Culture, Go Digital! Contents, tools, planning and strategy. How to humanise digital for an innovative and inclusive culture.

During the health emergency, museums and international institutions responded quickly and creatively to the cultural inaccessibility in which we suddenly found ourselves. This highlighted the importance of an accessible culture and digital during this moment of transformation. The CultureGoDigital.org project was created to support cultural institutions looking for more strategic and integrated planning.

Since the early days of the Covid-19 health emergency, the world’s major cultural institutions organised virtual tours of exhibitions and collections, talks and live social networking. The idea was to deliver an essential message that culture even during a crisis, does not stop because it is “oxygen for the mind”.

Culture systematically entered our homes for the first time. During a pandemic, a house has become the centre of everything and the focus of all our activities. It has become a gym, office, restaurant, cinema, museum, and a school. But what we are witnessing is an emergency response to an exceptional situation which found us unprepared. Some institutions responded better, mainly because of the type of contents they convey. Cineteca Italiana, and Istituto Luce provided a video and image archives which were particularly suitable to digital fruition. With #ApertiPerVocazione, Salinas Museum (which was closed for restoration) and its successful social museum project managed to integrate digital and real communities, already in 2015. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Jheronimus Bosch, launched in 2016, is a valuable online interactive experience that cleverly combines in-depth content and fascinating sound effects. Today most public and private institutions have significant organised operations which arose from the emergency but sometimes lacked structured thinking.

New strategies and planning

With the Politecnico di Milano Observatory for Digital Innovation in Heritage and Culture’s assistance, Dotdotdot created a vademecum to suggest and guide Italian cultural institutions through an intuitive digitisation starting from their existing resources. It aimed to provide a collection of essential tools, useful for the continuity of cultural dissemination during a crisis, and to expand its audience with an inclusive and accessible approach. This was a convenient tool for those institutions which were caught unaware and have found themselves entangled by too many tools and possibilities and helped them bridge the gap using the innovative scope of better-known best practices.

CultureGoDigital.org emphasised the use of free and available digital tools, and especially the need to build a project and a strategy for the fruition of a culture that uses digital in a new, targeted and effective way, and provides selected inspirational case studies.

It has suddenly become clear that in difficult or critical situations, digital is not only useful but necessary. It is not ancillary, but an integral part of a complex process to transmit culture.

Digital strategy formalisation and planning is not yet widespread among cultural institutions. The Observatory found* that in 2020, 76 per cent of museums stated that they had no strategic plan for digital innovation. Investments in digital innovation are still limited, although they can positively influence different development areas, including internal management tools, staff skills, storytelling, and communication.

Museums and institutions that were the first to invest in digital technology to enhance their heritage are now the best prepared to continue to provide their services and communication consistently. They did not miss this opportunity to reduce the gap between the institution and its potential visitors. For example, Rijksmuseum has continued to make its cultural and artistic heritage accessible through the site and produced an impeccable content and insight quality.

In addition to the extensive and systematic work of Google Arts&Culture, there are international best practices such as the MET Museum which, with the Art is contemplative leitmotiv, provides a comprehensive journey within the collections, with immersive videos, training shots and audio tours. Nationally, the Egyptian Museum of Turin is strategically and active in multiple areas (streaming conferences, activities for children, digitisation platforms for the exploration of collections — there is also the successful Virtual Tour of the Invisible Archaeology exhibition), and Gallerie Estensi with a complex and well-structured programme of activities and virtual exhibitions, which conveyed insights, educational moments and developed alternative narratives involving curators.

For new, resilient, and accessible scenarios to enjoy culture

Cultural accessibility and the importance of digital are lessons to be learned for the future.

With accessible and free online services, culture becomes a vehicle for social inclusion through digital media, and this is the most crucial aspect. However, it is impracticable without careful design and implementation of the digital experience.

The emergency highlighted creativity and responsiveness, particularly in the cultural sector by encouraging solutions. The tools we have experimented with in a rudimentary and improvised way are the starting point for researching and planning a new vision.

Production of virtual tours is not the only answer, because they are useful only in certain situations. For example, they are less useful for collections or exhibitions of objects, where it is necessary to design ad hoc multimedia experiences.

The beginning of a new vision lies in the examples of humanity and interpersonal relationships that, conveyed by digital technology, become unmediated, “horizontal” and participatory. It is the beginning of a cultural value co-created by institutions and visitors and supported by digital. In these examples, we find the most beautiful and significant aspect of cultural institutions’ work.

The digital medium needs a rethink, not by creating new tools but by considering the use scenario and people’s needs

Based on this, the last ICOM International Museum Day, held on 18 May 2020, was dedicated to the “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion” theme. #IMD2020 bought cultural institute social role and their “agent of change” potential to the attention and reflection of the entire museum community and implemented actions to promote the enjoyment and participation of people.

It demonstrated an inclusive and enhancement role for fresh productions and renewed opportunities for new audiences and services. The NEMO — The Network of European Museum Organisations’ international survey** underlines that “Considering that more than 82 per cent of Europeans are online (75 per cent on social media), only 42 per cent of Europeans visited museums at least once last year. The current situation brings a great opportunity for museums to make new friends.” “Museums in Norway, Spain and Austria have been most flexible and agile in re-allocating or adding resources and have substantially increased their services.”

It has become crucial to rethink and diversify culture with a new vision, which is extremely attentive to the unique needs, opportunities and demands generated by this profound moment of transformation.

Alessandro Masserdotti, CTO and co-founder of Dotdotdot

Resources

*Dall’emergenza nuovi paradigmi digitali per la cultura — Politecnico di Milano Observatory for Digital Innovation in Heritage and Culture, 27 May 2020 (www.osservatori.net)

**https://www.ne-mo.org/fileadmin/Dateien/public/NEMO_documents/NEMO_COVID19_Report_12.05.2020.pdf

We are a multidisciplinary interaction design studio founded in Milan in 2004, in which experimentation is at the core of innovation.