Amidst accelerating technological innovation and the impact of COVID-19, memory institutions across the globe are being urged to embrace digital transformation. Many are investing more in digital projects for long-term preservation and to make heritage resources more widely available. Yet how can we know whether financial and human resources are being used effectively? Are our digital resources having societal impacts that align with an organisation’s mission? What forms of evidence can project teams use to improve quality and to ensure resource sustainability?
Developing holistic indicators that will help governments and memory institutions assess the multidimensional impact of digital heritage resources is one way to address these important questions. My PhD research investigates how to best assess the impact of digital heritage and focuses on digital museum resources in China - explore how I carried it out, and my findings, below.
Developing multidimensional impact indicators
Based on the Balanced-Value-Impact (BVI) Model and the framework adopted by the Europeana Impact Playbook, I took a mixed-method approach, combining desk research, survey and interviews. I used tools that accompany Phase one of the Impact Playbook, which help heritage organisations to consider the bigger picture (Strategic Perspectives) and more granular impact areas (the Value Lens).
After reviewing a wide range of source materials I developed four sets of indicators of impact each under the Strategic Perspectives of economic, social, innovation and operational. An indicator of economic impact could be tourism - promoting museums and local culture through digital resources and thereby attracting tourism; of social impact could be accessibility - an increase of public access to heritage resources through the internet; of innovation could be creativity, seeing the stimulation and development of public awareness of innovation and creativity; and of operational, effectiveness - an associated growth in the effectiveness of museum resource management.
To understand whether stakeholders found these indicators useful and their perceived importance, I conducted a survey (via an online questionnaire) of two groups and gained 494 perspectives from the wider public (the audience for heritage organisations) and 43 perspectives from museum professionals across China. I also conducted 30 follow-up interviews with 20 public participants and 10 museum professionals.
Findings and implications for heritage professionals
Both groups found the indicators I developed useful in demonstrating the various impacts digital museum resources can have; however, the importance given to the impact indicators varied between the two, offering some of the following conclusions.
The operational impact of digital heritage resources is becoming more important. Museum professionals rate operational impact the highest, while the public group rates rate social impact as the most important. However, there are increasing concerns among museum audiences about the operations of heritage organisations. Although 37.9% of the public participants rank operational impact the lowest, another 33.8%, (mostly young people), consider it the most important dimension.
Improvements should be made to increase the outward innovation impact of digital heritage resources. Although both groups ranked innovation impact the second most important dimension, they consider this type of impact to be more inward-facing and rate ‘Creativity – Stimulate and develop public awareness of innovation and creativity’ the lowest among all innovation impact indicators. In the follow-up interviews, participants from both groups suggested that digital resources are more useful for data management than for stimulating innovation in the way people live and work or their way of thinking. A recommendation is to develop more interactive digital resources and embed them in creative activities such as games and self-made artworks or creative adaptations online.
More convincing evidence should be generated to support economic impact claims. Both groups agree that economic impact is the least important dimension. Several interview participants mentioned that there hasn’t been enough convincing evidence to support the economic impact claims and expressed concerns about heritage organisations focusing too much on economic gain. This points to ongoing debates around the role of today’s museums as both educational institutions and economic engines.
We should adopt a more nuanced approach to understand the beneficiaries of digital impact rather than considering them as a homogeneous community. Delving deeper into the data, I found that the closer an individual lives to rural areas, the more they find digital heritage resources impactful. This echoes the data on frequency of museum visits: almost half of the participants living in villages or rural areas have never been to physical museums. Due to limited access to physical heritage resources, they are more likely to benefit from digital resources. It is therefore important for heritage professionals to ask not only who made the impacts but also who benefits from the impacts and to what extent.
Cultural context matters when understanding the values of digital heritage resources. I asked both groups to rate in order of importance the five Value Lenses. Education value was rated the highest and community value the lowest by both groups. This echoes the low average scores of indicators that embody the community value of digital museum resources. This may be due to the specific cultural setting of this research, as ‘community/community-building’ is not a familiar concept in China. It is important for heritage professionals to always take cultural context into account when understanding the values of digital heritage resources.
Find out more
If you have any questions or would like to know more about the project, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also explore the Europeana Impact Playbook.