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2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday April 2, 2020

Updated on Tuesday April 7, 2020

Coming together in isolation - mobilising digital transformation in the face of COVID-19

The cultural heritage sector faces an unprecedented challenge in the face of COVID-19. How can Europeana, as the initiative which supports the digital transformation of the sector, help? How can we mobilise our extensive community, put our platform of services to good use and work with partners to make a difference? Harry Verwayen, Executive Director of the Europeana Foundation, and Georgia Angelaki, Europeana Network Association Vice-Chair, share their thoughts. 

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The shape of the challenge

‘Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?' Yuval Harari 

Epidemics have been a feature of humankind throughout history, radically disrupting the status quo. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. We are more or less locked down at home, on a new ‘remote-first’ mode via Zoom, Hangouts or Skype. For the first time in a generation we are facing an immediate and almost unprecedented global problem, impacting our everyday lives.

However, history also tells us that the human spirit prevails even in the face of such challenges. Indeed, the story of art and science through the ages provides encouragement as we remember that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Isaac Newton developed calculus during their periods of isolation from the plague.

That is not to underestimate the very real challenges that our cultural heritage institutions everywhere are currently facing. Museums, libraries, theatres, cinemas and archives were among the first to close down, being among the most popular places for people to visit en masse, with severe consequences for their operations and income streams. 

How we act now will help shape the entire sector’s response to the immediate challenges presented by COVID-19 today, as well as preparing us for the longer-term changes that will inevitably follow to create a ‘new normal’ tomorrow.

Responding as a sector

Our individual and collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be critically important across the digital cultural landscape. So it is crucial that we work together as a community and with all of our partners across the globe to demonstrate the vital importance of digital culture in the midst of this crisis. 

We’ve all enjoyed the unprecedented spur of online creativity and storm of posts about digital heritage and art such as the popular Instagram account Between Art and Quarantine which encourages people to recreate artworks in their homes (hat-tip to Culture24 who have led a very similar Europeana initiative years ago).

These are great initiatives, but behind them lies a serious issue. There is a vast field of untapped potential for digital transformation in our sector and the case for embracing this opportunity has never been clearer than today. However, it will require a strong, collective effort to bring this potential to fruition. 

Our sector is large and diverse and post-crisis its new normal will now undoubtedly include digital practices as never before. We need to ensure that the divide between the digitally adept and the digital novices is not accentuated further during this defining moment. 

Across the globe, institutions and organisations are already rising to the challenge of staying connected to their audiences through digital culture, using creativity and innovation. The Internet Archives’ National Emergency Library is one notable example here. 

In fact, there are a host of organisations making a valuable contribution. The Network of European Museum Associations has launched a survey on the short and long term effects of the corona crisis for museums - the initial results of the survey have been published, but museums can continue to participate until 17 April. Meanwhile, Culture Action Europe has launched a survey on recovery measures in the sector. The data they will collect will be of vital importance in shaping even more effective support activities in the future. 

It is against this background that the Europeana Foundation has co-signed a letter to the European Commission with proposals to help cope with the impact of COVID-19 on Creative Europe and the European Cultural and Creative Sectors and we will continue to use our voice to advocate strongly for the sector. 

Europeana’s contribution

We believe that Europeana, whose core mission is to empower the sector in digital change, has a vital contribution to make in response to this current crisis, as well as in the longer term. As a Network, we are at the forefront of technological innovation. We have built close ties and broad expertise over the years in areas of online collaborative working, information sharing and engagement. And we are uniquely well-positioned to respond to the sector’s digital challenges, building on these foundations. 

This is the moment for us to accelerate the digital transformation of the sector, designing sustainable digital strategies that make use of open source technologies, leverage citizen science and participatory approaches across our collections and digital resources.

In the short term, we will support our sector by developing and curating online tools and services that can be of immediate use, such as webinars on topics that support capacity building. Equally, we will promote and contribute to the services offered by others. You may already see some of that activity in action. We will be building on it in the coming weeks. 

In the medium term, we will pool our resources and develop a comprehensive framework of activities that ensures our work reflects the challenges the sector will face as a result of this crisis. A crisis which has so quickly demonstrated the need for wide online access to culture. We will support institutions as they build their ability to share their collections online. We will showcase the importance and added value of digitisation, adoption of standards, best practice and common solutions that make that possible. We will make the case for open licensing that is so critical to catering for online educational and research needs. 

Most importantly, Europeana and its Network will continue to work tirelessly as champions of the digital transformation of our sector, preserving the critical importance of our shared cultural heritage in society.

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