Creating crime fiction in Belgium – behind the scene of the DETECt MOOC on Euro-Noir

Roberta Pireddu

Who has never read or watched a crime drama raise your hand. Crime fiction is, without any doubt, one of the most popular genres of our time. From P.D James to Fred Vargas, from Hercule Poirot to Commissario Montalbano, we are constantly -visually and literary- surrounded by characters, stories, allusions that refer to this genre. However, watching or reading crime fiction cannot just be considered as a form of pure entertainment. On the contrary, it truly is an ideal way to peek not only into the discrepancies and conflicts of the modern and contemporary society but also into the complex social, cultural, and linguistic features that make a country unique.

But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the writing of a crime fiction novel or the production of the last crime tv show that you watched? How does crime fiction in the literary and media field start and grow? And especially, what about Belgium? Can we overlook the linguistic barriers of this complex country and talk about pure Belgian crime fiction?

Precisely these and other questions emerged while working on the Belgian crime fiction section of the future MOOC on “Euro-Noir”, based on the European project DETECt H2020 and created from the collaboration between KU Leuven and four other European universities (University of Limoges, University of Bucharest, University of Debrecen, University of Aalborg and University of Bologna).

The purpose is to educate the learners, clarify and trigger new discussions around the existence of Belgian crime fiction, highlighting the multilingualism issues and the main features of the female crime fiction in Flanders. 

On the base of these inquiries, who more than a successful Flemish crime fiction writer and those responsible for the crime dramas production of the two most important Belgian broadcasts could provide a detailed explanation? The answer to this question has taken the form of three video interviews with four different guests.

One country, many languages: Elly Vervloet (VRT) and Marc Janssen (RTBF)

Watched from above, under the static gaze and the squared shadow of the Reyers Tower, the headquarter of the two most important Belgian broadcasts appears as a compact group of buildings, hiding perfectly the deep barrier symbolized by the French and the Flemish language. Respectively, VRT -Vlaamse Radio-en Televisieomroep- and  RTBF -Radio-télévision Belge de la Communauté française- are the two official broadcasts of the Flemish and of the French-speaking communities of Belgium, separated only by the concrete walls of a building, but at the same time totally independent one from each other. 

It is still morning when we are welcomed at the entrance of the VRT building by Elly Vervloet, who kindly leads us through the hallways of the Flemish broadcasting headquarter, and finally to the location established to host our video interview. Elly Vervloet is not only the International Drama Executive for VRT but also Coordinator of the Drama Initiative for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The EBU is a recently established organism that aims, through a broad collaboration that embraces the whole of Europe, to bring high-quality drama content to the European audience. 

Elly Vervloet starts talking about the big relevance of the work of EBU at a European level with the same intensity as she mentions the many local creations, produced by VRT. When it comes to Flemish TV Dramas, the words “local” is an essential keyword, one of the reasons behind the huge success -national and international- of Flemish crime series such as Tabula RasaBeau Séjour or Undercover. The attention to the cultural and social realism of a story seems to be, in fact, one of the keys that make Flemish tv dramas so intense, authentic, and successful. Certainly, in this context, language is not left behind but, on the contrary, emphasized in all its varieties and dialect. A strategy that keeps the authenticity of the drama alive and that is strongly supported by the long Flemish tradition -as stressed out by Elly Vervloet – of subtitling the media productions. 

The authenticity of the productions’ content and emphasis on the local culture and society are also some of the features of the TV dramas produced for the French-speaking community of Belgium, as underlined by a couple of days later, during our meeting with Marc JanssenHead of Fiction at RTBF. With the same intensity as Elly Vervloet, he highlights the importance of creating authentic content that emphasizes cultural and linguistic peculiarities. This is, even more, the case for crime fiction, a powerful genre able to bring out the most twisted aspects of human society. Similarly to VRT, also to RTBF the importance of preserving the local language is one of the main priorities of their production, even though this does not preclude the simultaneous presence of different languages as part of one singular TV drama. But going beyond the undeniable linguistic barrier between the French and Flemish parts of Belgium, there seems to be something that deep inside can be defined as a sort of Belgian touch in producing tv dramas. This materializes through the so-called Belgian surrealism, here defineds as a twisted mix of drama and irony, as well as in the unconventionality and complexity that distinguish Belgium as a country and that still mirrors in its media productions. 

