Digital cultural heritage
Long perspectives and sustainability
JACOB R. WANG, HEAD OF DIGITAL MEDIA, THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF DENMARK
How do we ensure sustainability in the GLAM sector in the digital age? Based on his work at The National Museum of Denmark, Jacob reflects on how cultural heritage institutions best brace themselves to meet new user demands and expectations. His advice includes leaving silo culture and develop shared systems, investing thoughtfully in few but sustainable platforms, and actively engaging people who can and will do something else with cultural heritage than we as institutions are used to or capable of. Among other things, Jacob recounts how he worked on establishing the first Danish cultural heritage hackathon, #hack4dk, where programmers and developers are encouraged to hack cultural heritage data and mash them up in new and often unexpected constellations.
The invention and popularisation of computers and the Internet has given us a range of new and powerful tools. Tools that we in the cultural heritage sector should use as widely and wisely as possible.
By “widely” I mean that digital tools can and should be used within (virtually) all forms of work conducted at archives, libraries, and museums. This calls for ongoing development of our museum practices and of the tools we employ to mine the potential offered by digital technology.
By “wisely” I mean that we should, quite naturally, take note of the lessons learned from the last 15 to 20 years of work within the digital realm, using them to act more efficiently and sustainably in the future.
In the Forever Business
As archives, libraries, and museums, we are responsible for collecting, preserving, and presenting art, cultural history, collections, stories, and phenomena. This work forms the basis for our endeavours to generate e.g. research and knowledge, and we are also charged with ensuring easy, open, and free access for everyone to the material we accumulate and manage; a task which we undertake on behalf of society as such.
As (largely) publicly funded memory institutions, it is our right and indeed our duty to adopt an unusually long-term perspective in our activities. Our task is not just to be relevant and sought-after resources in the here and now; we must also strive to evolve and expand our opportunities for action in the future – for the sake of generations yet to come.
When considering our work within an infinite timeframe – adopting “eternity” as our yardstick – this hones a sense of the importance of long-term viability in our activities. It does us no good to launch elaborate digital projects that very soon become obsolete and forgotten, and I strongly believe that far too many of our activities apply a much too narrow focus on present-day user groups and the current experience economy. Creating disposable projects is not in itself a problem – exhibitions are an excellent example – but such projects should always incorporate elements of lasting value. However brief and short-term their scope, our projects should always relate to and actively contribute to our long-term and future activities as archives, libraries, and museums. As museum professionals, one of our key ambitions must be to have our future colleagues, some of whom have not yet been born, look back and thank us for the important and significant work we did back in the roaring 00s, 10s, and 20s.
Lessons learned in the 90s and 00s
So what have we learned over the years? What insights have we achieved that can and should guide our future work?
We have learned that it is very difficult to create websites that achieve widespread use and relevance. This is particularly difficult if the sites launched are part of projects with a limited time span, meaning that they are not updated and amended on an ongoing basis. Denmark is flooded by old, ailing and rusty websites developed by archives, libraries, and museums over the years, and the simple reason why they are not being used rests on the fact that they do indeed look like something that was created years ago. If you set out to look for sites that are more than five years old, yet still actively used, you will need to search for a long time to find one, and you will not find many. Overall, I think it is perfectly acceptable that many of the digital products developed in the past no longer meet our users’ requirements, but I do find it sad – not to mention ludicrous – that the thousands of hours spent by curators and educators creating content are now lying buried alongside the many dead interfaces. This has taught us that flexibility and opportunities for reusing content is important and that we should not waste energy developing an endless string of websites; rather, we should focus on concerted and continual commitment to a few really good websites.
On a related note, we have learned that existing platforms and media work perfectly well and allow us to achieve far more for far less: Videos on YouTube, images on Flickr, Pinterest and Instagram, dialogue and conversation on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, article-based communication and information on Wikipedia, etc. We discussed these subjects intently a few years ago, but by now they have simply become part of our everyday practice. In other words, we have moved away from focusing on portals and our own websites as the basis for communication to focus instead on our digital presence on a wide range of sites and platforms.
We have learned that the scope for digital work is vast and continues to evolve, and that our collective desire is mutable and at times unpredictable. “Apps, apps, apps – we must have an app!”, “Augmented Reality – that’s the new thing. We’ve got to get us some of that”, “Touch-activated tables. They’re really nifty – shouldn’t we get one for our next exhibition?!” The examples are legion, and the eagerness to burn money on the latest thing is huge. I think it is great that Danish museums show such willingness to try out new things, but of course, we should not all be conducting the same experiments, and we should endeavour to establish firm and flexible foundations for low-cost experimentation. What usually happens, however, is that we all build our own technological solutions from scratch, which means that not only do we end up placing our content in separate, sealed-off silos; we also spend far too much money and effort on developing technical products that already exist.
Open data and hackathons
The last three to five years have seen extensive discussion on the issue of open access to data; this anthology is a good example of its prominence on our agendas. As archives, libraries, and museums, we manage cultural (heritage) data that can be relevant and useful in many contexts, and we recognise that we should endeavour to work strategically with e.g. copyright issues, open access, and infrastructure in order to allow our data to be brought into play as a fundamental resource for society. 
