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14.00  Digital Democracy? Co-Production in the Digital Environment

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Digital technology has long been heralded as an important tool in the democratization of heritage. Digitization has enabled cultural institutions to provide greater access to their collections, while social media has not only enabled individuals and communities to “engage” with this material, but also allowed others to document, represent, and interpret their heritage online, and on their own terms. However, the relationship between digital and democracy is by no means straightforward. This paper will examine the role that digital technology may play in shifting the dynamics between museums and communities. In doing so, it will seek to bridge debates on co-production in critical heritage studies with wider theoretical debates surrounding the use of technology in facilitating democratic participation. In keeping with theoretical positions that argue for a “post-critical” approach to museum practice, the paper will engage with current theoretical debates regarding agency and empowerment, while seeking to enhance empirical understanding of the practical issues about digital co-production from the perspectives of those both within and outside the museum. 

These issues will be explored through the critical analysis of a case study, undertaken as part of the Co-curate North East Project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, under the program Digital Transformations in Community Research Co-production. The research, which adopted an action-research methodology, examined how schools and communities could be supported by both academics and museum professionals to co-produce open-access educational resources, by “mashing up” museum and archival collections available through open-access models, alongside community-generated material. The project was a departure from popular models of digital participation within the museum sector, whereby individuals may be asked to contribute to digital resources hosted and maintained by the museum, such as tagging collections or sharing their expertise in order to enhance collections knowledge. 

The project highlighted significant issues surrounding the process of co-production in the digital environment, particularly with regard to questions of who is “hosting”—and thus holds ultimate control over—the digital resource. Within the project discussions, the website was frequently conceptualized—not uncritically—as a “third space,” a hybrid virtual space that could bridge the gap between “official” and “community” heritage and thus provide a “democratic” space for heritage interpretation. Such an approach is in keeping with debates surrounding “online space” as a hybrid of the public and private spheres. However, despite operating “beyond the museum,” issues of legitimacy and professionalism remained pertinent. Some museum staff felt disenfranchised by the process as it was not “led” by a member of the education or outreach team and took place primarily beyond the physical or online spaces of the museum. Others were uncomfortable with a lack of control over the quality or content of the digital outputs. Tensions also emerged between the expectations of schools and communities regarding both the availability of material online and the specialist support offered by heritage professionals; while staff were keen to offer such support in principle, the inflexibility of institutional structures meant that issues such as staff availability, timescale, budget, and strategic priorities resulted in an inability to meet these requirements, leading to further disengagement with the project. In this instance, the speed and expectations of the digital environment exacerbated frustrations seen in other areas of museum practice. 

While potentially facilitating the democratization of heritage, the availability of museum collections online via open-access models and under creative commons licensing therefore presents new challenges for how museums both envisage and indeed understand the process and outcomes of “co-production” with communities in the digital age.

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