Multilingualism is then really a barrier in the Belgian tv dramas context? Maybe, if it comes to preserve the linguistic tradition of a region. But it is without any doubt a true source of extreme richness when collaboration is more than welcome. 

A screen capture from the interview with the Flemish crime fiction writer Hilde Vandermeeren

Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen: creating a psychological thriller

The majesty of the Spoelberchkamer at the KU Leuven University Library, with its antique furniture and the 18th-century books perfectly ordered in the wooden bookshelf, was a perfect location to meet Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen and to talk with them about crime fiction. 

Hilde Vandermeeren is already well known inside and outside of Flanders as a successful female crime fiction writer since 2009. One of the few exceptions in Flanders, where the literary market is still dominated by male writers. Labeled as psychological thrillers, her books reached international success and have been translated in different languages, also winning important literary prices.

The collaboration with the criminal defence lawyer Walter Damen, which started exactly one year after Hilde Vandermeerens’ winning of the prestigious Hercule Poirotprijs in 2017, led to the writing of a psychological thriller trilogy, set in Lisbon, but with a female Flemish criminal defence lawyer as a protagonist. And it is exactly highlighting this aspect, the mix between the international setting and the Flemish culture of the main character, that we start our interview with. This is, in fact, one of the features that recur as a distinctive trait in many of Hilde Vandermeeren’s books, and that can rarely be found in the works of other male Flemish crime fiction authors – mainly focused on Flanders not just as a culture but as a setting. Yet, Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen trilogy is rooted in the Flemish culture and language but at the same time, it imposes a different scenario, inviting the readers to cross the borders and explore them. A peculiarity, that is significant not only for the future of the Flemish crime fictions in the international landscape but also because it brings the attention on the crime fiction as a universal, internationally understood genre.  Since the beginning of our interview, Hilde Vandermeeren points out the importance of the continuous collaboration between her and her co-author, a co-writing partnership profoundly grounded on their experiences – literary on one side and juristic on the other side, especially when it came to sketch the main characters of the trilogy and to give them intensity. But more in general, the strong psychological development of her characters, which includes not only their emotions but also their personal story, and choices, is one of the features that distinguishes her works. And maybe the attention to the most profound human emotions and its complexity is one of the keys to the popularity of her novels, described as neither black nor white, a place where reality is never good either bad. A statement that seems to perfectly express also the core of the crime genre.

Solidarity, our weapon? COVID-19 and the cultural field in Poland

Jonas Vanderschueren

Poland was one of the first countries to impose a strict lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This early decision of the Polish government to shut down prevented the situation from spiralling out of control, but it has also proven to be a heavy blow to a cultural field that was already under pressure before the pandemic struck. Has the Polish government prepared a set of measures to support the field, how do young artists experience the ideology behind the government’s cultural policies, and how could the future look like for the arts in Poland?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life across the world, it looks like the cultural field in Poland was in a particularly precarious position to deal with an additional external shock. For years now, cultural workers in Poland have been structurally underpaid. The average wage of a full-time worker at a cultural institution in the Polish capital of Warsaw is only 3.200 zł (€700), meaning that in a city in which the average rent hovers around 1.900 zł (€410), many of them were already struggling to survive. Important to note, is that if a cultural worker is employed in a smaller city like Cracow, Poznań or Wrocław, the average wage is even lower.

However, the above scenario does not reflect the reality of a significant group of cultural workers, who do not have full-time contracts but instead work on a ‘umowa śmieciowa’, a Polish variant on zero-hour contracts which can be roughly translated as ‘trash contracts’. The various types of contracts that fall under this denominator have in common the fact that the worker does not have basic social rights like paid sick leave, paid holidays, or a state pension, and often the pay these contracts provide is at minimum wage or even lower. Often workers who are employed in this way do not have access to the NFZ, the Polish National Health Service, which is supposed to operate on the principle of free care at the point of need. Most of the cultural workers who are employed in this way are young people in their 20s and 30s who are not fortunate enough to have a full-time work contract, and often these people are working as freelance actors, dramaturgs, curators, choreographers and dancers.

