CIDOC 2015
Comité International pour la Documentation
International Committee for Documentation
New Delhi, India
05.09.2015 - 10.09.2015
Documenting Diversity – Collections, Catalogues & Context
Background Paper
Content and Context in Documentation of Cultural Heritage
Documentation of cultural heritage is currently focused on primary targets – objects, sites or practices – in the custody of memory institutions or within their sphere of interest. In addition to collecting and preserving the these primary targets themselves, institutions create illustrative or exemplifying secondary representations of them, as well as identifying, descriptive and administrative metadata that is associated with the primary targets and their secondary representations.
1. Bit Bang – Birth of the Digital Universe

Migration of previous generation information assets to digital systems, fresh digitization of museum objects and describing them using standardized metadata schemas has in the last decades created huge pools of digital resources. A growing number of these resources are made accessible for the public through institutional portals. Also, efforts are under way to integrate these independently created, distributed assets in national, regional and – to a lesser extent, thematic – portals.

Integration is supported by networking technologies and commonly agreed ways to unify the form and structure of digital assets. Interoperable conceptual models enable consistent information integration from archives, libraries, museums and research.

At the same time, the number of access points to this data has become virtually limitless including portable personal devices such as smartphones and tablets. We are witnessing a Big Bang – or more aptly, a Bit Bang – leading to the birth of a digital universe.

The expansion of the digital universe has not stopped but is still continuing with new resources added to it each moment through digitization and ingestion of new electronic records. The advent of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence environments and automated data acquisition coupled with increasing processing power and falling storage costs will further accelerate the speed of data accumulation and the expansion of information space.

2. Technology Cannot Replace the Human Mind

Cultural Heritage institutions are facing a dual challenge: Firstly, to provide a continuous stream of data to the digital domain. This is an activity which is readily funded, as it entails relatively simple procedures with high predictability and leads to measurable results involving big numbers. Secondly, Cultural Heritage institutions are not only mandated to provide access to primary objects, their representations and associated metadata – they are also required to make sense of these assets. The public will intuitively grasp the curiosity or beauty of an object, but only an expert can provide an informed account of the reasons for it's value, the layers of meaning associated with it, or the changes of those meanings in various contexts.

While the handling of representations and metadata is well funded, highly standardized and supported by information systems and management, the opposite holds for providing significance and context: funding is random, practices unstandardised and weakly supported by information systems and management. The weight is currently is on containers – not content and context.

This imbalance is not perceived as problematic in cultural heritage institutions, it seems. They have behaved responsibly and with foresight when taking their first steps in the digital world through digitizing applicable parts of their resources. Yet the fact is that digital services today in most cases provide a very meagre diet to the public due to the fact that primary objects are presented mostly in the form of simple data sets, isolated from the broader body of knowledge that can be provided only by subject matter experts. Linked Data provides a new method of access, but it is not a substitute for the understanding that can be provided only by the human mind.

3. Recognizing the Need for a New Way Ahead

Cultural heritage institutions supported by the Academia have brought us to the situation where we are now, but we seem to be at loss as to what is the way ahead. Even if individual voices are raised once in a while pointing out the need to fundamentally rethink documentation in the digital era, these voices are drowned in the ambience of multiple other voices and visions.

Public funding is directed to mass digitization and generation of digital metadata but not to the painstaking work required to analyse and describe single objects in depth and place that analysis in the broader context of biographies, periods and themes.

The Open Access movement is providing access to important bodies of material to augment the information provided in metadata repositories. A large part of such material is provided if the form of PDF documents that mimic printed matter. Because of that it is not easily or seamlessly integrated with other types of digital resources.
Lavish catalogues with well researched background material are often published in as a part of exhibitions, but these materials are not reused in digital services.

Academic policy discourages co-operation with museums and cultural heritage institutions, as credit and merit leading to funding is acquired mainly by the publication of monographs or journal articles channelled through a limited number of acknowledged publishers.

No demands or protests are raised from the public, as there is no shortcoming of tempting alternative offerings – entertainment and commerce – in the digital space. Cultural heritage institutions are simply bypassed in these situations of choice and largely forgotten.

4. Building Attractive Media Environments for Cultural Heritage

While there is reason for pride for the remarkable achievements of  cultural heritage institutions in building digital infrastructures and services, there is also a danger complacency. Many of the systems currently in place are by nature back-end systems providing only the necessary raw material that would require further enrichment in a value chain. There is a lack of front-end systems, i.e. appealing media environments for culture. Researchers and curators are not provided with tools, training, time and funding to present in depth information for digital environments. In public governance there is a lack of awareness and vision, but this is understandable, as voices reflecting such awareness and vision are not raised from the cultural heritage community itself.

The magnitude of the task to build attractive digital media environments for culture is such that it cannot be met by the cultural heritage institutions alone. New partnerships need to be created and sustainable models of funding devised. Public projects should be coupled with private and voluntary undertakings.

New resources will not miraculously spring out of the ground to fill the present gaps, but even within current financial constraints a greater proportion of funds could be directed to strategy work in a global setting and enabling the creation of rich and appealing media environments for cultural heritage, crossing institutional and national boundaries. The centre of gravity should be moved from containers to content and context, from technology to user value.

5. Crossing Boundaries and Established Mandates

Over centuries seeds of culture have flown freely over boundaries carried by military conquest, peaceful migration and trade. They have crossed mountains, deserts and oceans and taken roots in foreign lands. Now information technology makes it possible to follow the trails of culture and bring together information stored in various institutions all over the world. Yet many obstacles have to be overcome to reach this goal. It requires physical meeting of people, building trust, finding new types and sources of funding, overcoming linguistic barriers, and more.

Archives, Libraries and Museums storing cultural treasures have different mandates, different professional traditions and different ways to conceptualize materials in their custody. While fulfilling their mission each of these communities have made unique intellectual discoveries that may be applicable also in other domains. Before data from heterogeneous sources can be meaningfully integrated, people from different communities must come together and, acknowledging the differences in their materials and orientation, and recognizing the need to reach out over their established mandates, gradually arrive to a shared vision about how to support the creation of unified images and intellectual landscapes of the fragments in their possession.

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