Over the past decade, museums have increasingly shared high-resolution open access images of their collections. Yet there are significant legal and ethical complexities related to digital cultural heritage, particularly when blanket decisions about open access are made without involving communities of origin. In this episode, the Punks are joined by Mathilde Pavis and Andrea Wallace to discuss their Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which addresses intellectual property rights and open access relevant to the digitization and restitution of African Cultural Heritage and associated materials, and come to the conclusion that we need to be discussing digital cultural heritage with far more nuance.
Never miss an episode! Subscribe to Museopunks on iTunes, Stitcher or Spotify
Dr Andrea Wallace is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter. Andrea is American and trained in US and UK law. Andrea’s research focuses on legal issues surrounding copyright, cultural institutions and the public domain. She recently completed the exhibition ‘Display at Your Own Risk’ and is working on a new resource called the Copyright Cortex – both of which examine copyright and digital cultural heritage in the GLAM sector.
Dr Mathilde Pavis is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter. Mathilde is French and trained in French and UK law. Mathilde’s research focuses on copyright and the rights of performers in the cultural and digital sector. Mathilde recently edited a collection on contemporary intangible cultural heritage.
- The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics (The Sarr-Savoy Report)
- Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report: Statement on Intellectual Property Rights and Open Access Relevant to the Digitization and Restitution of African Cultural Heritage and Associated Materials
- Why do we digitize? The case for slow digitization?
- Whose knowledge?
- Local Contexts
- Indigitization – Toolkit for the Digitization of First Nations Knowledge
- Nathan Sentence – Your neutral is not our neutral
- Puawai Cairns – Decolonisation: we aren’t going to save you
- Andrew Prescott and Lorna Hughes – Why do we digitise? The case for slow digitisation
- Laurajane Smith – Uses of Heritage
- Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang – Decolonization is not a metaphor
- Sarah Powell, Adam Moriarty, Michaela O’Donovan, Dave Sanderson – The “Open by Default” Journey of Auckland Museum’s Collections Online
- Alaka Wali, Meranda Roberts, and Eli Suzukovich – Making Room for Native American Voices
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Suse Anderson: Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson.
Ed Rodley: And I’m Ed Rodley, and together we’ll be digging into another important issue driving conversation and practice in our field. The colonial underpinnings of digitization and open access and how we might need to think through the implications of these practices with more nuance.
Suse: Yeah. We had a conversation with Mathilde Pavis and Andrea Wallace about their response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report. Now, they’re both lecturers in law and their statement on intellectual property rights and open access relevant to the digitization and restitution of African cultural heritage and associated materials unpacks many of the legal and ethical complexities related to digital cultural heritage that have become essential for museums and cultural institutions to be thinking about as they continue programs of digitization and open access.
Ed: Yeah, it was interesting the first time I heard Mathilde and Andy talk about their work, the extent to which it really called into question a lot of the things I took for granted about open access, as being just, it’s a good thing. How can it possibly be anything other than good to have more access? More access is more gooder, right? Maybe not. It’s more complicated than that.
Suse: Yeah, it definitely is more complicated than that. Yeah, for the last couple of years, as I’ve become more aware of issues related to open access and particularly thinking about indigenous communities and learning more about different knowledge protocols and knowledge contexts, I had started to have some uncertainty in my own thinking about open access and the report that Mathilde and Andrea put out definitely has given some further language to that and help develop some of that thinking for me.
Ed: Yeah. Let’s dive in.
Dr. Andrea Wallace is a lecturer in law at the University of Exeter. Andrea is American and trained in U.S. and UK law. Her research focuses on legal issues surrounding copyright, cultural institutions, and the public domain. She recently completed the exhibition, “Display At Your Own Risk,” and is working on a new resource called the Copyright Cortex, both of which examine copyright and digital cultural heritage in the GLAM sector.
Suse: Dr. Mathilde Pavis is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Exeter. Mathilde is French and trained in French and UK law. Mathilde’s research focuses on copyright and the rights of performers in the cultural and digital sector. Mathilde recently edited a collection on contemporary intangible cultural heritage. Andrea, Mathilde, welcome to Museopunks.
