If you could be a fly on the wall at any historical event, which one would it be? This question, once the province of wine-fuelled nonsense talk in the wee hours, is now one of supreme interest. If your answer was John Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon at St Paul’s Cross in 1622, then you are profoundly odd, but also in luck. A team of architects, archaeologists and engineers, working closely with the humanities departments at NC State University have put together a remarkable digital re-creation of the event, right down to the ambient noises of bells, birds, dogs and horses and the inconsiderately chatty townsfolk. Utilising historical descriptions of John Donne’s intonation and preaching, and the surviving physical traces and visual record of St Paul’s cathedral pre-fire, this team has developed a computer-based visual and aural reconstruction of the entire event.

At this point, in an extremely unlikely turn of events, the collective historical inferences regarding John Donne’s oratory style became remotely interesting. This in itself is a monumental achievement by the team at NC State University. Many new questions mushroom in the wake of this revolutionary project. How historically accurate and effective is the representation of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project? What else might we do with the technology that has been developed? Where did this idea come from, will it work and what is it really for?

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The project is a centrepiece of the burgeoning discipline of Digital Humanities. The idea is to extend the study of humanities beyond paper; to develop a new understanding of historic sites and events, and to better understand and evaluate the assumptions we make about history. Academics everywhere are descending from their ivory towers, to join the world of engineering, acoustics and architecture, united by the interest in the seemingly limitless capacity for this new discipline.

Digital Humanities is multidisciplinary and collaborative by definition. Its realisation is through centres, projects and conferences, characterised by their intrinsic diversity. In Australia, the Australian National University houses the Digital Humanities Hub; the University of Western Australia will hold the second conference of the Australian Association for the Digital Humanities in 2014; and the University of Sydney developed Arts eResearch out of the Archaeological Computing Laboratory. Exciting projects are underway across Australian academies: digitising and analysing the corpus of convict records of Tasmania; creating an historic Digital Harlem; a wiki-style database for lost English plays from the 16th century; an electronic dictionary of Australian biographies. These projects each present the research from humanities in an accessible, interesting and wholly digitised manner. Their creations necessarily involved people with varied backgrounds, and cater for an unprecedentedly wide audience.

No longer the bailiwick of hunched, chalk-dusted and bespectacled old professors, the humanities’ quest to enlighten and enrich has experienced its very own Renaissance. The dawning of a new era for information and research long since neglected, unable to vie for attention in a society no longer accustomed to paper. The advent of Digital Humanities will allow the discipline to reclaim relevance and enthusiasm by novel presentation, and has inspired interest the world over. In the States, where Digital Humanities is now being taught as an undergraduate course, Jeffrey Schnapp and Todd Presner created a Digital Humanities Manifesto. It already has two instantiations, despite its origination being pretty fresh. It seems that Digital Humanities has a problem with self-definition, with online resources exhibiting lengthy expositions, often entitled “What is Digital Humanities?” Apparently, nobody really knows; such is the way with new humanities disciplines. The Manifesto puts forward some commonly-held mission statements, though, calling on universities world-wide to “model excellence and innovation” in the emergent public spheres of our very own information age (these being the blogosphere, digital archives, the world wide web), and to facilitate the formation of local and global networks of knowledge production, exchange and dissemination.  In our era, with corporate interests defining and fighting cultural wars, the Digital Humanities is a mechanism by which the humanities might assert themselves as cultural authorities, necessary for a good, thoughtful and enlightened society. With a focus on the democratisation of scholarship and culture, the Digital Humanities project is about making humanities knowledge available, accessible and alive.

While, personally, the prospect of reviving John Donne’s 1622 sermon doesn’t make me squeal with anticipation, the possibilities being continuously dreamed up by our craziest, most idealistic humanists out there is mind-bogglingly, bafflingly exciting. With these kinds of capabilities, and the newfound enthusiasm to disseminate humanities research, we could experience history, understand politics and access previously unimaginable amounts of art and literature. We could hurl cabbage at Shakespearean actors from the stalls of the Globe Theatre. We could witness the abuse of reason at the Salem witch-trials, and the triumph of reason by naked, old men in Athenian courts. We could engage with vast amounts of information in a visual, aural and experiential manner. As Digital Humanities fumbles, grows and carves out an identity for itself as a discipline, it will transform the way we perceive and experience the world’s oldest and most intrinsically valuable discipline.

This blog post was written by Emma Baitz, Humanities 21 volunteer, October 2013.

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