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At Conecta, the second smARTplaces confrence in Zaragoza. In this photo: Abhay Adhikari with members of the Cultural Manifesto Editorial Board — Sharna Jackson and Cleo Schoeps. Photo credit: Jennifer

Can we talk about digital practices in the cultural sector, at a human scale?

This is a transcription of the talk introducing the cultural engagement manifesto at Conecta, the second smARTplaces conference on Audience and Mediation on the 14th and 15th of March 2019 at Etopia Centre for Art & Technology in Zaragoza.

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Good afternoon, my name is Abhay Adhikari. I’m the founder of Digital Identities. The goal of this programme is to help cities, cultural institutions and corporates create new forms of civic participation. Founded in 2012, Digital Identities has grown from a workshop series to a social impact programme that has run in twelve countries across Europe and Asia.

I’ve been working with the smARTplaces project since 2017. Over the past two and a half years, we have run experiments to make sense of buzzwords like: digitally-enabled, audience engagement and storytelling. This year, I’m working with my colleague Mariët Erica, from Van Abbe museum, to understand how our partner institutions want to evolve in response to the change that is happening in society, and what does this evolution look like in practical terms?

It is with both these work hats on that I will introduce the Cultural Engagement Manifesto. But first, a quick note on how it all began. Like all good projects, this one also started with an interesting conversation between my colleagues Jasmin Vogel at the Dortmunder U and Dominika Szope at ZKM. The initial idea of the manifesto was further developed at the smARTplaces conference in Karlsruhe last year, where we held a series of workshops with participants. This year, we have launched our first public consultation.

What is the smARTplaces Cultural Engagement Manifesto? It’s our attempt to start a meaningful conversation about digital practices in the cultural sector.

What’s a meaningful conversation?
To answer this, let’s consider how we talk about digital.

  1. The first conversation we’re having, is about the future. The are lots of hopeful scenarios of what our institutions could look like in this digitally-enabled future — open and accessible — where the public interface, whether it is online, through an app or a physical exhibition space, is seamless, interactive and playful.
  2. The second conversation we’re having about digital is to do with the present moment. Right now, everything that is digitally-enabled is complex and unpredictable. It takes up too much time and too much money.

As you can see, between hope and fear, the conversation we’re having about digital practices in the cultural sector lack clarity. When we look around us for advice, we often don’t know where to start or what a good outcome might look like.

Some of us are investing considerable resources into future-proofing our institutions, just so that they can continue to be relevant and survive. In this scenario, digital is a threat.

But that’s clearly not the case. Thousands of our colleagues across the world — from contemporary collectives to decades old institutions — are coming up pragmatic solutions on how to work with digital.

Through our Cultural Engagement Manifesto, we want to shine a spotlight on this community. Their work sits in between the two extremes that we always hear about — the spectacular successes and the horrible disasters. We believe that this inspirational work, will help start a meaningful conversation, because it is at a scale that we can understand — the human scale.

What does this human scale look like in the cultural sector?

  • It is the enterprising community officer from a local library who uses the Google translate app on their smartphone to engage newly arrived migrants in their city so they don’t end up becoming socially isolated.
  • It is the Director of Digital of a National Gallery, who has made sure at least some of the multi-million dollar budget for the gallery refit has been allocated to usability research so that any new technology that will be used, will be is accessible to every visitor.
  • It is the curator, who is waiting nervously with the communications intern, moments before she answers questions about her work, in real-time from people on a social media platform like Twitter.
  • Or it could be the Head of Marketing, who has just been asked to commission an augmented reality app for their Cultural Centre, and is doing a lot of research to make sure the money is not wasted on creating something that nobody wants or uses.

In other words, a conversation on a human scale is a conversation with people like you.

These are just a few examples of the experiences that we want to capture through the questionnaire. Our goal at this stage is to gather good practice from across the world that can be replicated by cultural professionals from different institutions who have access to different budget.

We hope this data helps us create a manifesto that can help you make sense of digital. It can be used as a starting point for your project. It could also be used to shift the conversation you’re currently having in your institutions.

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The smARTplaces Cultural Manifesto Editorial Board. Click here to find out more.

This questionnaire was developed with a help of a global editorial board that spans from Portland, USA to Chennai in India. This team of eight practitioners reflected on their own experiences to ensure we ask the right questions to understand what guides you to make decisions on a regular basis when it comes to working with digital.

Now we need your help. This questionnaire will be live until the end of April. If you feel you’ve invested time to make sense of digital — for yourself, for your team or your organisation — please visit the link and answer the questions.

We would love for you to share this questionnaire with your colleagues on social media, on discussion forums and by email. The more people we reach — across institutions, countries and roles — the better our results will be.

Once anonymised, we will present this data as research and white papers. We also hope to make it available to you if you wish to conduct your own analysis. My colleague Nadine Hanneman is leading this part of the project.

Thank you once again. We hope you will answer the questionnaire and help us reach the widest possible audience.

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I am interested in the context & values of our Digital Identities.

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