Andrea Wallace: Thanks for having us.
Mathilde Pavis: Hi. Thank you for having us.
Andrea: Glad to be here.
Suse: It’s so lovely to have you both here. Andrea and Mathilde, we’re here today to talk about the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which addresses restitution of objects currently held in France and certain African countries. The response you wrote to it around digitization and intellectual property and the reaction in the sector to the idea of restitution of museum objects. But before we get into any of that, I’d really love to know how you both got into this field of study and into cultural property at all as legal experts. It seems like an interesting path to take. So maybe Mathilde, you can kick us off.
Mathilde: Sure. The way I came in doing this particular area of research I think is because it marries two interest of mine. At the time I was just finishing law school and I was working in a law firm, and I wanted to go back into academia and prior to joining law school, I actually studied history of art at college and I wanted to find an area of law that could marry those two disciplines and those two interests of mine, and intellectual property became the area of law that could best do that in my opinion, and I was particularly interested in cultural policies and joining up the dots between what felt at the time slightly disconnected areas of law. And that’s how I ended up looking at the intersection of intellectual property, digital cultural heritage and cultural heritage policies more generally.
Andrea: Yeah. And I guess I had a bit of a similar path. I actually went to art school before I went to law school. Of course, people often say, “Oh, but you switched careers?” And for me it just felt like kind of a natural progression, because so much of what I was interested in art school was more kind of the cultural and social issues that were kind of being examined as the concept, and working through that through the process of art. When I moved into law school I just kind of naturally drifted to art and cultural heritage law and then moved over to the UK to do a Ph.D. in cultural heritage law. And then we just, we met each other at conferences before we started working at the same university, but just have so much overlap in terms of what our personal interests are both in cultural heritage but also in terms of what we’re researching and studying. Destiny, I guess, to be the cheesy end of the, you know, [crosstalk 00:05:55] bag.
Suse: I love it.
Ed: Susan, I know all about that. Cool. So before we get into details of your response to the report, can you give us some background on Sarr-Savoy for people who haven’t read it, about its recommendations on open access and why you felt the need to publish a written response to it. Mathilde, maybe you could start us off with some of the background on the situation in France that led to the report being commissioned in the first place.
Mathilde: Sure, absolutely. If I take it back very simply and chronologically, in 2017 President Emmanuel Macron visited Africa and did a tour in Africa and as part of that tour to different countries, he gave a speech that explained that France should engage in a process of decolonizing cultural heritage. He acknowledged that French museums across France, but particularly in Paris held a lot of the cultural heritage of countries that France had either colonized or occupied in the 19th and 20th century. And he thought there was … We were at the right time. It was now time to move on and decolonize and generally doing so, that had to include cultural heritage. It couldn’t just stay on the political and economic area. It had to move to the cultural. And in many regards I think, and that’s my personal opinion, that speech was very well received, even in France, especially sort of the … There’s often talk of a generational sort of divide or step on this issue, but if I … Talking around and seeing how people have received it, especially from perhaps the younger generation, 30s, 40s and so forth, people have been generally welcoming it.
Now that had received a sort of a lukewarm report and reception in the press, and I’m going to go back to that in a minute, but then the next phase from the political speech was the commissioning from Emmanuel Macron directly of a report that could implement that. How would the decolonization of French cultural heritage … Sorry, African cultural heritage looks like in practice? And he mentioned in that letter of commission that it should involve some levels of temporary or permanent restitution. Two scholars were appointed, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, and they were able to form a team. And I think in total there were another two scholars who joined as contributors to the report and they ended up giving, a year later delivering that report that we now know as the Sarr-Savoy Report, and that was November or December of last year.
