The role of heritage in uncertain times

People at a conference
The inaugural HeritageDot conference, which looked at the relationships between digital and heritage, addressed some of the important issues we all face.

Here are some of the things we discovered:

In the era of fake news, the heritage sector must be a place of trust and expertise

In her keynote, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage, University of Edinburgh, Melissa Terras, said that memory institutions have an important digital role to play in this age of fake news.

She said that the heritage sector must continue to offer a trustworthy voice that is impartial yet authoritive, show different perspectives and amplify voices that need to be heard.

The heritage sector has to be the place for nuance, legacy and discussion.

She added that we can no longer assume: "build it and they will come”. Memory institutions have to accept they are part of an evolving digital environment that cannot be controlled.

Archives need to better reflect diverse communities  

Dr Clare Watson, Director of The Media Archive for Central England, said: "People like to engage with their own histories and stories. If they are not represented, there are limits to how much they can engage with an archive."

Bo Olawoye, Creative Engagement Manager, Threshold Studios, went further in stressing the importance of our actions today for communities in the future.

She said: "It’s about the gaze. Who’s collecting the information and what are they doing with it? And how are they making the archive? Leicester [has a black majority population], that's not reflected in terms of people who are doing the research, the archives. I’d like to see myself included more, from the bottom level to the top level."

Communities should be involved in heritage

And it’s communities – engaging with and reflecting them – that must be at the heart of heritage organisations.

Jo Robinson, Associate Professor in Drama and Performance, University of Nottingham, declared:

"Museums are increasingly community-oriented, led by people and stories."

She called for: "a shift in power, a letting go of knowledge out to communities, to leverage their knowledge and skills. Let the citizen scholars into the room."

Our job isn’t just to drive visits, it’s to share stories.

Tom Webster-Deakin, Digital Marketing Consultant, National Trust, observed that like many organisations, the National Trust "lives or dies by its visitor numbers". Adding: "the danger with that is that it leads to a transactional relationship... It can mean people think we’re just a 'day out'."

He came up with three rules for using digital to engage communities with heritage through content:

  • we don’t exist to drive visits
  • we exist to care for special places
  • our job is to share them with people

He talked about Hardwick Hall, where the marketing team worked on the ground-breaking project We are Bess.

It involved modern women re-examining the skewed history of the remarkable Bess of Hardwick. Webster-Deakin said it helped increase engagement within the teams at the National Trust, with audiences, and – yes – boosted visitor numbers.

We need to be brave

And it’s by looking at digital differently, and operating in different ways, that heritage organisations can thrive.

“Digital start-ups often exist in a culture of risk-taking. Most of them fail, but that's the point. However, we can learn from the ones that survive. Mature start-ups can't afford to risk it all any more, but they maintain cultures that allow them to evolve,” Lees said.

Looking back to how the telegraph changed the whole world of communications in the 19th century, she said: “We’ve adapted before and we can do it again.”

Find out more

Find out more on the HeritageDot website and using the hashtag #HDot.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund was a partner of HeritageDot and also funded bursaries for people to attend.

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