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?

THE REACTION OF ITALIAN MUSEUMS TO COVID-19: SPREADING BEAUTY AND CULTURE ON THE WEB

Stefania Zardini Lacedelli

In these difficult days where precautions against the spread of Coronavirus have locked down Italy, many museums are making their voices heard loudly, on the web. Closed their doors, but not their vibrant energy of places of culture, which also and especially in moments of crisis, can help us to find positivity and beauty.

#aportechiuse (Behind closed doors), #laCulturaCura (the Culture Cares), #cronachedalmuseochiuso (Chronicles from the closed museum), #resistenzaculturale (Cultural Resistance), #salcechiusomanontroppo (Salce Museum closed but not too much) are just some of the hashtags that are spreading  online, and that are leading museum directors and curators to tell their collections and communicate with the public through the web. With all the digital means available today: direct streaming, videos shared on social media, weekly columns, thematic campaigns dedicated to the museum heritage. From the Pinacoteca di Brera to the Egyptian Museum of Turin, from the Salce Collection to the Archaeological Museum of Venice, and the Museums of the Dolomites: the museums virtually open their spaces and share stories, findings, curiosities, objects. A momentum that drives large and small museums, and is transmitted from city to city, region to region, valley to valley. In the time of Covid-19, museums continue to carry out their mission behind closed doors, but with their digital spaces opened: they enrich the mind, feed us with beauty, enchant. And by sharing culture, they spread trust, positiveness and playfulness, all ingredients that are more necessary than ever at a time like this. “We want to show – says James Bradburne, Director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in the video ‘Notes for a Cultural Resistance‘ – “that the heart of the city still beats. We fight this moment of panic, sadness, worry, we fight and we are here for the city, as a place of distraction, consolation, a place to help resist all the troubles we face now “.

And this is the answer of many museums in Northern Italy: the Archaeological Museum of Venice with its ‘Chronicles from a closed Museum’, the Egyptian Museum with virtual walks with the Director, the Salce Museum with the weekly column #salcechiusomanontroppo, the Museums of the Dolomites with the #DolomitesMuseum campaign.

But if this is an alternative way of experiencing culture, what are the museum spaces today? Are the web and social media ancillary channels that help the museum communicate its activities, or are they other spaces where culture can be spread in forms and ways other than traditional ones?

“A museum is not just its fixed objects – continues James Bradburne ‘We don’t always have to come, we can ‘offer’ the museum”. What can the museum offer us today?

Everything you would expect to find in a physical museum, and much more. The time has come to acknowledge it: the ‘museum’ is also everything that is developed outside its physical walls. Snapshots from the collection, thematic campaigns, online contests that foster to reinterpret objects and actively participate in the life of the museum: these are entirely new forms of culture which require time, energy and skills. If a museum has different ways of ‘being open’ the professionals involved in the development of these activities must grow accordingly. “You are used to visit only the public spaces of the museum – says Christian Greco, Director of the Egyptian Museum in the first post ‘Behind the closed doors’ – However, there is much more. There are many people who, even in these days, take care of the objects for you, carry on projects of restoration, undertake research, so that when we have the chance, we will be ready to welcome you again and tell you new stories. ” The more a museum grows in terms of human resources, the more its heart beats, and it keeps alive also the heart of the city and the territory in which it is located.

And so the hope is that this online momentum can continue even once the museums will open again: because we need them, especially now. We need their ability to stimulate thought, open the mind, transmit a complex perspective on the world. We need their innate propensity to include, to involve, to tell stories. We need their experience of preserving the past to help us imagine the future. They are our bulwarks of beauty. Not just in the days of the Coronavirus.

Virtual Cultural Heritage

Virtual Cultural Heritage represents a rather recent study area unifying the humanistic knowledge and computer science to study, preserve, enhance, and communicate the cultural heritage through digital technology. Despite the common meaning of “virtual”, the potential of VCH extends beyond just online reproduction of contents available on paper and physical objects. Like any other sector in the wider field of digital humanities, it leads to a deep and stimulating revolution in the use of culture.

The meaning in Latin of the term virtual (from Latin, virtus: quality, power) refers to an intrinsic potentiality, a being in potency that is turning into an act. We can therefore interpret a virtual reality as something that formally has not happened yet, but is about to happen, an itinerary where we can perceive its accomplishment.

What is the potential for cultural heritage? Actually with the development of the Internet and in particular of Web 2.0 the concept of “virtual space” has been directed to a highly complex and independent dimension, expanding the space available both in terms of content and relations.

At a content level, digital tools allow us to virtually reconstruct the immaterial context surrounding the cultural heritage. By visually representing the past, we can develop new approaches to study and communicate cultural heritage.

At a relational level, networking technologies have extended the range and occasions for interactions between people and institutions, providing a context of social participation.

Reaching out for the virtual dimension projects cultural institutions into the future. In doing so, Virtual Cultural Heritage offers museums the opportunity to accomplish their original mandate: to contribute to the development and the diffusion of human knowledge.

Stefania Zardini Lacedelli