Introducing the MAA Digital Lab

4 minute read

The team at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is excited to announce the launch of the MAA Digital Lab: an online platform through which we aim to increase and diversify digital engagement and access to the world cultures collections in the Museum.

A gold coloured wooden statue of Buddha-like figure holding an infant in his hand.

Figure 1: Gilt wooden statue of Guanuin with an infant, Songzi Guanyin. China. MAA 1890.9 P. It was originally presented to the Fitzwilliam in 1886 by a Mr Thompson of Trinity College, Cambridge, and was one of several objects transferred from the Fitzwilliam Museum to MAA in 1890. It has been variously described as a figure of Buddha, and similar figures as a ‘Madonna and child’. Unravelling the histories of such objects and their various interpretations is a key task for the Digital Lab.

In recent years MAA has committed to improving digital accessibility to collections from Asia and across the world through research and documentation projects including the Cambridge Rivers Project and Stores Move, and through the open access Collections Online database. Our research and engagement with audiences, communities, and scholars has prioritised transparency regarding legacies of colonialism, pushing towards greater dialogue, equality and change in our thought and practice, and diversifying the narratives and voices that speak to and about the collections in our care.

A woman is photographing a bottle made from gourd in a makeshift studio.

Figure 2: Staff at MAA are working to make the collections in our care more accessible online and in person. Almost 40,000 objects have been photographed as part of the Stores Move project so far. 79% of the African ethnography collections, 50% of the Asian ethnography, and almost 40% of the British archaeology collections now have images online. The Digital Lab will be drawing on these and other resources to ask new questions and tell new stories.

The Digital Lab will aim to transform the ways we engage with the collections of world cultures at MAA, and moreover with the histories, stories, and relationships that connect them. We want to try new ways of working with, showing, and talking about the collections: to do things that cannot be done within the physical space of the Museum.

Results of searching MAA's online collections portal using the word 'wine'.

Figure 3: Searching for ‘wine’ on MAA’s online catalogue. What will you find?

Over the coming years we will be researching, writing, and commissioning new content in the form of blog posts, research notes,  online exhibitions, and digital interventions of all kinds. In our first few posts, we’re unravelling stories of the tea trade and tea consumption in Russia and China, the archaeology of maize alcohol in South America, and a Chinese deity’s 180 year and 9,000 kilometre journey through wars, museums, and mistaken identities. Every output will start with an object in the MAA collections and go as far and wide as the author wishes.

The themes and subjects will be as diverse as the collections in the Museum. To begin with we have identified two research strands that will prompt us to ask different questions and tell different stories. First, Object Diasporas, which will trace the journeys by which artefacts have reached Cambridge, from complex local trajectories of production and use to the power relationships of colonial era collecting. Second, Substances of Wellbeing and Intoxication, which will explore drinks and other substances including tea, coffee, chocolate, and alcohol: the uses people made of them, the social and cultural contexts in which they were consumed, the journeys they took and the interpretations offered by collectors and curators.

As the work of the MAA Digital Lab begins to bring new perspectives and new voices to the global collections in Cambridge, we will continue to highlight the complexities and contradictions in objects and their histories; to challenge the categories and keywords according to which artefacts are catalogued and museumised, and with which we view and live in the world.

We’re always looking for new contributions and ideas, so if you have a story to tell that starts with an object in the MAA collections, we would love to hear from you. Get in touch here.

We hope you will join us on our journey and take part in the conversation.

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If you'd like to get involved, then please get in touch with us at digitallab@maa.cam.ac.uk.

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