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Sharing authority

User-generated images as future cultural heritage?

SARAH GIERSING, RESEARCH LIBRARIAN AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PHOTOGRAPHY, THE ROYAL LIBRARY (DENMARK)


User participation has become an important way to enrich the knowledge, collections, and experiences museums have to offer, but working with user generated content also entails challenges. The Museum of Copenhagen has developed an interactive installation called The WALL which invites people to explore the city’s history and share their own images of what urban life looks like today. It has been a great success, while at the same time raising complex questions: Should the users’ contributions be included in the museum’s collections, and how should the museum handle rights issues of thousands of images largely generated by anonymous users?



Sharing is about more than ensuring that museum collections are accessible. It is about sharing authority with the users; the authority to read, interpret, and improve these collections. Today, many museums employ user involvement in their education and dissemination activities, but only few invite users to enter into the realms of other core areas such as recording and collection activities. This means that user participation only rarely creates a lasting change in museums and their collections.

Since 2010, the Museum of Copenhagen has featured a unique platform for education and interaction in the city space: the WALL. Users have uploaded many thousands of pictures to the WALL, and these pictures help expand the museum’s presentation of the city’s cultural heritage, adding a plethora of new perspectives. But what will happen to the users’ pictures when the project reaches the end of its cycle?


The WALL as platform

The WALL is a digital, interactive outdoor exhibition that is regularly moved to different locations in Copenhagen over the course of a fouryear period. The WALL consists of a customised shipping container fitted with four large touch screens that provide access to the contents of an open database. At present, this database contains approximately 20,000 photos and video clips of Copenhagen taken from the museum’s own collections and from user profiles. On the screens, all passersby can browse and explore the many pictures through an interface designed as a dreamlike collage depiction of the city. This interface provides users with the opportunity to navigate the materials in an intuitive fashion, pursuing their own individual routes across the city’s different periods and topographies. The WALL’s virtual universe reflects the city as a personal experience – users decide for themselves whether they wish to visit their childhood street, explore archaeological excavations in the city, or go see their favourite animals at the zoo.*1 [1]

[1] The WALL by Queen Louise’s Bridge, Copenhagen. CC BY 4.0 Jacob Parby.

[1] The WALL by Queen Louise’s Bridge, Copenhagen.
CC BY 4.0 Jacob Parby.

The WALL is a platform where interpreting the city’s cultural heritage becomes a communal task. In addition to exploring the many images, users can also comment on the materials and add their own content to the database. The users’ pictures are presented on an equal footing with images from the museum collections. No editing or approval process precedes their publication on the WALL. The images must be linked to the city of Copenhagen, but other than that no firm criteria are imposed on their contents; users are free to choose what they wish to share. Since the WALL was first launched in 2010, it has received more than 6,000 user-generated images. Unsurprisingly, the users’ images are very varied – and they are usually also quite different from the museum’s own collection of images.


The Museum of Copenhagen’s images

The image archive at the Museum of Copenhagen holds more than 300,000 pictures illustrating the history and topography of Copenhagen. In theory. this collection should encompass the city’s history right up to the present day, but the vast majority of pictures in the archives are from the period 1880 to 1950. The photographs mainly show buildings, streets, and monuments – and, to some extent, important events – from the city.

The pictures in the archives were taken by professional photographers. Later, they were selected and curated by a member of the museum staff with particular expertise on the city’s development over time and the changes it has undergone. As part of that process the photographs were imbued with a special authority as truth bearing documents; they werereaffirmed as materials that would show posterity what the city used to look like. But the city depicted in these black-and-white photographs – the information they offer us today – can largely be reduced to the city’s physical structures; to its paving, its asphalt, and its bricks.


Users’ own images

Most of the images uploaded by users also depict the public urban space. But they do so in different ways from the ones we are used to seeing at the museum. The user-generated images are almost all taken by amateurs, and most of them represent contemporary life.

The users’ images have been taken and shared as part of today’s digital culture where documenting your everyday life has become standard practice. That practice can be viewed as a radical democratisation of the photograph as a medium; a new departure after the so-called Kodak era where most amateur snapshots were taken in connection with special events and ended up in the family photo album.*2 Today, almost everyone in the Western world take photographs of a much wider field of activities, and sharing images with a broad circle of friends – or even strangers – has become a widespread practice. This cultural development is reflected on the WALL.

The many images of street art and graffiti uploaded to the WALL showcases our contemporary digital culture. Here, digitally created photographs are taken and shared at the very moment the event takes place before the camera, and many of the users’ images document ephemeral and transient events in the city. Illegal ornamentation of the public space is a controversial issue and is hotly debated on the WALL. However, there can be no doubt that it is a significant cultural trend in modern cities. Nevertheless, the Museum of Copenhagen has not yet allocated resources to documenting and collecting examples of graffiti. Now, with the WALL as their platform, public users are well on their way to performing that task themselves.


