Culture at a crossroad: How Europeana reacted to the COVID-19 crisis, stopped, took stock and reacted again

When a crisis happens, you react. And at Europeana, when Europe started to go into lockdown in spring 2020, we started to move quickly with a strong desire to support our members across the cultural sector in this completely unprecedented time.

Act fast!

Our desire to act fast to support our partners was of course made more complicated by the fact that all of the Europeana Foundation’s staff, most of whom previously worked from a single office in the Netherlands, started to work from home. We had to develop new ways of working as individuals, as teams and as an organisation. It looks unlikely we will ever see the same levels of central office working again.

Next, the meetings and events that traditionally took place in person, including our annual conference, all turned online. That meant new approaches to be researched and new skills and practices to be adopted. With the Europeana Network Association and its specialist communities, we organised a range of webinars, providing opportunities for cultural heritage professionals across the world to meet and to discuss the changes and challenges they were facing — for some, this was the very first time they had ever spoken to peers from other countries in this way. Lessons learned from these early online events were shared in July in our how-to manual, Europeana guide to organising online events.

On our website for professionals, Europeana Pro, we began collating information from across the sector, providing access to a wide range of resources in a section called Working with you and for you in the time of COVID-19. These pages received 21,000 visits in their first three months online.

And on the Europeana collections website, our editorial reflected the crisis with galleries on Masks and face coverings, The Great Indoors and Washing your hands. A couple of months in, we developed curated content to do with Discovering Europe on both the Europeana and Europeana Pro websites as the summer tourist season across Europe took a big hit due to the pandemic.

Screenshot of ‘Washing your hands’ gallery on the Europeana website. August 2020. CC BY-SA.

Slow down!

These changes were all set in motion very quickly. And then an article by Nina Simon, a thought-leader in the cultural sector, titled How Can I Contribute? Four Steps I’m Taking to Figure it Out made us stop and think. In it, Simon notes the pandemic-induced proliferation of digital tours, live-streaming and educational resources and says, ‘And it makes me wonder: is this the most meaningful way cultural organizations can contribute — or is it just the fastest way?’ She asks whether these activities address a genuine need — serving communities, or are they a way to ‘assure ourselves that we are “doing something”’?

And so, inspired by Nina Simon, we gave ourselves permission to ‘slow down’ and to assess what was really needed. We chose to delve deeper into the effects of the crisis in order to understand exactly how the cultural heritage sector — our partners, our peers — were being affected. Following her four steps for effective contribution, we were able to ‘Select a community of focus’ — the Europeana Network Association, our 3,000-strong democratic community of experts working in the field of digital cultural heritage and then set up a process by which we could ‘Listen to that community’. Her advice is to ‘Try to learn as much as possible by observation and listening (as opposed to asking people to give you their time) so you don’t add to burdens that struggling folks are already facing.’

At the same time, Simon suggests that you ‘Map your skills and assets’ — to learn more about yourself and ask, ‘How can you use your creativity to make unexpected connections between what is desired and what you have?’ And finally to ‘Check your assumptions’ because ‘You might think something’s a great idea, but value is in the eye of the community.’ All advice that we took to heart.

Europeana has an incredible network of talented and enthusiastic experts in the field of digital culture. From that network, we invited digital strategists and innovators Michael Peter Edson and Jasper Visser to run a series of Digital Transformation in the time of COVID-19 workshops.

Making sense of the crisis — week by week

In June 2020, 64 participants from 22 countries drawn from across the Europeana Network Association met in groups for three peer-to-peer workshops. Each week the group examined a different aspect of digital transformation as seen through the lens of the COVID-19 crisis, gathering a range of perspectives from participants. The workshops helped to contribute towards the participant’s work in their own institutions and also to Europeana’s work into gaining a greater understanding of the sector’s changing needs.

Screenshot of a Zoom workshop, June 2020, Europeana Foundation. CC BY-SA.

