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1851 Commission Research Fellowship: A Prince’s Papers in a Digital World

With his interests in emergent technological advances, education, the arts, the sciences, and the organisation of information, Prince Albert would doubtless have been fascinated by the processes involved in the making of the Prince Albert: His Life and Legacy resource. He would have been fascinated by the digital photography and the creation of detailed metadata; by the careful reflection of the structure of the original archive; by the ability to sift through documents and artworks and photographs from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button; by the project’s reflection of his interest in the organisation and dissemination of information for the advancement of knowledge; and, not least, by the extension of his great remediation project, The Raphael Collection, into the digital world.

In a memorandum regarding the legacy of the Exhibition of 1851, Prince Albert wrote:

If I examine what are the means by which improvement and progress can be obtained in any branch of human knowledge I find them to consist of four:

1. Personal Study from books.

2. Oral Communication of knowledge by those who possess it to those who wish to acquire it.

3. Acquisition of knowledge by ocular observation, comparison and demonstration.

4. Exchange of ideas by personal discussion.
Hence I would provide each of these Institutions with the means of forming:

1. A Library, and Rooms for Study.

2. Lecture Rooms.

3. An acre of glass covering for the purposes of Exhibition; and

4. Rooms for Conversation, Discussions and Commercial Meetings.

Prince Albert, Memorandum on the legacy of the Great Exhibition
Page from Prince Albert's Memorandum on the disposal of the surplus funds of the Exhibition©

Inspired by the success of the Exhibition, Prince Albert was writing of a set of learning institutions that he proposed might be built in the area now known as ‘Albertopolis’, imagining spaces in which people could advance their knowledge of the world and its workings. A century and a half later, in the digital environment in which we access the Prince Albert: His Life and Legacy resource, many of the things that he deemed important are gathered into the devices that we carry with us at all times: how many acres of glass screens make up our collective portal into this library of documents, artworks, and essays, into the lecture-like films, and, beyond this site, into public fora in which we can share our findings?

As admirable as it was, and though it provided the impetus that drove the creation of Albertopolis and the ongoing work of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Prince Albert’s well-penned vision of 1851 was never precisely matched by reality. However, if Prince Albert missed something from his list of requisites, it was, perhaps, the population of his imagined environment and the direct funding of its activities. As a permanent body ‘to increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry’, the Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 funds a substantial number of postgraduate fellowships each year, as well as supporting special projects such as Prince Albert: His Life and Legacy. As part of the Commission’s support for this project, it funded a research fellowship attached to the project, in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, from October 2018 to April 2020. The aims of the fellowship were to explore some of the potential avenues for enhancing the resource through the use of digital humanities methods and to act as an academic liaison for the project, driving some of the conversations, discussions, and meetings that Prince Albert viewed as essential to the exchange of knowledge.

As well as pursuing a range of small scale experiments, the work of the fellowship principally settled on two areas: exploring interconnections between the documents of the resource through interactive network visualisation; and encouraging deep interaction with the documents by engaging students in workshops on the creation of digital editions.

The creation of interactive network visualisations was suggested by the sheer quantity of correspondence in the archive, both as a means of making it easier to navigate, and in order to identify in visual terms some of the central figures in Prince Albert’s communications. The idea was tested, initially, on the network of correspondents that lay behind the collation of the Raphael Collection (see figure below). Successive experiments led to interactive versions of this network and the one surrounding the genesis of the 1851 Exhibition that use web-based technologies to position the network graphics as an alternative point of access to materials from the collections. Both of these interactive visualisations can be accessed via the website of the research fellowship,

Screenshot from the 'A Prince's Papers' website©

As a counterweight to this distant, broad-picture, metadata-driven approach to the collection, a selection of documents was used as the material for a course of online workshops on digital edition for postgraduate students. Attended by around twenty students from the University of Oxford, the University of Leicester, and Birkbeck College, these workshops introduced students to the core elements of transcription, editing, and digital mark-up, and provided a forum for the discussion of the documents, their significance and their contexts. The workshops have been converted into an open online course available on the University of Oxford’s Canvas virtual learning environment.

Alongside these major outputs, the work of the fellowship included a post on Prince Albert’s interest in musical composition for the British Library’s music collection blog, an essay for a booklet produced by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, the organisation of an expert seminar that gathered academics and cultural heritage practitioners together to discuss the potentials of digital technologies when applied to cultural heritage materials, and contributing to conferences (Digitizing the Stage 2019, Victoria & Albert at Osborne, and DCDC 19), workshops, and other academic fora.

Writing in relation to the Art Treasures of Great Britain Exhibition of 1857, Prince Albert proposed an art historical, educational approach, suggesting that, if it 

were made to illustrate the history of Art in a chronological and systematic arrangement, it would speak powerfully to the public mind, and enable, in a practical way, the most uneducated eye to gather the lessons which ages of thought and scientific research have attempted to abstract

Prince Albert to Lord Ellesmere, 3 July 1856
Prince Albert opening the Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester, May 5th 1857©

Archives, collections of cultural heritage, are, in very many ways, akin to artworks half-stored, half-exhibited. Of themselves, the materials they contain are isolated and inexplicable; they may be wonderful in their own right, but their meanings and contexts are unclear and uncertain. Where artworks require curation and exhibition in order for their historical context to be seen, it is through the patient work of cataloguing and organisation that the context of archival documents becomes clearer, that we are able to find related documents, and that we are able to follow the threads of the events that created them. If the contents of archives are the present traces of events and activities lost in time, absent from our own experience, it is the careful arrangement of the archive, and the tools we build ourselves in order to explore and navigate it, that help us to reconstitute those traces in vivid and enlightening ways. Using emergent technologies, we can build tools that allow us to draw back to see the network of people from amidst the detail of the correspondence; this, in turn, helps us to see the personal and collaborative energy expended in bringing about epoch-defining historical events. We can work intimately with documents, reading closely to transcribe, annotate, and contextualise them, creating links between them, in a method of working that encourages us to explore further, to seek more detail, and to corroborate evidence in order to understand the relevance of each document, phrase, or word.

This is the philosophy that, to a great extent, has driven the activities of the research fellowship attached to the Prince Albert: His Life and Legacy project: that the archive, digitalised as it has been through the Prince Albert: His Life and Legacy project and the research fellowship, can enable the systematic arrangement of materials, for both the educated and the uneducated eye, in order to speak powerfully to the mind.

Dr Andrew Cusworth, MA, MMus, PhD, FRSA

1851 Research Fellow, Prince Albert: His Life and Legacy