MIT and Czech Teams develop Novel Digital History Project supported by MISTI Czech Seed Fund

Stellar Room, MIT: Jean Billa, MIT Course 6 undergraduate; Jan Vondráček, Czech Academy of Science, Co-PI of project; Max Frischknecht, visiting PhD student, University of Basel & Bern; Lucie Kalabisova & Mirandá Patrica Martinez Elton, both undergraduates at Charles University. Photo by Kurt Fendt.

How does the economy continue to function during times of war?

How do people cope with food shortages and manage their daily lives under foreign occupation?

How can historical documents meticulously recorded by local authorities offer scholars novel insights into life under German occupation in Bohemia and Moravia during WWII?

To what extent can a digital platform support historians in researching the complexities of a historical era through institutional archival documents?

These are some of the questions that a group of scholars and students from MIT, the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and students from the Faculty of Humanities at Charles University in Prague have been investigating as part of a 18-month research project "Institutional Data Shaping Digital History" funded by the MISTI Czech Republic Seed Fund. Under the direction of PI Dr. Kurt Fendt, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and director of MIT’s Active Archives Initiative, and co-PI Dr. Jan Vondráček from the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, students from MIT and Charles University investigated how archival sources can effectively be collected, consulted, and presented through a collaborative research platform.

During two week-long workshops, the first taking place in Prague in January 2023, the second one at MIT in May 2023, and via monthly Zoom meetings, the team developed a prototypical web application using hundreds of original documents archived at the Kladno Regional Archive from the time of the Second World War and made available to the project by the Prague State Regional Archive.

This MIT-Czech collaboration is unique in several regards:

  • So far, it is the only humanities project supported by the MISTI Czech Seed Fund
  • The multi-disciplinary project team consists of five undergrads from Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (including machine learning), History, and the Liberal Arts, a Ph.D. candidate in Design and Digital Humanities, and the PIs from Media Studies and History.
  • While using exemplary institutional documents from a regional Czech Archive, the scholarly web platform is built in such a way that it can be easily adapted to other institutional archival content and this serves as a model Digital Humanities project for scholars from a variety of disciplines such as history, social sciences, political sciences, and economics to answer questions in an interdisciplinary environment.

In addition, one MIT EECS undergrad, Trudy Painter, did her independent study with the project. In addition, Max Frischknecht, a visiting Ph.D. student from Switzerland, professional designer and doctoral candidate in Digital Humanities at the University of Bern, contributed his extensive design expertise.

The project and the web application will be presented to an academic audience by Dr. Fendt and Dr. Vondráček at the German Studies Annual Conference in Montréal in early October 2023.

In addition, a white paper will be posted online and published in a Digital Humanities/History journal.

Participating in the workshop were:

From MIT: Dr. Kurt Fendt (PI), Jean Billa, Max Frischknecht, Trudy Painter and Amanda Tong and from Prague: Dr. Jan Vondráček (Co-PI), Lucie Kalabisová, and Miranda Patrizia Martinez Elton.

Article courtesy of Kurt Fendt

SHASS Conference room, bldg. 14N, Miranda Patricia Martinez Elton, Lucie Kalabisová, Jean Billa. Photo by Kurt Fendt.

Watertown Diner: Max Frischknecht, Miranda Patricia Martinez Elton, Lucie Kalabisová, Jan Vondráček, Kurt Fendt, Senior Lecturer, CMS/W & PI of project. Photo by Kurt Fendt.