Digitising our cultural heritage in this way could not only protect it in perpetuity and open it up to new scholarship, it could also broaden access and create exciting new pathways for the public to interact with it. That’s why, in recent decades, galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs) have invested heavily in such projects, building new infrastructures for digital documentation and dendric classification.
Many of these institutions are now sitting on vast repositories of data that encode large swathes of our shared cultural heritage. These powerful archives offer new opportunities for knowledge creation and curation. However, these ventures have raised challenging questions of accessibility for the constituents that these knowledge organisations hope to serve. That is because most of this information is only available in a form that privileges experts, and efforts to open it up to publics require fundamental shifts in curatorial and museographic practices.
This is a missed opportunity, because new technologies mean the wealth of data can now be used to create immersive and engaging digital experiences of our history and culture that could be accessed by a far broader section of society. Digital exhibitions can gather artefacts from all over the world together in one place or allow them to be in multiple places at once. They can also allow people to explore important heritage sites remotely, without the need for environmentally expensive travel.
What’s more, virtual replicas can be presented and engaged with in ways that are normally impossible for real objects, allowing GLAMs to create powerful and inspiring ways for the public to interact with their history. Motion capture, virtual production technologies and motion sensing interfaces are also making it possible to record and interact with more intangible elements of our heritage, from the precise movements of a Kung Fu master to the intricate rituals of Confucian courtiers.
But while there have been pioneering efforts to take advantage of these new possibilities, there remain major technical, cultural and institutional barriers that make it challenging to bring these kinds of experiences and these new materialities to life.
One philosophical debate exists between advocates of a “wiki” mindset that say everything should be in the public domain and thus freely shareable, and those who believe in data sovereignty and the idea that key cultural artefacts must be carefully safeguarded. This is particularly pertinent for indigenous or religious communities that believe certain sacred knowledge should not be widely shared. Other challenges are more functional — working out, for example, how such data can be protected and distributed across networks in ways that protect it from exploitation or manipulation more broadly. These issues have raised challenging questions around the ownership of digital artefacts and the ability to manipulate the cultural foundations of our societies
As we move towards an increasingly digital society, high fidelity cultural datasets will become extremely powerful. The challenge facing us is more than just developing engaging experiences for the museum floor; it is also about how to manage the entire value chain of digital assets to make sure they are simultaneously accessible, knowledge-bearing and protected.
It is important to note that the core technologies that make the collection and display of digital cultural data possible are increasingly consolidated in the hands of powerful technology companies. Many of these firms are increasingly heavily invested in the idea of a Metaverse, for example – a 3D online world where they hope many of us will spend large portions of our lives in the future. Replicating key cultural assets in these online worlds will be crucial to the success of these big tech developments, and there are concerted efforts to aggregate as many of these cultural assets as possible, for future exploitation.
Finding ways to protect our heritage as it becomes increasingly digitised will be crucial to prevent its exploitation by the private sector and prevent manipulation by the forces of late capitalism. So far, however, the problem of managing the ownership and control of digital assets that can be easily copied and distributed remains unsolved.
One exciting avenue for tackling these problems lies in blockchain technologies, which can act as a tamper-proof record of ownership for digital assets. Distributed digital ledger tokens (DLTs) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), in particular, have emerged as a way to assert rights over digital art and culture. While they have so far been used primarily as a vehicle for financial speculation, they could also prove to be powerful tools for the custodians of our cultural heritage, enabling the repatriation of objects and the decolonisation of collections.
Properly managed, these technologies could also open the door to new, more inclusive models of ownership, in which the rights and control of artefacts can be shared among many people simultaneously, or entire communities. Smart contracts embedded in the blockchain could encode how these digital assets can be used and by whom.
However, many museums, libraries and archives are currently ill-equipped to engage with these technologies. There are large and worrying imbalances in both technical knowledge and resources between the heritage sector, the academic and private actors, which limits the ability to both take advantage of this wealth of data and to adequately exploit (but also protect) it.
Leaders across these sectors must take the challenges seriously and start investing in both the talent and infrastructure required to keep up in this fast-moving sphere. As the custodians of our shared heritage, we all have a duty to ensure the digitisation of the humanities is a net positive for society while ensuring the existence of sustainable business models. Robust partnerships between GLAMs, universities and technology sectors are essential to this shared future.