In the first of a regular series of blogs, Dave Thomas, Corsham Institute’s Research Chair for Digital Cultural Heritage, calls for collaboration, ambition and a new celebration of our cultural heritage.

Dave Thomas recently joined Corsham Institute as a new Research Chair. He was most recently the Chief Information and Chief Technology Officer at the Natural History Museum in London.

Cultural heritage lies at the heart of our nation, it’s part of the glue that binds us together. While other pressures may divide us, our common stories provide cohesion and societal foundations for the future.

But our heritage can all too often be taken for granted. Large parts of it are hidden away or are seen as too remote or elitist, or purely focused on the tourist economy. There is an urgent need for the information stored in our Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM), to be used more collaboratively and to be made more available to people everywhere, to democratise the world’s cultural heritage. It needs to be a key part of the 4th Industrial Revolution’s information economy, increasing knowledge and decreasing misunderstanding, but also inspiring action and participation.

Sir David Attenborough has long argued that people won’t protect what they don’t care for, and they won’t care for what they don’t experience, so we’ve got to help people engage, and we must encourage people to share and participate in the stories that make up our cultural heritage. Our heritage lives within people, especially in families, companies and voluntary organisations as well as professional institutions. It is part of the fabric, making society more calm and confident, so we shouldn’t take it for granted and we should celebrate it with modesty. 

What I saw over my many years in the museum sector were hugely popular leading-edge exhibitions and venues, but it was behind the scenes that the treasure was really to be found. That treasure may have been a physical ‘thing’, or equally a person who knew the important stories about the ‘thing’. In the UK heritage sector we’ve over 100,000 volunteers and curators who know stories about every corner of our nation. In a period where people can create a meme or construct a post at a moment’s notice that seems semi-plausible and is believed by many, we need to bring these authentic voices to the fore to help inform and educate our society.

Digital is blurring the scope of many museums. It gives us unprecedented opportunity to create joined up stories of people, objects and themes across multiple institutions. In the analogue world we loan artefacts to each other, as well as bringing objects into the light from our secure repositories, for short, specific or seasonal exhibitions. In the digital world there must be better ways to collaborate, to open up our collections and link up our knowledge bases and to use heritage to bring people across the nation together.

Our heritage industry is beginning to see green shoots in government policy. However, this is likely to take some time to filter through as the funding, though only a modest proportion of the industry cost base, is fragmented across 11 different Government departments. Collaboration, particularly on complex digital foundational matters (such as skills, technology platforms, data or shared processes) tends to happen in spite of the system rather than because of it. Relatively few tools exist for the stars of knowledge, the curators and archivists themselves, to find links and act as a community.

We must find ways to be on the front foot, to find new partners across the digital landscape, to use platforms and tools on fair societal terms, to raise our profiles and to invest in and to celebrate what we have for the benefit of society. Just as science research is finding new ways to engage citizens with open, data-driven research programmes, we must re-engage people with their heritage. As a sector we cannot wait until someone else forces our hand, but we must act now and start to work far more coherently together.

Over the next 12 months Corsham Institute’s new Digital Cultural Heritage Research Programme will begin engaging with potential partners to start work to develop pioneering ideas and to begin to find new game-changing ways of ensuring our cultural heritage is at the active, beating heart of the nation, in our connected and digital world. We will take a step back from the day to day drive for local footfall, funding and engagement, to explore what a collaborative programme can bring. We will explore the true potential of our digital cultural heritage, identifying how we can help fund it with innovative pioneering solutions that build foundations for everyone in the sector.

It’s an ambitious Programme that will need partners with diverse skills and from beyond the sector too; so if you’d like to hear more and get involved, please email: info@corshaminstitute.org.