If Curiosity Cabinets Were Knowledge Graphs — Ontotext
In sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, humans’ never-ending need for knowledge and insatiable curiosity manifested in what was first labeled as Wunderkammers (cabinets of curiosities). An African charm made of teeth, a felt cloak from Arabia, an Indian stone axe, “like a thunderbolt”, a stringed instrument with but one string, a twisted horn of a bull seal, the bauble and bells of Henry Vii’s fool — those were only a few of the artifacts an early cabinet of wonders comprised (see Collecting in a Consumer Society By Russell W. Belk).
Exotic, eclectic and extravagant, curiosity cabinets are considered the predecessors of today’s museums. They were an early form of organizing the cultural heritage of the world or, as author Pawel Markowski calls them, the institutionalization of curiosity. Charming as they were, they didn’t have any order or any criteria for classification. Such a confused mixture of objects and artifacts could hardly satiate knowledge, let alone our need to collect, classify and make sense of the past and the present.
From Wunderkammers to Digital Collections
Fast forward to today and curiosity cabinets have long been replaced by galleries, libraries, archives and museums (the set of institutions often referred to as GLAM). What’s more, digitization is now an essential part of the world of cultural heritage, helping such institutions provide richer and more exhaustive information about each and every object or artifact in their collections.
But is such digital representation of objects and artifacts enough to help us satiate our need for knowledge?
Not yet.As much as digital collections enrich the cyber space and add to the diversity of the cultural heritage on the Web, still, many of them need the context that would make them more visible and more easy to navigate through.
Data silos restrict our ability to grasp and make associations about the lifework of a certain artist, the scope of a particular style, or the details of a historic period. To begin research today, you must know where to look or which institution has works by a given artist or school.
That is to say, digitization per se is not enough. We need to also walk the extra mile to make sure digital records carry the rich context they need so their items can unfold their true potential of being knowledge portals.
Reimagining Cabinets of Curiosities as Knowledge Graphs
Knowledge graph technology can walk us out of the lack of context (which is basically absence of proper interlinking) and towards enriching digital representation of collection with semantic data and further interlinking it into a meaningful constellation of items.
With knowledge graphs, additional facts and figures can be threaded into the collection items and the metadata related to them. Imagine a curiosity cabinet with items attached to threads (strings) of well-described semantic information, linking them to other artifacts, events, people, institutions, you name it. Then, we would have at our fingertips a collection rich in connections that can be further explored, depending on the interest of the viewer.
By promoting a method of representation using a contextual data framework (one which provides the context in which a thing, place, person, group, event or period is recorded), rather than using existing documentation standards, a richer semantic representation could be used more relevant to a wider range of audiences and users.
Cit. British Museum: ResearchSpace (A project for interlinking data from digital collections)
Very much like our brain and its networks of known concepts, knowledge graphs allow us to create rich knowledge maps with all kinds of links to artifacts and their data.
And if that sounds too abstract, take a moment to see how this is visualized in the following video:
Threading things together. With RDF.
As the digitization of cultural heritage goes full speed ahead and the items and the data about them grow in volume and variety, we need tools to make sense of all this.
Knowledge graph technology and the GLAM institutions are intrinsically linked, as are knowledge and curiosity. For collections and all kinds of cultural heritage artifacts it is vital to be connected, curated and, most importantly, navigated in a well-organized associative manner.
As more and more collections are interlinked and presented as datasets, we can see a much richer and holistic picture and make better sense of this area of human interest. To mention just a few such cases:
What’s Next? Encoding Messages to the Future in Knowledge Graphs
Imagine the cabinet of curiosities we talked about but comprising not only things from around the Globe, but also their digital representations, ready to smoothly converge under the prism of different topics or viewer’s interests.
This is how knowledge graphs serve us as technological means that enable a new generation of curiosity cabinets that is rich, vivid and highly interlinked. Something more, built with knowledge graph technology, these digital Wunderkammers not only connect and give a single-point access across multiple datasets. They also help us uncover unobvious correlations to ultimately satisfy our curiosity on a deeper level and make sense of the curious world (of data) around us.
Originally published at https://www.ontotext.com on June 4, 2020.