Culture at a crossroad: How a landscape of ideas emerging from the COVID-19 crisis can lead to digital change in the cultural heritage sector

In June 2020, Europeana invited digital strategists and innovators Michael Peter Edson and Jasper Visser to run a series of workshops on the theme of Digital Transformation in the time of COVID-19 with 64 participants from the cultural heritage sector drawn from the Europeana Network Association. Three weeks of workshops, hundreds of conversations and over 120,000 words of notes and data later, Michael and Jasper had what they call a ‘landscape of ideas’.

Dark clouds loom across the sky. The wind whistles through the treetops and the river crashes over rocks and boulders.
Waterfall in Småland, Nationalmuseum, Sweden, public domain.

The peer-to-peer conversations and discussions held in these workshops are presented in Digital transformation in the time of COVID-19 — sense-making workshops findings and outcomes,

Concurrent to the workshops, we worked closely with independent charity Culture24 to produce a complementary report The digital transformation agenda and GLAMs — Culture24 findings and outcomes. By interviewing eight global leaders in the digital cultural heritage sector, considering what terms like ‘digital transformation’ mean in practice for GLAM institutions, and providing a snapshot of digital capacity building initiatives in the sector, this report builds on the themes that emerged from the workshops to help develop a shared understanding of what building digital capacity in our sector really means.

We had set out to find out what the cultural heritage sector needed in order to be well-supported in their digital transformation — a transformation that the pandemic has revealed to be more important than ever. So, what did those conversations with our friends in the cultural heritage sector tell us about our next steps?

A landscape of ideas — quotes from the workshops
A landscape of ideas — quotes from the workshops

An example of participant responses, which can be grouped into a large number of themes that represent a landscape of ideas, insights, and possibilities. Credit: Michael Peter Edson and Jasper Visser.

Collaboration is key

Many issues came to light throughout these workshops with the key findings highlighting some contradictions, but also a path forward. We are not all experiencing the COVID-19 crisis in the same way. There is a strong desire for change in the sector but a sense of inability to act on it. And we seem to be in agreement that to get through this, working together is vital. We will need to find out where the most pressing needs are, develop more opportunities to learn from each other, and develop and adopt shared standards and share infrastructure.

Agency for change

Because digital literacy is as much about understanding technology as it is about the human dynamics of change, both reports point to a need for professionals to develop ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, compassion, persuasion, change management, collaboration and other ‘non-digital’ skills to be ready for, support and lead digital change. These skills — combined with digital skills — can help foster digitally literate leadership at all levels of organisations.

Digital divides

The reports highlight that the digital divide is much wider than we had previously thought. These divides can be social and technological, as well as between those who can access, are represented, and feel welcomed by digital cultural heritage and those who don’t. The divide also runs between countries who have well-articulated digital strategies and infrastructures in place, and those who don’t. They run between institutions that have differing levels of digital capacity and capabilities, and even within institutions where staff have differing levels of digital literacy and skills. Crucially, digital divides are about our processes as much as systems and about people as much as hardware. Bridging these divides will require different strategies, including investigating how our networks and narratives become more diverse and inclusive; and in parallel exploring how we can scale up the levels of technological maturity across institutions and countries in Europe.

We are not alone but we need to change

The cultural sector isn’t the only one discovering its need for digital transformation. And it’s not the only sector recognising a skills gap — thinking about the creative industries, Lucy Bourton writes that ‘A want and need to learn more about emerging technologies is there, but creative companies lean on specialist outsources rather than investing in developing these skills in-house.’ So, we are not alone. But the cultural sector now needs to make some changes or be in danger of getting left behind. We need to look to our strengths and develop them further. Europe has the technological and political infrastructures and the organisational networks in place already — all of the EU’s Member States are involved in the Europeana Initiative, and the Europeana Initiative incorporates 38 accredited aggregators working with around 4,000 cultural institutions. In 2012, Europeana became the largest dataset in the world to be dedicated to the public domain. And Europe is forging new technology in holistic 3D digitisation of monuments. We can continue to lead the way with Europeana as a collaborator for change, as facilitator of the digital change required.

3D model: Greek, hand-vase clasping a lekythos, HCM 233, Hunt Museum, public domain.

Working out how to work more effectively with digital technology offers us a real opportunity. How can we design new techniques, processes, methodologies, ways of working that actually address our problems? We don’t need to rely on digitising manual or in-person processes. We can design new ones without the shackles of the physical world. Digital working should not only be a virtual replica of our physical routines. We can take this opportunity to design and make new, accurate, specific and valuable solutions. This pandemic has given us cause, opportunity and permission to think and work outside our traditional boxes.

We’re already exploring these themes further with help from our friends. Europeana 2020, our annual conference in November, explored the topics in three themed days of presentations and workshops. The discussions were fascinating and worthwhile and underlined the fact that this really is just the beginning of a journey we will go on together, supported by the Europeana Network Association and Europeana Aggregators’ Forum.

What happens next?

In this liminal space of constant change and uncertainty, it is hard not to feel a sense of disorientation, confusion. We need to keep our eyes open. We need to be aware of how even the smallest changes affect the sector and its needs. And we need to adapt every time, to be agile, whilst keeping sight of our belief that digital culture can and should be used to create good in the world.

There is a need for a powerful story — supported by data and case studies — to demonstrate the social impact and relevance of the cultural heritage sector, particularly vis-à-vis the themes of social justice, climate action and diversity. This story then needs to translate into audience-centred actions that are inclusive to all members of society.

But a common story for the sector implies common values and yet our workshops suggest that such values have been neither made explicit nor shared. We need to discuss our core and common values openly and to invite challenges from diverse voices so that we may address any and all bias that influence those values.

To provide what the sector needs to empower its digital transformation, we will develop a capacity-building framework. This will promote a structural and measurable approach to developing skills, knowledge and shared resources, as well as a useful and practical definition of ‘digital transformation’ relevant to Europeana and the digital cultural heritage sector.

The solutions for the crises we face today — as a sector as well as members of the human race — are interlinked and achievable if we work together. We must harness our shared ambition and commitment, and collaborate on and advocate for a world in which we can experience and learn from heritage representing all societies, their stories and culture — a world that has digital at its core, a world that is better than the one we have today.

Two men reciting the Ramayana to an audience. Gouache painting on mica by an Indian artist.
Two men reciting the Ramayana to an audience. Gouache painting on mica by an Indian artist.
Reading. Two men reciting the Ramayana to an audience. Gouache painting on mica by an Indian artist. Wellcome Collection, CC BY.

We encourage you to download the reports mentioned here today, work with colleagues and networks to explore them and stay tuned for opportunities to collaborate with us as we further develop our capacity-building work. You can use #BuildDigitalCapacity to discuss your thoughts, and if you haven’t already, join our network to become part of the biggest community of cultural heritage professionals in Europe.

For more news from Europeana, go to Europeana Pro News.

By Harry Verwayen, Executive Director of the Europeana Foundation, and Beth Daley, Editorial Adviser at the Europeana Foundation. This series of posts is adapted and updated from a journal article originally commissioned for the Belgian Association for Documentation.

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