Access Grid (Art History)

Taking the idea of scholarly collaboration and interaction one stage further, an important development that is gaining ground in the context of the arts and humanities is the use of the Access Grid. It is often included as a component of the procedures and tools variously known as e-Science, Grid Computing or Research Computing, but it can in fact be comfortably isolated from those concepts for the purposes of clarity. An Access Grid session is essentially a virtual meeting room where anyone with the appropriate software, configuration and permissions can join the meeting and interact via video and audio links in real-time (see fig.3). Where it differs from video-conferencing is that firstly, any number of locations can be present (depending on the bandwidth available to the Access Grid node that is hosting the meeting) and secondly, files can be shared across the network, allowing for more elaborate transactions between participants.

Fig. 3  Access Grid Session (with kind permission of the AGSC, Manchester University)Fig. 3 Access Grid Session (with kind permission of the AGSC, Manchester University)

Picking up on the idea of a collaborative annotation environment, a whiteboard can be shared by all participants, on which any image can be displayed and annotated and the results saved, either as a file in its own right or as part of a recording process that is capable of capturing the entirety of the proceedings.

Setting up and maintaining an Access Grid node is a major undertaking and requires an institutional commitment, both financially and in terms of network infrastructure arrangements but the lack of a node within an institution does not preclude participation in a session that is being organised elsewhere. The principle requirement is that the user will need to be granted permission to connect to a bridgehead server (usually the Access Grid Support Centre at the University of Manchester) who will often act as the central connection point for organisations wishing to run a session. Additionally, the user will require a webcam and microphone (such as they might use for IP telephony), a relatively good specification PC and software that comes in a scaled-down version for individual users known as a PIG (Personal Interface to the Access Grid). There is an open source option known as The Access Grid Toolkit and a commercial offering called InSORS which is more straightforward to install and has slightly more functionality.

Arts and Humanities use of the Access Grid is really in its infancy but there are some indications that it may become a powerful tool to complement research, particularly in bringing scholars together in a more informal manner than is possible with the whole apparatus that accompanies face-to-face meetings. The University of Hull and the University of East Anglia have successfully collaborated in a virtual research environment (VRE), the outcome of which was a taught course on the ‘History of Political Discourse’. In the near future, the Institute for Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham, with Methods Network funding, will be setting up an Access Grid Support Network for researchers involved with visualisation and remote sensing.

In the context of art history where the primary materials of study are scattered worldwide and in many cases cannot be moved, it is significant that wherever a network connection can be obtained, perhaps wirelessly in a gallery space in front of a fragile early renaissance altarpiece, then the Access Grid offers the possibility of turning that occasion into an inclusive and highly interactive meeting of scholars.

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