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2 minutes to read Posted on Wednesday September 2, 2020

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Graham Bell

Graham Bell

Director , Cultura Trust

Online formats and the GLAM sector in the time of COVID-19

In June, Europeana brought together 60 cultural heritage professionals from across Europe for a special series of peer-to-peer workshops on ‘Digital transformation in the time of COVID-19’. In this post, participant Graham Bell reflects on how the GLAM sector can work with online communications channels and explores how the Cultura Trust has adapted to this ‘new normal’.

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Europeana Strategy meeting “Migration and culture: how can our past educate our present”
Sebastiaan Ter Burg
Europeana Foundation

Online formats and digital transformation 

The workshops on digital transformation adopted the platform we all have come to depend upon – the online video conference. It has become our lifeline, our relief-valve, our means of working from home, our down-time leisure and talking to grandma (once she was given the kit and instructions). Some, like me, have discovered that rural broadband is narrow and fickle. We have found that digital is indeed transformative but has its caveats.

COVID-19 has posed an existential threat to the GLAM sector – none of us saw this coming. No amount of institutional risk preparedness or blue-sky focus groups prepared us. Those with a readymade infrastructure could transpose their activity from venues into virtual; those that couldn’t went into hibernation to preserve essential life-energy. The jury is still out about where this will lead – whether we can regain control over our destiny, albeit in a ‘new normal’, or be swept along by prevailing forces. Existential threats by definition pose uncomfortable challenges: are we fit for purpose?

If I polarise workshop participants’ reactions to COVID-19, there are those who of necessity or habit concentrate on the next step. Then there are those who look for the distant horizon and speculate: if COVID-19 has the audacity to undermine every premise upon which we have built integrated civilisations, layer upon layer, are the established parameters by which we live now about to be superseded? Being transformative needs managers and visionaries. 

As a reflection of societal values, the GLAM sector needs to inform debate as well as action. This is the domain of the Europeana Initiative. Zoom is good in these circumstances for maintaining dialogue, but it has a flaw. To work, Zoom interactions must be structured. The content of the workshops and the willingness of participants to share openly has reinforced just how incredibly important the Europeana Network Association is as a peer-to-peer community journeying together, especially in the time of COVID-19, into the unknown. Let us not underestimate the value of togetherness which communication can imbibe. 

A transformative time for the sector

The more enlightened GLAMs have recognised the sector is living through a transformative time in which recording of history (knowledge) and experiences (meaning) is a calling. The workshops have revealed innovative thinking across the sector, transforming the responsibility of play-safe into the inspiration of play-on. No longer (and for the foreseeable future) can GLAMs play curatorial host to curious visitors; telling stories can no longer be the monologue of the informed to attentive audiences. From climate change to home schooling and working, society has seen what ‘reset all defaults’ looks like, so audiences are not what they were pre-pandemic. 

At the heart of every GLAM are stories. Cultura Trust has over 50 years of them. As an NGO developing relationships between place-people-collections using our properties in the heart of communities, the stories range from a Roman settlement to centuries of cornmilling, to the industrial revolution. The default would have been to scan some objects and embed a narrative of them in our websites, but that still presupposes our audiences took the initiative to visit us online. Instead (in a low key way, because we are a small organisation with just a few place-based collections) we were the initiators – through social media, interactive dialogue platforms, webinars with locked-down postgraduate students, MEPs; we became the story. Not everyone needs or has a big budget but COVID-19 has gifted us time to think. We are our most valuable resource for knowledge, and dialogue with audiences is where meaning is born through new stories about the time of COVID-19.

The workshops have shown digital to be strong on resilient sharing of knowledge but less so in the sustaining of relationships. GLAMs are an expression of humanity, which is why I empathise most with ‘Edge Scenario 1’ - a possible future for digital cultural heritage, outlined by workshop participants, where audiences, social engagement, and societal outcomes are paramount. We may be learning from COVID-19 but a more digital-savvy public no longer see themselves as only audiences/consumers: they now expect to be enabled by GLAM. For me, and I believe for Europeana, digital means transforming knowledge into meaning.

Find out more

Register to ensure you are the first to hear when we publish the outcomes of the digital transformation workshops and about other opportunities to contribute to the project. You can also read more about work we have been doing to make sense of the workshops over the summer in our Pro post