November 2020 saw the first online annual conference of Europeana due to the Covid pandemic. Usually, I would not be able to attend because this is the middle of term-time, but thanks to research leave and online accessibility to the event, I had the opportunity to engage with policymakers, educators, archivists, technologists, curators, researchers and many other voices within and beyond the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museum) sector. This week’s blog reflects on my experience at the conference, particularly in relation to its digital thread and the workshop I co-hosted with Tessa Bouwman from the Bergen-Belsen Memorial.
Europeana’s mission is:
Europeana empowers the cultural heritage sector in its digital transformation. We develop expertise, tools and policies to embrace digital change and encourage partnerships that foster innovation.
The website offers a wide range of resources for those working with and researching digital heritage, and access to a ever-expanding network of professionals. This was the first opportunity I have had to really think about Digital Holocaust Memory beyond the contexts of Holocaust and genocide memory, and media studies (my two familiar fields).
Reflections on the conference
- Establishing play spaces for digital heritage and memory work
During the conference I was introduced to various digital tools which could be used to enhance digital collections and encourage participatory co-curation. These included the Exhibit tool created by Mnemoscene and the University of St Andrews. This allows people to tell stories with 3D-objects. There was also some interesting discussion about materiality, authenticity and 3D graphical representation which particularly resonated with me in the context of Holocaust and genocide memory, where material evidence is so crucial.
Another tool that was presented
All of this left me with a question:
How confident with digital technologies are heritage and educational professionals working in Holocaust and genocide memory, and those of us researching it in the academy?
What could happen if rather than depending on external organisations to produce digital initiatives, or researching about them without a solid understanding of how they work technologically, we could develop Discovery Labs where we define some questions and take time to explore and play with a specific digital tool, then come back and share our outputs and experiences?
One conversation that arose in the conference keynote in the morning of Day 3 was about the fear of making mistakes. Of course, museums, archives, libraries, galleries, and research and educational institutions want to present to the public finished, functioning and ‘correct’ content – this reaffirms our authority as places that produce and circulate knowledge. Furthermore, funding, staff time and limited resources all restrict our activities. However, creating Discovery Labs would enable space for playfulness – where the end result is not to produce perfect output that must be presented to funders by a specific deadline. Rather, they would open up opportunities to experiment with possibilities. There are so many free digital tools available, that bar time, such spaces would be light in terms of their resource and financial implications.
2. Where and what is dark heritage? Are there limits to digital engagement with it?
On the final day of the conference, Tessa Bouwman and I led a workshop on ‘Dark Heritage: Finding the Right Tone Online’. We had originally envisioned the workshop to be for people working in this context (we tried to keep it broad by using the term ‘dark heritage’).
Nevertheless, the audience for the workshop was much broader. This of course brought with it anxieties about how to pitch it to the participants who were there, but also opened up broader questions than I had certainly imagined.
The morning keynote on day 2 of the conference had stirred much backlash on Twitter, and rightly so, for its problematic, racist discourse. I will not repeat it here, but the debate can be followed through this informative thread on Twitter. This debate, however, fed into our workshop through thinking about issues related to decolonising heritage practices.
We had hope our workshop would provoke more questions rather than answers, and start a discussion about dealing with dark heritage online, for which there are currently no comprehensive international standards. The session certainly left me thinking about these questions:
- Are there limits to the uses of digital representation and circulation for dark heritage?
- The Holocaust has often been conceived as ‘at the limits of representation’, which has led to much discussion about popular media texts and the use of atrocity images in museums. What happens when we go online? Are there types of images which museums should not circulate, such as images of the deceased (particularly in relation to cultures where such images should not be shown), or images of people suffering and being exploited, or images that might be used to reinforce stereotypes of a marginalised group if not posted with substantial context? What responsibility then do institutions have for how assets circulate on social media after they share them?
- Is the control institutions have over narratives, images, and objects within their walls illusionary?
- The idea of ‘losing control’ or ‘authority’ over images and narratives arose in our conversations, particularly in terms of what happens to an image once you post it on social media where it can be recirculated and re/de-contextualised. However, this made me wonder whether institution have less control over historical and cultural narratives than they may think. After all, we may visit a museum and tell others what we think, how we interpret collections or tours, and thus add to or adapt the museum’s intended narrative. However, in this scenario, we can’t usually take images and objects with us (although, if photograph is allowed at the site, then we can).
- Are there issues with digital heritage that are specific to going online, or are many of the issues we face in this context repetitions of long-standing museological problems?
- Some of the questions that arose here related particularly to decolonisation, for example: who we speak for, who is the messenger, who is invited and feels welcomed to speak.
- Can digital technologies enhance participation in productive ways or do they risk (re)marginalising the already marginalised?
- This final question really brought together the questions of power, control, and authority, and who gets to speak and for whom.
- Where is ‘dark heritage’ and how might digital technologies help visualise it at sites not dedicated to it?
- My work tends to focus quite heavily on digital initiatives by organisations dedicated to Holocaust and genocide memory, therefore I was particularly inspired to hear from colleagues working in national collections and archives about their experiences working with ‘dark heritage’ material. Soon after the workshop, this story popped up on my Twitter feed: National Trust must Learn from Churchill Row
- I was quite horrified, although not surprised, to see how the National Trust’s attempt to engage with colonial histories embedded in some of its sites had received a huge backlash in the (right-wing) UK press. Could non-invasive digital media open up such spaces to a wide variety of relevant historical and contemporary voices? How can we make dark heritage visible in productive ways across our heritage landscape, not solely at sites recognised as memorials?
3. What is the future of digital culture, and where might be the place of Holocaust memory within it?
The final keynote of the conference was from Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine, in which he talked about his vision of the digital future The Mirror World. Kelly explained that he saw an evolution in how we communicate at least in the West:
Orality > Literary > Visuality > Spatial Immersion
What struck me about Kelly’s talk, however, was that his immersive examples were mostly what I would refer to as mixed reality. By immersive, he tended to mean media screens being all around us and ubiquitously embedded into our everyday lives. In a future blog, I will be discussing this paradigm of mixed reality in more details. Nevertheless, I agree with Kelly – the future is very likely to involve us constantly negotiating between tangible and digitally-represented stimuli.
The discussion that followed Kelly’s presentation involved a stimulating debate about where is heritage institutions’ place is in this mirror world, and unease about the potential for future corporate monopolies or oligopolies to control digital/physical space. Perhaps one of the most poignant points raised was whether we can simply wait for these spaces to be created then scramble to be visible within them, or whether we have to be driving forces in designing what these spaces are.
Perhaps heritage, education and research institutions need to come together to define alternative spaces to corproratized ones – but how then do we ensure memory work is happening in the mainstream?