Project Europeana: Access to Culture and Heritage in the Digital Age

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

By Peter Knowles 

Culture Makers is a recent initiative launch at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, running in partnership with Exeter University. It'll explore how new technologies can be used to broaden and enhance user access, experience, understanding, and engagement with digital cultural content.

The series kicked off with Jenny Durrant, assistant curator at RAMM, who spoke enthusiastically about her focus on improving public access to collections. In particular, she highlighted the work of the European Commissions project Europeana, which aims to digitise Europe's cultural heritage. Along the way, she considered how this kind of virtual access could encourage more meaningful engagement from the public.

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

Artefacts take on significance only when they are made relevant to people.

This is simultaneously a fairly simple and yet pretty complex notion. It makes sense that people invest more in things which they feel a personal connection to, but to make those links they need a way to identify them in the first place. When it comes to artefacts in cultural spaces, this translates into a level of engagement which has the potential to help visitors learn something new and consider previously held beliefs or assumptions in a different light.

With most museums often only able to display a fraction of their total holdings (there are over a million items held by RAMM alone), this becomes an increasingly important issue. By providing virtual access to as many of those objects remaining behind the scenes as possible, and indeed those on display, the public (both specialist and non-specialist) have a far greater opportunity to find uncover, personal benefits from these cultural holdings.

It is exactly this need that digitisation projects like Europeana and Culture Makers are seeking to address. Two particular ways to promote the use of collections and enhance the quality of the experience struck me during the talk;

1: People like to take ownership of things.

This is something which has become ever clearer in the digital age: individuals like to feel a personal sense of ownership over the things they connect with. You only have to browse Pinterest to see millions of users grouping together digital items under themes pertinent to them – they are, in essence, curating their own online collections.

Many museums have already made their presence felt on Pinterest, in a bid to further engage with the public. The National Museum of Natural History, for example, has several boards on which they not only pin their own content, but also actively seek out more visitor-generated images from Twitter, Instagram, etc., fostering an inclusive sense of direct interaction with their visitors. The J. Paul Getty Museum has an impressive follower count at well over a million, and use their boards to explore art themes in a relaxed, tongue in cheek manner. ‘Macho Moustached Men’ is perhaps my favourite of the lot, and as a result of browsing the board I found myself looking up artists I’d never even heard of before.

All this reveals a new, innovative means of allowing visitors to interact with gallery and museum collections. Combined with the improved digitisation anticipated through projects such as Europeana, this process allows anyone to become a curator. When everyone has this chance to play curator, debates open up about the scope, relevance, and value of existing and as yet unconsidered artefacts alike. Encourage people to create personalised collections using digitised artefacts, and while the content being engaged with might be intangible, the engagement itself is most definitely be real.

  1. Objects can be placed back into their physical landscape.

Finding a way to relocate objects back into their original locations helps people connect to them, as the items are mapped onto a local space which they already have an awareness of. Additionally, since outside of the home institution’s walls engagement is firmly on the user’s own terms, it could help foster that all important sense of ownership. Initiatives such as Antenna Lab’s own ‘Talking Statues’ and RAMM’s mobile ‘Time Trails’ are great existing instances of getting people engaged with cultural content in places which they might not expect it.

RAMM’s ‘Time Trails’ can be taken using any mobile device with a web browser, and offer users the chance to explore the city with a focus on a certain theme – its Tudor heritage, the history of illness and healing, and instances of decorative plasterwork to name but three. The museum also produces trails to accompany its exhibitions, including the recent ‘Art and Soul’ project which explored the Victorian gothic revival. The trail allowed users to visit many of the locations referenced in the exhibit, helping them appreciate where the artefacts on display had been produced and put to use.

The digitisation of our cultural heritage is a hot topic at the moment, and initiatives such as Europeana will only make it easier for institutions like RAMM to offer engagement on new, attractive terms to their visitors. We have so many options for preoccupying ourselves away from cultural institutions, so it’s really worth considering how such mixtures of creative thinking and digital technology can help us engage with culture in ways which continue to enthuse, excite, and inspire us.

For more on ‘Culture Makers’, follow the project leader @AnastasiaESW, or check out the website. And you can read more about Europeana here.

Peter Knowles is PhD student jointly supervised by Exeter University and Antenna International. At Exeter he is researching the attractions of socio-cultural networks and games in the medieval world, while with Antenna he's looking into current trends of gamification, social media, and the use of digital technologies in the cultural space.

- author