From 1680 to 1793, the Comédie-Française staged more than 34,000 performances—and kept detailed daily box office receipts. The registers of those receipts offer a wealth of data for scholars, but until recently were only available by traveling to the Paris archives, and even then only by analog browsing. In 2008, MIT professor of history Jeffrey Ravel began applying the same method he had used to cofound CÉSAR, an online repository for data from 17th- and 18th-century French theater.
For the initial prototype Ravel and his team collaborated with MIT’s HyperStudio, a lab for new media technology and the humanities led by Kurt Fendt. By 2013, when funding was set for the full-scale site, MIT’s digital humanities focus had expanded to include the brand-new course CMS.633 Digital Humanities: Topics, Techniques, and Technologies, taught by Fendt. Boosted by the efforts of students in that class, the Comédie-Française Registers Project went live in 2015.
CMS.633 examines the emerging field of digital humanities, including the concepts of data representation, digital archives, information visualization, and user interaction. It then sets its students to work on real-world applications—including creating digital solutions for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and working with the Edgerton Digital Collections.
For the Comédie-Française Registers Project, two astrophysics students in CMS.633 applied a technique most often used to spot pulsars. “They overlaid two periods of data from the Comédie-Française Registers Project to see spikes that would be unnoticeable if you just examined the data in traditional ways,” describes Fendt. “We thought it was a brilliant approach. It really captures what digital humanities is all about: taking approaches from other fields, and tuning them to make them appropriate for humanities data.” This interdisciplinary approach took another leap in May 2016, when the Comédie-Française project gave rise to an international conference on Early Modern Theatre Practices and the Digital Archive, co-hosted by MIT and Harvard University. The conference culminated in a hack-a-thon that paired scholars with database developers, working together to build tools that could respond to scholarly and pedagogical needs.
This story was originally published in November 2016.