Data Histories and Museum Collections

The British Museum: the reading room, with many readers. Engraving by H Melville after T H Shepherd. This room is now (1996) used as part of the music department of the British Library. Museums. Books. Libraries. Reading. British Museum. Contributors: Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793–1864); Harden Sidney Melville (active 1837–1882). Work ID: sce5m794. URL: 

Lecture by Dr. Inna Kizhner, C²DH visiting fellow in March-April 2024.

Remnants of material and visual cultures throughout history can be traced as millions of museum objects have been, and are, digitised and published online. The metadata of these online museum objects can be used as data to analyse the development of concepts, events or technological and social innovations in history by using information retrieval, quantitative and machine learning methods. They can also be used as primary sources to trace the history of and changes in the representation of concepts or events and their interpretation. How do online museum catalogue data reflect multiple perspectives on specific topics? Objects relating to, for example, female labour or ethnic minorities can be described in online catalogue metadata in a variety of ways. A drawing of an old Jew may be represented in a biblical or satirical and anti-Semitic context, depending on other objects grouped around similar metadata clusters. Idiosyncratic comments of museum curators found in online catalogue metadata can help to explain the origin of such particular representations.

This fellowship presentation will discuss the initial stages of a new project related to data histories and the politics of digitisation. It will ask if and how a dataset of online catalogue records related to Jewish themes gleaned from the British Museum’s online catalogue can help us investigate changing diachronic representations of specific groups of people, in this case, Jewish minorities, in museums. What effects do the online publication of museum objects and their metadata have on representations of cultures and history in terms of (de-)contextualisation, and epistemic diversity? 


Dr. Inna Kizhner is Postdoctoral Fellow at the E-Lijah Lab – Digital Humanities Laboratory at the University of Haifa, Israel. She has a PhD in Cultural Studies from Siberian Federal University. Her PhD research project developed a methodology to assess cultural and colonial bias in Google Arts and Culture to get insights in how large aggregators amplified biases specific for the circumstances of particular museums and countries. She also contributed chapters to Jewish Studies in the Digital Age and Global Debates in the Digital Humanities


Tuesday, 30 April 2024
12.00 - 13.00
C²DH Open Space
(4e étage de la Maison des Sciences humaines)