An Interview with Arc/k Project’s Brian Pope: Citizen-Science & CHE

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

March 30, 2022

At the end of last year, I interviewed the Founder and Executive Director of Arc/k Project, Brian Pope. Arc/k Project is a nonprofit organization focused on a citizen-science approach to digital cultural heritage preservation.

Pope was recently recognized as an Archival Innovator by the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness. In the hour-long interview, Pope shared with me how Arc/k Project uses technology to aid in saving cultural heritage and how museums and citizen-scientists alike can harness digital tools to support preservation, exhibition, and educational initiatives. This post will share selected portions of the interview to highlight Arc/k Project’s work and is lightly edited for clarity.

Interview with Brian Pope, Founder and Executive Director of Arc/k Project

interview is part of the Archival Innovators series on the ArchivesAWARE blog. The Archival Innovator series aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.

Rachael: Brian, please share with us how you decided to position Arc/k Project as a preservation partner.

Brian: When we began Arc/k Project, we wanted to try and figure out how we should position the organization and identify where we were needed the most. It became clear that there was no place yet for citizen science in digital archiving and, in fact, it’s still considered a little bit of a gray area. But also, it occurred to me that as much as I adore going to a huge institution, museum, or a university collection, these do not necessarily represent the standards, the priorities, and the most dearly held tenets of cultures. This is especially true for cultures that are impoverished, or in states of extremis.

So, two things happened: 1. I felt an extreme need to legitimize our practices, which meant that we studied. We already knew photogrammetry from a visual effects standpoint, many of my staff members are actually former visual effects artists who, like myself, wanted to turn our craft towards something a little bit more important than Star Wars Episode One opening weekend. We, of course, took those techniques that I think are some of the best in the entire [film industry], but then we wanted to legitimize them. So, for example, I made sure that my staff was trained by the absolute best in the academic and archival field of photogrammetry: CHI—Cultural Heritage Imaging in San Francisco. I adore those people and to this day we credit them all the time with teaching us the very best techniques in photogrammetry. And I think, because of where we we’re coming from, we were able to teach them a few things. And so, there’s been a beautiful exchange of knowledge there. And 2. that also meant hiring a professional archivist as a full-time staff member so that he could advise us on archival techniques.

Arc/k Project has created a Collection Development Policy, a Collection Policy for Partnerships with Indigenous Communities, a Preservation Policy, and an Arc/k Metadata Standards Map. These are publicly available on their Arc/kivist’s Corner page of their website.

Rachael: Can you share with us an example of how you’ve partnered with a local community group?

Brian: We partnered with a fantastic organization called Institutional Assets and Monuments (IAM) Venezuela (collection link). It’s largely an expat organization, mostly in and around Miami, for Venezuelans who’ve immigrated. And yet, they maintain a really healthy volunteer base in Venezuela, and we developed a round tripping technique and a program by which we trained them remotely on how to shoot for photogrammetry, and how to archive the kind of metadata that we need for an authentic archive.

To learn more about IAM Venezuela, please visit their website: https://iamvenezuela.com/

Rather than dictate to them, we empower our volunteer base to determine what they’re interested in recording, and we’re so proud of that. For the Venezuelan people we maintain an archive of over 400 and maybe closer to 500 sites and objects. Some of which, due to their intrinsic value in materials– bronze, copper, tin, aluminum, steel– have actually been destroyed.  Because of our volunteer base, because of the techniques that we perfected in training remotely on how to shoot for photogrammetry, and because we continue to do most of the software heavy lifting on our side, we have archived these things to such a high degree of technological acuity and fidelity. At some point, when hopefully there is a more stable period in Venezuela, we’ll actually be able to repatriate that data back to them.

Rachael: Brian, can you speak to how the digital representations you capture and create relate to their physical counterparts? And, how we can use the digital to protect against illicit object trafficking?

Brian: Please understand, it’s not the belief that digital heritage replaces in any way the physical heritage. These are overlapping and mutually beneficial techniques. The point in what we do is that the digital helps preserve the memory and the symbolism of an object which then makes it immortal, whereas the physical existence of an object continues its vulnerability. The two together, though, can form an impenetrable shield by which the symbolism, the importance, and the cultural memory are seeded into an object.

We’re working with a fantastic group of people at ARTIVE. The work is sort of behind the scenes with them right now. It’s largely about generating more compatible overlapping databases, because there are a lot of different organizations out there that have data which can be immensely important in curtailing illicit trafficking, especially out of the Middle East right now. And I think we’re probably about to see a huge influx of illicit trafficking of antiquities from Afghanistan as well, for reasons that should be obvious to everyone right now. And so, getting databases to be more open and more compatible [is an urgent need]. Then, once compatibility is established, to get those databases into the hands of not just import/export authorities, but rather to generate destruction of plausible deniability. We’re talking about auction houses, antiques dealers, private collectors. We want to absolutely end plausible deniability in ignorance…

Rachael: I know we’ve touched on a couple examples of this, but in your own words I would love to hear you describe the importance and urgency of capturing the digital tapestry of these different cultural heritage sites.

Brian: On some days it’s almost difficult not to have a sense of panic about how rapidly some cultures are changing, about how little is being done to archive them. It’s been a source of bitter irony for me sometimes, when I see how much time academics of ancient and arguably extinct cultures spend on understanding a piece of garbage from say Pompeii, and yet, we do so little to archive the personal, and the Internet, and the small scale, and the low-brow, or, simply low-finance aspects of human existence. Now, in cultures that are perhaps, say poverty stricken, or in states of political and social extremis; they are rapidly evolving. And those stresses that those cultures are going through, they generate a level of creativity, and flexibility that is a real credit to human adaptability. Those are the moments that are desperately in need of being archived and of being valued. And, yeah, some days it’s hard not to have a sense of panic about it. You know, if we had the funding, I’d be sending cameras and recorders, everywhere.

Learn More About Arc/k Project

To hear (or read) the interview in full, please follow this link to the Archival Innovator post on ArchivesAWARE. To learn more about Arc/k Project and view project highlights, please visit their website: https://arck-project.org/

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to several titles published by Lucidea Press, she is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter. And remember to check out Lucidea’s Argus solution for powerful and innovative museum collections management.

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