Institute for Digital Culture

Research Projects

The Institute’s research themes are iterative and responsive, rather than rigid and prescriptive – and we expect them to evolve as different points of strategic need emerge.

Creative and Cultural Technologies

Creative computing for visitor, audience and community engagement. Led by Professor Honji Yang.

Authenticity, materiality and embodiment: A phenomenological reappraisal of the digital sound archive

Project team
Zhuolin Li, ‘Future 100’ PhD researcher, Museum Studies
Professor Ross Parry, Museum Studies

The research questions how authenticity, materiality and embodiment shape the experience of the sound archive from the perspective of archivists. It aims to understand the digital sound archiving processes in a phenomenological way. To achieve this, the project attempts to understand the complexities of digital sound archive practice, technology, and culture and how they intersect in the act of archiving, specifically in terms of the sensory experience of both the archivist and the user. The project asks:; how to interpret the materiality of digital sound archives adopting a digital materialism approach; how do we understand the sensory aspects of digital sound archives; how might ‘authenticity’ be conceptualized within the context of digital sound archives; and, then, how might all of these understandings (on materiality, the sensory, and authenticity) help to reform digital sound archiving practice?

To answer this question, this research starts with the examination of definitions of ‘digital sound archiving’, including the challenges of defining ‘digital archives’ and (even) ‘sound’ itself. The research also explores the technological complexities of digital sound archiving, including the classification of formats, the role of metadata, and the challenges caused by format obsolescence.

The research is supported by several enabling theories: Philips ideas on ‘exhibiting authenticity’ (1997); Gottlieb & Karatzogianni’s notion of ‘digital materialism’ (2018); and the phenomenological ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The research draws across a range of qualitative studies, as well as the observation of the archiving process itself alongside semi-structured interviews with sound archivists. Ultimately, this research provides a way of shifting conceptions of sound archiving away from just a pure digital process, to something more embodied and sensory.

Cultural Development, African Diaspora Youth and Digital Technologies

Project team
Miriam Dembo, Media and Communication
Dr Idil Osman, Media and Communication
Dr Maria Touri, Media and Communication

‘Culture’ has become a central element to both development practice and Development Studies – understood as a source of profound social and economic transformation through its influence on aspiration and collective action. Development initiatives must resonate with people’s everyday cultural lives, adopting what Amartya Sen highlights as an approach that encompasses the freedom and capabilities to pursue a life of dignity.

And yet, scholarship in this area has taught us that there is no single development model that is globally applicable, and moreover that the desire to impose Western models has resulted in cultural homogenisation (Radcliffe 2006). Diaspora communities, for instance, can instead take a development approach embedded in the cultural context where development initiatives are being implemented. These communities can be considered a potent force for development for their countries of origin, and in their host countries they can be seen as bridge-builders that understand western development priorities and homeland development needs, with the credibility of being accepted as social actors in both settings.

Scholars have begun to scrutinise understanding of lived experiences of those diasporas who feed into these transnational activities (Osman 2017; Akesson et al 2015; Hammond 2012). This is especially problematic for conflict-generated diasporas (Lyons 2012) who carry the trauma of conflict and can exacerbate tensions and conflict dynamics with their development initiatives and interventions.

This research seeks to examine how African diaspora youth are reimagining development in the context of culture and heritage. And, within the context of the university’s new Institute for Digital Culture, it asks in particular how digital technologies are enabling convivial spaces to approach development via cultural and heritage pathways.

The project seeks to partner with established diaspora and cultural organisations to take a comparative approach by focusing on African countries of origin with the highest number of diaspora populations living in the West: Nigeria; Somalia; Zimbabwe; and Ghana. Purposeful in its approach, the project will seek to provide recommendations for public policy and development agencies, as well as cultural organisations, to adopt a culture and heritage approach to development in Africa that can offer more sustainable and dignified pathways.

Digital Skills and Leadership

Strategy and skills for tomorrow’s cultural and creative organisations. Led by Dr Georgiana Grigore.

How to lead digital change?

