RSE Network Grant: Exploring digital methods for interaction, exploration, and experiencing contested histories

The Exploring digital methods for interaction, exploration, and experiencing contested histories project is funded by RSE Arts & Humanities Research Grants, in collaboration with the Royal Society of Edinburgh. We will examine the histories, archives, and narratives around the sinking of the HMY Iolaire off the coast of Lewis in January 1919 to explore a new conceptual model for community generated digital histories. Through an interdisciplinary partnership, we will consider the intersections of community generated digital historical content, traumatic histories, and the potential of digital mediation and interactivity to work with, and sustain, this material.

The Team

  • Project Lead: Lorna Hughes, Professor in Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow
  • Co-investigator: Iain Donald, Senior Lecturer in the School of Design & Informatics at Abertay University
  • Co-investigator: Iain Robertson, Reader in History at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands
  • PhD researcher: Sarah Gambell, PhD candidate in Information Studies at the University of Glasgow

Aims and Objectives

The RSE project will examine the histories, archives, and narratives around the sinking of the HMY Iolaire off the coast of Lewis in January 1919 to explore a new conceptual model for community generated digital histories. The project will involve an interdisciplinary partnership, investigating interconnected aspects of community generated digital historical content, the exploration of traumatic histories, and the potential of digital mediation and interactivity to work with, and sustain, this digital material.

The centenary of the Iolaire disaster has resulted in the creation of a range of digital materials – including community-generated and co-produced digital content – and community groups and researchers have attempted to grapple with issues of the digital afterlife of such material. This project will create a space (virtual and face-to-face) in which new, deeper and more sustainable collaborative approaches to post-custodial digital archiving can be researched in a mutually supportive and explorative manner. This process will empower communities to further engage with memory organisations in developing collaborative, long-term approaches to sustaining this content. Central to this will be discussion and engagement with the potential of advanced digital interfaces to create interaction and mediation with this material: fostering further memorialisation as well as an ability to confront traumatic events with local resonance. By bringing curators, communities, and interdisciplinary academic expertise, together the project will begin the process of developing new models for public history and community engagement with archives, with potential for communities globally and in the future to confront contested and difficult histories, and to engage with historical trauma.


The sinking of the Iolaire in 1919 off the coast of Lewis – just outside Stornoway harbour – was a traumatic event that until very recently had been one of the hidden histories of the First World War. This was not because the event was unknown; almost no household on the Island was unaffected by the event, but because the impact and trauma associated with the loss of the Iolaire was so severe that it was not spoken of until comparatively recently. However, the local, national and global public commemoration of the centenaries of the First World War has cast a greater degree of focus on the material and documentary heritage, and community memory, associated with the event.

A small pilot project, Visualising the Iolaire, funded by the AHRC First World War Community Engagement Centres and led by Robertson and Donald in collaboration with a number of island-based community partners, led to the co-creation of an online digital commemoration designed to reach out to Highland diasporic communities in ways appropriate to the twenty-first century. The project, rooted in the desire to test the boundaries of heritage futures, drew on lay knowledge, local and collective memory and quotidian ways of coping in order to co-create digital landscapes of memorialisation. The project mapped the impact of collective trauma in a systematic way, through family and community networks and memories and sustained and projected forward such individual and collective memories.

Project Partners

Collaboration between the University of Glasgow, University of Highlands and Islands, and Abertay University.

Other project partners include the National Library of Scotland, exploring custodial issues inherent in the long-term sustainability of community generated digital histories and digital scholarship; and the Imperial War Museum, which is building a Network of Subject Experts addressing the digital legacy of the First World War commemorations

Project Plan

To facilitate productive interdisciplinary discussion, the project will develop two ‘keystone’ projects, one on the Island of Lewis, and one in Dundee, that will be complemented by a series of facilitated virtual exchanges and discussions with all projects participants –  researchers from different disciplines, the participants from the local communities, and the third-sector partners from the creative industries - that will, over the 12 months that the project will run, explore the three interconnected themes of the project:

1. Digital recovery and representation of community generated histories relating to the 1919 sinking of the Iolaire, and the applicability of post-custodial archival approaches to developing and sustaining sources and records. This theme will be developed in partnership with local community historical experts on the Island of Lewis; academics with a disciplinary focus in history and archival creation and management; and archival practitioners and memory institutions.

