Posted on December 13, 2011
Harriet Deacon reports on DISH 2011, the second international conference on digital strategies for heritage in The Netherlands.

DISH has been held as a national conference on digital strategies for heritage in The Netherlands for a number of years, but in 2009 it went international; 2011 was the second international DISH conference. DISH 2011 was characterised by punchy keynotes and many (maybe too many) interesting concurrent sessions. Presentations were mainly from a western European perspective (presenters were predominantly Dutch, Belgian and British with a few Americans and other Europeans thrown in), but I thought there were some take-aways for the (South) African heritage context.

Digital strategy and institutional change

In reflecting on the African context, one of the most compelling keynotes for me was by Clifford Lynch, talking about institutional change in cultural memory institutions. Listening to Lynch, it struck me that many museums and other cultural institutions still think and act like secular churches, expecting visitors to file past the displays, taking in great knowledge, and giving thanks in hushed and grateful tones as they leave. We find it difficult to reach out to the public, and welcome them in as equals because that threatens our status as experts.

@archifau: some cultural institutions are like Sleeping Beauty. Great material, bad access. #DISH2011

Digital engagement is often conceived as an extension of the relentless promotion of institutional reputation and expertise through new channels, but in fact it profoundly challenges old ways of managing cultural institutions. The focus needs to shift towards the visitor, whether this person is visiting the institution online or in person, and recognising the value for both sides in interacting with the visitor.

@the_archive: Samuel Jones: public engagement does not diminish respect for experts and cultural institutions, it enhances it #DISH2011

The talk by Michael Edson (available here) on the challenges of thinking strategically in the ever-changing digital space was also fascinating. As Edson says, when we are faced with a new environment, it also takes us quite a while to start thinking strategically in appropriately new ways. We still don't appreciate how fast things have changed - our analyses of the digital world are often a decade old. We need to spend more time understanding the specifics of the digital present, and how this provides opportunities for the broader strategic vision of the organisation (Peter Samis gave a talk touching on this issue).

Things are moving so fast in the digital world that at the cutting edge it is difficult to see more than a few years into the future. This is not an excuse for inaction - the future is digital, although its specific form is changing all the time. What struck me at the conference was that not engaging sufficiently with digital channels will carry a huge opportunity cost for cultural institutions.

@NickPoole1: My takehome from #dish2011? The 62yr-old archaeologist who said today was the first time she realised Digital was here to stay.

From preservation to engagement

Digitisation of museum and archival material has become an important tool for much of the work of curation and preservation, and for specialist collaboration and analysis of collections. But cultural heritage (or cultural memory) institutions also have to engage with their publics digitally - through multiple channels, including digitisation of collections, engagement through social media, and websites - as well as through conventional means. The most successful institutions meet new visitors where these visitors want to be, ask visitors to debate with the institution, and share their knowledge with it.

DISH showcased digitisation initiatives that have made collections more visible to new audiences and have enabled new kinds of interactions with them. An online digital collection does not replace an actual one, but it can be more flexible, and access can provide a more representative view of the collection than an exhibition. Collection data, and collections themselves, can be enhanced by user interactions. As Lynch said in his keynote, we need to start valuing the inputs of amateurs and enthusiasts, and the general public, alongside those of curators and academics. Institutions have found various ways of managing information quality in these interactions.

Many institutions are using online collection search platforms and social media for engaging with their audiences. What they are finding is that cultural heritage metadata created for professional / institutional purposes does not always serve the needs of these new users. The Agora team (see below) are therefore experimenting with creating better access to their data using timelines and events, rather than simply relying on existing museum metadata or item descriptors. Using the open access data provided through this platform, other people have developed a number of free program applications to interact with the collections.

The conference presented many examples of successful projects using crowdsourcing platforms. Digitalkoot won a prize for the best crowdsourcing project. There were interesting Dutch crowdsourcing initiatives such as the Waisda? video tagging game and the Velehanden archival transcription project. Here, Jasper Visser summarises his crowdsourcing dos and don'ts from the conference session. The Museum Analytics initiative tracks the use of social media by museums.

The importance of planning and co-ordination

One of the main messages of the conference was not a technical one, but about the importance of planning before implementing a digital strategy, and of evaluation after implementation. Strategic planning for digital interventions has to be linked to the broader institutional strategy of course, and the best institutions think big. Even small organisations can make a big splash using digital media. Implementation and evaluation can be done in quite short, sharp bursts so that the success (or failure) of a specific strategy could be easily assessed.

