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2 minutes to read Posted on Monday August 26, 2019

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Wendy Byrne

Wendy Byrne

Former Editorial Officer a.i. , Europeana Foundation

portrait of Sofie Taes

Sofie Taes

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

portrait of Valentina Bachi

Valentina Bachi

Contact point for Photoconsortium , Photoconsortium - International Consortium for Photographic Heritage

Storytelling, co-creation and participation: putting the theory to the test

 As part of our series this month on digital storytelling, Sofie Taes and Valentina Bachi join us from Photoconsortium – part of the collaborative team behind ‘WeAre#EuropeForCulture’ – to share how they’re blending crowdsourced heritage with institutional heritage to bring stories across Europe to life.

main image

In January 2019, a small but enthusiastic partner consortium kicked off ‘WeAre#EuropeForCulture’: a project funded by the European Commission as a continuation of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018.

Off on a journey

The project takes an innovative approach toward user-engagement, focussed on getting hard-to-reach target audiences involved with (digital) cultural heritage. At the heart of it is a series of co-creation sessions held in 10 European cities, allowing for crowdsourced heritage to be mixed with institutional heritage and shown side-by-side in virtual pop-up exhibitions. The pan-European tour of WeAre#EuropeForCulture is now at its midway point, relying on diligent preparation of co-creation scenarios, tailor-made workshop solutions and state-of-the-art technology for every successful leg. 

Apart from lessons learnt and targets reached, the main thing we take away from this experience so far is the marvel of the co-creative process, the value of face-to-face, onsite contact and the enthusiasm of communities realising that personal stories and local culture are indeed ‘heritage’ in their own right.

A team with big aspirations

It’s very much a team effort. Next to the project members, a wide network of partners across Europe is involved to realise the events in important European cities. While project coordinator KU Leuven looks after workshop methodology development, storytelling and curation, Photoconsortium co-ordinates the collaboration with its network of institutional members for the organisation of co-creation sessions and exhibitions, and manages communication activities. Technical partner Noterik provides the support and tools needed to produce the crowdsourced content and virtual exhibitions.

The content is being created during workshops using QANDR – a dynamic and interactive discussion tool. It is then shared via MuPop – an application that allows you to use a TV screen as an exhibition showcase, enabling passersby to interact with it via their own smartphones. A local partner in each city gets to select the basic theme of the co-creation session, as well as which local user communities to engage with, the eligible photo collections and an exhibition format (a ‘deck of cards’ featuring up to seven narrative chapters, a ‘hotspot’ with one picture featuring multiple stories, or a ‘quiz’). The project team then provides a complete setup and follow-up toward the end result: an up-and-running exhibition, in which visual material is combined with audio clips carrying the narrative.

Introduction to MuPop at the National Széchényi Library in Budapest, April 2019

On the road

So far, workshops and exhibitions have taken place in Amsterdam, Budapest, Sofia, Hameenlinna, Krakow and Pisa. Throughout the series, we’ve encountered a wide variety of communities – from university students and high-school classes to children with a hearing impairment, to senior citizens and former prisoners. They have collected and transformed a broad range of stories including 1989 in Budapest, the Cyrillic alphabet, life in prison, memories of the Arno river and leisurely outdoor activities. Both our team and our workshop attendees were amazed by the energy and opportunities generated by the co-creative process. The technological tools and personal contacts foster discussion and creativity, and allow for an almost immediate conversion from idea into visual, from visual into audio narrative, and from all that into ready-to-use exhibition. This experience demonstrates the potential and importance of storytelling in the field of cultural heritage. The key to a successful implementation is, in our view, a multi-layered and multi-focal concept, in which digital meets physical, history meets reality, curator meets user, and information meets emotion. 

