CLASS Scholar Summer Reflection: Creating and Curating Archives

Lauren Virginia Scutt Hamilton College, Class of 2017

Creating and Curating Archives
Sacred Centers in India and Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State

The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) at Hamilton College established the CLASS scholarship program to train students in creatively and effectively utilizing technology in the discipline of the humanities through ongoing student-faculty collaborative research. During my time as a CLASS scholar, I have had the opportunity to collaborate on two major research projects: Sacred Centers in India (SCI) and Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State. In 2014, Abhishek Amar, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, invited me to join the SCI team. This past summer Professor Amar connected me with Dr. Michael Willis at the British Museum to assist him with his archive.

Sacred Centers in India is one of the many projects sponsored by Hamilton’s DHi. The project aims to catalogue places of worship in Gaya, India in the state of Bihar. Pilgrims congregate in the city to perform sraddha, a Hindu funerary ritual, as it is believed the city grounds are sacred, according to the Gayasura legend. Despite the sites religious importance, few have catalogued the shrines or artifacts at Gaya. In creating Sacred Centers, Amar will be among the first to preserve the rich religious history of the site. The archive will contain images as well as descriptions of the major shrines and the artifacts found in each. Ultimately, Sacred Centers will present a ‘virtual Gaya’ on an accessible platform so that the state and scholars alike can research these sacred objects and artifacts.

Digitizing Gaya is no small task. Since 2010, Amar has documented over 20 sites and captured over 570 images and continues to survey more sites. Before even designing an archive, his field research needed to be reorganized. To do so, Professor Amar, along with Lainie Smith, a fellow CLASS scholar, synthesized the information into a ‘KPJRI’ form. Each form describes a single site; it details the history, importance, and surrounding area. Most importantly, the form ensures the same information is available for each ‘sacred center’. Reformatting Amar’s fieldwork was the first step in codifying the data in preparation for the creation of a functional metadata schema.

Metadata exists as a map for the archive. Using Microsoft Excel we formatted an extensive spreadsheet that functioned as this blueprint. Because metadata structures the archive, its organization determines the functionality as well as its content. Essentially, the spreadsheet connects each file with the proper corresponding data (i.e. site, location, KPJRI form). We accomplished this by deciding on multiple common ‘parameters’ for every file; examples include Site Name, Description of Artifact or File Size. The information listed in the parameters is the information that will be published. The organizational structure of the metadata decides how users interact with the archive. Thus, to be comprehensible the framework must be internally consistent. The logic of the metadata must be apparent enough that it can be easily navigated. If the structure of the archive is too complex it is no longer accessible to the general public. Further, we had to design the metadata in a way that allowed flexibility, while also maintaining specificity. Because Amar plans to expand the archive the parameters needed to be inclusive enough to permit the addition of new sites without requiring reformation of the metadata (and therefore altering the functionality of the archive).

One strategy to maintain accessibility is to effectively tag each file. Tagging files determines the keywords associated with each image; these words or phrases allow users to search for specific files or data sets. Ability to anticipate the free associations of the user for each photo required creativity and uniformity. We predetermined key terms, thus grouping the files. Tags included the size of the artifact, type of artifact, and the site name. Placing the images into assigned categories created consistency, which also simplifies searching the archive.

Assisting with the creation of SCI’s archive prepared me for my involvement with curation of Beyond Boundaries’ archive. Professor Amar connected me with his advisor Dr. Michael Willis, ERC Project Leader and Principal Investigator: Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language

and the State. The European Research Council awarded Dr. Willis (British Museum) and a team of scholars from the British Museum, British Library and SOASL, University of London with a ERC Synergy Grant which will fund the project which started in 2014 until 2020. Beyond Boundaries aims to make contributions toward understanding the evolution of the Mahābodhi temple in Bodhgayā, India (the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment). The temple has a rich history of re- appropriation as religion evolved in Asia. To uncover the ‘narrative’ of this temple as a monument, I was assigned parts of the archive of the archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham now held at the British Museum in the Department of Asia. The archive consists of drawings and photographs of the site made by Cunningham and his assistants in the 19th century. Although donated to The British Museum in 1897 as part of Augustus Franks Bequest, Dr. Willis is the first to organize the photographs into a coherent sequence. My job was to record information about the objects, write, and launch this material in the Museum’s online collection database.

My primary role was to catalogue and create a digital archive of Cunningham’s collection. This required me to study the photographs and develop an understanding of the site before archiving the information. To do so, I first created a comprehensive list of inscriptions found at Bodhgayā, the content of which uncovers much of the site’s history. By studying the photographs, I developed an understanding of how shifting architectural styles provide clues of the site’s development and influence.

To publish this information, I first needed to digitize (i.e. scan and edit) the photographs and drawings. I recorded relevant information about the document (i.e. dimensions, annotations, materials), which, once recorded, reveal patterns in Cunningham’s methodology in his research into the restoration of the Mahābodhi complex. Additionally, the content and subject of the photograph required description. I recorded additional comments, such as the connections to research by earlier scholars. After gathering this information, I created an online record using the Merlin system at the British Museum. These records are now visible online.

Unlike Sacred Centers, the ultimate goal of Beyond Boundaries is not to create an archive. Rather, Dr. Willis hopes to study and draw conclusions about the Mahābodhi conclusions from Sir Alexander Cunningham’s collection. Organizing and publishing the August Franks Bequest is the first step in that process. Because the British Museum hosts Beyond Boundaries and owns Sir Alexander Cunningham’s collection, I used Merlin, a software designed by and for the British Museum, to archive the images.

Merlin functions similarly to the metadata created for SCI. The programmers determined set parameters to be completed for each object. Unlike SCI, entering the metadata required filling a form in a software, Merlin. Descriptors could only be added to the metadata if approved by the museum’s specialists. The archive includes both the content of the image and the physical. So, for example, I needed to record the material, dimensions and techniques in addition to information such as the photographer or inscriptions in the image. At times I would add a curatorial note or bibliography when applicable. Using a secondary software, Odin, I could link the informational metadata with its image file. Much like SCI it was important to codify the information entered into the metadata. The descriptions of each object started uniformly and relayed the same information no matter its content.

My continuing research efforts will include thorough explanations and updates of both the Sacred Centers and Beyond Boundaries projects. I will share some images available in each archive and trace how each became incorporated into the archive. I will compare these two methodologies of cataloguing. As both projects are in their infancy, I’ll share what I’ve learned about the process of creating a schema. Further, I would like to expand upon the importance of these projects in the academic world. Amar and Willis are enriching Hindu and Buddhist studies through their research. Lastly, I’d like to share the impact of the CLASS scholarship program on my college experience. In addition to practicing digital scholarship, my involvement in Sacred Centers in India and Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State has exposed me to curation, a profession I would like to pursue after I graduate.