But what’s interesting and what we found out directly from Professor [inaudible 00:08:46], who was one of the contributors if you look at the report, is that the authors felt really strongly that they should advertise and publish the report widely in addition to, of course submitting it back to the minister of culture and the French president when it was finished. And that was to ensure that it was known about and it could be discussed and it could be sort of talked about and engaged with. Now, the report, if you read it, has sort of a, you could say two parts. The first part describes the extent to which France colonized and took African cultural heritage and brought it back to France in a way it’s sort of using it, sharing it, exhibiting it and the damages that has caused to many African generations. And then the second part clearly explains a path with practical solutions and a timeline to proceed with restituting the objects. And it mentions various sort of case studies you could say, so it does focus on a couple of those museums in France that have a lot of objects from former African colonies and territories and occupied areas. One of them of course is the Musée du quai Branly. And so it’s talking you through that.
And within this response there’s one recommendation that particularly struck us when we read the report, because it looked at and talked about digitizing those objects before or during the restitution process. And we can perhaps look about that specific recommendation in more detail, but before we do so I should say that both Andrea and I work really received the report very positively. We thought it was a great initiative and we’re very much on board with the general message, so our response isn’t so much of a criticism, but saying that actually perhaps they could have taken it further and taking care of the digital African cultural heritage as well as they have thought through the process of the material restitution.
Ed: Cool. Cool. So Andrea, do you want to jump in then and talk a little bit more about what’s in your response to Sarr-Savoy?
Andrea: Yeah, so we noticed that kind of the very specific portion that we’re responding to is on pages, I think 67 and 68 of the English version. And there’s some recommendations, it’s one paragraph, and it’s called “Sharing of Digital Content”. And really what the report does is it thinks about digital as an opportunity to kind of educate people who may not be aware of the effects of colonization and even the histories around the objects themselves and how they came to be in France. But part of the discussion is that it makes a recommendation to digitize everything, to radically rethink image rights and the politics of sharing, and to create an open-access that will provide a free access to all of the digital cultural heritage that’s held in France that becomes part of the restitution initiative.
Andrea: And so we’re reading through that and we were thinking in theory that sounds great because this whole kind of OpenGLAM movement is something that more and more institutions are jumping onto, but we really started to kind of think more critically about whether or not that was an appropriate treatment for a lot of the materials. That first need to go back to the communities where they came from and become re-associated with those objects that might have a personhood or a specific objecthood that doesn’t naturally fit with the ideas of digitizing the work and then making it available online is open access for anyone to use for whatever purposes it does in the global North and in some of the institutions that are really kind of leading the open-access initiative.
Suse: Yeah. Andrea, I recently saw you present at MCN 2019 where you were in a panel focused on international intellectual property laws and obviously it’s going to be way too complex to unpack international IP in only a few minutes on a podcast, but IP rights do sit at the heart of this discussion. Can you help us understand or think about some of the key legal issues that relate to this discussion?
Andrea: Sure. One of the first questions you have to ask is whether or not when you digitize something, that new digital object meets the threshold of originality for copyright. And you know, that’s kind of the big threshold issue. And if it does, then what ends up happening is the location where the work is digitized is going to then trigger all of the laws that attach to the copyright, how it’s defined, any moral rights that might attach to the work, and control all the dissemination, because copyright is territorial. It may vary from one country to the next. If we think about that and apply it to this specific instance, that would mean that all of the works that are sitting within Paris at the Musée du quai Branly, once they’re digitized, France and European intellectual property laws will apply to it, which means that the institution itself and even the photographer are going to be claiming copyright in the digital work.
The idea of moral rights will also apply, which means there’s certain rights like the right to integrity and attribution. And in France specifically, those rights are perpetual. One of the questions that we’re asking in our response is “what does it mean to digitize the work and then to even hold onto the digital cultural heritage while you send the material cultural heritage back to the source or to the community of origin?” because then that means that by law, the copyright, obviously of France and copyright itself is a legal concept that was made during colonization. It’s a product of colonialism. Then we’ll apply to all the digital cultural heritage and it will allow anyone who’s claiming the copyright to exclude others from using it. It gives the person who’s claiming the copyright to gain economically to charge people for access to it.
And with the right of attribution, it means that that cultural institution and the photographer would then be associated as authors in perpetuity for that digital cultural heritage. There’s a number of issues that arise, and it’s easier to think about it more in context, especially within the context of our response. But these issues themselves are translatable to all types of collections that are held by national institutions that have histories of colonization, where works have come from communities that they’re asking for these objects back. And this idea of digitizing them can be problematic to begin with.