In the autumn of 2012, the Danish State Archives, the Royal Library in Copenhagen, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Danish Agency for Culture held Denmark’s first-ever cultural heritage hackathon. Inspired by Europeana’s many hackathons (#hack4eu), we chose to call this event #hack4dk. We invited programmers, IT developers, designers, concept developers, etc. to take part in 24 hours of intense labour based on open cultural heritage data. There was a dual objective behind the event. On the one hand, we wished to see whether volunteer enthusiasts who may not necessarily have any prior relationship with art and cultural history could even be bothered to take part in activities staged by us. Outreach activities aimed at this target group are a new experience for us, and so we were quite interested to see whether anyone would actually turn up for the event and whether we could make it seem meaningful and entertaining for them. If we were successful in reaching this objective, we also wished to receive constructive criticism of the technical basis for external usage we had already established in the form of public APIs. 
The digital museum as platform
As yet, only very few archives, libraries, and museums in Denmark offer open and easy access to data via sensible and useful websites. The proud vanguard consists of the Royal Danish Library, offering data from the project “Denmark viewed from above”, the Danish Agency for Culture with data from “Listed and landmark buildings in Denmark” and “Archaeological Finds and Ancient Monuments”, and the Historical Atlas society. I have every confidence that more will follow in their footsteps.*2
Up until now, we have focused a great deal of attention on what external partners and players can use “our” data for, but I believe that the same question might usefully be turned on its head: “What can we ourselves use a strong digital platform for – and the flexible access to data it entails?” The National Museum of Denmark’s wish to develop its digital platform should be considered within the context of the necessity of viable and sustainable digital developments – as well as the current agenda on open access to data. We wish to position ourselves as “our own best customers”, for our future presentation and communication projects will draw on content from the very same services we offer to third parties. In doing so, we will achieve a marked reduction of the costs associated with developing future websites and apps – for we will have the underlying master data firmly in place once and for all. Future projects will only need to defray the costs of developing interfaces that present the content – not for databases and services. We will be able to carry out experiments much faster and cheaper – just as the “hackers” at #hack4dk could quickly and efficiently create prototypes and beta versions of potential communication products.
As cultural institutions, we constantly find ourselves divided between two different objectives: On the one hand, we must honour contemporary society’s demands that require us to be relevant, useful, and efficient. That we offer fun experiences, learning, and perspectives. On the other hand, we also have an obligation to future generations, which means that we are duty-bound to take a long-term, sustainable view of things. Digital technologies provide us with great opportunities for working wisely and efficiently within this dichotomy. ‘New media’ are no longer new, so let us take this simple fact as an occasion for taking a deep breath and carefully consider what kind of foundations we need as the basis for our work in the next five to ten years. For the National Museum of Denmark, the answer is quite simple: We need massive digitisation, infrastructure development, and open and easy access to collections, knowledge, and information for everyone.
[Translate to English:] Indtil nu har vi dog haft kraftigt fokus på, hvad eksterne partnere og aktører kan bruge “vores” data til, men jeg mener det tilsvarende indadvendte spørgsmål: “Hvad kan vi selv bruge en stærk digital platform og medfølgende fleksibel adgang til data til?” med fordel kan diskuteres og afprøves. Nationalmuseets ønske om at udvikle museets digitale platform skal således forstås på baggrund af nødvendigheden af bæredygtig digital udvikling og den nuværende agenda om åbne og frie data. Vi ønsker at positionere os som “vores egen bedste kunde”, idet fremtidige formidlingsprojekter tænkes at trække på indhold fra de samme udadvendte services, som vi tilbyder tredjepart adgang til. Vi opnår derved en markant reduktion af omkostningerne forbundet med udvikling af fremtidige sites og apps, idet datagrundlaget etableres én gang for alle. Fremtidige projekter vil således alene skulle afholde omkostninger til udvikling af grænseflader til indhold – ikke databaser og services. Vi vil dermed kunne eksperimentere langt hurtigere og billigere, nøjagtig ligesom “hackerne” til #hack4dk hurtigt og effektivt kan skabe prototyper og beta-versioner af mulige formidlingsprodukter.
Som kultuarvsinstitutioner er vi konstant splittede mellem to hensyn. På den ene side skal vi honorere det nuværende samfunds krav om, at vi er relevante, brugbare og effektive. At vi leverer sjove oplevelser, læring og perspektiv. På den anden side er vi forpligtede over for fremtidens samfund og generationer, og har på den baggrund pligt til at tænke langsigtet og bæredygtigt. Digitale teknologier giver os gode muligheder for at arbejde klogt og effektivt med denne dobbelthed. De ‘nye medier’ er ikke nye længere, så lad os bruge den anledning til at tage en dyb indånding og overveje hvilket fundament, vi har brug for som grundlæggende for vores arbejde i de kommende 5-10 år. For Nationalmuseet er svaret simpelt og godt: Massiv digitalisering, infrastrukturudvikling, fri og nem adgang til viden og samlinger for alle.