The topography of belonging

Users’ gazes often capture motifs that can also be found among the historical photographs. But because the users’ images reflect citizens’ own perspectives on the city, they sometime act as corrections and supplements to the museum’s collections. For example, the Museum of Copenhagen has posted images on the WALL of homeless people taken by police photographers around 1900. These pictures show the authorities’ records of homeless people and offer a glaring contrast to the contemporary images taken by a present-day homeless person. Similarly, an interesting dialogue arises between historical press photos of the great unemployment protest marches of the 1930’s and the pictures taken by a partcipant in a present-day demonstration. The users’ images offer insider views of the city. They help chart Copenhagen as it appears in the eyes of Copenhageners. A kind of topography of belonging that shows what it is like to have Copenhagen as your home today.*3


Worth sharing, worth saving?

User-generated content imbues the existing collections with new energy and life. These images offer glimpses into the personal experience of living in the city today. And they serve as supplements and errata to the narratives already found in the museum archives. But of course not all user images are equally interesting to all people; a truism that also applies to the historic images.

It often happens that the relevance of individual images is challenged on the WALL. The issue of what merits sharing is discussed in the users’ comments. Consensus is rarely reached, but the discussion is important, for it makes the process of defining and interpreting our cultural heritage visible, and the representation it engenders becomes collaborative and dialogic by nature.

The WALL has been very successful as a tool for multivocal communication. But perhaps it can also serve as a tool for the museum’s collecting activities? If the user-generated content is preserved it can pass on information about present-day Copenhagen to future generations; information that includes contrasting images and several different perspectives. The material also documents the process of selection and illustrates how collection and documentation is always based in specific points of view. Perhaps the WALL, considered as a tool for collection, might point in the direction of a more democratic production of cultural heritage – one where tenured experts are not the only ones with the authority to decide what is worth collecting and preserving? [2]


Impediments to collecting

The Museum of Copenhagen wishes to work closely with the citizens of Copenhagen. The museum also wishes to expand the collections with more content capable of communicating the citizens’ personal stories about life in Copenhagen in the early 21st century. That is why it seems an obvious choice to collect the users’ images from the WALL.

Nevertheless, we often come up against a range of practical impediments and barriers when it comes to integrating users’ images in the museum collections. All of these are associated with the rapid developments seen within digital culture these years. The main challenges have to do with metadata, rights, and formats.

The WALL was designed to be a visual medium where the written language was to be given as little weight as possible in order to avoid any language barriers. Because of this, we do not require users to attach long texts to their uploaded pictures. However, this also means that the metadata associated with each user-uploaded photograph is quite rudimentary. We often only have the photograph itself, a few tags, and a brief title, and this information does not always reveal much about the user’s intention with uploading that particular photo. When collecting and recording material such metadata falls rather short of the mark because it tells us very little about the provenance and context of the materials. This can make it difficult for future generations to comprehend and rediscover the material.

The issue of rights is another complication when collecting user-gener- ated content. When users upload their pictures to the WALL, they automatically accept that their pictures can be used by the museum while they themselves retain full copyright. In order to ensure the smoothest and simplest upload process possible, the WALL does not integrate a particular licensing system such as Creative Commons.*4 This means that in practice the user-generated material belongs to a large group of different individuals, and this will make it quite difficult to handle for future archivists and audiences. The museum cannot verify whether users actually hold the rights to the images, and it does not have the right to pass on the images to be used by third parties. Also, the users have no influence on the obligation of the museum to ensure that future generations can access the materials.

Finally, there is the question of technical quality and preservation. In order to ensure high speed and usability, all the photographs uploaded to the database are reformatted and compressed to make the files more manageable in size. However, this reduces image resolutions, and original data are lost. Even though it seems likely that the format itself (JPEG) will remain viable and readable for many years to come, the upload process distorts the quality and originality of the photographs. Of course, this imposes certain limits on how the materials can be used in the future.

[2] The WALL in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen.  CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff

[2] The WALL in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen.
CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff

The difference between collecting and visitor experience

The technical issues that impede the inclusion of user generated images in the museum’s collection reflect the difference between creating visitor experience and collecting. Like so many other user-involving activities, the WALL was designed to place its main emphasis on the sharing of knowledge rather than the gathering of documentation. The project was planned in order to create a good user experience that made immediate sense to audiences. However, the long-term issues pertaining to collecting, recording, and preserving heritage objects were not accommodated to the same extent.

It is likely that the years to come will see many more projects that focus on user participation and user-generated content. We can only hope, then, that museums will become better at bridging the gap between the different premises applying to dissemination and collecting practices. Doing so would allow initiatives like the WALL to create rich and multivoiced experiences in the here and now – while also ensuring that the users’ contributions will have a lasting impact on the shared cultural heritage of the future.


NOTES

*1  An overview of the design and concept of the WALL can be found in Jette Sandahl et al.: Taking the Museum to the Streets, paper presented at Museums and the Web 2011: http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2011/papers/taking_the_museum_to_the_streets
*2  For a survey of the changing roles of vernacular photography, see Risto Sarvas, From Snapshots to Social Media – the Changing Picture of Domestic Photography, London 2011.
*3  All images – both users’ and the museum’s – can be viewed on the website of the WALL at http://www.copenhagen.dk/dk/
*4  Read more about the CC licenses in Martin von Haller Grønbæk’s article p. 141 ff.

Updated: 15.oct.2014
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