Digital Cultural Heritage – To Be, or Not to Be?

Zach Francis

To be, or not to be? This is the question that comes to mind when thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of digital cultural heritage. Digital cultural heritage (DCH) can be thought of as the use of digital media to preserve or speak about cultural heritage. Most people would probably agree that it is a good idea to preserve our cultural heritage digitally, and that by doing so, we are saving it for the next generation. In this way, it is also opportunity to tell a story about that heritage. Thus, cultural heritage can be preserved, made more open and contextualized through digital heritage. As with most things, however, there is another side to this.

To Be?

Preservation

The most commonly thought of benefit is probably preservation. By developing digital projects that tell the story of cultural heritage, we are effectively preserving the story of that heritage in another form. I like to think of this as saving up backup copies of a file. While the original will always be a useful thing to have, it is nice to know that we will have something if something catastrophic were to happen to the cultural heritage we are preserving. One underrated benefit of DCH, however is our ability to get cultural heritage out and into the open.

Openness

Much cultural heritage is inaccessible. Even museums can only display a fraction of the items they are curating, with many artifacts sit in storage. Rather than having to go through the steps of visiting an institution and getting permission to look at what collection they contain, DCH allows the digitally preserved items to more easily be put out in the open, through the world wide web.

Purkis (2017) talks about an example of openness through a case study of ‘Local People’. This project created a presentation of local stories and personal histories through digital content provided by ordinary people on Facebook. People shared and discussed the local history of their community online, providing an “unofficial” history that involved the community members who were heavily invested in that history. These locals provided their own digital media through picture albums and oral histories. While getting the wider community involved, this project also provided an invaluable context for the digital heritage it produced.

Context

Context is key. A ceramic pot can look pretty, but it does not mean much on its own without its context. Who made the pot? How long ago was it made? What all does it tell us about the people who made it? DCH is incredibly pliable when it comes to telling the stories behind our tangible and intangible heritage. You can create websites, digital repositories, 3D models, and interactive maps of cultural heritage, just to name a few possibilities, but these tools mean nothing without a narrative. Purkis (2017) used the easily accessible Facebook to give people the power to provide their own context.

Not to be?

Preservation

Despite the benefits of digitally preserving cultural heritage, there are many challenges to consider with digitizing efforts. (https://peelarchivesblog.com/2017/05/31/why-dont-archivists-digitize-everything/). First, these things cost time, money and effort. Often there can be a large volume of documents, objects and/or places that need to be digitized, archived and described in order to provide proper context for a cultural heritage collection. Then you have to consider the storage of these digital resources as well. Obviously, server space is not free, and you have to consider the physical storage of these digital items, much the same as a physical collection. For example, moisture in hard drives and server rooms is just as bad as it is for archaeological collections. These considerations mean that even projects will cost many thousands of dollars and much human effort to properly preserve.

In Saudi Arabia, Al-Tokhais & Thapa (2020) discuss the challenges associated with the Saudi government’s management and preservation of World Heritage sites. These sites require conservation planning and funding; a massive project in it its own right. Adding the digital preservation of artifacts, historic documents, 3D models of the landscape, etc. would exponentially increase the necessary time, money and effort needed on top of the already difficult conservation situation. In instances like these, funding and effort for the production of DCH may have to come from places other than the government or institution conserving the cultural heritage. This points to the wider problem that preservation in cultural heritage, not just digital cultural heritage is expensive. Doing both, even more so.

Openness

Openness sounds like something that should always be strived for, but there are often ethical considerations that need to be taken. Oftentimes the goal of openness is not met, and unintended consequences result. Consider UNESCO World Heritage (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/) which operates under the universalizing idea that some places are so significant that they “belong to all peoples of the world” despite the enormous cultural, historical and geographical diversity which generated these sites. Many indigenous communities, however, have had to grapple with ethnocentric bias and colonial attitudes towards what qualifies as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In Australia, (Pocock & Liley 2017) interviewed 30 indigenous people with interests in World Heritage sites and 33 officials involved with World Heritage properties to see what their differences in views on World Heritage sites might be. Among many patterns that emerged from these interviews was a frustration by indigenous people at a lack of consultation when it came to the potential for World Heritage Sites. There was also a great diversity among indigenous Australian peoples about the potential of indigenous sites to be World Heritage sites.

The topic of openness also reminds me of something else that was brought up in lecture about UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Viewing World Heritage Sites as something that “belongs to everybody” can be a political tool to take away sovereignty from Indigenous communities. You take away at least some of the local community’s power by making the cultural heritage of the local community, “everybody’s heritage”. This could be the same for other aspects of DCH. 3D printing of human remains and sacred objects, for example, is seen as a way to preserve these items while giving them back to indigenous people. However, this often ignores the consultation of Indigenous people and the fact that these 3D printed objects can take on meaning of their own.

Context

Digital representations of cultural heritage are never a perfect copy of what something is. The glare of a photo, the context of a sticky note to a document, and audio quality are just some of the things that can affect how cultural heritage is perceived. So, while providing access to digital cultural heritage and its context is incredibly important, it is also equally important to acknowledge that digital media will always be an imperfect representation of what is going on.

Richards-Rissetto and von Scherwin (2017) provide an example of this with 3D models. There is a large amount of 3D data out there for archaeological sites, and it’s revolutionizing how archaeology is done. There are, however, difficulties with making this data accessible to everyone: data needs to be standardized, georeferenced, and peer-reviewed among other things. Like all data, it needs to be cleaned up in general to allow it to be used by other scholars more easily. This example points to the wider crisis of missing data in DCH. We are often looking into the window of what’s going on. And as in all scholarly work, we have to consider what context we can actually provide and how even that is skewed.

Conclusion

A digital object will never provide the same experience as the physical and intangible objects that they represent. This is not always a bad thing, however. Digital objects can provide another experience for cultural heritage that is both open and contextual. Digital items can be provided more readily than a plane flight to a museum, giving more people the chance to see more of our shared cultural heritage. The variety of DCH methods also provide limitless ways to tell the stories of this heritage. But caution is necessary. DCH is not cheap, and bias can be inherently baked into how the stories are told. Therefore, digital Cultural heritage should undoubtably be, but there are aspects to watch out for that should not be.

References

Abdulelah Al-Tokhais & Brijesh Thapa (2020) Management issues and challenges of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Saudi Arabia, Journal of Heritage Tourism, 15:1, 103-110, DOI: 10.1080/1743873X.2019.1594836

Celmara Pocock & Ian Lilley (2017) Who Benefits? World Heritage and Indigenous People, Heritage & Society, 10:2, 171-190, DOI: 10.1080/2159032X.2018.1503836

Harriet Purkis (2017) Making digital heritage about people’s life stories, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23:5, 434-444, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2016.1190392

Richards-Rissetto, Heather and Jennifer von Schwerin (2017) A Catch 22 of 3D Data Sustainability: Lessons in 3D Archaeological Data Management & Accessibility. Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage 6: 38-48. doi:10.1016/j.daach.2017.04.005.

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