getting at the stuff – 1. the basics

This is just a quick post about how to get at the Geffrye’s Documenting Homes data and images currently available online, and making them a bit more visible. There will be a few more posts over the next week or so to look at where you could get to and the connections you could see with a bit of insider information,  the problems with the data as it is and what we could do with it, but for now this is where we are…

Over the last few weeks staff at the Geffrye have been working at getting as much of the Documenting Homes collections up as is possible with the constraints of time, effort and permissions. Many, many thanks to AGJ and EB who are quite busy enough doing other v. important things.

There are now 38 collections online and over 900 items. You can get to them here:

Screenshot 2014-05-22 09.58.54or here:

Screenshot 2014-05-22 09.59.12

both of which should take you to here:

Screenshot 2014-05-22 09.59.37

However, I am not at all sure that it’s as clear as it could be how you get to the actual detail, nor the relationships between the items, and other objects in the collections. It does reflect the hierarchy and organisation of the database behind, but it’s a lot of clicks.

So, click on one of the images to get to the “Documenting Homes Collection” record. (Btw there are two levels of record; a collection level or group record and an item level record).

When you get to the record page for this collection there is detail about what comprises this archive and the circumstances of its acquisition and sometimes some extra images (but no data) of items in the collection. There is also a link “view items in this collection”, which should take you to all the item level records. So far, so straightforward.

Screenshot 2014-05-22 10.37.57

It would be great if you could take a moment to have a look around and let me know how useful you think it is and what more you would like to see, and especially  – were the data available what you would do with it? Comments below please or tweet @archivesofhome.


all i have is questions


Photograph of ER holding up a treat for her dog Rufus outside her childhood home  in London N10, September 1951. © Geffrye Museum (Museum number:750/2012-15)

One of my former colleagues at the Geffrye Museum, Gregory Salter, has been doing some really interesting work evaluating the material (I typed ‘data’ here first but it isn’t that – he’s considering the content, value and substance of the information and how to collect it effectively) in the Documenting Home archive collections. I have just realised that he is doing the “getting the information IN” bit and I am doing “getting the information OUT” again.

He started by looking at how the information about the home is collected – most usually through photographs and questionnaires, and questionnaires about photographs (there is lots more to discuss here about the process, directed and open questions, language and expectation, but he says it all a lot better). He has considered in some depth the answers to the questions and the descriptions of the photographs and information about taste and behaviour, but the data is not objective or neat (curses!). People don’t use the same words for rooms, meals or activities, they don’t mean the same things when they describe objects or relationships, or relationships with objects, and accounts of taste and behaviour are so subtle and nuanced and subjective that trying to describe even the broadest of patterns is like nailing down jelly.

This is all crashingly obvious, I know, but I set up the documentation standards for this stuff, all neat in my lovely, flexible, very thorough database – anything we could nail down we did; it’s very searchable you know. I like term lists and authorities, I like order – I (used to) MANAGE DATA – so to finally try and get to grips with the content, the real value of all this information, to find that it is not consistent, it won’t line up nicely and that it is reduced by standardisation, is somewhat irritating. Incidentally, all my lovely curatorial colleagues at the Geffrye who actually tried to catalogue (read shoehorn) these rich and diverse collections in the record schema that I inflicted upon them are either nodding sagely or imploding with “I told you so” at this moment.

Information about place can be extracted and played with relatively easily, right down to street level – but what about at a really granular level? There are some wonderful floor plans, lists of rooms and descriptions of layouts in the collection that relate (with varying degrees of success) to photographs, objects and ephemera; how do we get at that and represent it in a way that is meaningful and interesting? I keep referring to this as micro-mapping, but I am sure proper geographers have a term for it.

Again with temporal data – there are dates for the objects, dates of moves and purchases, changes to decor, births, deaths and tenancies, but they sometimes contradict each other, are expressed in ways that make it very difficult to see or map a single trajectory (there often isn’t one), and what is recorded in the catalogue record is often the “production date” for the photograph or document, which in the scanning and creation of a digital copy rather messes things up. (We actually worked really hard to resolve this – so the span of dates for the collection or particular events is there too).

Back to the main question: can we use data visualisation to improve this situation? I think so, and geo-mapping and chronographics are some of the more developed methods of data visualisation, but how to layer the emerging themes, public and personal significance, variations and messiness onto the existing records? How do you capture and represent the fuzziness, not only within one set of material, but across the whole archive? I am beginning to question how useful the catalogue data is now, when the analysis of the content is the bit that is interesting. Of course it does have huge value –  in the listing and management of the collections (actually being able to find stuff is useful to any research!) but I think the activity of documenting archives and artefacts often gets conflated with actual understanding or being able to see it clearly.

So, I need a special content-reading-variable-understanding-nuanced-data-extraction device and a multi-layered-space-time-three(or even four)-dimensional-visualisation widget please. Anyone got one of those to hand?

I would really like to hear from anyone working in this area or of any examples of visualising archive data successfully – I have listed a few projects on the links page here. Also I would be very happy to hear what your questions might be and what it is you would like to be able to do with data from archive material like this.


so much to do


Photograph of the study in Margret Cochrane’s home in Twickenham, London, 1996. (Museum number: 191/2010-23). ©Geffrye Museum

This is the scope (ambition) of the project:

1)  Review of the current digital presentation of the archive with audiences.

2) Review of current practice and the latest developments in data presentation, including consultation with other museums and via a ‘sandbox’ event.

3)  Develop models for presenting the archive

4) Produce a project report to be disseminated by Geffrye-led Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network.

Phew. I think we are going to need at least one post for each of these. No.3 is deceptively brief…

a little bit of history – part 1

Detail from photograph of Johan and Gwen, Cornwall, 1973. © Paul van Schaik

Since 2008 the curatorial staff of the Geffrye Museum have been managing the gathering, documentation and preservation of a new (for us, possibly for everyone?) type of collection. The gathering had actually been going on in various forms for a fair while before 2008, but it was then that the doing and the thinking crystallised into a proper (funded) thing: the Documenting the Home project. The idea was to collect images, testimony, diaries, ephemera and any other material that would capture the look, experience and history of the modern and contemporary home. There was a strong sense that although nowadays we are drowning in photographs, so many from the last century were lost or fading in private albums, undervalued and unaccounted for.

Six years on there are more than 6000 items in the Documenting Home collections – archives for more than 250 separate homes ranging from 1910 to 2013. Brilliant! But how do you get at them? Suddenly the sheer volume of material (one of the archives consists of 1000s of separate items) “becomes a block to access and makes the archive difficult to get a sense of, to know its scope and interpret.” We have listed it, digitised it, ordered and preserved it, but how come no-one can really see it or do anything useful with it? (That’s not strictly true of course, but I am talking about broad access here; we had a good go in the Geffrye’s Search the Collections on-line database and even attempted to reconstruct the hierarchy of the records – but more of that in another post.)

The aim of this project is to look at how to present the archive more effectively using the fantastic and growing array of data visualisation techniques that are now available,  and in the end to develop a digital model which will allow the user to select, interrogate, organise and interpret the material and to explore and generate connections instead of seeing an object, space or concept in isolation. I hope this blog will be small step towards letting people see what we are doing and why; enabling audiences to access our archive collections and make the invisible visible.

I’m Ananda Rutherford, research assistant on the project and I will be posting my thoughts, questions and progress here throughout the next 6 months. I look forward to hearing your ideas and comments.