2. The use of advanced digital interfaces to create interaction and mediation with this material that foster memorialisation as well as an ability to confront traumatic events that have local resonance.

3. The power of public history and community engagement to enable communities to develop an ability to confront contested and difficult histories, and to engage with historical trauma. The project will explore these three themes through two events. The format of each will be a series of presentations, with responses. The events are designed to be iterative, with the first informing the content of the second. We intend to have as many contributors as is financially possible, but the physical events will be complimented by a substantial online presence for the project. Discussion groups and virtual project development will be facilitated via the project website, and UHI’s experience and institutional resources (system, support and expertise) for Video Conferencing meetings and methodologies of virtual exchange will be available to the project. This approach will enable our interdisciplinary conversation to grow over time.


The project brings into collaboration three leading researchers in separate fields (digital
humanities/digital collections; Scottish History and heritage; Computer Interaction and Interface design) at three different HEIs. The strength of the project is that it draws on methods and tools from each of these disciplines, all of which are amplified by active participation in the project by community groups, historians, and archives on the Island of Lewis, who are the custodians of the community history in question.

Scottish Significance

The loss of the Iolaire is one of the defining events in twentieth century Scottish history; of profound national and international significance. This project brings together the historical aspects of the event, including the potential to uncover new materials held by communities and individuals in Lewis.

Knowledge Exchange

The project will involve significant knowledge exchange across the academic disciplines involved: digital humanities; information studies; heritage studies; computer interaction. It will also affect knowledge exchange through co-production with community groups, local archives, and local historians on Lewis. It will also create an important opportunity for academic, and community driven, research to inform creative industry practice, in archives; at the National Library of Scotland; and at the Imperial War Museum.


Recent activities have highlighted ways in which a conjunction of critical community engagement and public history around this subject present an important opportunity for developing new collaborative research, based on academic and community partnerships, in three interconnected areas. Firstly, the reconstruction of historical narratives of the events of collective trauma through the development and use of community generated digital content, drawn from family and community material culture and memories. However, research by Hughes has shown that this digital content is critically endangered from a digital preservation perspective: there is no national or secure, permanent digital archive for this material, and no guarantee of its digital sustainability. To address this, we will explore post-custodial approaches to digital archiving of community generated digital content, empowering communities to engage directly with memory organisations in the long-term curation and re-use of this data. Secondly, the use of advanced digital interfaces to create interaction and mediation, drawing on research connecting games and interface design. Emerging from this will be models applicable in different situations, locales and times that foster memorialisation as well as an ability to confront traumatic events. Here, the emphasis will be on local resonances and place/memory making. Third, the power of public history and community engagement to enable communities to develop an ability to confront contested and difficult histories, and to engage with historical trauma. Bringing these three elements together: engagement with traumatic histories, developing and sustaining community archives, and the agency of digital mediation – will have a significant degree of impact. 

There is an emerging concern with sustaining the fragile histories of communities in transition, affected by historical traumas as well as contemporary issues like climate change, which is re-negotiating the power dynamic of conserving archival evidence as an ongoing, open engagement with the communities that create these materials. Yet at the same time, there is a need to understand the full potential of enhanced approaches towards digital archival mediation, drawing on methodologies from immersive experience and gaming, to affect a confrontation with historical trauma that could support those dealing with contemporary trauma and related effects.

There is a need for a greater understanding and formalisation of the methodologies of public engagement that can allow communities to address contested and traumatic histories, including contemporary and recent events. The events planned for this project seek to address this in a variety of settings (from museums to emergent technology centres) and a range of approaches. A central and unifying aim, however, will be the development of a greater understanding of and best practice at the interface between public history, community activism and recovery from collective trauma.