DIGITAL ERGO SUM: VADEMECUM FOR MUSEUMS IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

Stefania Zardini Lacedelli

As a response to the emergency that is affecting everybody in the world in a global way, the web and digital channels are quickly rising their importance, becoming the only means by which we can stay in touch with our loved ones, maintain spaces of sociality, continue learning and interacting with culture. Cultural institutions can learn a lot from this difficult situation, but it is important to take the time to develop a reflection on the nature of these spaces, which have completely revolutionized our society. In the last 10 years I have been studying, observing and experiencing this ever-changing sector, and in my PhD research I try to understand what museums can learn from digital platforms and what transformations are needed to continue to remain significant and connected with the society. To start giving an answer, in 2016 I founded the virtual museum DOLOM.IT, which responds to the characteristics of a new museum model that I call ‘Platform-Museum’: a museum that, taking inspiration from how digital platforms work, allow everyone to become curators and creators of heritage.

From this experience, I developed this vademecum, conceived for museums and cultural institutions that are transferring part of their activities into digital spaces, in response to the Covid-19 measures. Above all, it is also intended as an invitation to make this emergency an opportunity to innovate previous practices and to embrace a new evolutionary phase.

Four are the guidelines of this vademecum:

  1. Transferring your practices on the web it is not enough. You have to rethink them

  2. On the web, initiating processes is more important than developing products

  3. Digital is a fragile heritage

  4. A.A.A. New digital curators wanted

 

Transferring previous museum practices to digital channels is not sufficient to embrace the social changes that these technologies have brought with them. First of all, it is necessary to reflect on the impact of platforms in our society and on the way in which cultural heritage is conceived and lived. The channels where museums are transferring their narratives today are not neutral: they are spaces where anyone can become the author of content. Therefore, it is not just the places to change, but also the ways of experiencing culture: museums have always told stories, but today it is also possible to include the contribution of users in the creation of these narratives. This also leads us to change our idea of ​​public – from passive to active contributor – and of cultural products: exhibitions, conferences, events – whether or not they are streamed – are accompanied by participatory processes that invite people to share their memories, stories and interpretations on digital platforms. Social media campaigns are therefore not only marketing strategies to extend the presence of the museum, but channels to create new heritage and communities.

If the Web is a participatory space, it is necessary to completely rethink the way in which museums conceive their offer. Many museums and cultural institutions continue to adopt a ‘broadcasting’ approach: they develop narratives and cultural products designed for their public. But we live in a platform world that offer us, first of all, new opportunities to interact, share, participate. This freedom of expression, which allows everyone to contribute to a topic with their own perspectives, poses new challenges to museums, that have always been used to exercising control over their content. We can learn an important lesson from the web: that giving up part of our control does not necessarily affect the quality of the content. On the contrary. It can open up entire new perspectives to look at our heritage. We can discover new ways to tell it, along with new stories and new storytellers that can help us to make it grow. With Museo DOLOM.IT, hundreds of students and inhabitants of the Dolomites have become curators of virtual exhibitions, multimedia tours, video stories, soundscapes that contribute not only to spread the museum heritage, but also to reinterpret it with the languages of the contemporary world. It is the process itself that become heritage.

Today we have the illusion of being able to keep everything: our digital memories live in a continuous flow of images, words, sounds. That can vanish in one click. Because keeping everything, on the web, does not mean to have everything. To transform these digital fragments into memories, we need to take care of them, to select the content we want to preserve and develop a narrative around it. We can do it with our personal memories – a message or a photo we care about – and the museum can do it with the digital memories of our time. An example are the thousands of performances on the balconies made during the sonic flashmob all over Italy on 13th and 14th March: fragments of memory that can get lost in the network, if they are not collected and transferred to a secure platform. Today museums should start using the web not only as a space to communicate, but also as a spontaneous archive of digital heritage that it is its task to research, care and preserve for the future. It’s an heritage that can have the same value as an object kept in a display case. And that can be even more fragile.

If collecting digital memories becomes a daily practice, museums need new digital curators. To preserve this type of heritage for future generations, it’s important to understand its specific nature and identify the most suitable platform that can host these resources. In the #DolomitesMuseum campaign, launched by the Dolomites UNESCO Foundation as part of the ‘Museums of the Dolomites’ project, the collection and digital curation of the social media content is an essential part. More than 130 stories and 300 digital resources from the different social profiles have been collected and now can be explored within interactive maps and Pinterest galleries. This activity requires time and specific skills: this moment of crisis can also be an opportunity to better understand what new competences museums need to develop to continue pursuing their cultural mission and making these digital memories available for future generations.

This emergency is pushing many institutions to perceive the key role of digital which has become, in the last weeks, the unique space in which to operate. Let’s take the time to explore it, to understand it. We should not be in a rush to transfer our previous practices to online spaces. This would nullify the great opportunity for change we have today. Today that the world, as we knew it, has proved to be extremely fragile, now more than ever we are asked for a change of perspective. The emergency, like all the crises, also gives us a great opportunity: to stop, and to rethink our institutions. How will our idea of museum change? What new types of heritage need to be preserved? And what role can people play in the life of the museum today?