Project Team:
Alaa Alsaffar, 'Future 100' PhD researcher, School of Business
Dr Georgiana Grigore, School of Business

Since 2017 the University of Leicester has led One by One – an international consortium of academics, cultural organisations, technologists, professional agencies, funders, and policy makers that uses situated action research to help build digitally confident museums. 

This F100 doctoral project will work within the expanding ‘One by One’ consortium to understand the importance of a situated and culturally contingent view of digital leadership and change within cultural heritage organisations, with the aim of exploring digital skills building and institutional digital transformation in a national context. 

The consortium’s previous work helped make possible the UK government’s Digital Culture Compass (DCC) launched in February 2020 – the tool to be used by cultural and heritage institutions to understand their digital capability. 'One by One’ also co-authored for DCMS and ACE the ‘Digital Charter’, which sets out the guiding principles for all digital projects across the UK culture sector.

Looking out from its initial UK-US collaboration, this work now seeks to listen to, learn from, and partner with other settings internationally. As it does so, the principles around digital transformation, digital leadership and digital literacy relevant to a UK and US context are being re-situated, re-imagined and re-assembled.

Inclusive Digital Design

Technologies to enable and empower people in all their diversity.

Fictive Identity-Crafting in the Heritage Sector

Project team
Clarissa Wilson, ‘Future 100’ PhD researcher, Museum Studies

This research looks at fictive identity-crafting in the heritage sector. ‘Fictive identity’ refers to the personae consciously generated and adopted by individuals for a particular experience. These are primarily self-generated or self-developed identities, albeit within contexts or guidelines— examples include role-playing game characters and improvised theatrical roles. Museums often informally ask visitors to generate fictive identities through questions like “if you lived in this time, what would you do?”

There has been an increasing trend in exhibition design to more purposefully include fictive identities as the lens through which visitors experience the exhibit. In Star Wars: Identities, for example, visitors were asked to create a fictive identity appropriate to the Star Wars universe, then given prompts throughout the exhibit to which they responded as their persona (Herrera and Keidl).

By facilitating the crafting of fictive identities, museums can encourage visitors to interact with exhibits in a personalised and narrative manner— a strategy known to increase knowledge retention and engagement (Bedford, 2001). Furthermore, fictive identities can be used to promote empathy, consideration, and connection to difficult material (McConaghy et al, 2008). This research attempts a systematic analysis of this concept or of the ways it can be consciously adopted into museums.

Improving Inclusivity and Accessibility for Disabled and Neurodivergent People in Digital Performance and Culture

Project team

Inclusivity and accessibility in digital performance and culture has become a major national and international theme. However, regarding the experience of disabled people, the absence of standards in design and approach for the culture sector has led to a plethora of home-made solutions that vary enormously in quality and reach. Each organisation is faced with the task of reaching out and identifying what are the priorities for different groups. This results in a patchwork of more-or-less successful solutions and a consequent lack of uncertainty about what to expect when visiting any arts or culture event or venue. This is especially the case where new digital technologies are involved.

This research asks how we might set standards for inclusivity and accessibility in new and emerging digital technologies and their use in arts and cultural events and situations? To explore this the project focuses on some key areas of disability in digital performance and culture, specifically aural and neuro-diversity. Creative approaches include the creation of new artworks and events to test hypotheses and the use of a mixed methodology including auto-ethnography to reach a deeper understanding of the issues involved.

The project takes advantage of the unique configuration of opportunities offered by its team and environment. Professor Andrew Hugill is the PI of the AHRC-funded Aural Diversity Network and is highly active in autism advocacy and research and is a consultant, participant and Expert by Experience in autism for the NHS, Leicester City Council and an array of national and international groups. Professor Ross Parry is an expert in museum technology with a particular interest in new technologies and their use to create experiences that are adapted to people’s individual needs. Andrew Fletcher is the Director of the Attenborough Arts Centre (AAC), a sector-leading organisation for inclusivity and accessibility, with a core commitment to curating and producing programmes by, with and for disabled people and artists. AAC will be able to link this project with artists and community groups in order to deliver real-world impact.

Cultural Informatics

Big data, modelling and simulation for digital heritage and culture. Led by Dr Stef De Sabbata.

