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Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse

Editor: Fiona Cameron, Sarah Kenderdine
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Jennifer Way

According to UNESCO, heritage is "our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration." Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse augments this definition by asserting that "the roles and uses of the digital object must be understood as part of the broader heritage complex -- an institutionalized culture of practices and ideas that is inherently political, socially and culturally circumscribed, and as such implicated in the cycle of heritage value and consumption" (50). By "digital cultural heritage," the anthology does not have in mind efforts to collect, archive, and preserve "burgeoning amounts of digital content, especially materials that are created only in digital formats, for current and future generations," which is the scope of the Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. Rather, in each of its twenty-two essays, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage examines digital aspects of heritage scholarship and learning presented or configured for use by the individual or community, scholarly or lay, with emphasis on how and to what ends it is accessed, interacted with, and otherwise consumed.

The book rightly claims that it "represents the first comprehensive theoretical discourse on cultural heritage and digital media since 1997" (1), the year when Katherine Jones-Garmil published The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms exploring the impact of electronic telecommunications on many facets of museum practice. 1997 also saw the publication of a special section of the Art Bulletin called "Digital Culture and the Practices of Art and Art History," in which Susan L. Siegfried reported, "The rapid expansion of information technology (IT) is affecting the ways information about cultural subjects is created, organized, used, and stored, which in turn directly affect museums, arts organizations, the art market, government agencies, universities, and, increasingly, academics, artists, curators, and dealers themselves" (209). In addition to advancing awareness of the forms, technologies, practices, and effects of digital media for cultural heritage and its users, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage brings an international perspective to existing studies, such as A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns, 2003, which reviews the Council on Library and Information Resources study of North American-based digital cultural heritage initiatives "to identify the[ir] scope, financing, organizational structure, and sustainability." Many of the essays in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage feature examples of cultural heritage in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

In addition, the co-editors draw on their extensive experience using global and multi-disciplinary humanities perspectives to understand the relationship of museums to heritage functions and digital media. Dr Fiona Cameron has worked in museums as a director, social history curator, and curatorial consultant. She earned her PhD in Social Anthropology and Museum Studies at Massey University, New Zealand, and currently she is a Research Fellow in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, a member of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes administered from Duke University and the Council for the Humanties, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) based in Canberra. Sarah Kenderdine studies immersive experiences for location-based entertainments centers, principally museum and galleries. By training she is a maritime archaeologist and curator. She holds a Master of Arts in Design from Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia, and she works as head of Special Projects and Project Manager for The Virtual Room at Museum Victoria, and as the Director for International Society of Virtual Systems and Multimedia. She is the curator, designer and contributing artist for the exhibition, Ancient Hampi: the Hindu Kingdom Brought to Life, at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, 2008-2010.

Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage is the most recent publication in MIT Press's Media in Transition series, which explores the place of economic, political, legal, social, and cultural institutions in mediating and partly shaping technological change. MIT Press describes the series as "a forum for humanists and social scientists who wish to speak not only across academic disciplines but also to policy makers, media and corporate practitioners, and, most of all, their fellow citizens." Correspondingly, Cameron and Kenderdine want their book to appeal to specialists and nonspecialists "interested in cultural heritage and its future interpretations" (2). That the book not only appeals to but also be comprehensible to both types of readers must have challenged the editors as they also sought to distinguish the collection of essays from the existing "discourses about the relation between cultural heritage and digital technology [that] has been descriptive and introspective, focusing on projects and their technical considerations" (3) and taking "a more critical and theoretical appraisal -- of the specific roles that museums and cultural heritage institutions play in interpretation and representation using new and emerging digital media" (2), including emphasizing how "cultural heritage 'ecologies' ... appropriate, adapt, incorporate, and transform the digital technologies they adopt" (1). From beginning to end, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage achieves the more rigorous appraisal to which it aspires, chiefly because it consistently demonstrates Katherine Hayles's insight "that technologies are cultural constructs, and therefore their subsequent meanings and imaginative uses are dependent on the cultural values and meanings attributed to them" (49). Every essay puts this to good use in showing how museums, heritage, and technology mutually and variously define, shape, and respond to one another through the agendas and practices of institutions and audiences.