Visibly struggling

One of these workers is Ago Tragarz, a performer who had their debut at the Warsaw-based Teatr Studio, one of the most important cultural institutions in the country. ‘Already before the crisis, the situation was very precarious’, Tragarz says. ‘Within the theatre field everything is centred around big names and big institutions, and it are these names and institutions who get the lion share of funding. If you are not fortunate enough to be one of the ‘chosen ones’, your whole life revolves around trying to become a part of one of these larger projects. Often this means going from underpaid – often even unpaid – project to unpaid project. We are supposed to be grateful for the exposure attached to those projects, and to be ‘creative’ enough to turn that exposure into money. It is difficult to get funding for your own project: without a famous name attached to it, it is almost impossible to get any funding from the Ministry. As a result, the whole field is built around who you befriend and who is in your network: if you manage to become friendly with a more famous artists, director or curator, suddenly you are swamped with work’.

Adrian Grycuk, Teatr Studio w Warszawie, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL

The queer artist Paweł Świerczek describes a similar situation: ‘The city-owned cultural institutions have ever smaller budgets, and the gap between young creators and ‘the masters’ has turned into a chasm. There are a whole bunch host of interesting grassroots and underground art initiatives, but these are almost never picked up by the ‘official’ field.’
Despite the strong homophobia in Poland, which recently had the sad honour to be crowned the least LGBTQ-friendly country in the EU, it is precisely the underground queer art scene that is one of the most lively spaces for experimental artistic practices.

‘In the past few years, the queer art scene has grown exponentially. More spaces and more institutions are opening their doors to queer initiatives and perspectives, and more recently critics have begun taking ‘queer’ seriously as an artistic strategy. However, there is still no official recognition.’ For two years already Świerczek has been one of the driving forces between Śląsk Przegięty (Effeminate Silesia), an interdisciplinaire arts project that combines local Silesian traditions (like the mineworker’s tradition) with drag culture. Currently he is working on a new project, Trust Truth Project, in which he documents his bodily experiences with HIV.

The heavy competition within the institutional art field has resulted in a clear demarcation between haves and have-not’s, more specifically through the defining of who is and isn’t an artist. Świerczek: ‘In Poland, you are officially an artist when you graduate from an art school or pass an artistic exam. Without these forms of recognition, most doors will remain closed. At the same time the whole field is drowning in a sea of ‘open calls’, ‘bursaries’ and ‘competitions’, where you know in advance that the chances of achieving any form of financial support are 0 if you do not know anyone behind the scenes. What makes the situation truly cynical, is the fact that once you do manage to get money, you are suddenly swamped with work. However, this does not mean that you are suddenly swimming in money, because often the financial resources provided are not sufficient compensation for all the work and all the costs incurred. In my mind, cultural institutions function like other types of institution under Capitalism, in which profit accumulation through exploitation is central.’

Already before the pandemic hit, Świerczek had his main source of income somewhere else, performing non-artistic work, which has given him a limited breathing space which most other artists are not fortunate to have. Many of his projects have been put on hold, but thanks to his other work he feels that the pandemic has opened up a host of possibilities he had not seen before: ‘I have stopped thinking that my artistic practice needs to take place in a special place or under special circumstances. It can happen anywhere and break through the boundaries between life and the artistic field.’

Financial wasteland

The tendency to move away from the official artistic field is also present in the growing world of Polish club culture. Aleksander Sobiczewski, graphic artist and DJ within the technocollective piesapol, summarizes the situation: ‘In recent years, club culture has seen a boom in Poland. Even after performing piesapol for over two years, I am still astonished by the fact that we can make our work and survive mostly through social media, without any government subsidy. I have the feeling that a lot of collectives within the music- and club world have similar experiences, so that within their niche they could organize parties nearly every week.’

However, similarly to the theatre- and performance world, there are structural problems. Crowdfunding and social media have made it possible to organize concerts and parties without government subsidies, but the limited income this generates is not enough for everyone to live off. This raises the question whether the recent boom in club culture will be able to survive the pandemic.

In the case of Ago Tragarz, they were lucky enough that their debut project, Więcej niż jedno zwięrze (More Than An Animal, made collectively with Robert Wasiwiecz, Vira Hres, Marcin Miętus, Błażej Stencel and Sonia Roszczuk), had its premiere late last year. This has enabled Tragarz to apply for state support from the Ministry of Culture in the form of a one-off grant, because their connection to Teatr Studio has given them official recognition as an artist. This grant is worth 1.800 zł (€400), but over two months after the initial grant application they have still not seen any money.

