The humanities: digital, creative, collaborative, risk-embracing, cross-cultural, multidisciplinary

Yesterday colleagues across the Getty, including over 50 staff members and the directors of its four programs, gathered with Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, and Jeffrey Schnapp, four of the authors of the recent book Digital_Humanities, to discuss how the Getty might contribute to the developing field of the digital humanities. (Due to a scheduling conflict, the fifth author, Todd Presner, was unable to join us.)

You might remember Murtha Baca’s Iris post on the book from just a few days ago.  Murtha from the Getty Research Institute and Anne Helmreich from the Getty Foundation convened the meeting, and I moderated the discussion with and among the book’s authors.

I launched the discussion by noting that although the digital humanities emphasizes the curation, analysis, editing, and modeling of fact-based knowledge, we need to remember that the humanities are central to our knowing what it means to be human. They engage with questions of value and interpretation, with subjective judgments as well as verifiable truths. The quality of digital humanities work will only be as good as the thinking behind it. In this sense, “digital” is only a qualifier. The noun is humanities.

I also believe that, should the Getty contribute to the development of the digital humanities, it should be in a fundamental and not incremental way. The Getty Trust was founded 30 years ago to do what needs to be done and what others are not doing or are unable to do. If our contribution is just another website or platform, it would be a missed opportunity. So, what should we do next?

With that introduction, the authors each spoke briefly and then responded to questions from me and the audience for almost 90 minutes. It was a very lively discussion. I took away eight points (and no doubt others took away more and different points). Going forward, we should:

1. Take risks and not be afraid of failing. This applies to individuals as well as institutions, including the Getty.

2. Work across disciplinary boundaries. Unlike some of our university peers, cultural institutions such as the Getty are free of inherited disciplinary boundaries. This is a great opportunity.

3. Collaborate. For us, this means collaborating across the entire Getty Trust, working in teams representative of all four Getty programs, and with colleagues from other institutions. It also means working outside our disciplines, with colleagues from the start-up community, and with our users.

4. Do cross-cultural work. We should explore polycentric knowledge formation with colleagues from the rich multiverse of our fields’ many points of view.

5. Think “constellationally.” We should develop a new modality for working, what Johanna called a “constellational” modality: a means of working and publishing that is dynamic and interactive, and that embraces wide connections and deep creative thinking.

6. Publish in the full range of forms. This ranges from the extensive and expansive to the tweetable.

7. Make our data sets freely and broadly available. Sharing enables us all to benefit from one another’s efforts.

8. Invest in the long-term viability of our work. This means archiving and documenting projects, and planning for sustainability.

This discussion will continue over future months as we plan how the Getty can most benefit digital humanities, and strengthen the many collaborations already begun. I welcome your thoughts, now and moving forward.