Why Design for Cultural Heritage Matters

Today, more than ever, design is an impactful actor defining the future of many businesses and organisations. In this article, I am telling you why the cultural sector should also learn more about the competencies of design and cultural institutions should urge to make design a way of life.

Design reaching out the Cultural Heritage Realm. Illustration by Ece Özdil.

Until a couple of years ago, talking about design in the field of cultural heritage was strictly connected to “classical” way of designing where the outcome is a tangible solution which is completed and crafted, such as in exhibition design related to the design of the vitrines and space in support of the works of art. Today, design has moved forward from this “classical” way towards being a driver of businesses not only with operational but also with “thinking” skills. This “thinking” part of design is about, on one hand, adopting a creative and critical eye in the definition of processes and services and, on the other hand, enabling a holistic approach to innovation.

Within this change, also for the field of the cultural heritage, Design has become crucial as a strategical activity focusing on objectives, priorities and the tools of institutions with the aim of valorising, diffusing and activating cultural heritage by creating engaging and meaningful experiences for the public.

This is what has been changed focusing on the transformation of design. Yet, it doesn’t mean on a practical level how design is perceived by most of the institutions today.

MACBA workshop activity: Future Scenarios for the Museum. Credit: Ece Özdil

I have faced this issue during my experience as a visiting researcher at MACBA Museum in Barcelona. My aim inside the Archive Department was to investigate ways of creating new experiences with archival materials for the public. While, my approach was on “thinking” level, trying to establish an audience-centric approach for engagement, I have realised that what was actually expected from me is to think about a vitrine design to expose archival materials.

It took time for me to show them the value of the “thinking” competencies of design through informal coffee breaks and workshops that I have organised within the department. But when arrived, everybody was very eager to learn even more.

You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.
____Gertrude Stein.

I fell in love with this quotation the first time that I found it, and rephrased the word “modern” in my head as being “contemporary”, because it says so much about how much museums, together with other cultural institutions, have to change.

Today, to be contemporary does not mean to have the most beautiful building for a museum (I still appreciate beautiful museums and spend hours inside, until they kick me out). It means being contemporary on how the institution works on a service and system level, on how its departments function, on how to include audiences, on how to redesign the channels for them. Being contemporary brings along also other how questions, such as how to diffuse and disseminate knowledge inside cultural institutions, how to enable new readings on these institutions holdings, how to transmit and activate tangible and intangible patrimony for future. In between all these hows, it’s also about asking whys, why to digitise and/or adopt that technology.

One very important yet still not fully perceived aspect, which Nancy Proctor also mentioned in her last speech in Milan, is that most institutions are still object-centered. Therefore, activities ranging from conservation to valorisation are focused rather on the value of the object (whether collection, installation or archival materials) than its value for people.

This is where design becomes an important actor. There are significant pieces in every collection, no doubt, but without public and possibility to tell them the stories behind those objects, it’s impossible to talk about their cultural value.

The need is a shift from object-centered institutions towards audience-centric ones.

There are many museums investing in visitor studies. However, the approach is often understanding what audiences think after an exhibit opens, or looking through numbers of visits over a certain period of time. The interest in understanding public interaction exists but it’s still neither emphatic, focusing on their real needs and interest, nor heuristic, taking lessons from that specific case.

I deeply believe that only by establishing an audience-centric approach, we can start to talk about the knowledge system and experience of cultural patrimony.

The “thinking” part of design, in strong connection with a human-centred design for the cultural sector, has this role of offering a methodology and process for problem-solving, creativity, and innovation by embracing and responding to the diversity of audience interests, needs and desires.

In today’s world, it’s indeed a challenging issue, considering the internal and bureaucratic processes and/or economical limitations of cultural institutions, especially in Italy where I am based. But bringing awareness and visibility to this kind of “design” inside the cultural sector will not only innovate the way how we valorise of our cultural heritage but give us the right tools to active it and bring it closer to people.

For whom is reading this article who is as passionate as me about cultural heritage and design:

This is the time for change.

Let’s make design a way of life for the cultural sector.