2019 April_AO: I recently came across the Berkeley Hearst Museum’s digital portal of artifacts. I was surprised to find lack of any oral history about the objects and that, while one could search by object name, the object names were all in English and also void of the context from which they were collected. What made this particular bracelet more interesting to the foreign collector? How did they eventually obtain it? How was it constructed by its original creator and what stories were told about it? Why was its creation significant?
An archive or collection like this Hearst one symbolizes to me a system that is attempting to appear neutral, scientific, objective. Removing the life stories and environmental, social and historical contexts that produced this artifact is enabled through an assignment of a museum identification number and the prioritization of visual sight through inclusion of a color card in the indexed image of the artifact.
I find this approach generally mirrored in standard approaches towards research data where there is a “thin-ness” when it comes to systematic capture of contextualizing information, as if the data can be separated from the context out of which it was captured. It is my view that focusing on data is only interesting because it represents the world and the world is represented in it. But when quantity becomes valued over quality, the data as an object in and of itself becomes more important than the processes that produced the object in the first place.
In Nairobi fieldwork so far, I have observed a prioritization of the data in an abstract form (which only gains value when combined with other data points but does not hold value as a person’s lived experience because it is seen as not demonstrative of a broader phenomenon). What really matters to many is the statistically significant result over the individual’s lived experience. Similarly, looking at this artifact, I wonder, what kind of research could be done on it? Machine learning, training the algorithm to pick up on shared characteristics across hundreds of thousands of bead bracelets to try to pick out something that just a human alone could not capture. I would be interested to know how these artifacts have been used in previous studies (as this could well be just my lack of archeological training). But even if that were the case, the portal could really benefit from the possibility of layering various insights onto the thousands of data points. I would have loved to read from different archeologists here to help reveal aspects of this (and from the maker or community who made this artifact!).