Appreciating the RICHES of a shared heritage
An EU-funded project has brought museums, galleries and cultural decision-makers closer to citizens, encouraged the digitalisation of archives, and promoted public participation in cultural discussions.
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The RICHES project set up a consortium of cultural heritage institutions and academics to carry out wide-ranging research on how to make Europe’s cultural riches accessible to everyone. The ultimate objective was to reinforce a shared appreciation of heritage, encourage creativity and to tap into its economic potential.
“One of the enjoyable things about this project was that it was so broad,” says project coordinator Neil Forbes from Coventry University in the UK. “It was a fascinating process as we saw cultural institutions adapt their operations to our findings. One museum, for example, let young people in to critically analyse its colonial collection. A criticism was that it displayed Africa as culturally monolithic, and it is notable that the museum has since put in place changes.”
Adapting to a digital world
The project recognised that digitalisation is both a challenge and an opportunity for Europe’s cultural heritage sector. The technology enables museums, galleries and creators to open their doors to a far wider audience and to engage directly with citizens on cultural matters. “Social media provides a forum for cultural institutions and places of interest to promote themselves to visitors, as well as for innovative performance to be shared and adapted,” notes Forbes.
At the same time, digitalisation can act as an exclusionary force in the absence of equal online access. There is a danger that digitally illiterate communities, or those without access to online services, could find themselves increasingly isolated. Thus, the RICHES project investigated new ways of engaging with heritage. For example, an interactive showcase was developed as a single access point to the online collections housed in numerous well-known cultural institutions.
Researchers also considered how online communities of interest, which share skills, knowledge and market products, could become engines of new economic growth. “We built up a diverse stakeholder network of common interest and regularly posted blogs detailing project activities and research findings,” says Forbes. “This helped to bring communities together, one example being those practising their craft skills using online tools like YouTube to turn their hobbies into businesses.”
The project also investigated how digitalisation affects cultural heritage-related copyright and intellectual property rights (IPR), and delivered an IPR framework which addresses how cultural heritage is created, recreated and reused in the digital era.
“This work took into account the intersections between cultural heritage, copyright and human rights,” says Forbes. “It was based on UNESCO’s human rights framework and the idea that people have the right to access cultural heritage. We wanted to poke a hornet’s nest a little with this, and at least put this argument out into the public domain.”
Urban cultural festivals and food communities were explored to understand how they reconnect people with their local areas either through a shared task or way of life. Activities were also organised at museums to gather perspectives of how collections are presented and how visitors perceive them as with the colonial exhibition mentioned above. A total of 10 cases of good co-creation practices were documented by the RICHES project team.
From this research, a series of evidence-based policy recommendations and best practice guidelines were made available on the project’s website. These will ensure that the project’s findings remain relevant and influential, following its completion in 2016. “We didn’t want to just put our results in the drawer after we finished,” says Forbes. “In any case, many of the ideas from RICHES will be picked up in a new cultural heritage social platform developed within the EU-funded REACH project that is also being coordinated by Coventry University.”