A sector in crisis
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit and institutions across Europe were forced to close their doors to visitors, we saw cultural heritage institutions demonstrate elasticity in response to the crisis in interesting, creative and effective ways, particularly when their collections are available in digital formats. However, it also presented new digital, financial, structural and personnel based challenges for a sector where no two institutions are alike. And COVID-19 is not the only crisis facing the cultural heritage sector. 2020 also brought further pressure for it to reassert its relevance to society - a society that demands, rightfully, better representation of its diversity from a sector that has a history of presenting largely only the perspectives of the elite.
But in crises there are opportunities. We believe a cultural sector powered by digital will contribute to a Europe powered by culture, giving it a resilient, growing economy, increased employment, improved well-being and a sense of European identity.
Reacting and reflecting
Like many others across the sector, at Europeana we took a number of steps to react to the crisis, from working from home, moving to online events, creating and showcasing resources for professionals in the sector, producing topical editorial and leading a Discovering Europe season to promote local tourism. We also wanted to provide a considered response, and took time to reflect and plan a project that would bring in voices from our community to help us map out how we can support capacity building in our sector and identify what institutions need to be well-supported in their digital transformation. From this, these two reports were born.
In June 2020 we launched a series of workshops that called upon our community to bring their perspective, experience and expertise together to identify new paths through - and beyond - the COVID-19 crisis for digital cultural heritage. The peer-to-peer conversations and discussions held in these workshops are presented in Digital transformation in the time of COVID-19 - sense-making workshops findings and outcomes, written by digital strategists and the workshop facilitators Michael Peter Edson, and Jasper Visser.
Concurrent to the workshops, we worked closely with independent charity Culture24 to produce a complementary report The digital transformation agenda and GLAMs - Culture24 findings and outcomes. By interviewing eight global leaders in the digital cultural heritage sector, considering what terms like ‘digital transformation’ mean in practice for GLAM institutions, and providing a snapshot of digital capacity building initiatives in the sector, this report builds on the themes that emerged from the workshops to help develop a shared understanding of what building digital capacity in our sector really means.
The findings and outcomes from these reports are extremely rich and we encourage you to download and explore them, to compare your perspectives to those in the report and to consider how you can help us develop our thinking. At Europeana Foundation we’ve been doing this ourselves, and we have identified some key themes arising from both reports that are significant and urgent and which we will explore as a priority. Furthermore, we have agreed the need for a definition of ‘digital transformation’ that works for our network, and we’ll be working with our partners in the initiative (Europeana Network Association, Europeana Aggregators Forum) to agree this. We’ve listed the three themes we’ve identified as most pressing below, and for each we’ll be exploring questions such as how does this change what we do, and what else do we need to be doing to support our partners and network?
‘There is growing acceptance of the potential for digital, but at the same time, there is a lack of common vocabulary with which to talk about it.’
The reports highlight that the digital divide is much wider than we had previously thought. These divides can be social and technological, as well as between those who can access, are represented, and feel welcomed by digital cultural heritage and those who don’t. The divide also runs between countries who have well articulated digital strategies and infrastructures in place, and those who don’t. They run between institutions that have differing levels of digital capacity and capabilities, and even within institutions where staff have differing levels of digital literacy and skills. Crucially, digital divides are about our processes as much as systems and about people as much as hardware. Bridging these divides will require different strategies, including investigating how our networks and narratives become more diverse and inclusive; and in parallel exploring how we can scale up the levels of technological maturity across institutions and countries in Europe.
Agency for change
'There is a strong desire for change in the sector but a sense of inability to act on it.'
Because digital literacy is as much about understanding technology as it is about the human dynamics of change, both reports point to a need for professionals to develop ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, compassion, persuasion, change management, collaboration and other ‘non-digital’ skills to be ready for, support and lead digital change. These skills - combined with digital skills - can help foster digitally literate leadership at all levels of organisations. This means that we need to develop these skills ourselves and develop didactical approaches to transmit these skills, at scale, through the Europeana Network Association and the Europeana Aggregators Forum. We will need to take these insights onboard when we develop our capacity building framework in the year to come.
Collaboration is key
‘We need to think of the GLAM sector as, ‘one big company.’ Like a multinational organisation, in this company, we already share infrastructure, resources, knowledge, and experiences and could do this more in the future.’
Underpinning much of the discussion in the workshops, successful examples of capacity building initiatives and the reports themselves, collaboration is seen as a key way to support and develop people’s digital skills and literacies. In a scenario where many museums, libraries and archives face (financial) difficulties it will be even more important than before to find efficiencies and economies of scale. Workshop participants noted how valuable being given the space to address these challenges with peers was. We will need to find out where the most pressing needs are, develop more of these opportunities to learn from each other, and develop and adopt shared standards and share infrastructure.
Download the reports, draw your own conclusions and get involved
Europeana Foundation will work with the Europeana Network Association and Europeana Aggregators Forum in the coming months to explore how we can build on the reports and support the sector in these three areas as the start of an ongoing dialogue. That dialogue will be flexible, and working together we’ll agree on the different forms that it will take.
It’s clear that there are many other themes and opportunities for us as a sector to consider and address. At Europeana 2020, the themes for our call for proposals were taken from these reports and as we continue to explore the reports we expect to draw more out. We encourage you to download them, work with colleagues and networks to explore them and stay tuned for opportunities to collaborate with us as we further develop our capacity building work. You can use #BuildDigitalCapacity to discuss your thoughts, and if you haven’t already, join our network to become part of the biggest community of cultural heritage professionals in Europe.