30 January, 2014
The key of the relationship between technology and heritage: letting visitors “see and do”
Cultural heritage experts with “ICT awareness” and technology providers with experience in heritage. The current situation of these two groups, and their relationship, has been analyzed in the study conducted by the eCultObservatory project. Despite the stereotypical confrontation between cultural industries and technology companies, both professional groups are working today to provide the public with a balance between “seeing” and “doing,” that is, promoting the participation of visitors / users. This requires a break with tradition. A tradition that, with regard to heritage, assumes a passive public, and with regard to technology, pays more attention to the functionality of the narrative.
46 interviews were conducted for the study. The sample, from Europe, is divided among the countries listed in the following charts:
To understand recent developments, we should bear in mind that 80% of respondents have already created an official website, with activity calendars, online magazines, videos, and in a small percentage of cases, online stores. About half of these sites include digital displays, virtual or similar reproductions. The latest trend, according to EcultValue, is mobile innovation. To this, we can add the data from the latest surveys on apps in museums in Ibero-America and apps in the UK: the rate of implementation of these tools is 7% and 50% respectively. All this in a difficult context: the recreation market is extremely competitive and there has been a pronounced drop in visits to museums.
Heritage experts who have not yet started new technology projects are aware of the need for ICT, despite the risks involved. From largest to smallest, these are the benefits they see in tech: engaging the audience, improving their communication, accessibility and advertising tools, providing services for the audience and their staff, improving user experience and, ultimately, supporting the preservation and archiving of collections. Technology providers have the same outlook, but warn that sometimes cultural institutions cannot find the way to match the technology available with their particular needs. To sum up, ICT innovation for cultural heritage requires a joint exercise of creativity and dialogue. Both parties, suppliers and customers, should stop “the pot calling the kettle black.”
EcultObservatory concludes that a high percentage of stakeholders, especially those associated with more traditional institutions; do not appear to be convinced of the potential of ICT to add value to collections, or of presenting them in a more innovative, fun and visitor-oriented manner. This kind of skepticism is compounded by the refusal of a few visitors to use complex technologies. Evidence of this is the fact that some providers see even more obstacles to innovation in culture than their own customers, because they are aware that there are no “one size fits all” tools.
Although a lack of resources seems to be the main impediment, both groups proposed several solutions that can contribute to a more economical adoption of technology and with a greater guarantee of success. One is to have an IT department or “trained personnel” within the museum or institution. Ideally, this person should have some previous knowledge of the organization and of cultural heritage, and some sensitivity towards the content. Some respondents suggested that this expert should be a mediator between the two parties, because in a high percentage of cases, lack of communication seems to be the main problem. Seminars, workshops and other events are also a good way of disseminating knowledge and exchanging experiences with other stakeholders, as well as with developers.
Regarding the concern of using inappropriate technologies that do not meet the needs of the institution, respondents suggested focusing on end user designs. And here’s the eternal question: who knows the visitors better? We must not forget that the public is both a visitor and a technological user, so the accurate definition can only be ascertained by bearing these two facts in mind.