Yet Tragarz sees themselves as luck compared to most other cultural workers: ‘I make my main income through selling tickets at Teatr Studio, which has enabled me to apply for an additional 2.000 zł (€440) of government support. And because I am still studying at the Warsaw Theatre Academy, I could also apply for social support from the academy itself. Sadly, that support entails only 400 zł (€88), and is provided entirely through voluntary contributions from academic staff and other workers at the academy. If they do not donate, there is no budget for social support.’

The dramaturg Anka Herbut tells a similar story: ‘For years I have been working as a freelance dramaturg both on theatre and dance productions. The dance scene in Poland is more independent than the theatre scene, but this has also meant that it pays less and has less stable work opportunities. To survive I have to constantly run from project to project, while at the same time organizing another project in the background. As the mother of a two-year old child, I have the feeling I am stuck in a vicious cycle, where every possible option will mean a loss of income.’

The pandemic has resulted in a financial wasteland for Herbut: ‘For two months already, my income has been reduced to 500 zł (€110) per month. The payment for two projects I was already working on has been frozen, and the contracts for those projects had not even been signed yet. In general, the situation is difficult, because the child day care facility where my child normally stays has been closed, but I am still receiving bills. It is unclear whether these still have to paid.’

Just like Tragarz and Świerczek, Herbut points towards the structural underfinancing of the cultural field: ‘In Poland we do not have any real dance institutions, only national or city-run theatre institutions.’ She has been less fortunate than Tragarz when it comes to government funding: ‘Because none of my contracts were signed before the pandemic hit, I cannot apply for any state support. As an artist I can apply for a one-off grant [the same one given to Tragarz – 1.800 zł], but this grant has been delayed for months now.’ Similar to the other people interviewed, at the moment of writing [May 18th 2020], Herbut has not heard of anyone actually receiving the promised support onto their bank account.

Field under fire

These problems are not new, as the cultural field in Poland has been a political battlefield for years. Far more than is the case in Western Europe, culture is seen as crucial to the strength of the nation-state, and most political currents in Poland see it is a crucial way to secure Polish national identity. This means that debates on the cultural field and cultural policy are never merely about culture in and of itself, but are instead always (and often quite explicitly) driven by particular stances on what it means to be Polish and what Poland’s future should be.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, the political consensus in Poland has been centred around the ‘Westernization’ of Poland: a neoliberal market economy was introduced, the country joined NATO and the European Union, and its cultural policy would become pluralistic and autonomous. In this way, Polish culture would integrate with Western European culture, and Poland would once again claim its rightful place as an indispensable and crucial partner to the rest of Europe.

These policies of Westernization did not go as smoothly as initially planned or hoped for, and while they have yielded measurable success, they have also caused significant economic, social and political disruption. Perhaps the space in which the transition has progressed the furthest, has been the cultural field, where in the past two decades a network developed of independent arts institutions who made autonomous decisions, collaborated with Western European partners, and slowly but surely began to open up to artists operating in the margins of the official cultural field.

The political support to these developments has, however, not been unconditional. Already in 2013, under the liberal government of Donald Tusk, the arts festival Malta had to cancel the theatre performance Golgota Picnic under heavy political pressure, as the piece was seen as insulting to Roman Catholics. That pressure has only increased since the arrival of the current right-wing conservative government in 2015, which has been trying to instigate real conservative cultural revolution which has the aim to change the parameters in which the field is operating.

The ambition of these new cultural policies has been to propagate a different, more patriotic conception of Polish national identity, in which the Polish nation is strongly interconnected with the Roman Catholic faith. These ambitions are also reflected in the attempt to create a new, far more conservative canon. In practice, these policies translate themselves into attempts to regain direct political control over the cultural field, especially through political appointments at state media and arts institutions like theatres and museums.

Anka Herbut, whose research project Ruchy Oporu (‘Resistance Movements’) has been investigating how choreography can be a form of resistance, has poignantly described the impact of these policies on the field: ‘Before the pandemic hit, there were a whole host of experimental grassroots initiatives within the arts. But because almost all institutional art in Poland depends in one way or another on politics, the situation was gradually becoming worst. And while within city-run arts institutions there has been the development of a progressive movement trying to open up the arts, they have been actively undermined by the Ministry. An example of this is what happened at the Teatr Polski in Wrocław.’ Artistic directions are forced to leave their positions early and are then replaced with explicitly conservative figures, whose political opinions are often more important than their skills and experience within the field.

