Using objects to catalyze memory and narrative

Professor Francesco Spagnolo studies cultural heritage, a topic area that might seem situated squarely in the distant past — but that’s not how he sees it. “While there is a lot of concern among people about our cultural artifacts going digital; I’m interested in how in how cultural heritage includes both the digital and the tangible: these two dimensions exist in a loop, they are not separate from one.” As the curator for the The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California Berkeley, and a professor at the University, he is uniquely positioned to explore this relationship.

In Fall 2016, Professor Spagnolo taught a course called “Mapping Diasporas” that focused on the role of digital humanities in documenting and mapping culture in motion. As part of the class, he collaborated with Citizen Film. Together, they invited five refugees to meet with the students, and each were asked to bring with them one or more “memory objects” – tangible objects that spoke to them about home, culture, identity, or location. Several of the refugees had recently relocated to the Bay Area from Afghanistan, Syria, and Uganda, and presented their stories to the class. As part of an “un-final” project for the class, students conducted audio interviews with the refugees. Those interviews, and photos of those memory objects, are now being turned into a digital mapping project — and Pop Up Archive is helping.

Audio from the interviews is being transcribed using Pop Up Archive. Students go through the transcripts and use the interactive editor to correct any imperfections and assign and identify speakers. The machine-generated transcripts are critical to the overall efficiency of the project, which, based on student interest, is continuing past the end of the Semester at UC Berkeley. Professor Spagnolo and his students plan to finalize the interview transcripts, make all the files public, and then digitally document the memory objects, eventually combining all of these elements into an online map that the public can interact with in order to follow the journeys of the refugees.

“I’ve been a huge fan of Pop Up Archive since the beginning, and I continue to be a fan. It’s very collaborative and intuitive, and a completely natural platform to use to work with students and to collaborate on an oral history project like this one.” Images, texts, and audio will be interwoven in a map that will hopefully convey the immediacy of the refugee experience, and the importance of cultural heritage in maintaining one’s identity in displacement. “This is of extreme relevance today, when one seventh of the world’s population is estimated to be displaced.”Citizen Film, a documentary group, is also working on a short pilot documentary based on one of the narratives. Together, they presented a program about their work at the East Bay JCC on June 22.

Image: Ward Shelly’s Mapping the Jewish Diaspora