Next generation heritage jobs: digital curator

A common sight in heritage in the near future? Image: Canva

In recent years, terms like digital management and Digital Curation have become more common. In a European Union that’s fully committed to digitalisation, it’s to be expected that this ambition will have an effect on the competencies required in the job market. This also plays a role within the world of cultural heritage: people who are familiar with heritage, but can also deal with datasets and other digital data management of heritage will increasingly be in demand. Which educational institute will be the first to jump on this trend?

First of all, it’s important to establish what Digital Curation is. Some may associate the word curation with museum and collection management, or asset management through digital tools. Places where a curator is working. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The case of Digital Curation goes beyond the ‘classic’ archetype of a curator who manages a collection. And although the term is becoming increasingly more common in the museum world, it’s not restricted to it. Digital Curation is about the broader management of digital data in operational and strategic processes.

It is not about managing digital heritage but about managing and using digital data about non-digital heritage

So the job of a ‘digital curator’ is not about managing digital heritage, like ancient websites or software. It’s much more focused on the management and use of digital data to process or work with non-digital heritage. Confusing, right? Let’s give a few examples.

Useful datasets

In the world of cultural heritage, more and more data are being collected. These are more and more used as a basis for (management) choices of heritage. This is particularly the case for governments and large management organisations. Think for example of monitors for assessing Damage and Conservation. These types of datasets provide information about the condition of heritage structures and materials over time. It allows professionals to make informed decisions about conservation efforts, addressing deterioration and preventing further damage.

Or what about Cultural Heritage Mapping? Through a Geographic Information System (GIS) datasets are used to map cultural heritage sites, historic buildings, landscapes, and archaeological features. These maps aid in spatial analysis, planning, and monitoring to ensure proper management and conservation.

The impact of external factors can also be mapped through data. Think of Heritage Impact Assessments and Environmental Monitoring. The first one provides data on the potential impact of development projects on cultural heritage sites. It aids decision-makers by considering heritage values alongside economic and environmental factors. The latter tracks environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and pollutants to help manage and conserve delicate heritage materials in museums, archives, and historic buildings.

Nowadays almost all cultural venues and heritage-related organisations are working with digital tools to improve their work and decision-making.

It shows that nowadays almost all cultural venues and heritage-related organisations are working with digital tools to improve their work and decision-making. Partly because of the ongoing technological developments, but also partly because of the COVID-19 crisis. During the pandemic museums, but also other institutes had to close down or reduce access because of social distancing measures. Technology and collecting data provided a new way forward.

The consequence is that heritage organisations now collect more and more data, whether willingly or unwillingly. Think for instance of public and visitor data, but also management data collected by governments is now commonly used. And while it certainly can provide new insights for management, we’re only at the start of a new development.

Digitisation as key topic in heritage

Since the digital turn in heritage is still relatively new, there is not necessarily a standard framework to start from as a Digital Curator. That’s why there are plenty of projects in Europe working on the digitisation of the heritage sector. Think for example of the European Collaborative Cloud for Cultural Heritage. With the envisaged budget of €110 million, the project should build a digital infrastructure for the cultural sector to share and work on datasets and files together. And it’s not just a one-off-and-done: if it’s up to the EU, the Cloud will be a lasting construction for years to come.

Other projects such as DigiCULT are focused on providing a standardized guideline. Having standard procedures to digitalize, present and safeguard ICH assets such as folklore events, music, and traditions would go a long way. In the fight against illegal trafficking, the EU has invested in three projects that should give professionals better (digital) tools to register, identify or search for looted artefacts. Read more about the AURORA (€3,5 million), ANCHISE (€4 million) and ENIGMA (€4 million) projects here.

Emerging need for digital curation

All this data management and related processes require people who know a lot about heritage but are also comfortable working with data files and sets. And it’s not just us at the Tribune noticing a need for workers who can operate at the intersection of digital and heritage. A recent call to action came from the Mediterranean Universities Union, underlining the need for a ‘new generation of European professionals working in the Cultural Heritage sector, equipped with a recognised, cross-cutting and high-level digital skillset’ should be trained.

In their plea, the Union highlights the DC Box consortium, a project that is currently working on the development of a free and open online course to train digital curators for heritage. The end product should contain researched and innovative educational material regarding the knowledge/skills/competencies a digital curator should have.

In Italy, steps are taken as well. There the Italian Association of Cultural Institutes is building a Digital Cultural Heritage, Arts & Humanities School (DiCultHer) – an international online school for the ‘acquisition of proficiency’ in the field of the digital services applied to cultural heritage.

Next generation job

These kinds of educational initiatives, digitizing projects and development tools should train and enable a new generation of European professionals to enter the field of Digital Cultural Heritage. The European Union is focusing on digitising society, including the job market. This means there is a need for training the next generation of heritage professionals to not just be comfortable with assessing all sorts of heritage, but also working with datasets that could help make management choices.

While for many small heritage organisations, hiring a digital curator might not be their top priority, given their limited capacities and often lack of data gathering, in the near future digitisation is going to play an increasing role in heritage. And since many of the new generation of heritage professionals are digital native, becoming a digital curator might just be the future job for many young, heritage-enthusiasts.