Ed: Yeah. One of the things that struck me most when I saw you two speak at Museums Computer Group in London was it had never occurred to me as an OpenGLAM advocate that mass digitization could have any downside to it at all, but this idea that in the rush to digitize as much as possible as quickly as possible, you’re basically locking in rights to digital objects that you might not want to do if you were to adopt a more, I think you used the word nuance a few times I think in your talk, to think about it more than just blanket open versus closed, was a real eyeopener for me.
Mathilde: Yes, exactly. I think I should add to that that perhaps when we bring the lens of the law to that discussion, because the question of does rights arising or not comes up, you actually notice that digitizing is not neutral. It’s not a non-thing. It’s not a non-act, when it comes down to curating for a piece or engaging with a piece or sharing a piece. It comes with an element of control, of editing, of curating, and that added layer when put in a context of colonization and decolonization, I think is really important to think about carefully and that’s the bit I think that our response kind of try to focus on really when looking at the Sarr-Savoy Report, is that it kind of was a suggestion that digitizing was a drop in obvious, of course, it’s a great thing to do. Well actually in the dynamics that we’re talking about in decriminalizing cultural heritage, it really is something that needs to be discussed as well.
Suse: Yeah. Obviously the Sarr-Savoy Report is a very specific case, but it seems like there’s aspects of this recommendation that you’ve made that really should be broadened out to the wider field. When we’re thinking about sort of nuance in these conversations, it seems like maybe talking about open access and what it means and how we do it ethically becomes quite a different conversation. Do we have to think about open access differently? Do we have to stop assuming that more and more digitization, more open is better? Is that … At the heart of this conversation, is there a shift in the way that we think about open access at its very heart?
Andrea: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s exactly it. I think there’s been this rush to digitize because we’ve been so excited about opportunities that are provided by digital, ways to reach new audiences. Even how it then helps us reflect on our management of material heritage. That’s institute within the institution. And in the process, there’s a lot of critical questions that aren’t getting asked often because the communities are not a part of that process. And I think that as you say, it’s more about finding out not just what kind of the ethical approach should be, but also more equitable approach and whether that’s slowing down. There’s actually a paper that I promote all the time, it’s called the Case for Slow Digitization. It’s by Andrew Prescott and Lorna Hughes at the University of Glasgow, and they really advocate for starting to take a slow digitization approach to everything that’s really kind of questioning and critically examining the processes by which we digitize, who mass digitization benefits, and why we don’t think about these things as critically as we do the objects themselves.
Ed: Yeah, that’s great. We’ll add a link to that in the show notes as well, so if people want to actually read some of the sources, we’ll add that to the pile.
Andrea: I was just going to say in terms of thinking about the other ethical questions like this idea of decolonization or indigenization or how we should think about traditional knowledge differently is just the tip of the iceberg, because there’s so many other issues that now that there’s enough data around open access and its benefits and drawbacks, we’re starting to see issues around privacy and sensitivity, what type of material may be appropriate to put online. There’s a number of other areas where open access can either open doors or become a barrier, especially ideas of accessibility and what types of audiences are able to then take the benefits of accessibility initiatives, especially when copyright is claimed, because then we’re not reaching the digital disabled audiences because the copyright starts to be seen as intellectual property that can potentially benefit the institution. This is … It’s just a very small portion of all of those really interesting ethical questions that are starting to surface. So yeah, I think that now that we’re kind of past the download and digitize and dump phase, we’re starting to kind of see a lot more themes kind of stream across the various aspects of OpenGLAM. Yeah.
Ed: Download, digitize and dump. I love it. I’m totally going to steal that for something.
Suse: It’s interesting to hearing the two of you talk about all of the sort of myriad issues that are starting to be visible that perhaps weren’t, or the early open access, we weren’t necessarily having that nuanced conversation. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about though, and I don’t quite know how to put this, but is there a concern that the things that will become more open and more available, which tends to be museum say white or Western images, cultural objects, et cetera, that because they’ll be more available that we have the risk of further embedding or replicating notions of sort of whites Western supremacy in culture because its digital cultural heritage collections are more open and more available for reuse? As in do these different approaches to access risk further embedding the same oppressions that we’ve seen before?
Andrea: Yeah. Again, I would absolutely agree with you on that. And part of that is just when you think about the term of copyright, copyright expires 70 years, in general, of course, because it does vary from country to country, but it generally expires 70 years after the death of the author. You think back to authors or artists that died 70 years ago and then you think about what the collection practices were, the value systems in terms of who was able to support themselves through art, who was able to generate art that was deemed worthy and therefore was collected and saved. And it becomes a very homogenous picture. It’s dead white European men. When we think about the expiration of copyright and what is available through open access to begin with, that just naturally produces a pool of open access information that already is heavily embedded with that homogeneity and that kind of monolithic perspective of what art is and what cultural heritage is.
I’m sure Mathilde could probably talk to some of the other questions around intangible cultural heritage, but one of the things that I think we’re really missing out on is not just that idea of what does it mean to digitize something, but what does it also mean to represent and curate on digital spaces and tell stories about objects? Because we think about the faithful reproduction of the work, and to me that’s also a very kind of global Northwestern’s perspective about what faithful reproduction presentation is. How do we start to kind of change our perception about how work should be encountered in a digital realm that might actually be more faithful to the work themself?
Ed: Wow. There’s a whole another episode right there.
Suse: Yeah. Mathilde, please do tell us your thoughts about that, because that’s so interesting.
Mathilde: Yeah. I think on this aspect of overloading certain kinds of cultural heritage or the imbalance in the representation, I think the specific form of expression of cultural heritage or specific cultural heritages that are particularly impacted by that, the moment our expressions of intangible cultural heritage, because they’re not typically represented through flats, right? Or 2D representation. They are sometimes conveyed through objects, but most often true … And again, we can change what is authentic and what is not in terms of records, but intangible cultural heritage will be best at the moment captured through videos and audio recordings, right? And those, of course, can come in digital forms and be now shared much more freely, and they’re not so present in discussions around how we … Do we ethically care for those? And they’re absolutely riddled with claims of intellectual property from different people, including the researchers and ethnographers that went out there in the field and are claiming quite tight rights or conditions of access to their records.
And sometimes that is ethically minded and sometimes it is just the exercise of a practical monopoly that person enjoys. But that also means that this huge, this myriad of cultural heritages ends up getting lost or less shared and what we are engaging with at the moment and most remains images, even though technically, and it will be more and more so the case going forward, there’s no reasons why we couldn’t access sound and moving images as well as we are accessing digitized stills.
Ed: Right. And we’re just starting to see with the whole Nefertiti bust situation being applied to 3D models of physical objects as well.
Mathilde: The response from French institutions as it has been recorded and captured in the press has been very negative and very much sort of defensive, on defensive, explaining that no … The report came across as wanting to empty museums, especially Parisian or Paris space museums, of their collections. And then similar sort of conversations and arguments were also very present in the British press around the fact that again, British or French museums were sometimes best placed or best equipped to look after and take care of African cultural heritage derived from the colonial era. On the whole, what came across in the press from museums look like a big pushback against the report for various reasons, practical, political and so forth. However, if we talk to colleagues within the museum sector and beyond, the response has been, we’re very much behind the report. It’s great. Finally a breath of fresh air, finally an attempt to put that debate seriously back on the agenda and up to date and going for a natural, true and practical form of decolonization of the museums.
And that was very much welcome. A very clear disconnect between what was felt and received by experts within the academia and practice and by what a … I would say a handful of pocket of institutions in France, but it seems to be also in London, that reports has been quite negative and negative response. But surprisingly in the media, more of the negative response came through, which may be because those against the reports had easier access or easy access to certain platforms to be able to voice that argument. And I do think that they’re the majority. I don’t think the way in which the report has been so negatively responded to and reacted to is actually representative of how people within France, speaking for France, feel about the report and what it proposed. I think you’d find that it’s very much supported.
And something that we actually just found out, Andrea and I, by talking to one of the contributors of the Sarr-Savoy Report, [inaudible 00:28:07], and I don’t think I’m breaching his trust by sort of repeating those comments, he explained actually in preparation of the report, they talked to various museums in France, in Paris, and outside Paris, and he felt that there was a clear difference of mindset between institutions outside Paris who were quite happy to consider full and permanent restitutions and engagements and collaborations with communities of origin space in Africa and they could see that work perfectly fine within their collections and the future of their collections whilst the same sort of approach was not coming through museums based in Paris or bigger national museums. Now there may be very many reasons for that, but I thought that sort of contrast was interesting, and it goes to show that even within the field, the report probably isn’t coming across as radical as it’s been portrayed in the press.
Suse: Yeah. That’s fascinating. You were just talking, I suppose about museums starting to work with or working with historical and geographical communities of origin. I’m interested in the practical considerations of this and that may be beyond the scope of what the two of you have been working on, but what are the implications for museums that are working around digitization, around open access, in terms of working with communities of origin? How do they identify relevant communities? How should we be thinking about working with communities of origin and even in terms of educating communities around some of these questions to do with rights. What are the nuances that we should be thinking about there? Andrea, maybe you can start us off.
Andrea: Yeah. Well, one thing that I think is really difficult to kind of decontextualize in answering that is the fact that copyright law, even though it’s very territorial, has also been harmonized through a number of international measures. And so in order to kind of meet a certain standard domestically, like certain countries will have to change their laws in order to adapt to what some of these standards are. It’s interesting in the respect that this idea of what copyright is, what originality is, and even some very specific kind of French law ideas like moral rights are perpetual, have already been transplanted into a lot of the countries that then we would be looking to to kind of start these discussions with and determine who those communities of origin are. But I think the bigger question is more about really kind of trying to advocate that just as we’re asking all these questions around the material objects, we need to be asking the exact same questions around the digital cultural heritage as well.
And at the moment, that’s not really happening, because we see a lot of restitution occurring around material objects, but then in the media that’s kind of advertising that this is going on, the image that is used then says copyright, Musée du quai Branly. It’s kind of like, okay, well then the institution is still maintaining all of this digital cultural heritage as well. Part of what we do talk about in our response is just to kind of thinking in terms of why don’t we start to, I guess diversify or interrogate all the practices that we do that are so rote now, that might be challenged in terms of how we capture an object, how it becomes digitized. And if we start to think about transferring things back and then co-developing or working with communities, or even just turning it over and saying, please, take this over and do this yourselves, that could then obviously feed back into a bit of a knowledge exchange about proper treatment around these materials, but also in the materials that end up remaining at the institutions back in host nations.
But at the same time, there’s some interesting aspects of copyright that can allow you to kind of do some things in the meantime. One thing that institutions can obviously do is obviously if the law doesn’t allow the institution to restitute the material object, they can still turn the digital copyright over to the community and potentially manage for them according to how they would like it to be managed and any commercial benefit can go to the community itself. While that question about who should receive the object or if there’s conflicting interest in that in terms of what the answer is, is obviously going to be part of the process, but that digital has so much more to kind of be considered in that process. That’s not really happening at the moment. That’s really what we wanted to try to highlight.
Suse: Yeah. What else … There is so much in your response. There’s a huge amount of food for thought in this, and I’m going to encourage every listener to the show to read the report and the response. But what else should people be thinking about as they work through or as they then plan for things like digitalization or open access projects or just plan for digital cultural heritage collections overall? How should people be thinking about the kinds of problems and the kinds of framings through this? Mathilde?
Mathilde: I’d say we keep it really simple and try to think about it from day one. I would assume, if we take an object for instance or an image and you want to digitize and you’re in this process, I would really invite you to think about why. Why is that that you want to digitize, which are the audiences that you would like to reach and where the digitization process fits within that sort of strategy if you want? And then I would also urge you to consider the origin of the object or the image or the flat that you want to digitize, and consider the extent to which you feel you are knowledgeable and understand what the community of origin might imagine or consider or see in that the digitized version of the object, especially if you’re going to put it online because you feel that your institution is you as a curator, has a good sense and a good understanding of the values and the origins and the story behind the objects in the flats that you felt comfortable that you can make a good ethical decision in going ahead, digitizing and then sharing it, under whatever conditions you see fit, then perhaps you are asking yourself all the right questions and you shouldn’t be too risk-averse and too concerned.
