Upgrading to Heritage 3.0
The democratisation of Heritage and learning from the evolution of the Internet
In our field, the Internet is not taken seriously enough. In its comparatively short lifespan, the web has evolved dramatically thanks to its highly organic nature; the opportunities at this point seem endless. The public has defined the way it wants to access and interact with information online, something of which we should be taking greater notice. With regard to participation, we have to catch up with the web if we want to survive.
This essay is not about the Internet as a tool for participation, I would like to start by clarifying this point. What I hope to achieve in the next few pages is to show you the importance of acknowledging the parallels between cultural heritage institutions and the web as participative information providers, and based on this knowledge, how we may be able to pre-empt future developments.
I shall start off by briefly sketching the biography of the Internet up to today, and then I shall do the same for the field of cultural heritage, placing the emphasis on public participation in both tales. I would then like to explore the prospected and suggested developments for the web, and how the fundamental ideas behind these developments could be translated into museological application.
For the sake of comparison and to avoid confusion, I shall refer to the stages of development of the Internet as being Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and later Web 3.0, and for the cultural heritage sector, Heritage 1.0, Heritage 2.0 and Heritage 3.0 respectively. Each ‘version number’ refers to its counterpart or ‘twin’.
The Information Highway
The Internet found its roots in military and academic computer networks going back as far as the 1960’s, as a means to preserve important information in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. What came to be known as the World Wide Web only gained a public face in the mid-nineties. The first adopters of start the Internet as a platform were primarily large companies. These were the first producers of exclusive content and they catered to a growing base of faceless, nameless users.
This initial phase of the Internet, Web 1.0 (or ‘Dot-Com’), can be described as being particularly static. Producers produced blindly and grateful consumers devoured whatever they were offered; possibilities for interaction were little to none. The main goal in this era was getting everyone ‘online’ to spread your message, the target market being thus the entire world.
In recent years, however, the World Wide Web has become a different beast altogether. What we have all come to know as Web 2.0 has been integrated into our modern societies, becoming a virtual extension of our lives, a ‘meta-reality’. The line between producer and consumer has become so vague it is difficult to talk in such terms anymore. To some degree or another we are all part of one or more Internet communities in which we are contributing, collaborating and consuming all at the same time.
This democratisation of the information highway has led to many interesting things. In 2006 Time Magazine controversially named ‘You’ the person of the year. YouTube is always singled out as being the prototype of a Web 2.0 platform, as it clearly relies solely on user-generated content. There is of course a myriad of such platforms nowadays, each targeting a different set of users with different needs and interests.
The context of everything you do online is your community: social networking, social bookmarking, social rating, etc. The web assumes that you share a collective frame of reference with your peers and based on their opinions and interests, you are presented with information that would probably appeal to you. The main goal of this era is to connect, interact and share with your peers, thus making the target market the community of like-minded people.
Another change has had to do with the way we see the integrity of information. As opposed to Web 1.0, where a self-professed authority defined and published ‘fact’, information is now put up for debate and verification by the end-user. ‘Crowdsourcing’ or ‘collective intelligence’, as it is called, puts the authority in the hands of the people; the idea being that many minds are greater than one, and the result of this leads to a more holistic truth. Wikipedia is a prime example of this, being a highly dynamic encyclopaedia shaped and filled in by users.
Museums and other such cultural heritage institutions started in a very similar way to the Internet. As of the 18th century, the first public museums catered for a small but growing segment of the general population, sprouting from private collections of art and curiosa. The museum was the much-respected authority on the truth, the omnipotent keeper of knowledge. The visitor was the blind and faceless consumer. This was the dark age of Heritage 1.0.
Mainly driven by social and political changes within society, museums have had to become increasingly aware of and dependent on their audience. Instead of presenting objects and information in the way they see fit, in a one-size-fits-all approach, museums have all made fundamental changes to their policy to better accommodate and appeal to more specific target markets. The role of the museum has shifted from being the authoritative figure to being the servant of the public; the ‘visitor’ is now the ‘customer’. This we will call Heritage 2.0.
The cultural sector is realising that to adequately serve future generations, they have to be active in the present as well as the past. Essentially creating ‘time capsules’, museums are trying to involve members of their target markets in the creation of collections and exhibitions. An example of this is De Wonderkamer van Zoetermeer (The Wonder Room of Zoetermeer), a project of the City Museum of Zoetermeer, whereby members of the public were invited to contribute to an exhibition following a theme, and actively participate in the process of the musealisation and presentation of their object. The result was a collection of objects that told a tale of the collective memory of the city. The public involved became not only stakeholders in the museum, but also ambassadors, raising awareness and advocating the importance of the institution to third parties.
