Culture at a crossroad: How COVID-19 highlighted the need for digital change in the cultural heritage sector

5 min readNov 18, 2020
‘The regular washing of hands. Lithograph, ca. 1960’. Wellcome Collection, United Kingdom, CC BY

Just before Europe began to go into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Europeana Initiative put the final touches to its new five-year strategy. Before it had even gone to print, we had to take another hard look at it because cultural institutions closing their doors to visitors changed the sector considerably. Was this strategy — as yet unlaunched — appropriate in the face of this new and unprecedented crisis? It didn’t take us long to conclude that yes, it was not only appropriate but more urgent than ever because at the heart of the Europeana Strategy 2020–2025 is a mission to empower the cultural heritage sector in its digital transformation.

A sector in crisis is a creative one

It is true that adversity breeds invention. As institutions across Europe were forced to close their doors to visitors, attention very quickly turned to finding ways of engaging with audiences in an online environment — through an institution’s existing websites, social media and video channels and through brand-new and sometimes experimental activities such as webinars, virtual exhibitions and interactive experiences put together very quickly in those first few weeks of lockdown. We saw that the cultural sector has the elasticity to respond to crises in very interesting, creative and effective ways, particularly when their collections are available in digital formats. We gathered many such responses on Europeana Pro.

GIf IT UP 2018 entry, featured in Europeana collections blogpost ‘Social distancing in cultural heritage GIFs

MCN (formerly the Museum Computer Network) lists hundreds of virtual tours, exhibitions, e-learning and online collections from around the world that use open access material. Many of these existed pre-pandemic but took on a new importance once the audience’s attention was forced online.

In direct response to the pandemic, institutions initiated new online activities, many aimed at children whose education had moved from school desk to kitchen table. Like the National Museums Liverpool’s My Home is My Museum project encouraging children to create an exhibition or art gallery about themselves. The Historiches Museum Frankfurt and The Vienna Museum are two examples of institutions that asked audiences to share their experiences of day-to-day life during coronavirus. On social media, institutions joined together in campaigns like #MuseumAlphabet — sharing an item a day in alphabetical order, #OnlineArtExchange — sharing artworks from other collections to help spread art online, or responding to fun challenges from the likes of the UK’s Royal Academy, such as Who can draw us the best ham’ which received incredible engagement and quickly morphed into their #RAdailydoodle.

Screenshot of three tweets from the Royal Academy, starting with ‘who can draw us the best ham’

Screenshot of the Royal Academy Twitter status 18 March 2020.

Going digital isn’t easy for everyone

At first glance then, it seems that the cultural heritage sector operates well in a digital environment. But look a little deeper and we see that although there were some very visible activities online, making headlines on a regular basis, they came from a small number of institutions. Many were silent.

Even during the most stable of times, institutions face their own individual challenges with regard to digital working — no two are the same. Large, small, well-funded or less so, tech experts or beginners. National policies guide their work and vary from one country to another. So it’s difficult to achieve consistency in digital output and mindset. We know that digital working is particularly challenging for small and medium institutions with limited internal skills and capacity. So, add in a pandemic, with staff forced to work from home with limited technical resources, and the necessity to adapt to and learn new digital skills and processes without time for adequate training and we see some institutions faring much better than others.

Then add in the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only crisis facing the cultural heritage sector. We are familiar with its constant battle for funding but 2020 also brought further pressure for it to reassert its relevance to society — a society that demands, rightfully, better representation of its diversity from a sector that has a history of presenting largely only the perspectives of the privileged. 2020 saw the sector have to address change after change, to work in a state of flux and uncertainty.

You can only work with what you’ve got — and it’s not enough

A survey from the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) revealed that during the lockdown in Europe, over 60% of museums increased their online presence, and over 70% of museums increased their social media activities but the report cites activities on a fairly modest level: ‘Most museums are using social media more than before, working with hashtags and featuring individual objects to their audiences. In addition, virtual tours and online exhibitions have increased.’ But only 13.4% had increased their budget for online activities at the time of the survey.

Those that are able to reach out to audiences online also face constraints when looking for material to share. They can only share digital material that has been made available online and that is legally shareable. So far, only around 10% of Europe’s cultural heritage has been digitised, one-third of which is available online and of that, just over one-third is available for reuse (Source: ENUMERATE). There is a long way to go until we can say that Europe’s heritage is available and accessible online to be used by anyone, anywhere.

Culture at a crossroad

Photograph of a man standing between two sets of train tracks in Germany.
‘Införandet av fjärrstyrning med utrustning från Tyska Siemens som kallades för CTC, Centralized Traffic Control.’ Järnvägsmuseet. Public domain.

But progress is being made. The European Commission’s new Digital Europe Programme — running from 2021–2027 — states ‘an urgent need to make the most of digital technologies to record, document, preserve, and make Europe’s cultural heritage accessible online’. It is in this context that Europeana’s strategy for the next five years has become focused on a single task — supporting the digital transformation of Europe’s cultural heritage sector. A cultural sector powered by digital, we believe, will contribute to a Europe powered by culture, giving it a resilient, growing economy, increased employment, improved well-being and a sense of European identity.

At the start of the pandemic then, our mission was clear. What we didn’t know yet was what the cultural heritage sector needed from us in order to be well-supported in their digital transformation. How would and how should this transformation take place? In what areas do cultural heritage institutions need to develop more capacity to make that happen?

Find out how we set about finding out in the next post in our ‘Culture at a crossroad’ series on Medium — coming soon!

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.




Europe's culture - collected for you. Explore tens of millions of items from a range of Europe’s leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums.