Theoretical background – University of Copenhagen

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Theoretical background

Cultural "Bildung" in a digital age

Along with collecting, preserving, researching and exhibiting artifacts, education has always been among the main tasks of CHIs.

The ways in which and the purposes for which these tasks have been carried out have differed sharply over time, though – from the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, emerging in the 16th century, whose encyclopedic collections of objects were meant to astonish and dazzle; via the ostentatious wealth of the Baroque museums of the 17th and 18th centuries displayed as demonstrations of power, colonial as well as national; to the bourgeois museums of the 19th century offering a more emancipated role for their visitors, just to mention a few examples.

In addition, the ideal of Bildung, associated first and foremost with Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), which underscored the importance of self-betterment and social improvement – the formative process and fulfillment of the cultural, social, political and psychological potential of a human being for the sake of entering into fruitful relationships with other human beings, society and the world – has also played an important role.

Generally speaking, it is between the orientation toward the cultural object or artifact itself, its form and contents, on the one hand, and the orientation toward the subjective experience of the individual visitor and his/her interaction with the artifact, on the other, that scholarship on museums and their educational role has moved – and still does to this day.

As Noschka-Roos (2012) has pointed out, moreover, the very question of the role society wants CHIs to play has typically come up when the social and cultural relevance of education or Bildung has been at the center of political discussion. Bildung, educational politics and the role of CHIs are very closely connected, that is.

In outlining the more recent history of the role of CHIs in western societies, museum scholars talk about two paradigm shifts (Graf and Rodekamp, 2012). The first happened in the 1960s and 1970s and was a reflection of the political and cultural developments associated with the revolutionary events of 1968.

Confronting head-on the notion of CHIs as highbrow places in which the elite could polish off their tastes and manners, CHI curators and scholars now stressed the social and didactic dimension of their work. Intent on reaching a wider audience, they saw their role as that of ‘translating’ their professional knowledge into exhibitions that would educate and teach visitors – especially school children and high-school youths.

The potential for CHIs to support and encourage education acquired great significance, also, as national governments came to appreciate the social, cultural, economic, and individual benefits that flow from lifelong learning (Brown, 2007; Lawley, 2003; Sandell, 2003).

The top-down method and one-way didacticism implicit in much of what was going on in and around CHIs in the 1970s and 1980s would become a major reason for criticism by the early 1990s. At this point, rather than educating the public and viewing visitors as (passive) receivers of Bildung, CHIs and museum scholars began to see visitors as costumers, eventually also as partners.

In line with what came to be known as the ‘experience economy’ (Pine and Gilmore, 1999), CHIs began to orchestrate memorable events for their customers/visitors – to provide opportunities for individualized challenges as well as for a personalized construction of meaning (Paris, 1997).

Furthermore, CHIs were increasingly seen as instruments for government policies on social inclusion, cohesion and access (Brown, 2007). For this, digitization came in handy; the advent of the computer enabled people of all ages to gain the skills and knowledge they need to contribute to and share in the information and communication age of the 21st century.

Today, we are arguably witnessing a second turn, possibly even a paradigm shift. One indication is that CHIs are increasingly viewed as places of dialogue between employees of CHIs and the general public (Jenkins, 2006). Research, Bildung and understanding are no longer provided by the CHI researchers for the benefit of the general public, but instead happen as a result of an active, two-way communication.

Notions of authorship, creativity and collaboration have become part of everyday culture rather than remaining in the hands of the authoritative institutions (Liew, 2014). This new and more participatory culture is arguably part of something bigger – a turn toward what German scholars have called ‘cultural Bildung’:

We are in the middle of a process of change whose overall consequences we can only begin to glimpse at the moment. Many basic patterns of our society, concerning families, religions and education, are changing. The result is that cultural Bildung and aesthetic sensitization become more and more important…

The embedding of cultural Bildung into the general Bildung along with the strengthening of cultural Bildung as a whole are of fundamental importance to the development of our society. Culture is a key to societal development.

(Bundestag (2007), quoted in Noschka-Roos (2012), own translation from the German.)

Other appeals have recently been made to the concept of Bildung. In 2012 the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland featured an article by Sander Pleij with the headline “We want Bildung! We want Bildung!” (Pleij, 2012). At the same time, Mogens Noergaard Oleson has been propagating Bildung in Denmark as a powerful tool in modern university teaching (Oleson, 2010).

