Curating digital cultural heritage: questions of care, control and function – University of Copenhagen


Curating digital cultural heritage: questions of care, control and function

Project by Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, PhD in Arts and Cultural Studies

The contribution of this sub-project toward answering our general research questions will be to address directly sub-question 4:

How do the new digital infrastructures and public-private partnerships in data management affect the role of CHIs as public organizations and accessible platforms for public dialogue?

It will do so by giving a genealogical account of the concept and the practice of curation in light of digitization. It will situate this account within the changing functions of cultural heritage in the information age; and it will debate how Bildung and individuation, as two different but related concepts, may each offer important perspectives on the significance of the form and function of curation in the digital archives in relation to aesthetic sensitization.

Digitization processes and the networked environment have modulated the notion and practice of curation. The site of curatorial production has been expanded to include the space of the Internet and the focus of curatorial attention has been extended from the object to processes to dynamic network systems.

As a result, curatorial work has become more widely distributed between multiple agents, including technological networks and software. This transformation of the curatorial space offers new possibilities of collective and distributed curating.

From having played a central part of the curatorial practice, the curator is now only part of this entire system but not central to it. Sharing his/her place are algorithms, users and software engineers (Krysa 2006).

This project considers how network systems and the big data environment have changed the practice of curating in a wider socio-political context, articulated through two key issues: big data and network systems.

Firstly, the project situates the work of the curator in a big data environment. Big data can be described as the ability of society to harness information in novel ways to produce insights or goods and services of significant value (Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier, 2013) and rests on the idea that everything can be digitized and ‘datafied’ thanks to cheaper storage, faster processing and better algorithms.

Secondly, the project situates the work of the curator in the context of network systems. This focus reflects both an extended repertoire of what can be curated (from the art object to processes to dynamic online systems), and furthermore suggests new possibilities for the organisation of the curatorial process itself (of which software and networks are a part).

Underlying these urgent considerations looms a more fundamental concern that pertains to the issue of freedom and control. The digital environment has led some to argue that curatorial power has been distributed. It no longer merely includes official or ideological representations; private lives and opinions that are now routinely displayed and archived in public spaces, are also involved.

These public spaces are governed in the loosest sense by their users who often have free and unrestricted access to them (Gane and Beer, 2008). As this argument would go, the archives have been democratized.

Yet, embedded in this democratization is a hitherto unprecedented degree of control; and the call for participation under slogans such as ‘information wants to be free’ and ‘sharing is caring’ responds just as much to commercial and other interests.

This paradox alludes to the professional dilemma of museums to transform, on the one hand, their ‘data tombs’ into valuable digital resources, while on the other hand maintaining their traditional role as ‘carers’ of both objects and subjects.

Evoking the notion of ‘care’, Stiegler (2010) argues that cultivation of the self in and through memory and memory institutions is of utmost importance in an age of mass digitization in which individuation is turned into ‘dividuation’.

What the world needs, he suggests, is to establish a new ‘industrial politics of spirit’ in which amateurism, deep reading, friendship and transindividuation can take the place of consumerism, superficial reading, contacts and disindividuation. Accepting this diagnosis, how can the curator respond to and take on these responsibilities through their practices?