Casus Pisa

Emotion was an important driver in the selection of exhibition themes by our local partners. In each case, we aimed at appealing to the targeted communities by choosing topics to which they could easily and immediately relate. In the case of the Pisa exhibition, created by Photoconsortium, the theme was the river Arno as a life companion to Pisa citizens over the centuries: from regattas to floods, to bathing and fishing, to the yearly celebration of local saint San Ranieri and the ‘Gioco del Ponte’ - a traditional game recalling ancient military simulations, played by participants dressed in 16th century Spanish costumes. Unfortunately, in recent decades the river has become severely polluted; today bathing, swimming and fishing aren’t recommended, but traditional festivities continue to be held along the river and its bridges. For the WeAre#EuropeForCulture effort, we wanted to involve senior citizens who have experienced the river in full, and create interaction with younger generations so as to let them exchange views and stories.

To that end, a crowdsourcing campaign geared toward senior Pisa citizens took place in April and May, to collect photographs, stories and objects about the Arno. This was conducted on a one-to-one basis, meeting each person at home for interviews and collection of memorabilia. Through these encounters and the materials received, we identified a series of recurring topics that formed the foundations of the exhibition chapters. Then a co-creation session on 31 May brought together the senior contributors with teenagers, to explore how the river was experienced in the past and how the current generation relates to local traditions. In addition, collaboration was established with local associations (the Rowing Society, the Photoclub, and the photo archive of a local press photographer), collectors of vintage photographs and local history buffs, who were also invited to the joint co-creation session. It was a happy and creative meeting. We shared a preliminary selection of the collected images and proposed the exhibition chapters. The feedback was overwhelming, because everybody wanted to share their thoughts and memories, each comment generating others. Some of the senior participants already knew each other, while others discovered distant kinships or common friends. And the youngsters were captivated by the sometimes bizarre and passionate stories from the time of their grandparents. 

The co-creation session allowed us to finalise the exhibition setup. Family photos were digitised and combined with archival material available on Europeana Collections. In the course of the selection process the material was reorganised into three features: an interactive exhibition; a showreel of heritage photographs; and a physical display of printed photographs and heritage objects.

Regata di San Ranieri #1
Boat-race of Saint Ranieri #1 | Regata di San Ranieri #1
Promoter Digital Gallery
Regata di San Ranieri #1

The audio narrative of the interactive exhibition required some more research. We wanted to maintain the engaging, familiar and vernacular atmosphere of the co-creation session, while incorporating more ‘formal’ content as well. We envisaged quotations from literature, history and the arts, co-existing with typical mottos and colloquial sayings, as well as cultural and artistic photos set next to informal pictures from family albums. The biggest challenge was to make the narrative meaningful, entertaining and short: less than one minute per chapter was the recommended duration in view of the MuPop requirements (and the average attention span of today’s users). 

On 28 June the exhibition was successfully launched. Originally planned to run until 21 July, the Museum of Graphics decided to extend it until the end of August following public acclaim. For anyone interested but unable to travel to Tuscany before the closing date, the photographs and Italian texts of ‘Arno, compagno di vita’ are published here


Midway. That means a whole lot of memories and experiences taken on board, but still a lot to look forward to as well! Apart from four more similar events planned in the second part of this year (Basel, Vilnius, Girona and Nicosia), a special project effort is being made in Amsterdam – the home base of Noterik. There we are continuously following the arc of the project, allowing for the project methodologies to be tested and proven before being implemented in each new location. This way, the ongoing development of the technology, the setup and the co-creative strategy can be observed in a controlled environment. A final event will be organised in Brussels in February 2020: a culmination and combination of stories and media, intended as a forum for sharing experiences, fostering replication and inspiring new initiatives.  

For the coming months, we look forward to joining students and seniors, migrant communities and emerging artists, GLAM pros and novice culture consumers to revel in stories about sports, rituals, family portraits, changing cityscapes and community spirit. Whatever awaits us, we can already say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating: co-creation works – in theory and in practice. For both storytelling and its intended audience, tools such as QANDR and MuPop provide new ways to connect to a more engaged, more widely shared heritage experience.

Join us on Friday 13 September at 10:00 CEST, when Europeana Communicators, a specialist community of the Europeana Network Association, presents a ‘Solve-It Session’ on digital storytelling. This hour-long webinar helps participants promote digital cultural heritage by sharing knowledge, tools and best practices.