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2 minutes to read Posted on Wednesday November 1, 2017

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Annapaula Freire de Oliveira

Annapaula Freire de Oliveira

Former Community Editor , Europeana Foundation

Charting new territory: a compass for cultural institutions

main image
Uncharted Territory workshop at THE ARTS+, CC-BY-SA Europeana

On 11 October, Europeana invited pioneering cultural institutions to present their digital strategies during THE ARTS+, a creative business festival within the Frankfurt Book Fair. Journalist Michael Gubbins (Sampomedia) led the discussions on digital transformation in museums and libraries. In this special extended blog post, Gubbins presents some promising directions gleaned from the event. Michael Gubbins is an experienced analyst, journalist and consultant with particular expertise in film and digital media.

A new sense of direction for a participatory culture

Cultural organisations and creative industries have been trying to map a dramatically changing ecosystem for a generation – an unprecedented period of turbulence inspired by the Internet.

For much of that time, the established analogue world has been focused on trying to understand, tame and control ‘disruptive’ digital trends.

‘Digital’ has often been defined in isolation, or in a state of tension with the ‘analogue’. Or as MIT Media Lab founder Professor Nicholas Negroponte famously put it in his book Being Digital, the struggle between the world of ‘bits and bytes’ and the world of ‘atoms.’

So the contribution of digital developments to cultural bodies, as in all industries, has often been achieved in a kind of quarantine, with digital operations running along a separate if parallel road to the supposed ‘core’ business.

Many practices and processes have been ‘digitised’ and at an astonishing rate – Reinhard Altenhöner, deputy general director of the State Library Berlin and Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, said his institutions now had more than 20 million images available in digital formats.

Digitisation provides a necessary stage in the evolution of cultural institutions and industries but what follows is far from clear. Or, as the title of a debate, organised by Europeana and THE ARTS+ at the Frankfurt Book Fair put it: the next stage is “Uncharted Territory”.

Why change?

The idea that there is more territory to be charted at all is open to debate. Some in the cultural sector may feel that a destination has already been reached.

Archives have been digitised and websites offering curated online access launched, alongside social media feeds, blogs and podcasts.

The technology has progressed too: Altenhöner said interoperable formats and on shareable databases was already changing the way business was done.

Distribution of content has become far more efficient and cheap, and digital departments are now more generally acknowledged as important.

So what’s the problem?

There are strong arguments that there are dangers in a world where culture finds itself trapped in demographic and social bubbles, and where significant parts of societies feel alienated from cultural institutions.

But the discussion in Frankfurt took a much more positive tone. Rather than looking at problems, it focused on the transformational of a new era for cultural institutions, and more importantly cultural engagement.

Illustration created during the "Uncharted Territory" session by graphic recorder Anne Lehmann.


One of the most important ideas driving change is convergence.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, there were plenty of examples of convergence, as popularly understood, in action. Cross-genre adaptation is increasingly important to both the book world, with literary adaptation a growing and critical trend for film and television, and the fair now also has a section dedicated to gaming.

A stroll around the stands suggested that publishers are hurriedly exploring the potential of Virtual Reality.

Creative industries are now constantly chasing new ways of telling stories, or (perhaps more importantly) maximising their Intellectual Property value.

And the debate showed that cultural institutions convergence were also about expanding narratives and increasing value. And like creative industries, the speakers looked at development in a way that brings together the Digital Economy, the Knowledge Economy and the Experience Economy.

Bricks and mortar in that world are not separate from online developments but part of an interconnected ecosystem.

Antje Schmidt, Head of Digital Cataloguing at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg said cultural value cut across distinctions, such as ‘virtual’ and ‘physical.’

She said the museum, founded in the 19th Century, now “prepared the content that we produce for multiple users, channels and formats but also follow the standards that make it interoperable.”

In other words, what defines the platform is the interaction with the user.

“Visitors (analogue or digital) are not only audiences. We perceive them as collaborators, co-creators and contributors, and try to listen to their needs to figure out how to engage them.”

They have learned how to listen and have tools to turn what they hear into practical action, she suggested. What’s more, through open policies, the museum is able to share tools to allow users to create their own narratives and meaning from the core collection.

Convergence then opens up new territory, but what makes the next stage so thrilling and challenging is the relationship between culture and the full diversity of people and communities.