Week one: Immediate impact

Week one’s workshops focused on the immediate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on individuals, teams, organisations and audiences. In a summary of the workshop, Jasper Visser writes that:

‘What we found in this first week is that the crisis is affecting everyone differently. The stories and experiences of the 60 participants are all unique to their country, organisation and personal and professional circumstances. Although we appear to be going through a shared moment in time, there are many ways in which we experience it. We believe that there is wisdom in this diversity in our sector. While we prepare for a successful digital future, we shouldn’t look for one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, we need to understand our sector’s full potential and the entire range of challenges.’

This first week of workshops highlighted that while some European countries were well-equipped to go digital, others were still struggling with the basics. Similarly, while some quickly developed new audience services, some became almost completely disconnected. In terms of working conditions, some organisations saw existing hierarchies harden, while others saw the chain of command relax, and while some staff felt more productive, some soon experienced digital fatigue. Some organisations saw existing digital teams take centre stage, while for others digital become a shared responsibility across the organisation.

Digital is experienced differently by different institutions and individuals within them.

There is growing acceptance of the potential for digital and more conversations about it, but at the same time, there is a lack of common vocabulary with which to talk about it.

Jasper concludes: ‘These apparent paradoxes highlight that within the GLAM [galleries, libraries, archives and museums] sector different realities exist at the same moment. One organisation’s strength is another organisation’s challenge. To tap into the full potential of Europe’s GLAMs we’ll need to find approaches to catalyse our strengths while we collectively address our challenges.’

Week two: Preparation and action

The second week of workshops focussed on the importance of preparation — ‘[W]hat do you know now that you wished you had known when the crisis began?’ In his summary, Michael Peter Edson writes that, ‘Many told us that if they had known early on how long this crisis would last, and how profound its disruptive potential would be, they would have taken action much sooner to initiate change.’

Workshop participants talked about being surprised about how unprepared their organisations were despite having what they thought was a strong digital ethos in place. Others mentioned that they were aware that digital activities such as building a social media presence, forging relationships with audiences and collaborators, climate action, the digital divide, and building digital capacity across their whole organisations were important but up to this point had not been prioritised.

While there was a strong sense that other and better ways of working might now be possible and that staff are now more aware of and prepared to embrace what digital has to offer, our workshop participants also expressed that they do not feel they have the agency or authority to put this into practice. This acknowledgement is incredibly important for us to feed into our future digital capacity-building work and support.

Week three: Asking hard questions

The workshops dealt with a wide range of themes — from data security and open access to storytelling and leadership, from inclusivity and diversity to collaboration and partnerships. It is impossible for all of our workshop participants to be experts in the many topics (over 25) covered by the workshops. So these were hard topics to discuss, with questions sometimes impossible to answer, and that in itself became a topic of discussion. Jasper Visser suggests in his summary of the workshop that:

‘GLAMs and cultural heritage professionals are susceptible to the ‘perfection trap.’ We would rather not speak up unless we’re confident we’re right. Which raises the question another participant posed: ‘How do we deal with topics that we are not an expert in?’ In the time of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, climate change, and other urgent and transformative movements, this question is one of the hardest of all.’

The answer highlighted by the workshops was collaboration. Jasper writes that:

‘On a basic level, COVID-19 changed collaboration within organisations. Some hierarchies were restructured. Digital teams found renewed meaning in organisations where their expertise was in high demand. On a more strategic level, participants mentioned they were inspired by collaborations happening within the sector as a response to the crisis, as well as by partnerships beyond the confines of GLAMs.

‘Collaboration with each other was highlighted as a way forward for the sector. One participant challenged us to think of the (digital) GLAM sector as, ‘one big company.’ Like a multinational organisation, in this company, we already share infrastructure, resources, knowledge, and experiences and could do this more in the future.’

The cultural heritage sector has shown in its response to the COVID-19 crisis that it has a sense of solidarity and a willingness to support fellow institutions and that it views collaboration as a key component of its ability to be resilient. We should look to collaboration as part of our solution to this crisis.

In the next post in our Culture at a Crossroad series, we look at how we take the landscape of ideas that emerged from these workshops and take steps towards solutions for positive digital change in the cultural heritage sector.

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.