Cultural heritage, digital technologies and multiple meanings – a pathway to cultural citizenship

09/07/2021 12:00 pm

Digital technologies provide an exciting field for collaborative work. Crossing media literacy, cultural heritage and critical discussion, we enable narratives. This approach must be part of the educational and mediation programmes’ mission.

Cultural heritage is deeply linked to the way societies remember – and forget. The past is a social construction shaped by the concerns of the present (Tota, 2003). As Tota puts it, the cultural shapes of memories (i.e. a memorial, a monument, a diary, a public display) are the spaces and the places where power relations affect the social representation of the past (ibidem). As such, cultural heritage is a public space, even when it has restricted access. It has an ideological frame more than a physical dimension, closely linked to our basic preassumptions as a living, evolving society.

So we can triangulate a cultural heritage by three vectors – political, ideological and public relation – deeply connected with policies’ making and state functions’ maintenance. But we also have to discuss its potential for engagement, participation and cultural citizenship. These dimensions closely link to cultural heritage as spaces of social relevance that foster creativity, debate, citizen participation and democracy, support grassroots initiatives, and add to the quality of life, as stated in ENCC Manifesto “Culture for Shared, Smart, Innovative Territories 2020”.

This diversity is essential for a sound, democratic society. As the “Cultural Deal” document states, Europe is, above anything, a values-based union. In dire times, we must defend European Values in the most challenging circumstances, with diversity, equality, and freedom of speech at its core.

Together with media and academic freedom, artistic freedom provides an essential counterweight to injustice and oppression, raises awareness, challenges perceptions, and stimulates public debates.We should relate to cultural heritage accordingly. On the one hand, recognise the historical and artistic context, framing within a scientific approach. On the other hand, accept that we can discuss representations and their monuments freely in democracy.

This approach must be part of the educational and mediation programmes’ mission. It is a broader and richer vision that makes the visitors active participants. As Zolberg (1990) puts it, while focusing on artwork, these are social processes. Therefore, they need contextualisation (a direct link to Tota’s assertion). We have the privilege of a critical relation with museum objects, as well as heritage sites. It is an integral part of democratic life and citizenship. Resorting to Eco (1979), we can link a reader-centric approach. Is the one that enjoys and explores it more relevant than the object? And shares these (new – real – unique) meanings with the world? What is the artists’ contribution to this dialogue?

Digital technologies play here a crucial role because they enable critical discussion and engagement outside the public discourses. They allow a personal and creative appropriation by its users, most of the times related to emotional and social connections. They also foster the creation of multiple meanings based on a physical object and public space, mapping new and, in some cases, divergent interpretations.

Education must be a whole part of the process. It may be slightly skewed from a more conventional approach where teachers and students are passive recipients of content. It must acknowledge the role of scientific research and credible information sources.
Again, digital technologies provide an exciting field for collaborative work. Crossing media literacy, cultural heritage and critical discussion, we enable narratives and establish scales – of time and place, power and urgency.

We also project our past into a shared future and reinforce our “togetherness” as part of a collective endeavour against significant challenges such as climate change, the rise of non-democratic groups and others. But it also must recognise that everything, every single word matters, the challenges and pitfalls of representing the past are many and unpredictable, even from the best intentions. These processes are vibrant and innovative, albeit many times frustrating for the professionals involved in these projects.

Capacity-building for teaching staff and also cultural heritage professionals is a crucial point. Access to adequate benchmarking and open source resources are also essential factors. Furthermore, as stated in Porto Santo Charter (2021), “The digital approach can also serve as a tool to facilitate collaborative processes within institutions, as well as between them and citizens in their function as collaborators. Digital tools are useful to listen to people and communities and involve them in conceptualising cultural policies”.

However, as the pandemic situation has shown, the digital territory is also a space of exclusion, with access barriers. Enabling cultural citizenship implies developing digital access, inclusion and literacy policies. The phenomena of disinformation, attacking specific or minority expressions, and privatising the digital space must be addressed, even in the realm of cultural heritage policies.