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Posted on Monday August 19, 2019

How easy is it to actually make something?

Melissa Terras is a digital humanities professor. She’s interested in ‘maker culture’ and the gap between what a creative individual wants from digital cultural heritage material and what they currently get.

Maker culture is all about creating new things by remixing and repurposing existing material. From the worlds of electronics, programming, computer- aided design and digital content come new works like collages, fabrics and 3D printed objects. Maker culture is now being adopted in education as a way of providing a more engaging and participatory approach to learning, bringing core subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths to life.

Melissa has been following the ongoing release of thousands of public domain cultural heritage images on platforms like Europeana and Flickr, and is well aware of the inspiring claims and promises made regarding the reuse of digital content for new learning, innovation and creativity.

But she noticed a discrepancy. Despite the grand claims being made, Melissa noticed that there were very few people looking at online image collections like Europeana and shouting ‘Fantastic! Cousin Henry would love a teatowel of that!’

Determined to find out why this gap between intention and reality exists, Melissa embarked on a quest to create something herself. She wanted ‘something which is digitised and online, that I like, that I can access, that I can repurpose’.

This turned out to be a lot harder than it sounded. Although there are masses of freely available cultural heritage images online in places like Europeana and Flickr, they are very hard to search for or navigate through by theme, motif or style. Metadata can be variable and some online image repositories even automatically crop pictures, which makes them unsuitable when the requirement is for high-resolution originals. Melissa wanted user-friendly tools or principles like curated themes or selected highlights to help her navigate the sea of images. She found none. But eventually, Melissa managed to produce a beautiful scarf out of heritage material. The process led her to this rallying call:

‘What do we want? Curated bundles of 300 dpi images of cultural heritage content, freely and easily available with clear licensing and attribution guidelines! When do we want it? Yesteryear!’

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