Paradigm shift

Despite these challenges, art remains an important site of protest in Poland. On May 16th, 2020 a group of Polish artists delivered a long open letter to the Sejm, the Polish parliament, with the message ‘Żyć nie, umierać’ (‘Do not live, die’). This re-enactment of Tadeusz Kantor’s legendary 1967 List protest was conducted to criticize the fact that the government was trying to hold presidential elections at the original scheduled date despite the dangers of holding an election at the height of a pandemic. Actions like these are more frequently targeted with repressive measures: almost immediately the participants were given a fine of 10.000 zł (€2.200) per person for ‘reckless behaviour’ and ‘violating the COVID-19 measures’. This even though the protest was entirely legal, took all necessary precautions and was guided by the local police.

The new ideological focus of cultural policy is also reflected in the support measures developed by the Ministry of Culture in the wake of the pandemic. As the above accounts illustrate, there is not only a significant delay between the granting of support and the actual payment, but it also seems like the government is trying to use the crisis to speed up the pace of change within the cultural field. The current Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, has decided to increase the amount of support from 20 million zł (€4.3 million) to 80 million zł (€17.5 million), a fourfold increase in financial support for the cultural field.

However, one of the most important mechanisms for distributing this aid is via the ‘Kultura w sieci’ (Culture Online) project, which only provides financing for new online projects. Those which were cancelled due to the pandemic, receive absolutely nothing, which means that a lot of cultural institutions and independent makers are felt to fend for themselves. It also looks like the conditions applied to receive funding and the short time frame in which to prepare applications, have once again benefitted mostly large institutions. It is exactly these places which the Ministry holds most sway over, not only financially, but also programmatically, as opposed to the more autonomous way of working of independent makers.

That these changes are not merely a change in accent, but a paradigm shift, was best expressed by Minister Gliński himself in 2017: ‘something which was built in 26 years, cannot be changed in only a year and a half. […] We are building new institutions. We are making a clear correction.’ That correction is clearly visible when we look at the big winners of ‘Kultura w Sieci’, which benefit mostly high art and institutions that propagate Polish national identity, such as the Cracow Opera, the Świętokrzyska Philharmonic Orchestra, the Gdańsk Museum and the Home Army Museum.

To fill the gaps in official policy, a range of grassroots initiatives have sprung up providing bottom-up solidarity. The most important of these are local Widzialna Ręka (Visible Hand) groups, in which tens of thousands of people have organized themselves via social media to provide each other help, goods and money based on need. At the same time city-run arts institutions like Biennale Warszawa have provided limited financial support for artists in need. While these initiatives provide a ray of hope for a lot of people, they also illustrate the limits of voluntary solidarity: the initiative of Biennale Warszawa could only provide a one-off lump sum of 3.000 zł (€650) to ten artists. Just like the voluntary solidarity at the Warsaw Theatre Academy, it provides a good illustration of the desperate need for a structural approach.

Which future?

The fact that there have been so many grassroots initiatives the past few years, and the fact that they have been able to organize mutual aid in response to the pandemic, makes curator and art critic Dominika Tylcz optimistic about the future: ‘I think that a whole range of new institutional and artistic practices will rise from the ashes of the pandemic. There is a big chance that there will be less government support, but I am trying to see this as an opportunity for grassroots projects to plug institutional gaps and start a process of reform of institutions to more sustainable, community-driven centres.’ However, amongst those interviewed for this article, Tylcz seems to be the only one espousing such optimism: all other interviewees expressed a desire to move abroad, and either have plans to do so or are considering making plans.

This does not mean that young artists in Poland are not organizing. While they do not feel represented by any political party, there is a strong desire to unite and effect radical change within the cultural field. Herbut: ‘One of the most important strategies to move forward is through the manifestation of our presence, to protest as physical bodies – and not only through social media as is currently the case. We have to be more radical. We need to unite different professions in a common act of resistance, because so far, we have been demonstrating in isolation. I strongly believe in the importance of civic protest.’

Świerczek echoes the same idea: ‘I want more cooperation and less competition within the field. People in positions of power need to relinquish it and enable real change, for example by providing a platform for those who are currently invisible. I want equal distribution of wealth within cultural institutions and the creation of real equal opportunities.’

With this cry for radical change and unity, both within the field and outside of it, these young artists are placing themselves, whether it is conscious or not, within a long Polish tradition of resistance against authority and abuse of power. A previous generation fought against an authoritarian Communism under the slogan of Solidarność, naszą bronią – Solidarity, our weapon. It looks like these words are once again forming a battle cry for the many who want to bring about change within the Polish cultural field.


