Citizen cultural participation

Results of the CreativeCH workshop at the VAST 2012 Symposium (Brighton, UK) on the 21th of November 2012. The workshop explored participatory approaches and various related questions, e.g. what citizens perceive as heritage, how they related to it, and what benefits they can gain from collaborative projects.

Workshop highlights

Heritage institutions can offer citizens many opportunities for cultural participation:
There are many different opportunities organisations can offer citizens to participate in, learn about, and contribute to the preservation and communication of cultural heritage. Examples ranged from documentation of objects and sites through providing images, videos, descriptions, etc. to using historic content as inspiration for creative activities (e.g. historic costumes or music scores).

Citizens are willing to contribute, but according to their terms: People old and young are interested in the preservation and communication of cultural heritage as shown in the number of volunteers, donators and activists in this field. But they wish to contribute according to their terms what concerns required time and effort as well as type of heritage. Projects that want to involve citizens should be aware of this and offer different and flexible ways of participation.

Local people can add place-specific context: In the marketing of cultural sites such as historic towns often stereotypic “brand” images and messages are used. People who have grown up, live and work in the area can provide personal stories that explain what they value about particular objects, places or events. This may convey better what makes cultural sites distinct and worth visiting.

Using Web 2.0 requires putting the users at the centre: “Web 2.0” or “social software” (content sharing platforms, Weblogs, etc.) allow people to express themselves, take part, and share ideas and own content. Through using such applications cultural heritage institutions can involve users, for example, in online exhibitions or virtual communities around cultural heritage topics, artefacts and sites. But a truly “Web 2.0” approach must put the users and their contributions at the centre, not the institution and its authoritatively curated content.

A challenging approach for cultural heritage institutions: A “Web 2.0” approach requires a certain level of openness and willingness to experiment in order to find out what works and what doesn’t. Project managers should be prepared that what people contribute and express in the context of the institution can raise issues of ownership of content or concerns about appropriateness.

What contributions of participants fit or don’t fit: Offensive, false or indecent statements and images aside, there is no clear rule for what contributions are appropriate. What fits or does not fit depends on the particular objectives and context of a project. What kinds of contributions are welcome should be made clear and some editorial control will be necessary in most cases.

A learning opportunity for citizens and heritage professionals: What citizens perceive as heritage, how they related to it, the stories and images they contribute will usually be different from the institutional, subject-expert’s view and knowledge of cultural heritage. This should be taken as a learning opportunity for both, the curators who can learn about what citizens see as and value about heritage, and the citizens who can acquire a better understanding of how heritage institutions work, their professional criteria and practices. This may also increase citizens’ appreciation of the knowledge and meticulous work that is required for preserving and exhibiting cultural heritage.

The participants as the experts: In a contemporary or ethnographic context, for example, in oral history projects or documentation of customs of rural and/or ethnic communities, the participants are “the experts”. Because, such projects are about their historic experience or lived cultural heritage. In such cases a particularly sensitive and respectful collaboration is required.

Projects involving children: Such projects should focus on the environment the children live in and allow them choose the objects and themes they want to explore. Some guidance will be appropriate on how to investigate local history and heritage as well as available sources (e.g. historical images). An exhibition of the results can allow for celebrating the local heritage and promote its appreciation and preservation.

Summary by Guntram Geser (Salzburg Research)

Workshop content

Full report of the workshop, presentations, videos, additional content and links at:

Includes presentations by

  • Andrea Adami (Institute for Technologies Applied to Cultural Heritage, National Research Council, Italy): Matera - Tales of a City;
  • Karina Rodriguez Echevarria (University of Brighton / 3D-COFORM project): Documenting Heritage in 3D;
  • Angelika Rossmaier (EuroMachs project): History Reloaded (CHIEF Award Winner);
  • Raluca Selejan (West University of Timisoara, Romania): The Banat Showcase;
  • Ricardo Trindade (HPIP): Heritage of Portuguese Influence Portal.

Selected material and links