As libraries, museums and archives digitise their physical holdings—converting texts, objects, and artworks to digital records—the volume of cultural heritage data grows. Creating visualisations of these datasets allows us to see an overview of collections, observe patterns within them, and showcase their richness. Through visualising data by time, we may discover and convey historical narratives. This talk will explore what we can expect from visualising cultural data, walking through a series of timeline visualisation projects with different cultural heritage institutions. What factors govern what we can build and what interpretations we can make? How does incompleteness of the data play a role? Can we trust what we see? And is the data alone enough to tell the stories that people wish to tell?
Our focus is the digital humanities, especially visualisation of datasets such as text archives and object collections data in museums. The name “digital humanities” implies just two disciplines, computing and the humanities. What is the designer’s role? Collectively we should be able to explain what our contribution is —especially when some may fear our replacement by AI systems. We argue that there are particular aspects of designing that are distinctive and can enable more effective visualisations to be produced: (1) expertise in the visual articulation of meaning, (2) human-centric methods, and (3) the quick and adaptable use of low-fidelity early prototyping. We base our argument especially on the idea of design as a form of inquiry or research, and illustrate the three benefits using our recent interactive data visualisations with organisations including the Wellcome Library, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and V&A London.