Jonas Vanderschueren is a PhD Candidate at KU Leuven and the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he specializes in contemporary Polish theatre. He is the former editor of the literary magazine Kluger Hans and was previously working at Ghent University.

Digital Transformation, ICT and Cultural Heritage: let’s rethink Open Access

Fred Truyen

For someone with a long career in ICT, it’s always a bit uncanny to hear about the trending notion of “Digital Transformation”. While Information and Communication Technologies strictly speaking have their roots in century-long analog technologies, the concept as we know it is often perceived as synonymous with “digital”, and its transformational powers were crystal clear already in the past century, see e.g. the Information Age trilogy by Manuel Castells. So nothing really new there. Or is it?

The birth of Adonis and the transformation of Myrrha. Oil painting by Luigi Garzi. Welcome collection, CC-BY

Let’s try to understand what this “transformation” really could mean. I would like to propose an example: when universities introduced the now very common Learning Content Management Systems at the start of the current millennium, it was originally a question of setting up a server that ran an online application. Often it was implemented completely separated from other university management systems, with a different set of logins, and mostly at the department or faculty level. Many Faculties had their WebCT, Blackboard, or Moodle-based server. Originally, it consisted mostly of a delivery system for digitized course contents, e.g. in PDF format. Gradually, however, functionalities were added to make it more of a comprehensive “Virtual Learning Environment“, where learning activities such as exercises and tasks could be done online.

The transformational impact of ICT

At KU Leuven, we soon realized that another approach was needed: not only was it not very smart to manage such a system independently from other university management systems, but it also became clear that given education, including teaching and learning activities, is a core pillar of the university business, the VLE should be integrated into the core architecture of our ICT systems. In fact, we needed to develop at the university the specific ICT solutions to support and deliver our main educational outputs. 

While originally the drive, motivation, and requirements for the VLE came from pedagogy, a radical shift was needed, and we needed to put ICT in the pilot seat. In fact, we realized that the whole teaching and learning activity was still beyond the radar of our information processes. The real digital “transformation” would be to capture what was happening in the classrooms and study centres as an information stream, which would help us to manage, control, and optimize these processes. Suddenly, the analytics information from the LCMS became a very important source material to base our policy actions on. This insight was not readily adopted by the education management boards in the Faculties or at the university level, and we quickly learned that it was safer to just do it and implement it than to talk too much about it. Looking at education from the viewpoint of Claude Shannon’s information theory was a bit eery, but just plain logical. 

Inside-out and outside-in

15 years later it is generally accepted that “Digital Transformation” – or the implementation of impactful ICT infrastructures – implies rethinking the core business processes and organizational workflows. This is what is happening today in the Cultural Heritage / GLAM sector. People look beyond the digital catalog or website portal to understand they need a coherent digital strategy to make sure their business processes and services are based on their information exchange systems. It is important to note, however, that up to now, IMHO, implementations of digital strategies in the GLAM sector have failed to understand the real importance and opportunities of “going digital”. Most implementation models are still mainly “inside-out”. They focus on the collections and how to push them to the outside users. The idea is that “Open Access” would benefit the user communities somehow, with a long tail model, involving a majority of users just consulting and browsing the materials, and a more dedicated segment really taking advantage of this source material to create new outputs. Open Access policies are a generally accepted ingredient of CHI policies, for good reason. But then again: they look at publishing digitized collections from an inside-out perspective. 

From a more generic view on online publishing and website development, I would say that this is not the way to go. One of the main things that I want students in my class on Online Publishing to understand, is that for a website, it is as important to get information in than to get information out. In fact, pushing information out requires a lot of effort, maintenance, and cost. The real gain is what you get back: the information that comes in from the use of your website. This is, of course, the basis of any website built for commercial purposes – a restaurant publishes its website to get reservations in the first place. It is also the business model that lies at the core of big distribution platforms such as Amazon and the likes, where the added value is the knowledge that they glean from users of all parts of the value chain while using these portals. 

And yet, this essential insight, that the information coming in is the main reason why you would make the effort to push information out, seems often lost when thinking about publishing digital collections in the GLAM sector. 