To others, the pitfalls of mobilizing historical ideas about the purpose of higher education, and especially education in (high) culture, in and for the present, overshadow the potential benefits.

“Do We (Still) Need the Concept of Bildung?”, Jan Masschelein and Norbert Ricken asked in 2003 (Masschelein and Ricken, 2003), for example. Can concepts previously considered outdated take us forward in an age in which critique has run out of steam, Bruno Latour queried the following year (Latour, 2004).

This turn toward cultural Bildung in relation to CHIs, and the role that digitization will play in it form the research context for ‘The Past’s Future.’ Bringing together expertise from history, arts and cultural studies, and computer science, our research team is ideally suited to critically assess and discuss the turn toward cultural Bildung in the digital age – and its consequences for CHIs.

User Participation

Our point of departure and entry into the larger issue of the turn toward cultural Bildung will be the participatory CHI and user participation in content creation. ‘Lay’ participation in digital knowledge production, both conceptually and empirically, is relatively new to both CHIs and the academy, especially the humanities.

The term ‘crowdsourcing’ is often used as a label for such lay activity. Originally coined by Howe (2006), it has come in recent years to be used by CHI researchers and academics about the power of the crowd to achieve research aims.

As Stuart Dunn and Mark Hedges have pointed out, however, the term is problematic, requires further analysis and must be distinguished from related concepts such as e.g. ‘citizen science’ and ‘wisdom of the crowds’(Dunn and Hedges, 2012a). See also Dunn and Hedges (2012) and Estellés-Arolas and F. González-Ladrón-de-Guevara (2012) for discussions of typology and background.

Participatory activities range widely. At one end of the spectrum is the involvement of interested lay people in family- and local history-related projects such as the ‘Cyber-Infrastructure for Billions of Electronic Records’ (CI-BER) project, a case study of the Southside neighborhood in Asheville, North Carolina (Grant et al. 2012), or ‘Sejrs Sedler,’ to take an example closer to home (Aarhus Stadsarkiv, 2014).

At the other end we find more academicallyoriented studies such as the University of Oxford led ‘A Museum Without Walls: Realising the Potential of Crowdsourcing in the Arts’ which involves the tagging of cultural resources (PCF, 2014).

To this category also belong blogs by scholars active in the field such as the participatory initiative ‘Transcribe Bentham,’ based at University College London (UCL, 2014; Causer. et al., 2012; Causer and Wallace, 2012), Rose Holley’s Blog (Holley, 2013; 2009), ‘The Shipping News blog’ (Greenstreet, 2013), started by Colin Greenstreet as an innovative academic project for the collaborative transcription, linkage and enrichment of primary manuscripts; and Lori Byrd Phillips’s blog on the relationships between museum professionals and the communities they serve.

Phillips has used her blog, for example, to suggest a new model for authority in museums: open authority (Phillips, 2012).

As this list indicates, academics in the humanities and social sciences undertake participatory projects for a variety of reasons – to digitize content, but also to create or process content and/or to provide editorial or processing interventions.

Digital research methods are currently entering the mainstream of humanities research, and there are a number of initiatives addressing the conceptualization and construction of research infrastructures for the humanities. Digital Humanities Lab Denmark (DIGHUMLAB) is one example; CLARIN and DARIAH-EU are two others.

In terms of cultural heritage, most participatory projects focus on ‘microtasks’ like transcribing text, but some are exploring knowledge generation around closely-defined topics (Ridge, 2014; Wouters et al., 2013; Janssen, 2012; JISC, 2010; Orr and Bennett, 2012). Recent literature within museum studies refers to new museology or just museum 2.0 (Simon, 2010), and to the shifting power balance between experts/curators and the public/amateurs, caused by communication technologies and user-generated content (Parry, 2007; Hooper-Greenhill, 2007).

This shifting power balance has been conceptualized from the viewpoint of participation and new kinds of users: prosumers (Toffler, 1980), produsers (Bruns, 2008), and mass selfcommunication (Castells, 2009) of the creative audience - a shift that optimistic voices term RW (read write) cultures as opposed to RO (read only) cultures (Lessig, 2008), or making and doing culture vs. sit back and be told cultures (Gauntlett, 2011).

