Museums in the mirror world- preparing for the next stage of our digital transformation
By Harry Verwayen, Europeana Foundation Executive Director and Beth Daley, Europeana Foundation Editorial Adviser
First published by the Portuguese General Directorate of Cultural Heritage in Issue #2 of Museums Magazine, November 2019, pp 254–261.
The more we experience history, art and science, the more we understand past generations and how they relate to our own. And the more we understand of each other, the better we can work and live together. That’s the idea. As our society transforms from an analogue one to one that operates increasingly in digital ways, the cultural heritage sector should embrace the opportunities to make our heritage increasingly part of the present, and prepare it for the future. In this article, find out how Europeana supports museums, galleries, libraries and archives as they move through their digital journeys, and what innovations and advancements we see in our futures.
Imagine a future where everything physical will have a digital representation, an augmented ‘mirrorworld’ of information on top of the real world, accessible to you through augmented reality devices. We’ll be able to see it all at once. And play with it, learn from it. Think of it as a sort of Google Earth. Except that you don’t access it on a laptop or a phone in your hand. Instead, it will be meshed up with the real world, a kind of fourth dimension with a virtual representation of every aspect of the physical world.
While it may sound like science fiction, this is what our world could look like in just a few years’ time. The web made data interlinked; social media made it social. The next platform, some say, will bring the convergence of the digital and the physical worlds. In fact, innovators and policymakers at European level are already discussing how Europe could be a leading player in this game, and how proposals for DIGITALEUROPE, Horizon Europe and Creative Europe could support it. It is critical that the cultural heritage sector works out how museums, galleries, libraries and archives will be part of this stage of our digital transformation. So, let’s take a look at how we can make this transition from analogue to digital, and beyond.
Digital is everything.
‘Digital is not a sector. Digital is not a thing. Digital is everything.’
Mariya Gabriel, European Commission for Digital Culture and Society.
It’s true for almost every aspect of our lives, and no less so for museums, galleries, libraries and archives. Digital is how we do most things now — how we organise ourselves, how we operate, how we communicate and increasingly, how we engage with cultural heritage.
Let’s have a look at the state of play. Over the last 15–20 years, some 300 million cultural heritage objects have been digitised, but it is estimated that over 80% of our heritage is still stored in analogue operating systems and what’s more, what is digitally available is often not available for new use. ‘Look but don’t touch’ is still the prevailing mantra for museum collections, even in the digital world.
As the world changes, museums — and how the world thinks of them — change too. Early in 2019, ICOM — the International Council of Museums, called for help to redefine the term ‘museum’. In the 134 proposals at the time of writing (3 April 2019), we can see talk of ‘convergence’, ‘interaction’ and ‘encounter’ in ‘physical or virtual space’, of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘making a better life for humans’. Words that speak of the desire to see museums as accelerators of social transformation. Yet few mention technology (8) or digital (5). This is surprising because as the digital transformation is showing us, digital tools are perfectly suited to create that sought-after deep engagement. We have to acknowledge that digital transformation is much more than the digitisation of objects. It is a shift of mindset.
Developing our operating system
So if becoming digital is important, what does a digital operating system for museums, libraries and archives look like?
Interoperable and open
We are often heard talking about how content and technology need to be accessible. They need to be easy-to-use, interoperable and open, otherwise, the reach of any social or economic impact will be limited. Europeana supports cultural heritage institutions by developing frameworks and standards, for example for the application of rights statements that are specific for digital cultural heritage objects.
We also talk a lot about my belief that technological innovation needs to be community-based and reciprocal. The best example for us is the Europeana Network Association, our democratic community of 2,700 experts working in the field of digital heritage. In the wider world, this emphasis on collaboration can be seen in the user-generated content uploaded for Europeana Migration, a campaign that invited the public not only to view Europe’s digital cultural heritage but to add to it.
Reliable and trustworthy
And finally, it’s crucial that technology needs to work and be well-structured, with users and their data safeguarded. In practice, this means supporting GDPR processes that safeguard privacy. It means improving data quality, upholding the Public Domain Charter, championing FAIR principles for research data and providing support to museums and others wanting to get their cultural heritage online.
Turning online culture into online OPEN culture
To reach its full potential, we support museums to make their collections available online with licences that explicitly allow for its free reuse. The Europeana Foundation has for the last five years been advocating for reforms to the European Union’s copyright framework, to meaningfully address the challenges copyright poses for Europe’s cultural heritage institutions. The European Parliament passed the final compromise text of the Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market in March 2019.
While challenges regarding copyright still remain, significant improvements in the legislation for cultural heritage institutions will facilitate the (mass) digitisation of out-of-commerce works, enable institutions to text and data-mine works in their collections and make sure that cultural heritage that is in the public domain in the physical world remains in the public domain when digitised.
Endless potential for digitised museum collections
When museums have the necessary collections strategies, agreements and licences in place to make digital cultural heritage usable, the possibilities are genuinely endless. They might make their collections available on Wikimedia, organise hackathons with their local creative industries, or share their collections virtually with other institutions.
