IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | Central Asia
An Ethnographic Archive in the Digital Age
Digital Himalaya is a pilot project to develop digital collection, archiving, and distribution strategies for multimedia anthropological information from the Himalayan region. Based at the University of Cambridge in the UK, the project commenced in December 2000. In the initial phase, we are digitizing a set of existing ethnographic archives comprised of photographs, films, sound recordings, field notes, and texts collected by anthropologists and travellers in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Indian Himalayas (including Sikkim) from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present.
at Gyantse Monastery, 14.10.33 Gyantse, Tibet.
* By SARA SHNEIDERMAN & MARK TURIN
The project has three long-term objectives. The first is to preserve, in a digital medium, valuable ethnographic materials that are degenerating in their current forms. The second is to make these resources available in a searchable digital format to scholars and to the Himalayan communities from which the materials were collected. Lastly, we need to develop a template for collaborative digital cataloguing that will allow users to contribute documentation to existing collections and eventually link their own collections to the system, creating a dynamic tool for comparative research
The five collections that are involved in the first phase of the project have been selected on their historical value and their coverage of diverse geographical areas and ethnic peoples of the Himalayan region. This region we have broadly defined to reach from Ladakh and Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in the east, and from the Tibetan plateau in the north to the Himalayan foothills in the south. For these collections, we use a wide range of original recording media. These include: nitrate photographic film, 35mm monochrome and colour film, 8mm, Super8, and 16mm moving film, U-Matic, VHS, Hi-8, and 1-inch videotape, and a number of digital formats including DVMini and DVCam digital video, and TIFF and JPEG still images.Of these five collections, three are finite, historical resources, while the latter two are ongoing collections that continue to grow. Depending on the success of this initial phase, the project may expand to include other high quality archives. The five collections are:
a. the Williamson Photographic Archive: 1,700 photographs taken between 1930 and 1935 by the British Political Officer Sir Frederick Williamson in Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Williamson's collection is now held in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and includes a number of rare historic images.
b. the Fürer-Haimendorf Film Collection: over 100 hours of 16mm film from various parts of the central and eastern Himalayas shot between 1936 and 1980 by Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, Professor of Anthropology at SOAS. The films are supplemented by Haimendorf's detailed field diaries.
c. the Naga Videodisc: part of Haimendorf's film archive overlaps with a large ethnographic collection relating to the Naga peoples of Northeast India and parts of Burma, principally collected by five different anthropologists and travellers. These materials were compiled as an analogue videodisc in the 1980s, and included some 10,000 photographs, a large number of film and sound clips, and original fieldwork diaries and notes in an associated database. This system is now technologically obsolete, and we hope to re-release it in a digital format.
d. the Thak Archive: materials from a study of the Gurung village of Thak, central Nepal, including over 100 hours of film, more than 3,000 photographs, and continuous censuses and field notes covering the period 1968 to the present, collected by Alan Macfarlane and Sarah Harrison.
e. the Thangmi Archive, comprised of digital video, photographs, and ethnographic data from the Thangmi communities of Dolakha and Sindhupalcok districts in northeast Nepal collected by Mark Turin and Sara Shneiderman between 1996 and the present.
Technologies & methodologies
There are three aspects to the project, each requiring a different set of technologies. Digitization is the first step: scanning photographic prints, negatives and slides, creating digital master copies of film and video through telecine projection and other analogue-to-digital conversion processes, and storing these masters in high resolution digital formats. The second step is data management and interface design. The third step concerns questions of storage and distribution: should all of the materials be available via the Internet? Should we opt for DVD (Digital Versatile Disc)? How will different users respond to each format? Furthermore, we must think ahead to assure that the digital format in which we archive films and photographs can be migrated to new platforms as technology develops, hopefully avoiding the problems of obsolescence that have plagued previous ethnographic archiving projects.
Digitizing the diverse moving and still images included within the Digital Himalaya collections -- the essential first step in preserving original materials -- presents substantial challenges and necessitates an array of technological approaches. Many of the 16mm films in the Fürer-Haimendorf collection are deteriorating and require immediate attention. Recently, a digitization system has been set up at Cambridge which allows efficient transfers of 16mm material on to digital master tapes. The Thak Collection films mostly originate on Hi-8, and videos from the 1980s have already suffered substantial quality loss. At present, over 50 hours of the Thak material has been transferred to digital master tapes. The Williamson photographs are preserved and mounted in original photo-albums and cannot be scanned with a normal flatbed scanner. Instead, they must be digitally re-photographed. A set of 16mm films shot by Williamson have also come to light, and we hope to include these in the project, using the same digitization techniques that are currently being used for the Haimendorf films.
A Thangmi village
Regarding data management and distribution, Digital Himalaya is exploring options for a comprehensive, end-user system that will allow portions of each collection to be accessed on the Internet, while making full compilations available on DVD. As a physical object, a DVD is a self-contained portable resource, which requires neither high-speed Internet access nor even a computer. With the advent of small battery-operated DVD-Video players, it is now possible to play DVDs in areas with no infrastructure or electricity supply. In the place of complicated keyboard and mouse controls, DVD players are controlled with simple TV-style buttons. A DVD-based archive may provide better access to non-literate users by offering limited interactivity and higher quality playable content making use of voice-overs in local languages instead of text.
Recently, new convergent strategies integrating the best of both Internet and DVD have emerged. With the advent of low-cost consumer DVD-burners and associated authoring software, searchable databases can be made available online along with low resolution film clips and photos, from which users would then order a custom DVD complete with relevant voice-overs. The film clips on the DVD will have embedded URLs, and when viewed on a computer will become active, enabling the user to link back to the relevant database information online. An online annotation feature will allow members of the communities from which the material originated, or scholars, or both, to add new or corrected information about individuals, rituals, or historical events, which could then be incorporated into the database documentation for that particular item. In areas where Internet access is unavailable, DVD-only versions of the archive could be compiled and installed, and comments sent by post.
Digital Himalaya is collaborating with many research partners to develop and adopt the most appropriate set of software systems. By participating in multi-partner projects like the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (University of California) and the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (University of Virginia), Digital Himalaya aims to provide a wide access to Himalayan materials. It seeks to facilitate access for a broad range of scholars and members of the general public, in addition to that for community members in the areas where the materials originated. The time-depth and geographical breadth of Digital Himalaya's collections is unique and will be of great benefit to comparative researchers, local historians, and students. *
Digital Himalaya is supported by the Anthropologists' Fund for Urgent Anthropological Research at the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Renaissance Trust, the Frederick Williamson Memorial Fund and the Crowther-Beynon Fund of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The project is based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. An earlier version of this article was published in the European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, vol. 20-21, November 2001.
Sara Shneiderman MA is currently a PhD student in anthropology at Cornell University. She served as project manager for Digital Himalaya from fall 2000 to spring 2001, and continues to work on the Thangmi archive as part of her PhD research, building upon original work done in Nepal as a Fulbright scholar in Nepal in 1999-2000.
Mark Turin, MA is completing his grammar of the Thangmi language, spoken in central eastern Nepal. He is currently affiliated to the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge and working in the Digital Himalaya project.
IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | Central Asia