One of the benefits of the current financial climate may be that cultural memory institutions collaborate more with each other. This can be facilitated by the provision of common end-user portals. Europeana for example provides a central platform from which users can 'explore the digital resources of Europe's museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections'.

But institutions can also collaborate on a smaller scale. One example was the Agora project, a Dutch collaboration between the History and Computer Science departments at the VU University Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Dutch national audiovisual archive Beeld en Geluid to encourage public engagement with cultural heritage data from a diverse range of institutions.

These kinds of collaborations can be supported by government, within overarching digital strategies (Digital Britain is one such government strategy). Samuel Jones reminded us that cultural institutions help to shape the public sphere in which we interact with each other, and with government. Cultural expression is an important human right, and even when differences and disagreements are aired, helps to make people feel part of a broader society. (Jones's writing fleshes out some of his ideas on this.) Government support for digital engagement needs to be based on this broader understanding of the value of cultural institutions as vehicles for this kind of engagement.

There was much talk about public-private partnerships to support digital cultural projects, but interventions should not be piecemeal. Centralised support of some kind is important because in the cultural memory sector, having multiple digitisation projects scattered across the sector that never speak to each other or share resources for digital preservation and access is almost as bad as not digitising anything at all. Representatives were at DISH 2011 from several government-funded initiatives in various European countries to link and support digital interventions across the sector. In South Africa such initiatives could be beneficial; and have already been under discussion.

The message from this conference is that the need for strategic planning, co-ordination and collaboration in the sector is urgent.

Digital strategy for cultural institutions in Africa

It seems to me that much of the digital debate in African cultural institutions has in the past been about digitisation of collections rather than about the use of these collections or public engagement around them. The debate has been dominated by discussions about the need to ensure material preservation is not forgotten, the politics behind what to digitise first, and the politics of encouraging access to publics without computers. These are legitimate concerns, but in a rapidly changing digital context there are others too.

On the one hand, there is the global context. Cultural institutions in other continents are spending (taxpayers') millions digitising their collections, and the digital divide is becoming a digital chasm. At DISH, Tanner estimated that in the UK, 100 million pounds have been spent in the last 10 years on digitisation. A 2010 report estimated that digitising all cultural materials in EU libraries, museums, archives and AV archives would take up to 30 years and cost 105 billion Euros.

We can't do anything about this inequality at the moment, but if the Europeans are making their published material available free online maybe we only have to focus on digitising materials produced in Africa. African economies are growing and digitisation may become more affordable, but rapid digitisation is probably unrealistic. In the meantime, we need to think very strategically so that African collections stay on the digital map. We need more bang for the buck.

On the other hand, there is the local context. Encouraging public engagement is particularly important for African institutions that struggle with a reputation as colonial dinosaurs. Internet penetration among the general public is still quite low, but students and researchers could already benefit from greater access to collections through digital platforms. Mobile devices are extending access to the general public and these are becoming more powerful and cheaper all the time. As other institutions - banks, municipalities and shops - provide mobile access, cultural institutions may be left behind in the contest for local attention. There is something elitist about assuming that everyone who is interested in a museum or archive's collections can afford to come and visit it personally.

In summary, I thought the following points worth considering:

1. Cultural memory institutions help to shape the public sphere, and the conversations that happen in it. We need to recognise and build on this strength especially where interactions with the public have been weak.
2. Digital strategy is part of general strategy for cultural institutions.
3. Digital strategy needs to focus on the needs of users as well as those of the institution. It's not just about putting information out there, it's about encouraging people to engage with you about this information.
4. Digital engagement with users can affect both cultural memory institutions and their publics in a positive way. Digital engagement can extend the traditional model of public engagement that depended on people walking through the door of an institution, or on the institution staff or collections travelling to a few selected locations to meet them.
5. Digital channels for data and interaction are important for cultural institutions now and they will become more important in the future, even in resource-poor settings. African publics are already online, through mobile devices, and the trend is upward.
6. Digital strategy is needed in all cultural memory institutions, even in resource-poor settings and even before the money is there to digitise the collections. Not all digital interventions are expensive, and institutions can maximise resource use by looking for partnerships.

Feel free to comment below on how these issues interface with your discussions, for example, in the development of a national South African digitisation strategy within DAC and at ICADLA in Johannesburg this year.


I was lucky enough to be the winner of a free ticket (courtesy of the DEN Foundation) to the conference. Thank you!

Presentations are available online courtesy of DISH 2011.
Reviews of DISH 2011

Harriet Deacon is the UK correspondent for the Archival Platform.