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2 minutes to read Posted on Monday November 20, 2023

Updated on Monday November 20, 2023

portrait of Robert Davies

Robert Davies

Head, International Projects , Heritage Management Organisation

portrait of Marie-Véronique Leroi

Marie-Véronique Leroi

Project Manager , Ministry of Culture

portrait of Harry Verwayen

Harry Verwayen

General Director , Europeana Foundation

Europeana Initiative marks 15 years of empowering digital cultural heritage

The first Europeana website launched 15 years ago today, a milestone that has led to many more in the Europeana Initiative’s work to empower the digital transformation of the cultural heritage sector. To mark the occasion, the heads of the Europeana Initiative reflect on its last 15 years - and look to its future at the heart of the common European data space for cultural heritage.

main image
AGM 2018 Vienna
Europeana Foundation
The Netherlands

Highlights from 15 years

With the launch of the Europeana website in 2008, the European Union took an important step towards ensuring that Europe could take ownership of the digitisation of its heritage and make it an integral part of its future. At launch, the Europeana website offered access to 4.5 million cultural heritage objects; today, it offers access to 57 million, many of which are openly licensed and can be reused without restrictions by students, professionals or curious minds. The increase reflects 15 years of experimentation, innovation and collaboration across the Europeana Initiative.

We asked Harry Verwayen, General Director of the Europeana Foundation, Rob Davies, Chair of the Europeana Network Association and Marie-Véronique Leroi, Chair of the Europeana Aggregators’ Forum, to reflect on their highlights from the last 15 years.

Harry identifies a particular highlight as, ‘The alignment of heritage digital access across Europe thanks to our frameworks and standards. We’ve improved the quality of our data so that more people can use it for more things, we've campaigned for open licences, and we've worked hard to make our data and our technology work with other services and systems. All of this led to an open, public and social-oriented alternative to private platforms where data is monopolised and cultural heritage commercialised.’

Encouraging personal and meaningful connections between people and their cultural heritage has also been important to Harry: ‘Think of participatory initiatives like Transcribathon, Built with Bits, the annual Digital Storytelling Festival and GIF IT UP. I personally enjoyed and was moved by the Europeana 1914-1918 campaign, to which over 2,000 people contributed their personal story.’

Harry stresses the importance of ‘collaboration and teamwork’ in these achievements, and it is collaboration which Rob Davies also counts as a highlight from the last 15 years. ‘With an ever-growing and diverse membership approaching 5,000, Europe’s most important network for digital heritage has continued to develop in potential and offer professionals the chance to make new connections.’

Marie-Véronique was particularly inspired by, ‘Europeana 280, where each Member State was expected to provide two openly-licensed, emblematic items to Europeana to build a pan-European collection of masterpieces. The process to get those items accessible and open has been long and tedious but the result was engaging and made us proud!’.

Working at at the heart of the common European data space for cultural heritage

While the Europeana Initiative’s 15-year history counts many highlights, a recent one stands out: as of 2022, the Initiative is at the heart of the common European data space for cultural heritage, a flagship initiative of the European Commission to accelerate the digital transformation of Europe’s cultural sector.

Harry notes that this, ‘Is not a coincidence… at a conceptual level, the data space is built around the same principles and ideals that led to the creation of Europeana 15 years ago: openness, collaboration, and the conviction that digital cultural heritage is a public good that should be cherished and jointly owned.’

Marie-Véronique also sees the data space as building on Europeana’s achievements: ‘Its 15 years of experience has shown the ability of the Initiative to pioneer in the digital cultural heritage field which includes evolution, innovation and transformation from the technical perspective to the human one.’

Rob shares this feeling: ‘By developing a successful operating model and a sustained Europe-wide ecosystem for collecting and accessing digital cultural heritage, and building alongside this an interdisciplinary network of professionals and users, the Europeana Initiative has begun to show what can be achieved in the digital cultural heritage sphere.’

With the Europeana Initiative’s achievements as its foundation, all look forward to the opportunities the data space offers. Marie-Véronique hopes that it will be instrumental in, ‘Making a wider range of data available to citizens, fostering its reuse and supporting the digital transformation of the sector. These are opportunities that the Europeana Initiative is already embracing.’

Rob is excited for how, ‘a multilingual public data space can emerge for accessing, managing and comparing any available data concerning cultural heritage - and potentially other aspects of culture, supporting the needs of policymakers, educators, professionals, researchers and reusers alike.’

Harry is inspired by the emphasis which the data space will place on the principle of sovereignty: ‘This means that data owners - as opposed to platforms - will keep control of their data and what can be done with it. Supported by the technological set-up and data governance frameworks, data owners will be able to make their data shareable at source for other participants in the data space, for use in other data spaces, and beyond - in an identified and secure way. People will have control of their digital environment and will be able to participate more fully in its creation and use.’

Acknowledging the challenges

While the previous 15 years of the Europeana Initiative offer many highlights, and the coming 15 years many opportunities, there are also challenges. Harry notes that, ‘Europe - and the entire world - is undergoing rapid and system-wide changes, from a stark climate emergency to complex socio-economic and geopolitical challenges. For the digital heritage sector to stay relevant, we must take an active role in Europe’s triple transformation and its social, environmental and digital dimensions. ’

Challenges will include models of cooperation; as Harry says, ‘The success of the data space will largely depend on the contribution and engagement of cultural heritage institutions and professionals, as well as on the continued commitment by the European Commission and its Member States.’

In addition, ‘New technologies bring both challenges and opportunities,’ says Rob. ‘Artificial Intelligence is perhaps the most obvious current example. Europeana can help define and consolidate best practices on the use of such technologies within the cultural heritage sector, while helping to mitigate the investment risks.’

It’s a feeling shared by Marie-Véronique: ‘Developing a data space will require agility in managing data, and stronger connections will need to be made with new types of data like 3D models.’

To the next 15 years!

Where do Harry, Rob and Marie-Véronique hope the Europeana Initiative will be in 2038?

Rob says that, ‘By further bringing together the three pillars of the Europeana Initiative and by working more closely with our audiences, partners and networks I believe that a more harmonised and communicative environment can be developed for collecting, sharing, governing and using digital cultural heritage data and content.’

Marie-Véronique says, ‘I would love the Europeana initiative to go forward on the path of standardisation and interoperability and play the leading role in delivering and maintaining key components of the data space such as persistent identifiers and semantic enriched vocabularies for cultural heritage.’

Harry says, ‘My vision for the Europeana Initiative is one of collaborative work and collective action. By facilitating shared reflection, open dialogue and joint action, I hope we can contribute to a healthy digital environment - one which is based on values, has people at the centre and is powered by culture.’