Backlog: The history and practice of collections documentation and museums’ contribution to the digital cultural record

Project Team:
Kathleen Lawther, ‘Future 100’ PhD researcher, Museum Studies
Professor Ross Parry, Museum Studies
Dr Stef De Sabbata, Geography, Geology and the Environment

For the past 60 years museums have been using computer technology to document and make digital surrogates of their collections. Today many museums offer digital access to their collections via online databases, and through increasingly sophisticated digital representations. However, a large proportion of museum collections remain undocumented and undigitized. This raises the question of what factors, beyond technology, have impacted museums’ abilities to document their collections. This doctoral project confronts these challenges, by considering how the history and practice of documentation, in terms of policy, resources and workforce, has impacted museums’ ability to make use of new technology.

Drawing on Daniels’s notion of invisible work, and Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge, and influenced by the concepts of data feminism and postcolonial digital humanities, the project takes an ethnographic approach to consider how the close examination of the records, institutional histories and staff structures of individual museums can shed light on the history of documentation. In attempting to work directly with collections practitioners, the project sets out to foreground the voices of those doing the work, and evidence how documentation is practiced at street level.

Ultimately, the project aims to write the undocumented history of museum collections. Through an analysis of the barriers that have prevented museums from documenting and digitizing their collections, this work will develop recommendations which can impact on museums practice, policy, and digital humanities scholarship. To pursue digital futures, we need to mindful of the realities of the resources, labour and expertise that are required to make museums’ contribution to the digital cultural record reflective of the diversity of collections and the stories we tell about them.

Art & the Blockchain: a post-cryptographic future for the culture sector?

Project Team:
Zihan Xu, Media and Communication
Dr Alberto Cossu, Media Communication
Dr Stef De Sabbata, Geography, Geology and the Environment

The cycles of technological innovation have frequently dominated debates in the social sciences. In the area of digital culture, one vivid example has been the consequences of the decentralised, distributed architectures enabled by blockchain – not least its uses in currency issuing and in the artistic sector (through NFTs).

This project critically examines the uses of those technologies in the creative and cultural industries (Cossu, 2022a; 2022b), exploring the changes in the years to come from a ‘post-hype’ perspective.

Existing research on blockchain and the arts has typically been limited to single case studies. The opportunity, therefore, is for a more comprehensive understanding of how blockchain is impacting upon the creative and arts sector more systemically. In general, researchers often study blockchain through technological, monetary, legal, and ideological lenses (Chohan 2017). What is missing is an account of how these technologies address longstanding issue in the field of art and creative work, such as inequality, and the lack of inclusivity and diversity (O’Brien 2021).

With the support of its project partner (Creative United), this project offers a chance to explore real world practices, the everyday of the artistic, cultural and creative work by analysing its interplay with emerging technologies. Creative United is an innovation driven social enterprise, its mission to enable increased access and inclusion in the arts and creative industries. Its work includes programmes that help reduce the financial barriers to participation in the arts, as well as those that look to address the inequalities faced by disabled people and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Creative United work with partners across the public and private sectors and have a special focus on participation in music and contemporary visual arts.

Wellcome Trust Creative Engagement Fellowship

Funded by the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Institutional Strategic Support Fund’ (ISSF), the Institute for Digital Culture is partnering with Attenborough Arts Centre to support a six-month creative Fellowship.

Open to practitioners of any art form (including visual, digital, sound and performing arts, film, literature and music), the ‘Creative Engagement Fellowship’ (CEF) aims to explore how hosting creatives within academic contexts can support innovative approaches to public engagement.

Our first CEF brings together academics, doctoral students and technician staff within the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment with digital artist, Rosa Francesca – whose work experiments with biofeedback and facial recognition to find innovative ways for people with limited mobility to make music and art.

The project will circle around the theme of the ‘future of fieldwork’ – and will reflect upon what tools, protocols, frameworks, or vocabularies we can begin to create that will enable field practices continue to trend towards being more inclusive – especially for neurodiverse and learning disabled students and staff.

As well as hosting the Fellow in its Digital Culture Studio, the Institute will support the team in developing and sharing outputs that can impact upon the practice of cultural and heritage organisations that use fieldwork practice.

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