Technologies and Challenges for Cultural Heritage Communities – A Recap

What challenges are different communities facing when caring for, approaching and communicating heritage holdings? And how do they use technology to facilitate and aid their activities? These were the main questions that an international group of researchers and cultural heritage professionals explored during a an international workshop in June in Limerick, Ireland.  

The workshop “Cultural Heritage Communities: Technologies and Challenges” was organized an coordinated by meSch researchers and took place as part of C&T 2015. Goal of the workshop was to examine how technology can facilitate or aid challenges around communities and cultural heritage.

meSch C&T workshop - 43 21208083722_54f87e1f35_z 20595787194_05bdc8df21_zOrganizers Dr. Luigina Ciolfi (workshop) and  Dr. Gabriela Avram (conference) are both meSch researchers. On the other two pictures: An impression of the workshop and its participants.

Even within established institutions such as museums, different communities of stakeholders are involved in the preservation, communication and sharing of heritage holdings: from the community of professionals managing them, to the communities of volunteers, special interest groups, and to“friends” and supporters of the institution. Technology can feature in a number of activities for all these groups, as well as a being a tool to support visitors in their experience of heritage. Furthermore, there is an increasing attention on civic community-led heritage: tangible or intangible heritage holdings are identified, championed and often managed by civic communities where institutional support is not present through the use of easily available technologies such as social media.

The value of communities for heritage and vice versa

What we currently see, is that communities of interest around heritage (with different degrees of formality and training) are increasingly defining and taking ownership of what is of value for them, thus defining and reconfiguring heritage. From cases where an established institution and a community of enthusiasts work together to consolidate and communicate heritage to a wider public – for example the successful “Saving Bletchley Park” campaign in the UK where the work of the British codebreakers during the Second World War has been brought to public attention and recognition–, to examples where ordinary citizens create an informal group for the preservation of what they consider to be of value, no matter how local or small – such as the Cassiar community initiative in Canada for the preservation of the history of a now abandoned asbestos mining town and its people -, community work in heritage creates rich relationships between its members and with other stakeholders. Another example is the European project “Europa Nostra”, which aims to involve citizens in the safeguarding of European cultural heritage. Conversely, established heritage institutions are increasingly open to community outreach, for example by involving the public in crowdsourcing activities.

21208089512_912d3d5952_zmeSch C&T workshop - 521208091672_7c9efca5e3_zParticipants studying the ´opinion wall´that featured post its with remarks to each presentation and session.

The workshop

As well as an overview of the meSch remit and goals, the workshop featured eleven paper presentations by international participants. The topics varied from how technologies can support the communication and preservation of indigenous knowledge (Shay; Cabrero and Winschiers-Theophilus),to examinations of tools for the support of communities of interest and sense-making around heritage;(Dobreva et al.; Wrigglesworth and Watts; Sabiescu et al.); to how to empower local communities through active participation around heritage (Barton and Curley; Skubik and Muse); to novel approaches for museums and galleries in exhibition design and visitor engagement. (Clarke and Nicol; Calvi and Vermeeren; Peter and Plénacoste; Ross et al). A detailed overview of the presenters,abstracts, as well as full papers and presentations for download can be found on the workshop´s website:

Participants were invited to share their reactions to and thoughts about each paper by writing on post-its and contributing to an “opinion wall” which populated the workshop room. The “opinion wall” represented the order of the presentations and the audience commentary, and was used as a prompt for a session of in-depth discussion in small groups where participants collaboratively discussed ways to further research and practice around cultural heritage communities.

Questions raised 

The discussion that followed the presentation of the different papers, methodologies and case studies brought interesting insights – but most of all more research topics to explore in further work.

Amongst others, the following questions were raised:

     On engagement between communites and cultural heritage institutions:

  • Should there be a code of ethics that we all work by when involving communities?
  • What is the relationship between communities (local, indigenous or minority) and museums? How do different museums foster this relationship
  • Community collected content: How much expert involvement should be in the curation of it and for editing and interpretation? Should there be any intervention at all?

      On ownership, longevity, sustainability and continuity of efforts:

  • Continuity issue: Limited research time (4 yrs) vs. the need for sustainability and longevity in the cultural heritage sector. How could we manage a process that goes beyond one project?
  • Crowdsourcing approach: students/communities collecting stories/data – what approaches, methods, tools can we created that can be replicated at other sites? Or should they be site-specific?
  • What about ownership, authority, responsibilities, representation of content? What if the power triangle between governmental policies, institution policies and people blocks rather than nurtures a project´s continuation?

           On the influence of technology:

  • What does the digital actually do in relation to cultural heritage communities: amplify existing dynamics or bring in something new?

Follow up publication

As a follow up to this successful workshop and as a way to begin answering some of the questions we formulated, an edited book will be produced including extended and revised versions of the workshop papers.

But what have we learned?

meSch C&T workshop - 1

As different as all 11 presentations were, there were some common points that we´d like to sum up here briefly. First of all, it was interesting to see that almost all presentations underlined the importance of place in the relationship between cultural heritage and communities. Place in the sense that people and their heritage are bound to a certain place, but also that meeting in a certain place together, rather than just online, prove to be vital to establishing a working community.

Second, the factor of time was very important as well. A lot of time needs to be invested by cultural heritage institutions into building relationships with their communities.
In short: time is needed to learn to understand the people (users) and the communities, as well as the technology.

Third, it was evident that there is a tension between limited funded (research) projects and the need for sustainability, longevity and continuity in the heritage sector. There is a need for managing the process that goes beyond the frame of a limited project. This includes managing the handover, dealing with dependencies on individuals, and proper management of the achieved results. Often there is a tension between governmental bodies (who decide about cultural policies) and the need for continuation of community-centred projects.

What stood out was the conclusion that it is all about enabling, recognising and sustaining connections – between people, places, objects and time. But it was also mentioned that it is important to put people over objects, by exploring stories and contexts that connect the objects to people, place and time. And that is also what appears now in retrospect, when writing this blogpost: it seems like the technology used to enable the connections, highlight the context or tell and collect the stories to or from communities was after all secondary. Yes, there were nifty tools invented and used, but that was not the most important thing. In our techno-centric world, it was refreshing to learn that the state of the art for cultural heritage researchers is to put people over technology and value meaningful connections above all else.

Communities and cultural heritage in the meSch project

In meSch we are working with the professional community of cultural heritage staff, as well as with volunteers and civic communities interested in adopting tangible technologies as a way to engage with the heritage they care about. We see meSch as opportunity to create tools that will enable and empower these communities, as well as a possibility to establish a group of interest around the use of tangible technologies in cultural settings.

More pictures of the workshop can be found in the Flickr album: