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2 minutes to read Posted on Monday November 2, 2020

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Jan Blaszczak

Jan Blaszczak

Programme Specialist , National Film Archive - Audiovisual Institute Poland

portrait of Sofie Taes

Sofie Taes

Research Assistant / Curator / Comms officer , Catholic University of Leuven

portrait of Aisha Villegas

Aisha Villegas

Outreach and Communications Coordinator , Netherlands Institute for Sound & Vision

In conversation with Commissioner Mariya Gabriel - Europeana XX Ambassador of Change

The team behind the Europeana XX project share insights from their recent interview with European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, one of the project’s Ambassadors of Change, who shared her thoughts on the opportunities and challenges facing the cultural heritage sector in the time of COVID-19.

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Event banner for 'In Conversation with Mariya Gabriel.' New Astor Hotel and 20 story Times Building, New York, U.S.A.

Europeana XX. Century of Change is a Europeana Generic Service that focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economical changes as documented in photographs, videos, and works of art. To help promote the project, the project team has invited a number of leading public figures to act as ‘Ambassadors of Change’ for Europeana XX, a role which includes sharing their unique insight into topics relevant to the 20th century. We were delighted that Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education  and responsible for programmes such as Horizon Europe, Erasmus+ and Creative Europe, accepted this invitation. 

We recently ran an online event where international journalists were invited to interview Commissioner Gabriel about Europeana XX. The Commissioner also spoke with the project’s editorial team, inspiring them with insights into, and strategies related to, cultural heritage. The goal is that both interviews are used to raise awareness of the project and to promote discussion on the topics relevant to it. 

While the project is focused on change in the 20th century, it was inescapable that discussion would turn to the 21st century topic of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Commissioner shared her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the cultural sector at this time. 

This post offers a look into the Commissioner’s thoughts on this subject, in particular two issues close to her heart and critical to our sector: what the pandemic means for the sector’s digital transformation and the role of digital collections in education. 

Digital transformation and COVID-19: opportunities and challenges 

For Commissioner Gabriel, the challenges that cultural heritage institutions face as a result of the pandemic are very real. 

She said, ‘During the last months I have seen that on one side we have extraordinary capacity of mobilisation and creativity, but on the other we need resources, we need targeted investments and greater support in some critical moments.’

Citing a recent Network of Museum Organizations’ (NEMO) report, Commissioner Gabriel noted, ‘Three out of four museums indicated insufficient economic resources, insufficient staff time as biggest obstacles for digitisation and online accessibility. Just 30% claimed that they did not have the proper equipment to digitise.’  

However the Commissioner also noted how, ‘The report also tells us that four out of five museums increased their digital service in response to closing their doors during the pandemic, and almost half of them are now providing one or more online services.’

And she reflected that if approached and dealt with in an open and innovative manner, the crisis may present not only a challenge, but an opportunity for the sector to significantly accelerate its digital transformation.

‘The time is now, as the demand for well-curated, high-quality virtual access to culture has never been greater.’ 

Reflecting on the Commission’s own online use of culture in recent months, Commissioner Gabriel highlighted two relevant social media campaigns from  the Creative Europe programme  -  'Creative Europe at Home' and 'Europe’s culture – close to you'.  The campaigns address specific challenges facing the cultural sector as a result of the crisis - Creative Europe at Home promotes the sector’s rich online response to engaging with its audiences as its doors closed temporarily during the crisis, while Europe’s culture – close to you promotes sustainable cultural tourism by highlighting Europe’s rich cultural treasures. 

As the Commissioner noted,  ‘Given that cultural tourism generates 40% of the EU’s entire tourism income it is crucial that the cultural and creative sectors transform to respond to the current situation. Offering online or hybrid activities attractive to wide audiences is - and will remain - key .’ 

Digital education and its challenges 

Like the cultural heritage sector, the education sector has been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The sudden changes to classroom access have compelled teachers and their organisations to quickly rethink and adapt teaching methods and curricula to new virtual scenarios. Basic competences like digital skills and critical thinking are increasingly relevant. 

Now, teachers and educators face an increased need to find alternative content and ways to engage with their students. One solution is the use of online material such as the collections offered by Europeana. 

Commissioner Gabriel said, ‘When we talk about Europeana, I’m thinking immediately about the extraordinary necessity of these kinds of platforms, where we have high quality content. The question is how to make this content accessible, that means that at the basis we have some challenges.’  

Those challenges are varied, ranging from connectivity issues in certain areas of Europe, to limited interest in introducing cultural heritage as educational material into curricula, a decision that is up to each Member State. All of these are taken into consideration in the Commissioner’s new Educational Action Plan (2021-2027),  which outlines the EC’s  vision for higher quality, more accessible and inclusive digital education in Europe. The plan aims to foster the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem and enhance the digital skills and competences needed for digital transformation.  

The Commissioner sees the benefits. She said, ‘With the proposal of the Educational Action plan we are giving ourselves a chance this time, to have at least a common framework, to have at least a common platform where we can share what already exists and spread this, to make this platform and Europeana more accessible, more inclusive.’ 

Producing, transforming and reusing digital content for education is where it all starts, but by no means where it ends, said Commissioner Gabriel: ‘Fostering creativity through education is so important. That’s why I want to launch new initiatives to allow people to see artists, film makers and other creators at work. I fully believe that we, as politicians, cannot generate the same kind of stars in children’s eyes as when they get to experience how great works of art are made. Yet again: there’s work to be done and more resources are needed in order to support, nourish and endorse creative talent.’

Synergies and collaboration

With a passionate plea for an intensified collaboration between the cultural heritage, educational and research sectors and their respective funding structures, the Commissioner acknowledged the need for further discussion and formalised synergies. 

‘These times of corona have shown once more that, when it comes to synergies, we should not only talk but start operationalizing and implementing. Why not create a European network by building upon existing projects and teams, to help avoid errors and capitalise on best practices towards a real sustainable effort?’

Representing different actors that meet at the crossroads of digital cultural heritage, the Europeana XX consortium strongly supports such a cross-domain, collaborative approach, that has already proved to be an invaluable asset at project level.  

To find out more about the work of Europeana XX, explore their project page on Europeana Pro. To be part of the conversation on the opportunities and challenges facing the cultural heritage sector as a result of the crisis, sign up for Europeana 2020  ‘Crisis, Change and Culture’

This post was written by Jan Błaszczak, Sofie Taes and Aisha Villegas.

Europeana XX - Century of Change wishes to explicitly thank Commissioner Gabriel and her cabinet, as well as journalists Bregtje van der Haak (Documentary director - VPRO Television) and Michal Klimko (Cultural journalist - POLITYKA Polish news), and Ellen Harrington (Director of DFF - Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum) for their contributions.