digital heritage 2006 2016 graphic

2006/2016: What’s changed over ten years in #DigitalHeritage

It was 2006 when the digital heritage bug first bit me. I was working as public information officer at a remote National Park Service office serving a national constituency comprised of several very specialized technical fields. Oh, and there was no budget for outreach.

How to reach audiences, put the organization on the map, and perhaps feel a little less isolated?

The answer came at a Ragan public relations conference that October, when it was mentioned as an afterthought in one of the sessions: “watch the social media stuff. It’s going to change everything.”

I went back home to rural Louisiana and began investigating right away. To say things have changed a lot since then is an understatement. Scarcely two years later, the world had indeed changed. The place I was working got some notoriety for its social media involvement and our audiences grew.

Today, social media has become a big part of how we establish our identities. It’s the lens through which we view one another’s stories today, and will play a starring role in how history sees us in the future. So what has evolved in the attitudes and approaches in the “culture” of cultural heritage between 2006 and 2016?

The Awesome
  1. We’re more open and transparent. Whether it’s our data or our inner workings, we’re documenting heritage preservation and putting it on platforms ranging from Github to Tumblr to Wikipedia and The Commons.
  2. We’re valuing communication that goes beyond the broadcast model. My first podcast interview was with Nina Simon. Nina rocked my thinking regarding how museums facilitate visitor interactions with “me to we design.” Nina’s participatory  ideas have gone on to influence the way hundreds of museums do business. That Skype interview led to many other podcast interviews I have had with people from around the world.  A definite cure for the cultural isolation I had been feeling in those early days!
  3. The process heritage preservation is as valued as the product. We can go into institutions and see conservators and archivists at work, and even see them talk about their work online.
  4. Personal and professional interests are more blended. We’re becoming advocates for heritage preservation. Even when the tweets are presented as “views are my own,” we’re putting out content that reflects our values and beliefs, and heritage preservation is part of that no matter the context.
  5. Technology doesn’t scare us (as much). People don’t traditionally go into cultural heritage fields because they are early adopters. But we’re learning to embrace it with digital preservation and innovative outreach methods.
  6. We’re more focused on storytelling. That was always there to a great extent, I believe. But stories about cultural heritage are certainly more accessible now and people harness the power of online video, timelines and maps to support their narrative.
  7. History is shared like never before. Because of its presence online, the emergence of mobile devices, and tools like tour apps, people can share these newly accessible stories at the touch of a button.
The Scary
  1. Increasing lack of self-determination. I worry about Facebook taking over the internet and feeding us its version of events when the emphasis used to be providing sets of tools among providers to create our own experiences. Remember the emergence of RSS and Mashups and curating your own experience? I was on the verge of tears when Facebook bought (and suffocated) Friendfeed, which I still mourn. It’s hard for cultural heritage to compete with pop culture in our increasingly algorithmic world.
  2. When tech overshadows heritage. When I see my younger friends  repeatedly switch between social media apps during any given  conversation, I wonder if they will ever know the joy of being quiet and present (an even bigger worry for my 11-year-old daughter, whose device time I limit).  A great part of respect and preservation of history lies in being present with it–with an object or at a site and letting your imagination roll with historical implications. Will we lose that?
  3. Lack of knowing why we use these tools. Though my first product in this space was a strategic plan with audiences and outcomes, those are still relatively rare. As the adage goes–fail to plan; plan to fail (or spin your wheels in irrelevancy at least). Fortunately, some folks are putting their plans out there so no one has to reinvent the wheel.
  4. Digital preservation is a ballooning issue. There are certainly innovators out there, but many organizations are still either putting a bandage on the situation or ignoring it entirely.

In the final analysis, I believe heritage preservation has been served well by the transformation of digital and social tools. We’ve evolved from a recalcitrant attitude toward social media interaction to one of acceptance. Along the way, we’ve found new audiences and allies to make the field stronger.  Though the digital landscape is a bit more complex, these tools are still accessible to everyone–from history enthusiasts to small house museums to large-scale archaeological projects like Pompeii. We all have an opportunity to make our voices heard. The more we come together online to advocate for the cause, the stronger cultural heritage as whole will become.

This post was inspired by the WordPress blogging topic: Contrast

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