Digital: opportunity or necessity?

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Text by Barbara Dierickx (PACKED Belgium)

On May 7 2015, PACKED vzw, Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen, the Royal Museums of Art and History and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage organised a conference on the deployment of cultural heritage in an ever increasing digital environment. The conference was supported by the Department of Culture, Youth, Sport and Media of the Flemish Government.

These Belgian partners in the European project AthenaPlus joined forces to offer a varied programme in which the concept of ‘digital’ was the central focus point. Does it give rise to opportunities? Or is it actually a necessity that can’t be ignored?

Before noon two keynote speakers presented a reflective story, in which they stressed both strategy as well as daily museum operations. Dr. Mirjam Wenzel described the different steps that lead to the development of a digital strategy for the Jewish Museum in Berlin. A SWOT-analysis, personas, networks, an analysis of the technical and human capabilities within the museum, an online strategy for the web platform and its implementation are thereby the building blocks.

kringlaKarin Nilsson presented the case of the Open Image Archive with which the Swedish Royal Armoury, Skokloster Castle & Hallwyl museum has profiled itself internationally.* It is the aim of the museum to reach every interested audience member with their digital exhibitions and online collection presentation. Images are offered for free (as in gratis) re-use, information about the works is published as Linked Open Data and the reproductions are used as illustration in articles on Wikipedia through contribution to Wikimedia Commons.

Subsequently, a number of current digital heritage subjects were touched upon in three parallel discussion tracks. The track on applications focused on choices and constant considerations. Is the (financial) investment well balanced with the number of downloads and/or users? Can we make our own adjustments to the app’s content, or do we have to get back to the developer in order to make changes? And what about the lifespan of the app? The return on investment of an app for a particular temporary exhibition is different from an app that covers a rather long term collection presentation.

accuratorNext to the interactive nature of apps, there are also other possibilities to stimulate interaction. The session on user generated content highlighted examples of technologies in which a participant actively enriches information. This appears not to be such smooth process in every case; a crowdsourcing project in the Dutch Rijksmuseum failed for example because of inappropriate tags being applied. The Antwerp Fashion Museum organised a couple of successful edit-a-thons: meetings in which interested audience members edit pages on Wikipedia. The institution can consequently then get to work with this newly added or updated information. Also the Accurator was presented – this is a tool for nichesourcing with which an institution can look for people with a specific (expert) knowledge who can deliver missing information about e.g. a heritage object.

Both the cultural and the educational sector are still searching on how to best adapt to the digital society, e.g. by experimenting with new digital teaching materials or new class methods. Next to that, there is still the question how both sectors can get to know each other sufficiently well. From the cultural sector there is a request for cooperation, but also vice versa. Flemish Testbeeld and Cultuurkuur were two initiatives that illustrated the bridge function between these two sectors.

The cases that were presented during the day, each formulated an answer to the question: ‘Digital: opportunity or necessity?’. On the one hand it is necessary to embrace the digital realm, but this should then go beyond mere technical solutions. In the Dutch Rijksmuseum, the staff is convinced that digitisation is a true necessity: they share the vision that the museum is obliged to open its collection to the public. It is however imperative that cultural heritage organisations think about this strategically, so that the planned effects of going digital are sustainable in nature.

The presentations of this conference are available through the website of AthenaPlus partner PACKED vzw: http://bit.ly/1EuRI3D (in Dutch)

* Article: “Making a big impact on a small budget. How the Livrustkammaren och Skoklosters slott med Stiftelsen Hallwylska museet (LSH) shared their collection with the world” by Joris Pekel

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