Moreover, as it more rigorously considers cultural heritage and digital technology by foregrounding perspectives ranging from "the philosophical, historical, social, artistic, biological, geographic, and the linguistic" (1), several features of the book ensure the discussion remains accessible and compelling. Following an Introduction that succinctly summarizes the book's contents, each essay begins with its own brief introduction orienting readers to its premises, contexts, and arguments, and each proceeds to patiently discuss theoretical and historical aspects of its arguments, reviewing terminology and historiography where appropriate. Not only is the entire book well-organized in three sections, each essay is internally organized by subtitles that make it easy for the reader to keep track of major thematic components and developments in argumentation and demonstration. In addition, each essay has a conclusion or summary that reviews the discussion and provides additional insight. Copious notes and references follow each essay directly, making it easy to grasp the scholarly armature of the claims and form ideas for additional reading.

The six essays in the first section, called "Replicants/Object Morphologies," provide a point of departure by inquiring "what new understandings can be brought to bear on the relationship between digital and physical collections, art works, and on the digital object" (4-5). Topics addressed in the essays include how thoroughly technology impacts the mission and daily work of collection-based art museums including in regards to pedagogy, how technology changes the presuppositions of what a museum represents and how it performs its mission, the meaning and significance of digital art as well as "multimedia" for museums and their visitors, and questions about connections between community and cultural heritage.

The eight essays in the second section, "Knowledge Systems and Management: Shifting Paradigms and Models," address current imperatives and those likely to develop in the future for cultural heritage institutions conceived as both creators and distributors of knowledge. In this section, attention to "practice" connects what museums do with how they are used, including the ways "cultural interactive experiences are formulated and designed" in regard to immersive technologies, online collection documentation, and documentation as interpretation, which renders the museum as an "information broker" (212). Essays in this section also reflect on "questions of sociopolitical forces that influence cultural information standards and benefits of virtual access to digital cultural heritage" (224).

In the third section, "Cultural Heritage and Virtual Systems," the eight essays emphasize "cultural heritage research, documentation, and interpretation -- as it is mediated through the techniques and modalities of virtual reality" (10). Although their focus is the most technology-oriented in the book, their intriguing discussions are accessible to the lay reader because the authors patiently, clearly explain technologies and contextualize their developments and uses historically and culturally. What also distinguishes the essays from those in the previous sections is that they consider the integration of digital technologies and cultural heritage in and beyond the museum -- for example, in cities, in archaeological projects, and, generally, in regard to combinations of space, place, learning, and heritage.

Although the emphasis of Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse is heritage involving especially art museums, its essays offer insights relevant to government and non-governmental organizations through which heritage is represented and distributed across much of the world today. Also, the book makes very clear that there is no such thing as technological determinism. For example, in "The Morphology of Space in Virtual Heritage," Bernadette Flynn explains, "The space of virtual heritage is not neutral ground. The application of digital media to cultural heritage privileges certain forms of spatial representation over others" (350). An ideologically-oriented analysis of choices in constituting and using digital cultural heritage would make an interesting follow up to this volume, taking into account, for instance, Arjun Appadurai's concept of ethnoscapes, or transnational flows of culture across and between national borders.

Library of Congress, "National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program." (accessed February 16, 2009).

Siegfried, Susan. "The Policy Landscape." Art Bulletin, June 1997: 209-213.

UNESCO. World Heritage. (accessed February 26, 2009).

Zorich, Diane M. A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns. Council on Library and Information Resources. June 2003. (accessed February 16, 2009).

Jennifer Way:
Jennifer Way is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of North Texas where she teaches and researches the history of technology, society and culture relationships since ca 1945. She is a member of the university's interdisciplinary, collaborative research cluster iARTA, Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts. She co-organized iARTA Leap, Leadership Perspectives on Technology and Art Research, its 2009 fall symposium roundtable of leaders of international technology and art programs examining global technology and art research initiatives in the context of economic downturn. In her Women, Art, Technology project, students are building an archive of oral history interviews documenting women in the visual arts using technology.  <JWay@unt.edu>

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