Digitisation and democracy

Posted on March 14, 2011
Grant McNultyAs South Africa makes the move towards digital heritage with the development of the recent draft National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources, a number of questions and possibilities come to the fore. One that I would like to explore here is the democratising potential of new digital technologies and what it means for heritage practitioners.

Digital Heritage Resources
The digitisation of heritage resources is not a new phenomenon. Since the late 1990s, varying efforts have been made in Europe, America, Canada and Australia to digitise (and generally make available online) museum collections, private collections and other heritage materials. Two key issues regarding the digitisation of heritage materials and the Internet as a mode of transmission, are interoperability and access.

Interoperability and Access
In terms of interoperability, digital collections, used in conjunction with the Internet facilitate interaction and collaboration between institutions. The Internet provides institutions with access to a wide network of collective knowledge in which they can share information about curatorial and conservational practices, create standards to share materials, techniques and content for the development of exhibitions, and the identification and location of materials relevant to research. While this bodes well for the institutional context, most Declared Cultural Institutions in South Africa are located in the largest cities with little access for much of the population. How then, might digitisation and the creation of digital heritage resources facilitate access to a broader spectrum of the population?

The distributive nature of the Internet means that it can overcome geographic constraints and provide greater access to a wider audience. This is significant in the South African context where much of the population live in rural or semi-rural areas, with little or no access to museums, archives and heritage institutions. Although standard, fixed Internet access remains a problem in rural areas where access points are mainly through the municipal libraries, mobile technologies offer exciting new possibilities. The Internet population in Africa is still only 10.9% but estimates suggest that mobile phone usage in Africa is close to 70% and greater still in South Africa. Since 2000, there have been some 316 million new mobile phone subscribers on the African continent. A recent, promising development in mobile technology has been the introduction of browsers on most new generation mobile phones. This combined with the 3G network that all mobile providers have migrated to, means that everyday people are accessing the Internet from their phones in ever-increasing numbers. While this points to how some of the technical difficulties of access might be overcome, the question of heritage in South Africa poses further challenges.

Heritage in South Africa
In South Africa, history and heritage were previously one-sided and functioned to consolidate settler histories and their right to South Africa. Clear distinction was made between cultural history (white history) housed in museums and ethnography (non-white history), relegated to ethnographic collections. Post-1994, efforts have been made to address past inequalities but for the most part these have resulted in the tacking on of non-white history to existing collections and no significant engagement with the categories, classifications and Eurocentric nature of collections deemed to be of national importance.

Heritage in postapartheid South Africa has been used to promote the union of the nation with ideas of origin (the founding of the nation) and destiny (its unified future). This has largely been carried out through grandiose projects like Constitutional Hill and Freedom Park, which have geographical and interpretational limitations. Digital heritage therefore offers challenges and possibilities unique to South Africa.

Digital Heritage in South Africa
I recently attend the Department of Arts and Culture's workshop on the National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources. I feel the policy does well to tackle issues like the introduction of standards to facilitate interoperability between institutions and the development of virtual collections to protect physical ones but less to engage the wider population and determine what heritage might mean for them. The digitisation of existing collections, some with unchanging collection policies, raises issues about the relevance of digitised heritage resources for a population that does not, in comparison to other countries, have a culture of museum-going or significant engagement with collections deemed national. A simultaneously humourous and sad anecdote can be found in Steven Dubin's in-depth study on cultural transformation in South Africa, Transforming Museums. When asked what museums were for, two responses in rural KwaZulu-Natal were, 'a place for dried giraffes' and 'where they keep old stuffed animals'.

Surely then, these new digital heritage resources should have relevance for the vast majority who were excluded from museums and memory institutions, and perhaps for whom these institutions and their collections hold little significance? How might digitisation and digital heritage contribute to addressing past imbalances and including previously excluded histories? How might these technologies facilitate a more inclusive and democratised mode of recording and sharing heritage?

New possibilities for democratised heritage
In South Africa, it is estimated that more than 90% of the South African population has access to mobile phones with increasing capability to record images, sound and video and to connect to the Internet. If we consider mobile phones to be an Information Communication Technology, then the vast majority of the population has the potential to receive and record heritage. The Ulwazi Programme, run though the eThekwini Municipality points to this type potential. It is a Wiki (like Wikipedia), an open source website designed to enable contributions and modifications from multiple users. It aims, as the Programme Leader writes, to 'provide opportunities for communities to actively record and share their contemporary history and culture.' Plans are now underfoot to develop a mobile model through which members of local communities in the municipality will be able to record and share their local heritage through their mobile phones.

For some, this might raise the concern of authenticity and the need to establish authentic sources of digital heritage. But who determines what is authentic and what is not? National or local institutions? And how do they determine this? Is an authentic source of heritage not one that originates from a particular person or community for whom that heritage should have significance? My sense is that the first official moves towards digital heritage in South Africa have focused on facilitating standards and interoperability between institutional collections and adding to these with 'born digital' heritage resources. While this is a worthwhile endeavour, I am not sure if enough thought has been given to the kind of relevance they will have to the South African population at large. Furthermore, I don't feel that enough attention has been given to the democratising potential of new digital media in the creation of 'heritage for the nation'. In order for digital heritage materials to have greater significance in South Africa and to be used as resources with which, for example, new forms of identity and citizenship might be produced, we should try and democratise the modes of production as much as possible. We should utilise ubiquitous mobile technologies and let those for whom these resources should have significance, play a part in developing them.

Grant McNulty is a is currently registered for a PhD in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. McN2 Consulting is a digital heritage consultancy that focuses on Web 2.0, open-source software and their application to heritage in an African context. See the McN2 website at