The Digital Ark: From Taxonomy to Ontology in 17th-century Collections of Curiosities

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Brent Nelson

    University of Saskatchewan

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The Digital Ark: From
Taxonomy to Ontology in
17th-century Collections of
Brent Nelson
University of Saskatchewan
When the famous seventeenth-century gardener
John Tradescant named his home, with its
collection of rarities and curiosities, “the Ark,”
he was expressing his desire to compile
a microcosm of a wide world of variety
beyond common experience. Such collections
represented the sum of early modern European
experience of the world at a time of rapid
scientific and geographical expansion and
reflected fundamental epistemological shifts
in attitudes toward curiosity, wonder, and
credulity on the cusp of the modern age.
The rapidly expanding world of exploration,
colonization, and commerce in the seventeenth
century proliferated with strange and bizarre
creatures and artifacts that challenged the
traditional limits of knowledge. To meet the
need for a complete and accessible record of
early modern collections, 'The Digital "Ark"' will
accumulate a database of artifacts and natural
specimens as represented by documentary
records of early modern collections (inventories,
diaries, correspondence, etc.), contemporary
drawings and engravings, as well as digital
images and curatorial records of extant
remnants of these collections. It will be an
extensive record of all known collections of
rarities and curiosities in England and Scotland
from 1580-1700 for which documentary
evidence survives, comprising up to 10,000
specimens and artifacts. This information, both
textual and visual, will be delivered in an
open-access Web-based virtual museum that
will collect and display artifacts and natural
specimens drawing from a fully searchable
database that will record and classify these items
and their descriptions in some two dozen fields
of information.
This poster will briefly introduce the project and
then focus on the challenges this data poses for
a computational process that involves naming
data types and defining relationships between
them. The principle challenge comes from two
unique aspects of the project:
The need to accommodate in the
user interface a wide range of source
genres in a rationalized and consistent
form, while representing the distinct
epistemological modes of these diverse forms
of representation;
The need to respect and reflect the way the
data was viewed and understood in this age of
transition between humanistic and empirical
ways of knowing as we interpret the data set
and design a database structure to encode,
store, and represent this data in all of its
complex relationships.
The poster will have four sections:
An introduction providing a brief paragraph
on the cultural background illustrated with a
bulleted set of statistics and a 17th-century
engraving of a typical cabinet of curiosities.
A chart depicting the diverse data types
that provide the content of the digital ark,
including: letters; travel accounts; diaries,
inventories and catalogues; discursive prose;
poetry; contemporary engravings; drawings
and paintings; modern photographs of extant
objects; and secondary scholarly sources)
along with the characteristics of these genres
that complicates the process of defining data
structures. Page facsimiles will illustrate these
data types.
A chart depicting the differences between a
taxonomic and an ontological view of data.
In brief, the taxonomic approach involves
entry into a new body of data and the
naming and categorizing process that occurs
as one interprets and makes sense of this
new data, while the ontological approach
involves fixing categories and properties in a
determined order of being. The seventeenth
century represented a significant shift from
ontology, where the nature of existence
was received and commonly understood by
all, to an age of taxonomy, where the
new and strange demanded an open-ended
reconsideration of the world of existence and
a continual configuration of knowledge. In the
computer age, we are experiencing a similar
tension in the desire to explore and discover

relationships between data, while at the
same time thinking of data representation in
terms of ontologies. This chart will represent
this tension both in the context of the
epistemology of the early modern collections
and the context of computer processes that
might be employed to represent them.
The conclusion will outline two steps that will
be taken to address these needs:
The use of qualitative tagging as a means to
interrogating the source documents to find
what is there, before determining the tag set
that will inform the final data structure, that
is, to infer a taxonomy rather than simply
impose an assumed ontology.
The use of a combination of the TEI
structure to represent text-based sources
with modified object-based ontologies to
represent the objects as depicted in these
textual sources and also as depicted
in graphical sources, both contemporary
engravings and drawings, and modern
photographs of extant objects.
This project is funded by the Social Sciences and
Humanities Council of Canada.
Bradley, John
(2005). 'Documents and
Data: Modelling Materials for Humanities
Research in XML and Relational Databases'.
Literary and Linguistic Computing: Journal
of the Association for Literary and Linguistic
: 133-51.
Corns, Thomas N.
(2000). 'The Early Modern
Search Engine: Indices, Title Pages, Marginalia
and Contents'. 'The Renaissance Computer:
Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print'.
Neil Rhodes, Jonathan Sawday (eds.). London,
England: Routledge.
Daston, Lorraine
Galison (ed.). New York: Zone Books.
Daston, Lorraine
(1989). 'The Museum:
Its Classical Etymology and Renaissance
Journal of the History of
: 59-78.
Gilbert, Neal Ward
Concepts of Method.
New York: Columbia
University Press.
Grindle, Nick
(2005). ''No Other Sign Or Note
than the very Order’: Francis Willughby, John
Ray and the Importance of Collecting Pictures'.
Journal of the History of Collections.
: 15-22.
Harmon, Margaret
Stretching Man’s
Mind: A History of Data Processing.
New York:
Leith, Philip
(1991). 'Postmedieval
Information Processing and Contemporary
Computer Science'.
Media, Consciousness, and
Culture: Explorations of Walter Ong’s Thought.
Bruce E. Gronbeck, Thomas J. Farrell, Paul
A. Soukup (eds.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Publications, pp. 160-176.
Liu, Yin, Jeff Smith
(2008). 'A Relational
Database Model for Text Encoding'.
Digital Studies/Le champ numérique.
MacGregor, Arthur
Curiosity and
Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from
the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century.
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Marcus, Leah
(2000). 'The Silence of
the Archive and the Noise of Cyberspace'.
The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge
Technology in the First Age of Print.
Rhodes, Jonathan Sawday (eds.). London,
England: Routledge, pp. 18-28.
Obrst, Leo, Howard Liu
'Knowledge Representation, Ontological
Engineering, and Topic Maps'.
XML Topic
Maps: Creating and using Topic Maps for the
Sam Hunting (ed.). Boston: Addison-
Wesley, pp. 103-149.
Sowa, John F.
Representation: Logical, Philosophical, and
Computational Foundations.
Pacific Grove:
Stafford, Barbara Maria
Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images.
Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None