Raising questions of the purpose and limitations of artificial intelligence and technological advancement, Mingei pushes forward the opportunities of digital heritage crafts preservation by reinforcing the role of the human story, of the narrative, in these processes, of balance and respect for craft as it is protected and preserved for future generations. Watch the full seminar below or on Vimeo!