2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday September 17, 2015

Updated on Friday July 13, 2018

Money, power and an elephant: DISH2015

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On 7-8 December, Rotterdam will play host to the international conference DISH2015 (Digital Strategies for Heritage). This year’s theme is ‘Money and Power’, with the intriguing subtitle, ‘We should talk about the elephant in the room’.

To find out more, we spoke to conference organiser Marco de Niet from Digital Heritage Netherlands (DEN).

Tell us a bit about the conference you’re organising, DISH… What’s it all about? How is Europeana involved? How about DEN? And what's your role?

The origins of DISH go back to 2004, when DEN organised the first Digital Heritage Conference in the Netherlands. This was a conference in Dutch for Dutch heritage professionals. After five successful conferences in a row, we teamed up with another organisation in the Netherlands in 2009 to organise an international conference on digital strategies across the entire heritage sector. There were already quite a few other good international conferences, but most of them were aimed at a specific domain (e.g. MuseumNext) or at innovation and research practices. We wanted to address the impact of the digital shift on memory organisations.

The first DISH was a smashing success with, to our amazement, over 600 participants. Obviously, we had struck the right chord. So we decided, from then on, to alternate national conferences with international conferences.

Europeana was a member of the DISH Advisory Board from the beginning, and if I remember correctly, it was Jill Cousins herself who came up with the name Digital Strategies for Heritage and its acronym DISH. After our partner institution was forced to close its doors in 2012, it felt natural to invite Europeana to become the new co-organiser, together with The New Institute for Architecture, Design and E-Culture, which was based in Rotterdam, the city where DISH traditionally takes place. And fortunately, they both accepted this invitation. So here we are in 2015, with the fourth edition of DISH.

High spirits at DISH2013. Image: DEN.

Who is DISH designed for? What is your target group?

The primary target group are the heritage professionals that take decisions on the nature of and investments in digital activities. Instead of discussing the 'how', we wanted the conference participants to address the 'why'.

In 2009 we already knew that it didn't suffice to just digitise your collections to create value for your user groups. Social media had taken the world by storm, and the information landscape was changing rapidly. With the conference, we wanted the cultural heritage institutions to look beyond the process of digitisation and support them to find new answers to new questions about their role in the information society and the digital relationships with their users.

Besides heritage professionals, we also try to make the conference attractive for policy-makers at governments and funds, and representatives from adjacent domains, such as education, science and the creative industries.

If there is one thing I am really proud of with DISH, it is this fact that we have succeeded in facilitating the exchange of knowledge and ideas at the strategic level across the entire heritage domain and beyond.

Exchanging knowledge and ideas at DISH2013. Image: DEN.

This year’s theme is 'Money and Power'. What was the inspiration behind this theme? How does it tie into the conference’s broader interest in memory institutions and their digital strategies?

The inspiration for the title came from two sources. In the past few years, I noticed that the self awareness and self confidence of memory institutions, and especially of archives, was on the up again.

While the global information infrastructures are getting privatised at an incredible speed, the memory institutions, who are the keepers of our cultural, scientific and social legacies, were making more and more prominent statements about their unique public role in it, by addressing issues like open data, safeguarding authenticity, long term preservation and the cultural commons. However, it is no secret that our lobby with the national and European governments is not always highly organised and effective. So we thought it would be a good idea to address the empowerment of the heritage sector at the next DISH.

At that point in time, I was reading Robert Darnton's The Case for Books. There is a memorable anecdote in the book about a female colleague of his (when he was the librarian at Harvard University) who, because of her somewhat stereotypical appearance as a librarian, often was often asked condescending questions about what it’s like to be a librarian.
And her answer: it's all about money and power!

So there you have it: digital strategies for heritage are not just about improving access to digital collections for our user groups, they are also about safeguarding specific characteristics of our information society.

It sounds like you really want to shake people up at DISH and make them challenge certain ideas. Do you want people to go away thinking, or shouting?

A bit of both. Heritage professionals are not the kind of people to shout out loud about what they are doing, but I have serious concerns about the way we can fulfil our future roles if we don't become better advocates of what we are all about and what our work truly represents.

Hopefully some speakers or sessions will help them to reflect some more on questions that are at the heart of our profession in the digital age. And again hopefully this reflection will then resonate in a way that will help reinforce their cases with their governments and other funders.

So, what is the elephant in the room that you want to address?

That the outside world may not be as convinced as we are about our future roles in the information society, and that we need to be willing to address issues of money and power to make our case!

Once the delegates are converted to an army of renegades, how do you hope they will take that momentum back to their day jobs?

DISH can only provide a 2-day platform for dialogue, discussion and inspiration. The true source of money and power for memory institutions lies in the municipalities, the regions, the countries, the European Union and other contexts in which they operate day by day.

Hopefully,after DISH2015, the participants will feel motivated to actively seek public support for the work they are doing and to capitalize on their unique role in the information society, which is to connect, in an open and trustworthy way, the past - in the present - with the future. Without that role, which sets us apart from the Googles, the Facebooks and the Amazons, life will become one-dimensional. We will all be treated as information consumers in the here and the now instead of cultural citizens with a historic conscience and a responsibility for future generations.

Registration for the conference is open - get your tickets here.