From Access to Inclusion

Museum consultant Rebecca Mileham reflects on ideas and issues emerging from the Inclusive Digital Museum Innovation project which recently held its first workshop

During the pandemic, digital access to culture was the only access. No one could visit a museum, take a physical book out of a library or attend an event in person. Yet despite all the difficulties, aspects of online culture blossomed. Huge audiences flocked to digital leisure as a new default, finding more opportunities on offer than ever before. Some audiences, lacking access of one kind of another, lost out.

Post-pandemic, many of us in the culture sector want to boost our understanding of how to combat digital inequality. We can see that museums, libraries and archives could potentially interact with large new audiences, enhancing wellbeing and fostering creativity. Among these audiences are people who have previously experienced exclusion for physical, societal or economic reasons. But how can we ensure that digital technology is a bridge to access, not a new barrier?

The transnational Inclusive Digital Museum Innovation project seeks to address questions like this. Awarded funding by the ESRC earlier this year, the initiative is exploring approaches to digital inclusion and equity in arts and heritage organisations. The ingenuity of the project is in bringing together the deep experience of the UK’s audience research community with the wealth of innovation and advancement in South Korea’s technology landscape and digital games industry. The hope is to benefit the cultural sector in both countries.

Led by Theano Moussouri from the UCL Institute of Archaeology (IoA) and Young Yim Doh of the KAIST Graduate School of Culture Technology (GSCT) Games and Life Lab, the project involves a network of researchers from national museums, galleries and libraries on both sides of the world. On 21st June 2022, the group’s first workshop addressed the relationship between Technology, Culture and Ethics.

A radical call for inclusion

Ross Parry, Professor of Museum Technology from the Department of Museum Studies at Leicester University illustrated how digital museum innovation is evolving positively. Tech projects today are more often people-centred and driven by need – including a commitment to equity. There is more reflection, evaluation, and sharing of expertise. A greater diversity of people is often involved in decision making, and the products made are more socially purposeful.

But he underlined the need for digital design to flow from an effective organisational mission, vision and culture. ‘The key to diversity, inclusivity and equity,’ he said,’ is to have an institution that reflects those values.’

Jungwha Kim, Founding Director of Seoul Museum of Craft Art and Former Professor in Graduate School of Culture Technology at KAIST, South Korea, highlighted that museums can act as a bridge between different communities – a role that is more important than ever.

But since people have different levels of digital skill and familiarity, she argued that ‘We cannot resolve a digital gap simply by having better technology or design. We should invite everyone relevant in the discussions – users, families, schools, the local community, even policy-makers – and all try really hard to build an inclusive culture.’

Questions of tech, ethics and culture

Differences in perspective from the two territories emerged in the discussion that followed.

In the Korean context, for example, museums have been exploring various ways to make museums more inclusive in recent years, with legislation being a primary motivation for increasing access. In the UK, the debate centres around equity and the ethical importance of using technology to make collections more accessible. In both cases, however, the process by which institutions can achieve the outcome could be an inclusive one. Ross Parry provided some resources (below) on practical ways to move towards a diverse, inclusive organisation.

There is a range of meaning in the word ‘engagement’ which could mean simply attracting a user or visitor, or could signify a deeper and more meaningful kind of encounter with museum content. Perhaps this relates to the different way the word is used in the context of museum studies and in the world of websites, hits and clicks.

There were also a range of ethical questions and practical issues relating to digital culture raised by participants from both Korea (K) and the UK (UK).

  • The museum online and offline have different identities and are different products (K). But are we using the most effective ways of providing online exhibition experiences? And how do we provide this service to larger audiences?
  • Are the online and offline visitors the same people or not?
  • The digital technology available for us to use offline in our exhibitions and cultural institutions changes at a very rapid pace. How do we shape the technology to meet visitors’ needs? (K).
  • On the other hand, institutions are often keen to offer the latest approaches, but this leads to inconsistency in the offer – and we still don’t cover all the basics in terms of accessibility (UK).
  • There is a need to evaluate and learn from visitors using digital culture (K and UK), and establish our understanding of different technologies. Do some visitors struggle to keep up with the technology we are using? What discrimination do visitors encounter?
  • Are digital literacy levels higher in Korea?
  • Users have a higher expectation of accessibility now (UK), so an inclusive approach to exhibitions, collections and digital offerings is demanded and expected, going beyond legal requirements.
  • The metaverse is a huge discussion (K and UK) and expectations continue to grow around the metaverse, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI): what they might look like, how they might change our lives and the ways in which museums can grasp those opportunities and make them work for us.
  • Should we be concerned that big tech companies are taking the lead in creating cultural resources? (K)
  • Who is leading the transformation and what is the biggest obstacle to achieving transformation? These are the most significant questions. (K and UK)

Conclusion and next steps

What struck me most from the workshop was the perspective shift involved in moving from accessibility to inclusion. It marks a change that reflects progressive thinking in many cultural institutions – and involves sharing the power that we hold as museums, libraries and archives.

Rather than taking cultural products and digitally retro-fitting them for different audiences, inclusion demands a different approach and a new vision. The vision, which tackles what we do, who gets involved and who has control, enables our institutions to be transformed from the inside.

The Inclusive Digital Museum Innovation project is about using resources well and in a visionary way to achieve greater inclusion. This workshop suggests there is an appetite across the partnership for such radical change.

Additional resources provided by Ross Parry

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