The future of collective memory
Digital Archives and new strategies of preserving and sharing culture
It is a known fact that we are living in the era of “digital abundance” and that we are only taking the very first steps in what is still partly new to us. In the last two decades, we have observed an enormous amount of digitisation projects carried out in archival institutions.
Digitisation policies have been defined with the aim of helping archivists to run successful projects, without harming the original material, and trying to serve users’ increasing demands for online access. Since these issues are hugely complex, a specific report has been recently created with the aim of providing those who are interested in the topic with a document charting recent developments in the sector.
Over the past few months, not only have digital resources taken on an unprecedented importance, but they have also been at the core of radical reflection. Their function and scope have been questioned in order to revolutionise the way in which they establish a relationship between users and digitalised items. A unanimous need has emerged to assign digital archives and resources a new role.
Far from being simply an elitist site dedicated to highly specialised research, these archives are becoming something radically different. If the essence of the archival digitisation process has been traditionally linked to heritage preservation and to the processes of sharing and disseminating resources, the need has recently emerged to ensure and encourage new and multiple possibilities for using digital material.
To quote a notable example, social media has recently become the primary means of communication for the vast majority of archival institutes and cultural sites. In recent months, Ashtart has spoken about the many initiatives promoted by these institutions which have made their collections available by offering their users the opportunity to virtually visit their spaces. Amongst their many pioneering initiatives is the adoption of strong digital communication strategies.
This does not simply mean digitising the artistic or cultural heritage at issue. Rather, and -above all- it means focusing on the main channels of digital communication to increase the users’ engagement, to expand the audience and, in many cases, to reach potential partners and stakeholders. This has been the strategy undertaken by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, as its manager of International and Digital Marketing Linda Volkers has recently highlighted.
As Volkers explains, the goal of the digitisation project can be summed up in one word: “relevancy”. In other words, it is a matter of allowing users to have a subjective experience of culture and, thus, encouraging diversity and the multiplicity of subjective gases without imposing dominant patterns or paradigms on the reading and interpretation of the work of art.
The Humanities’ sector has been one of the fields that have most benefitted from this so-called “digital turning point”. The Digital humanities, now a fully-fledged discipline with degree-level courses offered by the most prestigious universities in the world, aims to train scholars capable of using and programming the most advanced software for creating databases for scanning and digitising documents, texts; all of which falls within the scope of the various disciplines that are encompassed by this field.
As mentioned, these archives have previously had a traditionally elitist use, being reserved for scholars and specialised operators of cultural heritage who draw on these resources for the purposes of their own research.
The examples are numerous, such as the unprecedented revolution brought about by the digitisation of the manuscript heritage by libraries such as the Vatican Library or Florence’s Biblioteca Nazionale, or the author’s archives such as the ones dedicated to Arnaldo Pomodoro and Piero Manzoni, amongst famous examples.
While these are canonical cases, whose cultural importance is undisputed, they highlight the importance of exploring new frontiers in digital archiving, and of the ongoing process of rethinking software and databases as multidisciplinary tools, not simply dedicated to a small pot of users but rather to a growing audience.
Among the latest generation of tools able to enrich the Digital Library Management Systems, we find the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF). The IIIF, as the standard for the world of digital content repositories, is of increasing strategic importance for the future of digital libraries as it provides a paradigm for information systems based on interoperability. Whereas the fragmentation caused by the ongoing digitalisation of sources represents the biggest obstacle in the sharing and using of resources, the example provided by software such as the IIIF is one such viable solution.
As we get closer to the 700-year anniversary of Dante’s death, we find the Illuminated Dante Project. As one of the most innovative digital archives, the project was established by philologists at Naples’ “Federico II” University with the aim of creating a database for all of the illuminated codices of Dante’s Commedia.
The initiative, far from simply seeking to promote original readings of Dante’s masterpiece, endeavours to make this heritage accessible to a wide audience of non-specialists. As such, it is able to facilitate unprecedented diachronic interpretations of the relationship between text and image.
Digital archiving is not a process exclusive to the arts. In a historical moment where speed and dynamism prevail, archives have in fact the fundamental role of preserving collective and individual memory and stories. A re-evaluation of these aspects has meant that archiving has taken on new importance even in areas where it was not previously relevant.
The collaboration between the historic Italian brand Davines and the Chiesi Group gave birth to the Pharmacopea project. Aimed at promoting the history and culture of the city of Parma, it enhances some of the key places of local excellence linked to the pharmaceutical sector.
Among the most important initiatives, there is the one spearheaded by Graziano Tonelli, director of the State Archives, which is coordinating research aimed at tracing the origins of the cosmetic-pharmaceutical identity of Parma. Davines, on the other hand, is responsible for the research in the archives of the historic Filippo Neri pharmacy, which has the main purpose of reconstructing a very precious and almost forgotten heritage.
It also aims to bring back to life an ancient sixteenth-century formulation that will soon be made available in a limited edition.
The most innovative and ambitious undertaking is that of the famous Norwegian studio Snøhetta. The Arc (a deliberate allusion to the words “arctic” and “archive”), is a project based in Longyearbyen, on the remote Svalbard islands, north of mainland Scandinavia. It is a visitor centre commissioned by the Arctic Memory association aimed at exhibiting two rather unique banks to the public.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the largest and safest seed deposit on the planet, while the Arctic World Archive is a vault created with the aim of preserving the world’s digital heritage. The building, a sort of monolith, offers its visitors an immersive adventure inside, combining the preservation of historical memory with a unique sensory experience.
These examples exemplify what is an element of clear innovation.
The centre of gravity of the new dimension of digital archiving is unequivocally transferred from heritage organisations to the user. At the centre, there is no longer simply the conservation of a heritage, but rather a process of fruition.
The audience takes on a new importance together with the storytelling that revolves around all these initiatives. The examples cited have highlighted how the main purpose of these databases is to expand their user base, thus allowing the multiplication of subjective experiences and the contextual enrichment of collective memory.