Digitalisation does not necessarily equate to more democracy and openness

So what does cultural heritage actually mean? Who is entitled to define it, and how can it be preserved? These are currently burning issues in a society where a fierce debate is under way about how the reality in which we live was actually created.

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We are often told that digitalisation creates new, unique opportunities, but what does this mean in practice? Professor Katarina Lindblad Gidlund at the Department of Information and Communication Systems and Lecturer Sara Nyhlén at the Department of Social Sciences decided to examine the issue.

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, they conducted an analysis of a cultural heritage project being run in the region, in which cultural heritage institutions and residents themselves were asked to upload images of what they perceived to be their cultural heritage. “The point of departure was a critical perspective of cultural heritage. We wanted to discuss the following: if digitalisation can help shed light on the concept, it is interesting to find out who is defining what is, and will become, cultural heritage,” explains Nyhlén.

The researchers conducted interviews with those who had worked with the digital portal and gathered them for a workshop in which participants were asked to outline what constitutes, and does not constitute cultural heritage, as well as discussing who creates it. “We used notes with descriptive words and put them up on a board. Then the participants were asked to remove those which they considered to describe cultural heritage. When the process was completed, they were allowed to look at the remaining words and those they accordingly didn’t consider to describe cultural heritage in current terms. It was quite a surprise to them.”

The worakshop was an eye-opener for those involved, who had never previously considered what actually happens when attempting to define cultural heritage. “We concluded that there were also issues with the digital projects. We digitalise and create platforms for material to be uploaded, but we don’t know who we’re reaching, which means old habits can easily be repeated. Digitalisation does not necessarily equate to more democracy and openness.”