It has become almost impossible to deny the necessity of online presence. Riding the wave of Web 2.0, museums are trying to make themselves more approachable and accessible through the web and all of the social tools it offers. Unfortunately there is only a small number of institutions that effectively makes use of this medium. Regarding the web, many institutions have decided that they need to do ‘something’ with ‘it’, which usually results in a stagnant Hyve, a Facebook ‘fan page’ or a poor member of staff pulling the short straw, having to sporadically update a blog. Instead of just half-heartedly promoting themselves using these media, museums must learn to engage and participate with the public.
The Age of Ego
Having attained that there seem to be shared trends between the way users participate with the Internet and visitors participate with the museum, it might be interesting to predict what may lie in store for us.
On the Internet, we are about to bear witness to the birth of yet a new era. Web 3.0 (the ‘Semantic Web’), is a natural evolution of what we have already grown accustomed to. Information in the age of Web 1.0 was geared towards the world, in Web 2.0 it is geared towards the community, and if we follow this progression, the next logical step is that in Web 3.0, information will be geared towards the individual user. What does this mean for participation? How can the Internet (or cultural heritage institutions, for that matter) possibly achieve greater participation by focussing on individuals?
In short, Web 3.0 will be about finding exactly what you want, however you want, from wherever you are. Another thing Web 3.0 will change is that the encumbering amounts of information we currently have at our disposal, which is too much to process, will intelligently be filtered through to suit our personal needs.
We are already seeing traces of this methodology in practice. The new micro-blogging service Twitter provides an innovative way of playing an active role on the net, not as a member of a community, but as an individual user. Using ‘hashtags’ for instance, the user can take part in dialogue on any given subject with minimal effort. The user filters out the information he wants to see by subscribing only to the producers (friends, colleagues, select news providers, etc.) he is interested in, therefore not having to deal with an overdose of information. All of this information is condensed into a single stream of information for ease of access.
Though museums are restricted to physical space, there are still opportunities to adopt this approach to participation and interaction with the public. In the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven we can take a glimpse of what Heritage 3.0 might look like. A single exhibition hall is reserved for an interesting project. The visitor is invited to fill in a form requesting to see a specific work of art from the museum catalogue and motivates this choice. Within a couple of weeks they are invited back to view the artwork displayed alongside their motivation. In theory, it would be possible to run an entire museum based on this system, letting the visitor decide what is important to them.
A possibility that conforms to the emerging Web 3.0 trend of bringing virtual participation into the real world for our field, is the adoption of the technique of ‘flashmobbing’; the spontaneous gathering of a group of people who partake in something extraordinary. Through modern communication, an informal event can be organised by the museum on short notice, without too much hassle or expense. The advantage of this is that the people who take part in this event, whatever form it may take (performance art, lecture, workshop, publicity stunt, etc.), are motivated to be there. The probability that this would be a financially profitable venture is small, but is a unique way to involve the public.
Web 3.0 will bring us the portability of the Internet; we will be able to access information and media ‘on the go’ by using mobile devices. This is a concept that Heritage 3.0 should inherit. A project that is often referred to as being a prime example of cultural participation in situ is the Yellow Arrow project. This international project, which is no longer being carried out, let the public place yellow arrow stickers (‘tags’ or ‘markers’) on or near objects or places that meant something to them and provide information through a website. Other members of the public who came across these stickers could access this information per SMS.
This is a simple but effective form of participation and presence or museums outside of their own physical boundaries. The Yellow Arrow method could, though, be improved by using emerging technologies. Augmented Reality is where an extra layer of information (metadata) is projected over reality, the perceptible environment. Instead of getting the public to potentially vandalise their surroundings by sticking stickers everywhere, software could be developed for GPS-enabled mobile devices to ‘geotag’ points of interest that can be shared with others over the Internet, for example.
There is a chance that the cultural heritage institution and the web will intertwine or even merge entirely; the one being the ultimate resource of knowledge, and the other the universal information infrastructure. The combination would result in an explosion of audience involvement. The Internet is already an extension of our daily lives, museums have to swallow their pride and embrace this truth, and turn it to their advantage. We have to open our eyes to new possibilities.