I’m here writing as a guest blogger – thanks for having me! Not so long ago I had the great pleasure of visiting the HumLab to give a presentation and see what people there are up to, so here I am to say a little about my visit.
The first observation that I must make is that even the concept of HumLab seems to me an excellent idea well-executed. Modern life and cutting edge research has to be interdisciplinary, but it isn’t always straightforward to meet the right collaborators or to find a way to work together. By combining people with different strengths into the same Lab, HumLab overcomes many of those difficulties straightaway, and offers a great environment for sharing ideas and skills. Very impressive. I would also add that it has a very friendly and collaborative atmosphere – thank-you to everyone for making me feel very welcome during my visit.
My presentation was about a project I work on that combines Humanities and digital tech (very HumLab). I run the Panoply Vase Animation Project (www.panoply.org.uk) with animator Steve K Simons. It’s a project making animations from the scenes that decorate ancient Greek vases. You’ve probably seen the sort of vase – black and red, decorated with scenes of everyday life or mythology. The animations use the ancient artwork itself, making the figures spring to life. A running scene becomes an animated running race; a scene of warriors fighting becomes a story of going to war and joining battle. The vase animations are made in order to help non-specialists to enjoy and understand the artefacts and classical culture. Some of what I talked about in the presentation is how we bridge between academia and schools and the public, particularly by providing supporting material to go with the animations. You can find a lot of this on our website, including, for example, information about the vases and the subjects of the animations; samples of related ancient literature and other artefacts; downloadable activity sheets and suggestions of activities to do alongside looking at the vases and watching the animations. Having technology is one thing, but it is more useful to people when they get ideas about how they might use it!
This is an exciting time for Panoply, as we have recently begun a five-year project funded by the European Research Council. This is part of a wider project called ‘Our Mythical Childhood’, led by Prof Katarzyna Marciniak of the University of Warsaw. ‘Our Mythical Childhood’ is exploring the role of classical antiquity in children and young people’s lives, and for our part we are making five vase animations based on pots in the National Museum in Warsaw and a documentary about the vases. The first features the poet Sappho. Sappho is unusual as one of the few women in antiquity whose literary output has (partially) survived, and the vase is unusual as it features an imagined portrait of a real historical person (Sappho!) rather than a mythical or anonymous figure. The animation will see her play her work upon a lyre and bring to life her poem about Troy before the Trojan War. It will be very special, so look out for further news of it.
During my time in HumLab I also had the pleasure to hear a presentation on Virtual Reality by Umeå doctoral candidate, Claudia Sciuto. VR is a hot topic in lots of fields at the moment, so it was great to hear some of Claudia’s thoughts on it. She was looking at how it can be used effectively in archaeological excavation interpretation. Claudia has seen that making VR versions of sites is particularly useful for collaborative work, as it makes it easier for team members to share their visions of how the historical site worked and to try out alternative interpretations. It was interesting and enjoyable to try out a VR version of an ancient homestead, based on the findings from an excavation. I also found it thought-provoking to visit a VR theatre environment that was inhabited by a dancer created through a project by Dr Anna Foka, my host in Umeå, Helen Slaney (Roehampton) and Sophie Bocksberger (Oxford), and technical specialists Mattis Lindmark and Jim Robertsson.
Thank-you to everyone in Umeå for your warm welcome and thoughtful questions. I hope to visit again, hopefully IRL, or at least through the digital realm!