Embracing new technology with Heritage in Motion 2021 winners: DigVentures
Heritage in Motion is a competition recognising innovation by the creators of films, games, apps and websites on themes related to Europe’s heritage. Today, Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Managing Director of DigVentures, tells us about ‘Archaeology at Home’, winner of the ‘Website’ category.
In autumn 2021, Europeana was proud to be part of the international jury for the annual and prestigious Heritage in Motion awards, run by Europa Nostra and the European Museum Academy. In this theme, we talk to the 2021 award winners and find out how the cultural heritage sector is using new digital technologies in their inspiring projects.
Today, Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Managing Director of DigVentures, a platform that enables civic participation in archaeology and heritage projects, tells us about ‘Archaeology at Home’, winner of the ‘Website’ category.
Can you tell us a little bit about your winning project?
Archaeology at Home was our response to COVID. DigVenture’s audience includes a lot of non-archaeologists, professionals from all walks of life. Our online course, ‘How to do Archaeology’ is really popular, so we thought, now everyone’s at home, let’s run it as a virtual field school - a dig-along. Over 8,000 people in 91 countries registered, including groups of university students whose field work had been cancelled.
We also started a Facebook study group and saw that people went beyond chatting about the course to also talking about the craziness of the pandemic. Ultimately, the course brought people together who had a shared interest in archaeology, but it also gave them a platform for another kind of shared experience helping each other through the devastation of the pandemic. That really blew us away.
For the second part of the project we pivoted our in-person DigNation festival online. We asked speakers to film themselves basically telling us where they should have been that summer so we could keep their research in front of everybody’s eyes. Over two days, we ended up with 3,000 people and 500 comments and questions for presenters. We had 32 teams of archaeologists from 26 countries sending videos about their work.
What did using digital media/technology make possible for this project?
Being online broke down a lot of the usual barriers to participation and diversified the audience. The digital became a great leveller and gave us a much bigger geographical spread, plus involvement of people from all walks of life. Everyone was at home, not just people with children or part-time jobs; every educational level, every kind of professional and life experience was represented. That really blew the doors wide open. There’s an acknowledged elitist perspective in the archaeology world that the ‘public’ doesn’t care or want to be involved in archaeology, but here we had direct and very loud evidence that this is not the case. If there are opportunities, then our project shows there is an audience waiting to take part.
It also allowed us to create a community of practice with our peers who had never spoken outside of academia about their work. There was work within the festival that would never have reached a general audience had it not moved online. We’re continuing to play with that model.
How have your audiences reacted to this project?
At the time, people were voting with their participation. We opened a subscription model and a tip jar and got so many subscribers and donations that it exceeded our retail offer from the previous year.
All we’ve heard from people is ‘more please’. More courses. More festivals. Please keep doing these things because it makes things possible that wouldn’t be otherwise for financial or health or climate reasons.
One of the big effects on our business has been that what we called the ‘fifth trench’ - our digital and outreach wing - has become a 50% arm of our business, whereas before it was always subservient to what was going on in the physical trenches. Now we have the trenches and we have the digital. It really has changed how we operated as a business.
What have you learned about working with digital cultural heritage from this project?
We’ve learned that the audiences are absolutely limitless and are very happy and willing to throw themselves into what you’re doing with participation as well as money. The ‘how do we make money out of this’ question is what’s preventing some big European cultural heritage institutions from taking digital seriously: they can’t see how doing cultural activity online is going to help because all they think about is euros and cents. I would agree that it’s definitely not an immediate gratification thing, but if you lean into it, have a good strategic plan for how digital is going to feed into your bottom line beyond just finances, then you’re going to see those huge benefits flowing into your organisations.
What difference does winning an award like this make to your project/future work?
We’re incredibly proud. When the pandemic hit, we all really struggled - and then something magical happened. To have it recognised on a European level for its innovation, which is at the heart of what we do, is so important.
The award put us in touch with a community of peers which we’ve really struggled to reach before. Meeting some of the other winners, for the first time we felt like we were talking to people who spoke the same language as us in terms of working with cultural heritage. It’s opened avenues. It’s just awesome.
We are inspired to continue to try to bring our work to the attention of people outside of the UK. Europe is more open-minded about the value of culture than the UK, which is at war with itself over culture. Everything we see coming out of Europe is saying ‘more culture’, culture is what’s going to bring us back from the edge. We want more of that. That’s the conversation we want to be in.