Alex Fitzpatrick and Arran Rees
When the Congruence Engine project was first launched in 2021, some of the earliest work was focused on Bradford. We held our opening conference between Salts Mill in Saltaire, and Lister Mill in Manningham, and spent time looking into the history of the textile industry that has ultimately shaped the city and surrounding areas. It was during this time that we first began thinking about the idea of a ‘social machine’, an idea that we came back to in March 2023, and adopted as a major research interest for the project. As we enter the last phase of the project in 2024, it is only fitting that we return to the city, where we will look to develop a Bradford instance of the social machine, learning more about what that means as we put it into motion.
But why Bradford? The city itself can be seen as a space in which all of the original strands of investigations set out by the Congruence Engine become interconnected: textiles, energy, and communications. We can see how advances in industrial machinery used for the production of textiles in Bradford were ultimately connected with new and innovative forms of energy and power technologies, allowing for a rise in production using increased mechanisation. As a result of this, new travel and communicative infrastructures were needed to sustain this level of production and allow trade to continue to flourish. These historic interconnections make Bradford a potent space in which we bring these strands together within the social machine. In addition, Bradford itself is rich in heritage and culture, all of which will be celebrated and explored as part of the upcoming Bradford 2025: City of Culture programme. Together, this has resulted in many potential opportunities for the Congruence Engine to collaborate.
What is a Bradford instance of a social machine?
The ‘bread and butter’ of the Congruence Engine project is to investigate a variety of different digital techniques that will enable us to link different types of collections from across a range of cultural heritage organisations and groups. But we are also looking to understand the infrastructural requirements of a digitally united ‘national collection’. (We use inverted commas to refer to a national collection as we know this is a complex and unresolved concept that still needs to be negotiated.) For us, we are interested in understanding what a light and distributed approach to a technical infrastructure might look like, alongside an open, collaborative, and anti-oppressive social infrastructure. Potential ideas we are investigating include an open and accessible register of cultural heritage data that points to local repositories, allowing individual institutions, communities and people to decide how their data is stored, and to contribute any work. This might include historical research, creative responses, or computational analysis, feeding back into the registry. This is all up for discussion as we experiment with doing this in Bradford.
To set the Bradford instance of the social machine into motion, we have sought to initiate and build new connections and relationships with individuals and groups who are already undertaking historical research in Bradford. The groundwork for this has already been laid through our previous work with Bradford-based partners; Bradford Museums and Galleries, the Saltaire World Heritage Education Association, and the National Science and Media Museum, as well as with other national partners that have Bradford-related materials in their collection, including the BFI, Historic England, and the National Archives. However, we are keen to expand our network to reach those working outside major institutions and organisations, as we recognise that our ideal version of a ‘national collection’ will also engage and connect with independent groups of researchers, community-led projects, and personal collections and archives.
Within these introductory conversations with potential collaborators, we are hoping collaboratively to explore ways in which we can facilitate connections between cultural heritage collections, historic data, and people. So far, these conversations have ranged from sharing details about the digital tools and approaches we’ve been working with, helping with digitisation efforts, and thinking about ways to enable the outputs and data from heritage projects to figure in any representation of a ‘national collection’.
Whilst we are definitely looking to share some of the digital tools and techniques we’ve been experimenting with throughout the project (with the aim of helping other projects), that is not the only aspect of our work in Bradford. We are also looking to explore how we set up and maintain the infrastructure of the social machine. In this area of our research, we want to understand a variety of different technological, social, and systemic dynamics that would help develop and sustain a national collection social machine. For example, we are currently working with a local photographer to understand how their personal archive could be part of a ‘national collection’ without having been acquired by an institution beforehand. In another strand of the action research, we are looking at how a volunteer-led organisation can use different digital tools and platforms to support the work their members are doing in making their heritage materials digitally accessible, giving them wider visibility within a broader regional, national, and international context.
It should be noted that these conversations aim to be ongoing, allowing for our work in Bradford to remain responsive and emergent to new inquiries and relationships being made along the way. Interested parties who have engaged with, or created, heritage collections, archives, or other forms of data with an association to Bradford and would like to discuss potential connections with the work being undertaken by the Congruence Engine should get in touch with Alex Fitzpatrick, the project’s Research Fellow in Digital Participation ([email protected]).
Alex Fitzpatrick is a zooarchaeologist and researcher in heritage, museums, diversity & inclusion, and award-winning science communicator and writer. She is the Congruence Engine Research Fellow in Digital Participation.
Arran Rees is a post-doc Research Associate based at the University of Leeds. He is co-facilitating the action research on the Congruence Engine project alongside Helen Graham, and is interested in museum collections, digital practices and online remix cultures. He’s also really keen on participatory and action focused research methodologies.