Event report: Final Cultural Conversations: Ideas, Practice, Networking session 4
Our final Cultural Conversation for 2022 was a discussion on the topic of Digital GLAM, an area the people working at ANU and at our national cultural institutions have spent quite a lot of time thinking about recently. The panel brought in perspectives from a range of backgrounds, this in itself highlighting the diversity of experiences and knowledge that tend to characterise the Digital GLAM sector, from someone like Dr Keir Winesmith who started in physics and computer science then worked with artists and transitioned into the cultural heritage sector. His experience has led him to think critically about how institutions should take up new tech ideas. Erica Seccombe a practising artist and teacher who has worked extensively with STEM, both to create art and to show STEM practitioners how to use ideas and methods from art to extend their own research. Allison Delitt, Assistant Director-General, Collaboration Branch at the National Library of Australia and joining us to talk about her work running Trove, one of Australia’s oldest and most important pieces of cultural and research infrastructure. The panel was completed by two of our Cultural Conversations organising team, Craig Middleton, a Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia who has been working across a number of digital initiatives and Dr Katrina Grant a Senior Lecturer from the Centre for Digital Humanities Research, who has been teaching and researching at the nexus of digital and cultural heritage at the ANU for the past six years.
The panel covered a range of topics from teaching, collecting of born digital things, infrastructure (and its cost), inequality in employment, and the question of a digital public commons. We talked about challenges, like the rapid change in technologies and platforms and how institutions can adapt, Craig talked about how as a curator he is looking at the how institutions can ‘collect’ born digital things, like TikTok and Instagram feed, and that we need to talk about what needs to be collected sooner rather than later. Allison talked about infrastructure, from her perspective heading up one of the most important pieces of cultural heritage and research infrastructure, Trove. She highlighted the enormous costs of this, and also talked about how different types of expertise in creating it is being valued differently - tech experts are highly paid while curators and librarians, the content and discipline experts, are not.
Everyone, and the audience questions too, touched on the topic of skills. There was an agreement that our skills haven’t quite caught up to what the industry needs, but that it also isn’t exactly clear what we need. Katrina talked about how these skills need to be understood in different ways, they need to be critical and questioning of tech as well as having an understanding of how to ‘do the techy stuff’, and that students are best served by learning ‘how to upskill, build, and critique’ as they go, as teaching specific software skills is too passive and dates quickly. Erica observed that it’s not just tertiary teaching, but the school system too that needs to rethink how it approaches teaching digital skills in its broadest sense. She talked about her courses that have brought tech experts, artists, designers into conversation with students studying art, design and humanities. Keir talked about his work mentoring people to do leadership in this space, and how projects benefit from being values led rather than tech led.
The final discussion, with input from the audience including Assoc Prof Katrina Sluis from SOAD, considered what the role of the museum and university is in relation to Digital GLAM. We talked about how a lot of digital engagement has meant using privately owned companies and following their rules, like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Should our sectors be supporting more open source and community driven software and platforms? WIth the very current news about the changing of Twitter with its sale to Elon Musk, the panel and audience debated whether museums and universities should be building digital public spaces and finding ways to take some of the control of the digital realm back from private, profit-driven companies.
There was also a consensus that these four events have been a great opportunity to discuss current ideas and challenges facing both the university and cultural sectors. We will return in 2023 and we welcome any feedback or ideas on topics and formats.