Communication of cultural heritage: Is digitization a must?

Massive amounts of money have been spent to digitize the Danish cultural heritage. However interactive installations and comprehensive websites far from always have the desired effect. The research project ‘Det digitale Glyptotek’ will investigate if and how communication of cultural heritage can be enriched by the use of IT.

ResearchDigital Design Departmentdiversitymedia

Some museums have invested in interactive installations which allow the visitors to play a part in a storytelling. Others have created large webpages where the audience can explore the cultural heritage. Many have done both. And perhaps it’s not really surprising; many things have been digitized over the last decades so why shouldn’t we take the communication of our cultural heritage into the digital age?

In the Danish Ministry of Culture’s strategy for digitalisation, one of the two main objectives is to ”create efficient services which collect, preserve, disseminate and make culture accessible in a present digital form that fits the target groups.” And according to postdoc Nanna Holdgaard at the IT University of Copenhagen, the digitization of services is a definite requirement when the Danish cultural institutions apply for the national and European funding programmes:

- Often, digital media and technologies are considered liberating, as something that can motivate citizens to interact. The digitization of the cultural heritage was founded on this expectation. The institutions would increase the number of users and at the same time make them more active, says Nanna Holdgaard, who recently started the three-year postdoctoral project ‘Det digitale Glyptotek’, in which she will investigate how and to which extent communication at Glyptoteket can be enriched by the use of ICT.

Investment target missed
Nanna Holdgaard started the project on the digitization of culture due to the fact that many of the investments in the digitization of cultural heritage have not given the expected outcome. In 2014 the European survey Enumerate showed that many of the European cultural institutions have digitized all or parts of their collections; for example by scanning or taking pictures of the exhibits. But at the same time, the survey indicated that a large number of the institution had neither strategy nor budget to exploit the digitized exhibits; that is to say that much of the digital material was just stored on servers.

- In that way, the audience won’t benefit from it. You can take a photo and store it on a server but if that’s all you do, it’s somehow worthless. It’s about using the digitized material to reach out to the audience and it’s about ensuring that systems and organisations are synchronized, says Nanna Holdgaard, who completed her PhD project Online Museum Practices in 2014, in which she investigated the use of online media by Danish museums. - My PhD thesis showed that the users of Danish museum webpages primarily were looking for information regarding opening hours, ticket prices etc., she says. – This is partly because the museums haven’t explored the potential of digital media, but among the users there may also be a slightly conservative notion of what defines a museum – also in a digital context.

Bull’s eye investments

Over the next three years, Nanna Holdgaard will investigate the museum institution's role in the so-called digital age. This she will do by studying the premises for digital communication at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. Glyptoteket has been among the most hesitant Danish cultural institutions in terms of using digital media.

- Until now Glyptoteket has chosen to focus on the present experience and depth. Following this spirit, this project aims to investigate the premises for digital communication; in relation to history, the physical environment and the expectations of the audience. How does digital media affect immersion? We will investigate that by making simple experiments, says Nanna Holdgaard, who hopes that her project will contribute to a more reflective use of digital media. - It’s about gaining knowledge about the complexity of a museum visit. And it’s about disseminating a common understanding of how digital communication is not just a project, which is easy to get funded – and which is to be left alone once completed. So far technology optimism has been the motivating factor and digital communication has not been integrated into the established practices of the museum, says Nanna Holdgaard.

Sustainable digitization

‘Det digitale Glyptotek’ is a collaboration between the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the IT University of Copenhagen and is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. Director at Glyptoteket, Flemming Friborg, has repeatedly criticized the digitization of the Danish cultural institutions in the public debate. In an interview in Politiken entitled Call from the Museum Director: The Salvation does not consist of poking visitors with iPads and crayons, he says:

- Instead of being hysterical about targeting audiences and launching various recruitment campaigns, which have nothing to do with the museum itself, I think we should return to the commodity of every museum: The art experience.

Flemming Friborg is looking forward to getting a proper investigation of whether digital communication can contribute to the experience of art:

- It is relatively easy to make smart apps, but harder to make it fit the audience and the desire to ensure the special potential of a collection. Therefore we have deliberately hesitated to develop apps and digital communication devices at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, until our opinions can be based upon knowledge about the opportunities and pitfalls in this field, he says.

Further information

Jari Kickbusch, phone 7218 5304, email jark@itu.dk