And of course, I’m setting aside the law here and I’m talking about that gray area between, in that space where the law kind of ends and then sort of ethics takes over, because it’s usually that liminal space that’s a little bit tricky to navigate. But then if you think and sort of start questioning whether you are indeed in touch and best placed to represent that community, have a good sense of their value or those communities, because sometimes a object can involve different communities, I would suggest trying to find a way, and that’s where it really is tricky, to involve them in what … In how to treat the object and whether digitization is a good idea and a good thing and in a good way to make the public engage or have the public engage with our objects.
Now of course we’re talking yet in ideal worlds here, right? Because that takes time. That takes money. And those are two things that you usually don’t have if you work in cultural institutions, especially in a country where public funding is challenging or being challenged and sort of revenues, which means more time or more money become tricky and a sort of scarce commodity. But I think that’s how I would go about it. I would say, “Why do you digitize?” Do I think that digitizing and sharing the objects online or on whichever other portal makes sense of that community, how would that be received? Can I check with those communities before I go ahead?
And if you do all of these things, you pretty much asking the right questions and you’re on the safe path already, because you just didn’t go ahead and do it thinking it was a neutral non-act whilst in fact it can be quite disruptive or challenging sometimes.
Andrea: Yeah. And if I can just jump in on that as well. There’s some really clear cases where digitization is not okay and especially over objects that are being requested by the communities of origin. There will obviously be things that pop out that kind of are red flags, to begin with. I think it’s more about some of that gray area that then you start to think, how do we then get in touch? Are we able to start asking these questions and what does that process look like? And there are so many people who are already doing a lot of this. For example, the Auckland War Memorial Museum has a cultural permissions policy for their digitized works that they have worked on with the communities themselves in order to figure out what type of permissions, what types of works can be made available online, and what parameters need to be set around access or even no access. I noticed that you actually I listened to the podcast with Nathan Sentence and there’s other people like Puawai Cairns and also Matrici Williams, [inaudible 00:37:51] in New Zealand who are asking a lot of these questions and doing this work that’s already out there. I think it’s more trying to share practices and understand what people are doing, but making the space for the right voices to lead this process and also making the space for people to be able to listen and learn.
Because I know often communities who have been engaged in these practices for a long time have a hard time hearing some hard truths about the way that some of this has gone down and how it needs to change. A lot of this I think is about space-making and listening.
Suse: This has been really, really helpful and it’s really lovely to hear … You point out where this work is being done elsewhere. I think it’s really helpful for us to look at all of the examples that are being done around the sector and we’ll share links to a few of those examples in the show notes as well. Thank you, Andrea and Mathilde, for talking with us about this. As you point out, digitization is not neutral and it’s really helpful for us to think through both the legal and the ethical questions as we become more nuanced with digitization and with access to digitized resources. If listeners want to get in touch with you or find out more about your work, what’s the best way for them to do so?
Andrea: We can be reached by email, which we’re happy to include on some of the links as well, but just as a quick email account, it’s email@example.com. And firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mathilde: Otherwise, we’re both fairly active on Twitter, so if anyone wants to get in touch through social media that way, that’s also perfectly fine.
Ed: Great. This has been a really great conversation. Thank you guys so much for taking the time out to talk to us.
Andrea: Thanks for having us. This has been awesome.
Mathilde: Thank you. It’s been lovely. Interesting chat.
Ed: Thank you so much, Matilda and Andrea, for that provocative discussion. Your work definitely expands the kind of thinking that we all need to be doing around digital cultural heritage.
Suse: Very much so. This is definitely an area where I think we’ll start to be seeing a lot more thinking and a lot more development and a lot more nuance in the kinds of conversations that we’re having within the sector around this topic.
