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Harold Short Digital Dialogue at MITH | March 29, 2016

Cultural Memory & Digital Mediation: Three contrasting projects in Armenia, Australia and South Africa

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  1. This talk with Harold Short from Australian Catholic University is a special addition to MITH's Sprint 2016 Digital Dialogues series. Short is a major figure in the field of digital humanities, and has made substantial contributions to the establishment of DH as a recognized field of study. Today his talk at MITH centered around three distinct DH projects which Short felt should serve as 'types' - a foundation on which to have a discussion about methodologies to preserve cultural memory.
  2. First up was the Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project. To begin he gave a bit of background on the history underlining the project. During the Middle Ages to the early modern period, Armenia was caught in the middle of various wars between Persia and Turkey, with the capital Yerevan as the administrative center of the Turkish occupation at the end of the 16th century. Captured by Persia at the beginning of the 17th century, the Julfa cemetery falls in a space between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  3. The systematic destruction by Azerbaijan of the cemetery was recorded on film by an Armenian priest. Now the Azerbaijani government is claiming the cemetery never existed, constituting a form of cultural genocide. The cemetery is significant to the Armenian people because its links to their early Christian heritage, and its destruction is seen by many as running parallel to or continuing the 1915 genocide.
  4. At the center of the project are khachkars, intricately carved cross-stones which are unique to Armenian culture, each one representing a prayer to commemorate an individual or an event.
  5. The purpose of the repatriation project is to allow Armenians to experience the cemetery as much as technology will allow it. The resources used by the team include lantern slide photographs by Aram Vruyr and Jurgis Baltrusaitis, over 2,000 photographs taken by photographer Argam Ayvazyan over 25 years, satellite images from the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Geospatial Technologies Project.
  6. The outcomes are two permanent 3D installations, at the Genocide Musiceum in Yerevan, and in Chatswood, a suburb of Sydney which is one of the foci of the Armenian diaspora. The idea is that patrons will enter a small room and be able to experience a simulation of the cemetery. There is also a plan for a touring version, and there will be a virtual model available online as well as a substantial digital and physical archive in Sydney, most likely at the State Library of New South Wales.
  7. Short's project partner is Judith Crispin, who has worked with him on a series of field trips to gather information, identify collaborators, report on progress and pilot a 3D model of an extant khactkar (exhibited at DH2015 in Sydney last year), and in Rome in September. The five-year project is slated to finish in late 2019.
  8. Short concluded his talk about the Julfa project with a discussion of progress and challenges learned and experienced thus far in the project. First, there are some knowledge gaps and contested opinions surrounding the symbols used in khachkars (likely arising from the 1915 genocide). There's also a challenge with the positioning of the stones within the actual exhibits in order to represent the original formations, and more technology research necessary to create the 3D installation which are 'real' enough to be used for both education but also ritual. The team has also learned much about digital repatriation, including the needs for projects like this to be community-based and community-appropriate.
  9. The second project Short addressed in his talk is The Journey to Horseshoe Bend Project, a digital revisualization of the biographical memoir of Australian explorer TGH Strehlow, who detailed his travels with his pastor father through 1920's Central Australia while documenting the Aboriginal and settler communities he encountered on his journeys.
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