Rethinking Open Access

The idea is that when we segment the more active part of this user community, we will see that there are intensive amateur users, an intermediate category dubbed the ” pro-ams” and then a more professional community who would turn this raw material into new products and services, in other words, the “creative industries”. It is difficult to assess the true impact and scale of this creative reuse in the GLAM sector, but I am confident good examples exist, and we are gathering them on the participatory platform of our Indices H2020 project

We should think about what we aim for when people have access to our digital collections. What is the real potential? We seem to be lacking a vision about what “reuse” could mean in the context of heritage. I guess we all understand “reuse” as a secondary use, beyond the primary, private individual use. Let’s not forget that also the primary use has a long tail structure: there are communities who use the contents of digital collections in a casual, ephemeral way: “looking around” a bit or coming in on your portal in search for one piece of information. But there are the more passionate culture lovers who spend many, many hours studying the digital collections. In the end, there are professionals who actually need this content to integrate it into their work. In the case of cultural heritage collections, teachers, educators, and researchers come to mind. And fellow CHI colleagues who are looking for missing pieces, or want to build a virtual overview of dispersed collections. Once a new result, product or service comes out of this primary use we call it “reuse”. That could be a gallery, a story, a game, or an app. Open Access, exemplified by OpenGLAM is then the publishing of digital collections in such a way that people have the license to reuse this content. 

Curation beyond patronage

However, this model still sees the cultural heritage institution as the guardian of the heritage collections. It leaves the basic mission of the institution untouched: to safeguard, preserve, and select what is to be considered as heritage. Pier Luigi Sacco calls this the “Culture 2.0” model. And in fact, it is a commodification of heritage. It doesn’t question what actually makes objects from the past “heritage”. Is it merely “inheritance”? Getting stuck with loads of old stuff? We would say no: it is the result of selection, curation, and canonization of what has been deemed “valuable”. Up until the end of the 20th century, we left selection, curation, and canonization in the hands of professionals from the GLAM institutions and scholars. Not only did they have privileged access, but they also are supposed to have the necessary knowledge to make the right judgments.

The Open Access movement wants to change this. It wants to open up collections through digital technologies to allow broader audiences to have access to even the most vulnerable heritage, by means of mass digitization and open licensing. To make this access meaningful and useful, we are moving from a catalog style record, listing some summary data about the objects, to ever richer, multilingual metadata – more and more automatically enhanced through deep learning algorithms – and more sophisticated digital representations such as 3D, multispectral imaging and OCR, so that users can access and engage with the true properties of the digitized objects. 

But should the buck stop here? Is this the participatory Culture 3.0 paradigm shift Pier Luigi Sacco is talking about? We are trying to find out in the Indices project, which aims to understand how Open Access can form part of the core workflows and business models in GLAM and Cultural Heritage institutions to really take advantage of what ICT can bring to the table. 

Users can do so much more than just browse through some content and download images. They can contextualize the content from their own lived experience. They can assist in co-curationtagging, translations, transcription efforts. More importantly, they can connect the collection objects to their natural habitat, which is not the gallery, library archive, or museum but the cultural community which gives meaning and symbolic value to those objects.

So the ICT tools we should be looking at are not only the digitization, distribution, and visualization tools. It should include the participatory platforms that allow people to engage with the contents, to start commenting, selecting, curation, and co-creating stories. To start informed debates about the values that the collection objects represent. A clear example of this shift is the way communities want a say in how colonial-era content can be re-represented and “decolonized”. While the actual composition of European society has dramatically changed  since the 20th Century, the collections in European GLAM institutions, the metadata descriptions, and the narratives in which they are embedded have failed to reflect this.  Communities that are now in the inside of European history, are often portrayed as belonging to outside worlds. We badly need new, inclusive narratives that give more sustainable meaning and value to heritage collections.

In conclusion

Let’s take the next step in Open Access, and start to share digitized cultural heritage collections in a way that enables communities to not only to co-curate and co-create content, but also gives them a voice to co-decide what we consider heritage, how we assess its value, how we can make it more representative for past, current and future audiences. New generations of Europeans are ready to take on this task – the “citizen science” for the GLAM sector so to say – they are virtually knocking on the door of our institutions. let’s let them in. That would be truly Open Access. 

The transformation of Myrrha gave birth to Adonis according to Greek mythology. Let’s see what beautiful offspring the digital transformation will bring to Cultural Heritage! 


Original post: https://fredtruyen.com/2020/09/13/digital-transformation-ict-and-cultural-heritage-lets-rethink-open-access/.