Modern Heritage and Other Oxymorons

With Kevin Jenkins and Andrew Millar

One of our university professors had almost all the attributes of a much-loved stereotypical ‘eccentric liberal arts academic’, including wind-blown hair, leather elbow patches and food stains on his tie. Back then old school slide projectors were the norm, and despite using one for every lecture, most days our beloved Professor managed to show the first slide upside down, the same slide three times in a row, or, every now and then, start a fire.

Despite this comical start to lectures, his use of ‘modern’ technology really helped to bring them alive. I sometimes wonder what he would make of the world now.

In 2016 the Economist Intelligence Unit published a report commissioned by Google exploring the progress cultural institutions have made towards using digital tools to improve access to their offerings.

It makes the point that historically the cultural sector has only been lightly touched by the technologically driven disruption that Internet and mobile-driven changes have been bringing to other industries and segments of society over the last few years.

The report identified three factors for this lag in what it terms ‘cultural digitisation’ globally. Firstly, most arts and heritage organisations rely on public funding, whether government or charity, and digitisation of material or managing the effects of digital disruption may not be the top priority. Secondly, much of what is found in collections are historic items created with traditional techniques, and it is challenging to know how to digitise them to best effect. The third factor is the degree of access to high-speed broadband, or even simply access to the internet.

With this in mind, the report has developed ‘The Cultural Digitisation Scorecard’ to try and compare institutions globally. Based on data collected from 243 arts and heritage institutions, it assesses the progress of digitisation in 22 countries, and graded them according to the online presence of their cultural institutions, their level of web and mobile interaction with audiences, the level of electronic access they provide to their archives, and the digital educational initiatives they undertake with external communities. This data collection also included customer surveys and in-depth interviews.

The Met Wikimedia Commons

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Some results were unsurprising. In general rich countries scored better than developing ones (though not on all measures), a lack of reliable Internet access is still an issue for many institutions, and social media has become an important marketing tool for cultural institutions.

Other results were more surprising. Firstly, digital access appears to enhance rather than undermine physical engagement with cultural content. Contrary to concerned hand-wringing about the digital experience replacing the physical experience, around one-third of the people surveyed for the report stated that their ability to access information digitally has lead them to physically engage with culture more than they might have otherwise.

Similarly the report identified that the demand for digital education is not being met by cultural institutions, in particular for self-education about the arts through digital channels. While the desire for this is particularly strong in the developing world, most cultural institutions globally are failing to meet this need, with the exception of some large UK institutions.

So what does all this mean for New Zealand? Although we didn’t feature in the survey (isn’t it always the way), Australian institutions scored well in terms of their website accessibility and social media presence, but poorly in the other categories.

It’s tempting to think that must be the same result for New Zealand, but is that fair? In fact a lot of hard thinking is going on across a number of our cultural and heritage organisations about how to best maximise the potential that digital technology has to offer, both in terms of embracing disruptive opportunities to share cultural content, and digitising collections to make them more accessible.

In August 2016 The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa launched its Mahuki innovation accelerator and incubator. Through Mahuki, Te Papa is combining the talents of the cultural and creative tech sector to enhance public engagement with culture and heritage through digital means.

Te Papa Wikimedia Commons

Te Papa. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Last year ten teams of entrepreneurs successfully developed solutions to 13 challenges facing Te Papa, as it seeks to enhance engagement with its rich and unique collection. Mahuki is currently preparing for the next wave of participants to help tackle a new set of challenges. Having an in-house incubator means that Te Papa joins other cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian, the British Museum and the Met in pushing the boundaries between culture and tech.

But these opportunities are not just available to our big museums. Quietly over the last few years the team behind NZMuseums has been supporting smaller, regional museums to digitise their collections through this online directory and collections management database.

Having a digital presence online allows some of our smallest and most unique museums – from the Kauri Museum in Matakohe to the Rakiura Museum on Stewart Island – to enhance their visibility and share their collections beyond their physical walls.

Heritage organisations are also exploring these concepts. Heritage New Zealand has supported the development of a series of mobile apps, including ‘High Street Stories’, which uses augmented reality to recreate Christchurch’s Victorian and Edwardian High Street precinct, and the Waikato Wars Driving Tour app, which uses audio and visual information to guide visitors through the story of this important conflict.

high street2

High Street, Christchurch. Source: Wikipedia.

Heritage New Zealand is also looking at how virtual reality can be used in support of heritage listing applications to help better protect New Zealand’s built heritage, as well as help recreate some of the country’s now lost iconic locations.

While great work is already underway, it’s clear that there is plenty of opportunity for technology to help tell the unique story of New Zealand’s cultural institutions.

Coming back to our old Professor, I imagine the idea of replacing his slide collection with a Google search or a virtual reality headset wouldn’t have gone down too well initially, but over time I can see him embracing it whole-heartedly.

Our history is part of what makes us unique, but these stories need to be constantly retold and given life. Technology doesn’t threaten this, but can only make these stories stronger and more relevant.

If our old Professor could embrace it, why can’t we?