“The distinction between producers and users of content gets increasingly blurred,” suggested Professor Pier Luigi Sacco, Deputy Rector for International Relations and Professor of Cultural Economics of IULM University, Milan.

“This paves the way to social and economic value creation through massive cultural participation.”

He made a case for a new power relationship, not just between users and cultural institutions but between people and culture (redefining the meaning of the world in the process). He calls it “Culture 3.0.”

There were strong examples of the idea in action on the panel, hackathons at the Hamburg museum.

Professor Sacco’s argument went beyond the creation of specific programmes. He saw more profound social, economic and cultural changes that challenged the way that cultural institutions think.

Many of those ideas are encapsulated in the UN Live project – ‘startup NGO’ working with the United Nations to create a new kind of multi-platform global ‘museum.’

Founder Michael Edson explained that the project had an ambitious founding mission to increase participation in activities in the pursuit of global goals, in every area of health and education, to climate action and sustainable communities, and the environment and peace.

The huge goals would be realised through small-scale, local and collaborative actions. Edson said the principles of design thinking had been employed – clarity of objectives and transparency of impact, prototyping and testing, learning and sharing.

The success of the scheme will depend on “small scale, high-touch experiments at the local level, woven together with digital, which will build a bridge between awareness and action”.

The plan has been extensively workshopped with a wide diversity of participants around the world. Those participatory principles work for established institutions too. Saskia Scheltjens, of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, said one of Europe’s most important galleries and museums was in a period of deep change that began with a simple idea:

“Our collection belongs to everyone,” she said.

That goes far beyond the lazy cliché that most institutions like to recite. If the great public collections really belong to the people, they cannot be confined to visiting hours in the capital city. They need to be designed to be accessible, or as Scheltjens puts it: “open and connected.”

In other words, art cannot wait for the people to come to the gallery, the gallery needs to go out to the people.

The Rijksmuseum has become a beacon of making its assets accessible, mobile and shareable. “Everybody is a maker,” said Scheltjens, with the museum allowing a degree of open access to archives, to build their own content and meaning.

Its thinking, and willingness to embrace new opportunities, was certainly helped by a long period of closure, that created time and space to look ahead.

But Culture 3.0 is a challenge to the psychology, the status and the established economics of museums, galleries, libraries, etc.

Internal change and impact

The pressure points highlighted by all the projects in the report continually returned to a theme. The obstacle to trends that might deliver the greatest value of institutions might be the institutions themselves.

That does not necessarily imply active resistance: the institutions have generally encouraged the exploration of new approaches. Most have teams dedicated to digital innovation.

The problem in many organisations is in embracing the logical reform that would allow tentative exploration to become serious change.

There are, of course, vested interests within organisations, not just from those holding the reins of analogue power – some digital departments live in happy isolation, pursuing their own particular interests.

But, suggests, Professor Sacco, they may find that they have nothing to fear but fear itself in this changed ecosystem.

“The role of cultural professionals is not diminished, but further expanded, provided that they are willing to explore and engage with the new context,” said Professor Sacco.

In his view, those professionals will find their work is more based on building relationships and bringing their museums, galleries, etc. to life. That may make their work simultaneously more powerful and empowering.

What will drive the confidence in change will be signs of impact, suggested Edson, of UN Live.

Interestingly, after wide consultations, the project decided to adopt the word ‘museum’ to cover a range of often-innovative online activities. It might seem an odd choice, given the concern of physical museums about how they are perceived, but Edson said the term acted as a value way of framing the idea, so that people could understand their part in development.

He suggested that people needed a conceptual base, even for radical and innovative work (offering those institutions with a physical building an advantage). 

Clear concepts, clear objectives, transparent measures, small-scale testing, learning from failure, participation and dialogue, collaborative action etc, would help build a new kind of institution to work faster, bigger scale, with people around the worlds.”

What ifs

What emerged from a fascinating debate was a sense of direction, rather than any clear destination.

It recognised the fluidity of a changing environment, where the greatest opportunities might come from the imagination of someone who might not yet be able to read.

Future generations may look back at the charts for a new territory and see clear points on the map, where progress was made and consolidated, allowing others to travel further.

But what made the conversation so inspiring in Frankfurt is that fact that progress is being driven by ‘What ifs?’

The power of Culture 3.0 is that those questions can quickly be tested and developed with the people they serve, and each offering a clear direction sign to those that follow.

Read the presentations held during THE ARTS+ on Europeana Slideshare!