Europeana supports cultural heritage institutions in developing and applying these frameworks and provides ways to experiment with these new possibilities. Within our online platform, Europeana Collections, material benefits from the context given by related collections from across Europe, from automatic enrichments, and when it’s openly licensed from wider promotion and use in apps and services that bring culture to the classroom, the newsroom, the science lab and the kickstarters.
We can find the right partners to create new applications for use in the classroom like our recent Europeana in your classroom massive open online course (MOOC). Created with European Schoolnet, the course provides teachers with the skills to use different Europeana resources for education regardless of their subject. More than 2,000 teachers from 59 countries have registered to take the MOOC, in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Elsewhere, we are finding evidence of how digital cultural heritage can transform lives, communities and classrooms. Highlights include the impact of using digital culture to help revitalise an urban square in Hamburg, the economic and social impact of the renovation of the Rijksmuseum, and how the Statens Museum for Kunst’s open images programme is contributing to their ambition to set art free.
Museums in the mirror world
‘The mirrorworld doesn’t yet fully exist, but it is coming. Someday soon, likely in the next 10–15 years, every place and thing in the real world — every street, lamppost, building, and room — will have its full-size digital twin in the mirrorworld.’
Kevin Kelly, in AR will spark the next big tech platform — call it Mirrorworld.
The mirror world as a concept is not new. The term in relation to digital media was coined by Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter as early as 1991. But the convergence of Big Data, computing power and intelligent algorithms have the potential to greatly accelerate that idea into everyday reality.
Imagine putting on augmented reality glasses and suddenly seeing a digital, augmented layer on top of Notre Dame. Imagine being able to slide forwards and backwards in time, seeing the cathedral at different stages of its history. Imagine walking around it, looking up close at its artworks, circling its statues, finding out more about who created them and why. Compare their other works side by side.
Is our sector ready for such an acceleration? Can we deal with a digital world that doesn’t fit a flatbed scanner anymore, where websites might not be the preferred way of interacting with information and where data is mostly displayed in 3D, geospatially? And what is the upside for us?
As part of Europeana’s tenth anniversary celebrations, and coinciding with the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, we asked ten cultural innovators from around the world to talk to us about the opportunities of a world transformed with culture. Their visions show us that museums continue to collect and preserve heritage and knowledge, but now, their walls are breaking down. The collections are getting out, or as George Oates, founder and CEO of Museum in a Box puts it, ‘The gates are already open.’
They talk of making big, bold decisions, together. ‘It will take imagination and courage to rethink old assumptions, lift our vision, and make the world anew,’ says Michael Peter Edson, co-founder of the Museum for the United Nations — UN Live.
They talk of using culture as big data. Dan Cohen, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration at Northeastern University, Massachusetts, tells us that ‘Access at scale was only the start.’
They talk of new applications of technology. Director of the Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker, says, ‘Augmented and virtual reality will increasingly make it possible to enjoy high-quality reproductions of works of art.’
They talk then, of the mirror world. They are hopeful. And so am I. Because the mirror world will provide us with opportunities to weave history into the present in unprecedented ways.
‘Time is a dimension in the mirrorworld that can be adjusted,’ says Kevin Kelly. ‘History will be a verb. With a swipe of your hand, you will be able to go back in time, at any location, and see what came before.’
Frédéric Kaplan, Digital Humanities Chair at École Polytechnique, Fédérale de Lausanne and initiator of the Time Machine project (more about that later) agrees: ‘Europe is about to become the leader in the extraction and modelling of this ‘Big Data of the Past’, transforming it into a source of new knowledge. This will… permit the emergence of a new kind of Artificial Intelligence… [and] a powerful new understanding of our world and its long-term patterns.’
For an individual museum, the mirror world offers brand-new visitor experiences, through installations in the museum itself or through apps and online experiences that audiences can access anywhere. High-quality digitised collections can be used to educate, to inform, to entertain, to connect — to support any mission statement a museum might have.
Actions for research and innovation
So, how do we get from here to there? In 2018, with partners Sound & Vision, the Europeana Foundation published an Innovation Agenda. The Agenda calls for research and innovation actions that support the sustainable development of a technologically advanced, economically stable and socially conscious cultural heritage domain.
Horizon2020 is funding projects that start to bridge the gap between the present and future for museums and other cultural heritage institutions, and the Europeana Foundation is proud to be part of projects V4Design (for video game tools), GIFT (for virtual museum experiences) and Time Machine.
That last one is a big one. With its 280+ partners, Time Machine can build on established networks and infrastructures like Europeana. But it will add a crucial dimension: the development of artificial intelligence to mass-digitise and interpret archives, to develop visualisation technologies such as AR, and exploitation strategies that will make Europe a leader in the field of innovation using ‘Big Data from the Past’.
Taking the leap into the future
Museums, libraries, galleries and archives will always be relevant. But we have to work hard to make sure the ways we engage people with them also stay relevant. As a sector, we have to make sure that not only do we contribute access to valuable content resources, but that our sector is seen more and more as an environment in which technological, behavioural and organisational experimentation can take place safely. That way, we are the ones in the driving seat, recognising and exploiting the potential of the cultural heritage we share.
We have to not just embrace technology but champion it, develop it, drive it. It requires cooperation, at organisational, national and international levels. It requires ambition and vision. It requires action.
Join us at pro.europeana.eu.