The process of leveraging public participation in or contributions to projects and activities tends to blur the boundaries between the academic and nonacademic worlds. This development is viewed with enthusiasm by parts of academia – especially by Digital Humanities scholars.

In Digital_Humanities from 2012, authors Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner & Jeffrey Schnapp (who is a part of ‘The Past’s Future’) offer “the utopian prospect that the massive spread of shared knowledge across networks could give rise to a state of ‘ubiquitous scholarship,’ of ever-more interconnected, publicly engaged, participant citizens”(Burdick et al., 2012).

The future humanities scholar, they claim, is the curator and the designer – ‘enhanced critical curation’ and ‘visualization and data design’ increasingly becoming the name of the game.

Other scholars are more critical of the blurring of boundaries. The issue of crowdsourced manuscript transcription has given rise to some worry, for example. At a conference on ‘Social, Digital, Scholarly Editing’ in July 2013, software developer Ben Brumfield warned about crowdsourcing tools ignoring documentary editing methodologies. Most crowdsourced transcription tools do not contain a place for the administrator to specify transcription conventions to their users, and the result is that “new standards come into being without any reference whatsoever to the tradition of scholarly or documentary editing” (Brumfield, 2013, emphasis in the original).

A recent announcement by the National Historical Publications and Documentary Records (NHPRC) – the American federal agency which has funded documentary editing projects for decades – of proposed changes to its funding guidelines has added to this worry.

The agency proposes to cease funding any editions which are not digital, Open Access editions (NHPRC, 2013). The NHPRC situation is still developing, and several people have left comments to the individual posts on the NHPRC blog.

One of these is Secretary of the Association for Documentary Editing Darrell Meadows to whom the new funding guidelines indicate that the NHPRC is no longer interested in funding transcription, emendation, or annotation of edited volumes, switching instead to a scan-and-dump model in which the only role played by editors is assembling material, scanning it, and attaching some metadata on a website.

Although the scholars (editors in this case) have started collaborating with the public, the funders have decided that the scholarly activity of editing is no longer worth funding, and the authority of editors is not worth respecting (NHPRC, 2014).

As Europe is usually quick to follow policies that seem to cut costs, this sort of development may very well come our way soon. Along somewhat similar lines, various European countries have already started experimenting with user-involving activities in CHI activities.

Under the heading ‘User-involvement and voluntariness’ the Danish ‘Kulturstyrelsen’ (Danish Agency for Culture) has recently granted funding for a number of projects, for example (Kulturstyrelsen, 2014). Active involvement of users on a voluntary basis in all aspects of CHI activities is presented as a win-win situation for everyone involved.

The idea is to increase the public relevance of the institutions, also toward people who do not normally visit CHIs, as well as to develop these as relevant and accessible platforms for public dialogue and reflection on the present, the future and the past.

Is such involvement of voluntary work on a private basis also a way for public institutions to save costs? (Andrejevic, 2011) What consequences will voluntariness have once it is connected to the digital, instead of the analogue world, where it is impossible to supervise, let alone control? And what will be the result once money and policy will be linked to voluntariness in the public sector?

The ‘user-involvement and voluntariness’ policy of the Danish ‘Kulturstyrelsen’ is a good example of that turn toward cultural Bildung, outlined above, where the visitor-citizen is viewed as a partner with whose help CHIs can develop into ‘a welfare-experimentarium’ – a ‘third place’ civil society mixture between private and public (Kulturstyrelsen, 2013, own translation from Danish).

What will all this mean for CHIs? Which parts of the turn toward cultural Bildung should we welcome – and which should we warn against? Will museum scholars in the future benefit from user-involvement or will they be reduced to giving input to the ever-increasing number of communication staff in order only later to find a simplistic version of their research presented on the interactive websites of their respective CHIs?

While existing approaches mostly concentrate on the diversity aspect of cultural Bildung – on the need to democratize and make it possible for everyone to participate in cultural life – we are interested in investigating what the turn toward cultural Bildung will mean for education and research, intellectually and epistemologically speaking, in relation to CHIs.

We are especially concerned with that promotion of knowledge and good quality education which, as we saw, is considered in international declarations and conventions to be an essential ingredient of cultural education – one without which participation in cultural life leading to inter-cultural understanding and dialogue is impossible.