Protecting irreplaceable cultural artifacts using modern big data strategies

Professor Susan Lord of Queen’s University and Director of the Vulnerable Media Lab (VML) is working with her collaborators Dr. Rosaleen Hill (Director, Art Conservation) and Dr. Dylan Robinson (CRC Indigenous Arts) to preserve and remediate media archives made by several of Canada’s diverse cultural communities.

Dr. Lord and numerous Queen’s colleagues–including Drs. Robinson, Bertrand and Hill, and members from Queen’s Library and Archives, alongside partners across the country, are collaborating on a SSHRC-funded project called Archive Counter-Archive, led by Dr. Janine Marchessault at York University. A key partner in the VML and Archive Counter Archive is the Centre for Advanced Computing (CAC) at Queen’s University. “The objective is to work with groups across Canada to preserve community-based archives and help them make their histories available to people across the country and internationally,” says Dr. Lord. “We use modern digital tools to develop a sustainable platform that we can share and build sustainable data management systems to protect legacies. We aim to develop methods and processes to ensure this media art history is preserved and made available according to culturally specific and ethically driven forms of access, thus engaging in new conversations about cultural heritage.”

This kind of preservation requires massive storage resources that must be specially managed and curated. A problem that Mr. MacPhee and the team at the CAC are uniquely able to solve. “Our job is to make sure Dr. Lord doesn’t have to worry about technology and can think big with this project. What originally started out as 10 terabytes of storage has scaled up two orders of magnitude as the project has progressed over the years. It means that this vulnerable media, which we can never get back if destroyed, can actually be archived. It’s also exciting for us is when we find an advanced computing solution to support research not traditionally associated with high performance computing.”

It’s not just about keeping data in a secure environment, it’s ensuring the cultural information is protected in a way that is meaningful to each community.


Working with an international advisory group which includes stakeholders from Indigenous and LGBTQ2 communities, Dr. Lord and CAC are developing new practices for storage and curation that, more than standard security, include considerations for sensitivity of data and respect for the communities whose cultural histories are being stored. “We can host medical data, no problem,” Mr. MacPhee notes. “And while very rightfully there are policies and standards for how that data is handled, this is very different. It’s not just about keeping data in a secure environment, it’s ensuring the cultural information is protected in a way that is meaningful to each community. It’s about treating these archives with the respect they deserve.”

As this project moves forward, the Vulnerable Media and Archive/CounterArchive partners are working with CAC and the Agile Humanities Group to create a platform that will be accessible online to students and researchers across Canada and beyond, which they hope will allow for conversations and allow communities to communicate about the work that has been done and is yet to be done.

“The technology, the storage and platform sustainability gives this project the necessary infrastructure,” says Dr. Lord. “We need to preserve Canada’s rich cultural history for future generations. And we can only do that guided by ethically driven protocols generated from community and working with folks like Chris, and Jeremy Heil and Heather Home from Queen’s Archives.”