Suse: Ed, before we wrap up today, I wondered if you wanted to share some of your highlights from the past year?
Ed: Oh, highlights from the past year.
Ed: That would be 2019.
Suse: 2019, because this is in indeed the last episode of the year.
Ed: Wow, you’re right. It’s gone so quickly. Let’s see. Well obviously I worked for a very long time as part of a large team trying to open a brand new building at my museum and the building opened and is still open, so yay.
Ed: That’s a once in a lifetime amount of work and I’m very pleased with it. What else? We’ve done some very interesting things as a field. I feel like this year for the first time, a lot of the intractable problems seem to be starting to succumb to sustained effort on the part of grassroots organizations, and people just saying, “Hey, what about this? Hey, what about this?” And just not giving up. And I am hopeful that we’re going to see even more of that in 2020 and that’s very exciting to me.
Suse: Yeah, I definitely have that. I’ve been having some pretty intense conversations with some of my students lately about things like the conditions in the field, the labor conditions in the field, but these are not positive conversations in a lot of ways with grad students, but I’ve been walking away from them giving them my honest response, which is I think that they’re going to experience a sector and a field, in a better place in a lot of ways, because of the pressure that’s happening now and that it has to have an impact.
Ed: Amen. Yeah. Yeah. I totally agree with that. What are your highlights from the year, Miss Anderson?
Suse: Ah, that’s a good question. To be a little sappy, but accurate, having you joined Museopunks has been one of them, but actually doing the podcast this year has been really important for me. More and more I’m finding that the conversations that we have here on the podcast are lining up with my teaching and informing my work. And I think that I am a different practitioner in ending 2019 than I was starting it. And a lot of that has been the conversations I’ve had through this vehicle, but also the sort of flow-on effects that it’s led to. That’s been really nice. A highlight for me has just been the kind of development in my own thinking and practice through having smart people push me to do better. And that’s a pretty good highlight. We’ve been doing some really great work in the program at GW. I took a little experiment with some of my students in museums and digital tech where we …
Ed: Oh yeah.
Suse: Each student, yeah. Each student basically took on a mini-research project and then over the semester we published them all effectively as a digital publication using Choir from Getty Publications. And so hopefully that means each student, well, each student does have a publication to their name. All of their research projects were so great. I’ve never had students engage so much with an assignment, so that was a pretty nice highlight too of seeing my students produce something and put it out into the world. That’s a couple and I got to visit Australia, which was a really nice thing to do as well.
Ed: Oh, that’s great. So then what are the immediate plans coming up for the beginning of 2020?
Suse: Fortunately, I’m only teaching two courses, not three in the spring, so sort of developing and seeing, I don’t know. I’m at a rare moment where I think I’m open to figuring out new projects. I shouldn’t say that out loud on this podcast.
Ed: Yeah, no. That’s totally going out. You will live to regret that.
Suse: I think I already have. Do you have any immediate 2020 things that you’re kicking off the year with?
Ed: Well 2020 is going to be the year that I finish the book I’m working on, one way or the other. Finally started making some progress on that now that we are on the far side of working on building buildings, and I’m also … I’ve found the conversations we’ve had this year on the podcast have just been so nourishing and so they have pushed me in lots of ways to examine and re-examine things. I feel like I’ve done a lot of growing and I need to sort of catch up with, okay I ingested a lot of new thinking and what does that mean going forward? I think 2020 is going to be a year of sort of, I don’t know, consolidating or solidifying new ways of practice. We’ll see.
Suse: We’ll see. It’s … That feels like a nice optimistic place to be going into a new year.
Suse: On that note, I am going to let everyone know we are taking January off to spend some time with families, to plan for the new season, maybe to do some consolidating of the kind of thinking that we’ve both been doing and learning. But we’ll be back in February with a brand new season and a new set of shows that hopefully will continue to push our own practice and yours.
Ed: That’s the plan. We’ve popped links to much of what we spoke about today in the show notes, which you can find at museopunks.org, along with transcripts of this and previous episodes
Suse: Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. And of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. Catch you in 2020.
Ed: Happy holidays all.