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How sharing Europe’s cultural heritage online impacts on, well, everything

This post is part of the #SalonEuropa blog parade on the theme of Europe, organised by the Museum Burg Posterstein.

(nl) Advertentie voor de zevende expositie van de Salon des Cent; Les Maîtres de l’Affiche. Rijksmuseum . Public Domain.

European Union policy says our cultural heritage is important.

The European Union dedicated 2018 the European Year of Cultural Heritage. Conceived to be for and about European citizens, it brings people together to discover a shared heritage and reinforce a sense of belonging to a common European space.

‘The aim [of the Year], therefore, is to make our citizens aware of the universal value of cultural heritage, material and immaterial, and recognise that it is the fourth pillar of sustainable development, a resource for personal growth and social cohesion, new economy and quality jobs, humanistic competencies that are intertwined with digital and scientific competencies, for responsible, sustainable tourism, innovative participatory management and contemporary artistic creation that must be encouraged.’

Silvia Costa, former Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Culture and Education, in Cartaditalia — Special edition: 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage (2017, vol.1, p.15).

At the European Cultural Heritage Summit in June 2018, partners in the European Year of Cultural Heritage launched the ‘Berlin Call To Action’, asking individuals and institutions to show that they ‘stand ready to take up our shared responsibility to unfold the cohesive power and potential of our shared cultural heritage to advance a more peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and just Europe.’ The call asks the European Union to ‘put our shared cultural heritage where it belongs: at the very centre of Europe’s policies and priorities.’

So, how can cultural heritage be shared and what difference does sharing it make to people?

Let’s take a brief look at how, both in Europe and beyond, cultural heritage is increasingly being digitised and made openly available so that it can be used to encourage new discoveries, create learning materials, inform academic research, and give life to personal projects or commercial products.

Cultural heritage is going online…

Increasingly, cultural heritage institutions — galleries, archives, museums and libraries — are making their collections available online by creating and sharing digital copies of the items they hold. Pictures, scans or other digital formats like videos and pdfs are made available along with metadata — information about the original object such as its title and description, who created it, when it was produced and whether it is in copyright or the public domain. Some institutions, for example, the Rijksmuseum or the Bibliothèque national de France, have given their digital collections a level of online visibility that’s comparable to that which they give their physical institutions. So you can browse their collections online as easily as you can find out what’s on and what time the doors open.

It’s being standardised and shared…

Institutions who can prepare their data in the standardised manner necessary can then share their collections with aggregators, who make them available as part of a much bigger dataset either directly from their own websites, or passed on to further platforms. In Europe, aggregators might be national, like the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (Germany), Finna (Finland) and Kulturpool (Austria) or related to a particular type of institution, such as APEX (archives) or EUScreen (audiovisual collections), or to a specific theme like Europeana Fashion (fashion) or Partage Plus (art nouveau).

And shared again…

Platforms with an even wider remit include Europeana Collections in Europe, DigitalNZ in New Zealand, Trove in Australia and the Digital Public Library of America in the USA. These services make available datasets from a range of aggregators and directly providing institutions within their geographical catchment. The number of items on their platforms is vast. As of August 2018, that’s 58 million, 30 million, 358 million [1] and 23 million respectively.

And again…

These platforms then become content providers for resources or tools such as Creative Commons Search, or Wikimedia Commons. For these, subsets of data are collated, usually via APIs, to create resources that meet required criteria. For CC Search and Wikimedia Commons, this means items that are in the public domain or that use Creative Commons licences that allow them to be both accessed and used. The more standardised and interoperable content provided, the more it can be used in other such resources.

There’s a global open culture movement

There is a growing global movement of organisations, institutions and policymakers who see the value of a future in which cultural heritage material is shared easily and openly so that it can be used in a range of contexts. This philosophy of ‘open culture’ or ‘opening up’ is relatively new and changing as technology and expectation advances.

While the term ‘open culture’ is gaining traction in relation to digital cultural heritage, its definition is currently on a spectrum. For some, opening up is simply about making cultural heritage accessible online, even if that material is in copyright or has other restrictions on it. It is ‘open’ in that you can search for it, find it and look at it. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘open’ means available to access, in high quality, for free, with no restrictions on usage.

And no end to the uses of open cultural heritage material

Making digital cultural heritage easily shareable involves creating global standards for things like rights, formats and quality — and that’s happening, but there’s not enough time to cover that in this post. Let’s instead take a quick look at some examples from Europe and beyond of things that can be done with heritage that has become shareable…

The DPLA uses open culture resources to design Primary Source Sets which give students important insight into people, places, events, and ideas that are part of their curriculum, like the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Social Realism.

World War I: A battle of perspectives, is a Multi-Touch Book and related iTunes U course developed with open content from Europeana. From letters exchanged between a German soldier and a British girl, to the ID card of a prisoner of war, the build up to the First World War is shown from a number of different perspectives.

Screenshot from ‘World War I: A battle of perspectives’

In India, open cultural resources are used to develop Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM). These are India’s versions of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and cover courses from high school to postgraduate level.

Trove and Questacon’s version of The Raptor, inspired by a photograph of a whalebone hand from 1845. © Trove, National Library of Australia.

One of the most serendipitous examples links Australia and the United States via a piece of carved whalebone. The South Australian Museum of Health shared a photo of a hand carved from whalebone in 1845 with Trove. Someone in the US found it in Trove and used it in a design for a 3D-printed prosthetic hand. These designs are open source and the prosthetic hand has been printed and used.

So, is it worth it?

The variety of the human race. JF Blumenbach. Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Time, effort and money is going into all of this digitising, making available and championing of sharing and openness — but how do we assess what value it brings to the world?

Measuring ticket sales, revenue and social media likes is easy, but accurately measuring and assessing the value, or impact, that the work of the cultural heritage sector has across society is much harder. As described in the manifesto in Europeana Impact Playbook (2017, p.4):

‘The lack of a deeper understanding of the impact of our work leaves us in a very unsatisfying and vulnerable position: the work we do comes at a significant cost to society but we can’t systematically assess if it was worth it. (…) Unless we become more systematic at assessing and narrating our direct and indirect value to society, our sector is at risk of remaining seriously under-recognized as a major contributor to the knowledge-based economy.’

Sharing and using our cultural heritage — it’s a human thing

The European Commission thinks it has value. Hence the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018. In the journal Cartaditalia, editor Pier Luigi Sacco writes that he hopes that EYCH 2018 will help us to:

‘understand this “making use of” not so much in the more literal and less interesting sense of “monetising” cultural heritage, like any of the other sectors of Europe’s regional economies, but in the decidedly more interesting sense, and also more promising sense in terms of long-term impacts, of making heritage a keystone of our model of quality of life, of culture of relations, of promotion of human development, and of promotion and cultivation of diversity.’

Cartaditalia — Special edition: 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage, (2017, vol 1, p.27)

The sharing of digital cultural heritage is important then, not just to the cultural heritage sector but to a much wider audience, in fact, to all of humanity.

End note

[1] Trove provides access to records for objects not available online. From a total of 586 million records, 358 million are available online.

By Dr Beth Daley — Beth is a cultural and creative writer and Europeana’s Editorial Adviser. She works on helping engage a broad range of audiences in Europeana’s work and content. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester, runs workshops and her first novel ‘Blood and Water’ is published by Hic Dragones.