How ‘big visual data’ can be explored and shared in a digital archive

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With over 105,000 images, the photo archive of Empirical Cultural Studies Switzerland is an important part of Switzerland’s cultural memory. Using three collections as examples, our research project is developing a new “Participatory Image Archive” that makes it possible to preserve and pass on images and narratives from contemporary witnesses

The research project “Participatory Knowledge Practices in Analogue and Digital Image Archives” aims to enable the participatory use of image archives. [ 1 ] Using three collections as examples, digital tools are being developed that allow the public to comment on and contextualise images. Interested groups can tell and share individual stories using self-created “User Collections” by selecting their favourite images from the collections and uploading their own materials. The new “Participatory Image Archives” platform supports the visual exploration of around 200,000 photographs, photo albums, maps and other materials – “big visual data”. The collections are presented, for example, in the form of a grid, a timeline, in relation to maps and in an IIIF viewer [2]. We use artificial intelligence (AI) image analysis methods that enable an automated search for simple image attributes such as colour, shape and localisation of image elements as well as the recognition of texts and object types to extract metadata

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Screenshot of Interface I.

The interdisciplinary team is made up of 18 researchers – including six doctoral students – who contribute expertise from cultural anthropology, digital humanities and design research. Walter Leimgruber, Department of Cultural Studies and European Ethnology, University of Basel, and Peter Fornaro, Digital Humanities Lab, University of Basel, are in overall charge of the project. The design team at Bern University of the Arts, headed by Ulrike Felsing, consists of Vera Chiquet, Lukas Zimmer [3] Daniel Schoeneck Stauffer [4] and Max Frischknecht [5]

Activity theory and workshops

In a series of workshops and interviews with potential users such as photojournalists, historians, archivists and database specialists, the new requirements of digital and participatory knowledge production and possible usage scenarios will be developed. The methodological approach of Norman and Cooper’s Activity-Centred Design Model [6] helps us to create a holistic perspective. In dialogue with future users, we develop their motivations for participating in digital collection activities, typical activities/scenarios and the associated functional-technical operations

The project was preceded by a study on the digital transformation of Swiss archives, which was conducted in collaboration with the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Bern University of Applied Sciences. [ 7]

From interface to infrastructure

Our use cases include the “Images of Swiss Commons” project, led by Martin Stuber and Rahel Wunderli (University of Bern), which uses historical and contemporary photographs to document and research the transformation of Swiss commons and the collective behaviour of mountain farmers. We also collaborated with researchers from the SNSF research project “Mensch & Haus” (BFH and University of Basel), which documents the cultural development of historic farmhouses and their inhabitants in Switzerland

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Screenshot of Interface II

As joint results, the project will not only produce the graphical interface and a dynamic storage infrastructure, but also a guideline for the future development of participatory image archives in the digital humanities as well as six dissertations and several scientific papers in the various disciplines. All technological developments of the project, including the deep learning component for the image-based search, are based on the premise of scalability, i.e. the methods and technologies should be transferable to the holdings of other collections, especially in the Digital Humanities

Facts about the project

The research is funded for four years by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Sinergia), the Ernst Göhner Foundation, Memoriav, the Foundation for Art, Culture and History and the Jacqueline Spengler Foundation

The partner organisations include


  2. IIIF, the International Image Interoperability Framework (, is a set of open standards for high-quality online delivery of digital objects. Raemy, J. A., & Schneider, R. (2019). Suggested Measures for Deploying IIIF in Swiss cultural heritage institutions [White paper]. HES-SO University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Haute école de gestion de Genève. [3] Astrom / Zimmer & Tereszkiewicz,
  5. Cooper, A. (2007). About face 3: The essentials of interaction design ([3rd ed.], Completely rev. & updated). Wiley Pub.
  6. Funding: BFH 2018, 2018-595-959-589/

Link directory

  1. Felsing, U., Fornaro, P., Frischknecht, M., & Raemy, J. A. (2023, March 10). Community and Interoperability at the Core of Sustaining Image Archives. DHNB 2023 – Sustainability: Environment, Community, Data (DHNB 2023), Online. Zenodo. zenodo.7690740
  2. Felsing, U., & Frischknecht, M. (2021). Critical map visualisations. In C. Schranz (Ed.), Shifts in Mapping Maps as a tool of knowledge. Bielefeld: Transcript. doi/10.1515/9783839460412-008/html
  3. Felsing, U. (2021). Reflexive Catalogues: A Medium of Translation as Exhibition, Film and Hypertext. Bielefeld: Transcript.
  4. Baur, R. & Felsing, U. (2020). Visual Coexistence: Information Design and Typography in the
  5. Intercultural Field. Baden: Lars Müller.
  6. Baur, R. & Felsing, U. (2019). On the Cultural Anchorings of Knowledge Visualisation. Design
  7. Issues – MIT Press Journals, 35(1), 52-66.
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AUTHOR: Ulrike Felsing

Ulrike Felsing (Dr phil.) is a design researcher and lecturer at the Bern University of the Arts, Institute of Design Research IDR and the Lucerne School of Art and Design. From 2021-2025 she is co-leader of the research project Sinergia: "Participatory Knowledge Practices in Analogue and Digital Image Archives", funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF, in collaboration with Prof. Dr W. Leimgruber and Dr P. Fornaro, University of Basel). Her research focuses on the field of knowledge visualisation in the digital humanities.

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