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Framing art practice within an anthropological perspective is related to ideas about the ways in which cultural context contributes to art practice and creativity. Such ideas show how patterns of thought can re-emerge in societies, through the gradual “restructuring of a certain number of elements already given (Jameson, 1983, p123)” (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p4). For example, although our increasingly technological society is generally viewed as a recent phenomenon, scholars are now becoming interested in the ways that contemporary media reflects elements of historical events and conditions. In particular, the Media in Transition series, published by MIT Press, has brought together essays under the mission of showing how “the media systems of our own era are unique neither in their instability nor in their complex, ongoing transformations”.

Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage
Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage is one such publication in the Media in Transition series. Published in 2007 and edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, its aim is to “identify some of the ways in which digital technologies have transformed the traditional museum, [thereby] altering our understanding of such fundamental words as indigenous, artifact, heritage, space, ecology, [and] the past”. Although previous publications have discussed the role of technology within the museum, many have tended to focus on the effects of these digital capabilities rather than placing these developments within a historical context (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p1).

While digital technologies continue to shape the museum experience, conversely, “cultural heritage ‘ecologies’ also appropriate, adapt, incorporate, and transform the digital technologies they adopt”. Given that “collecting organizations are vehicles for the enduring concerns of public spectacle, object preservation, shifting paradigms of knowledge and power”, the challenge is to ensure that the ‘intellectual capital’ of the museum becomes, and remains, accessible throughout these transformations, particularly to the communities from where these objects derive (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, pp.1-30). The book, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, is separated into three sections: Replicants/Object Morphologies; Knowledge Systems and Management: Shifting Paradigms and Models; and Virtual Cultural Heritage.

Replicants/Object Morphologies
The collection of essays in the Replicants/Object Morphologies section of Theorizing Digital Culture and Heritage is primarily concerned with the ways in which the use of images and new media technology influence the production, interpretation, and dissemination of art and heritage collections. Peter Walsh details the history of photography, particularly in the roles of object acquisition and the dissemination of collections. He also presents the museum photograph as a cultural artefact itself, an argument continued by Andrea Witcomb in ‘The Materiality of Virtual Technologies’. Here she argues that “taking digital media [interpretations] as material objects in their own right [enables] the emergence of new perceptions on the relationship between the display of objects alongside digital media elements”  (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p6).

Concerns about the virtual/real divide often relate to concepts such as materiality, aura and authenticity, authority, interpretation, representation, knowledge, and affect, based on “[vision] as the interpretive frame and physicality as a stable, truthful, and objective marker of culture”, thus positioning the digital and virtual in opposition to the real. However the discursive framework ‘epistemic relativism’ discussed in Replicants/Object Morphologies, “views knowledge of the ‘real’ as derived through our ideas and concepts, including linguistic, spatial, cultural, and ideological compulsions… [therefore] objects and their meanings are now seen as contingent, fluid, and polysemic” (Cameron, 2007, pp.53-54).

Furthermore, in certain cases digital reproductions can be seen to transfer qualities of the original. For example, in ‘Te Ahua Hiko: Digital Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments’, Deidre Brown discusses the relationship between Maori taonga (cultural treasures) and non-Maori museum classification. Here she proposes that Maori cultural values and taboos are transferred through virtual or augmented replication (Brown, 2007, p79). In this way, such technologies create the conditions for the repatriation of objects. However, they also require specific protocols in relation to the viewing of images. For example, “many restrictions are placed on institutionally archived images of deceased Maori — a consequence likely to be transferred to digital replicants” (Brown, 2007, p85).

Knowledge Systems
Part two of Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage – Knowledge Systems, Management and Users: Shifting Paradigms and Models – focuses on the ways in which knowledge (in the form of objects, texts, interpretations, etc) is organised and presented, and the impact this has on audience learning and access. Key questions raised in this section related to ways that audiences could be engaged through personalised experiences and possibilities for co-creation. As Parry and Arbach state: “The new space for online museum learning represents a shift in the conception and design of Web-based education provision for museums, carrying with it a greater emphasis on specificity, reciprocity, and activity” (Parry and Arbach, 2007, p290).

Such community co-creation programs (referred to as Digital Cultural Communication), aim to increase audience participation by expanding the museum’s curatorial mission “from the exhibition of collections to the remediation of cultural narratives and experiences” (Russo and Watkins, 2007, p149). Systems which allow for personalised navigation pathways and individually profiled users can enable “information [to be] organized, manipulated, segmented, reworked, and delivered in modular and multifarious ways (Manovich, 2001, p131)”. However, although these methods can produce “alternative and sometimes mutually contradictory object interpretations” (Cameron and Robinson, 2007, p186), for Harald Kraemer such audience interpretations can also add to the rich historical documentation of the (contemporary) artwork. In capturing user interactivity with the object through virtual museum systems, Kraemer suggests that these relationships “become an integral part of the work of art” and positions “the recipient as a coauthor [with] the artist” (Kraemer, 2007, p193).

Cultural Heritage & Virtual Systems
The third, and last, section of this anthology, Cultural Heritage & Virtual Systems, “examines the intersection of cultural heritage research, documentation, and interpretation—as it is mediated through the techniques and modalities of virtual reality” (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p10). These essays explore how and whether virtual and augmented realities can express and transmit ‘real’ experiences, particularly in relation to place. As Erik Champion and Bharat Dave state in ‘Dialing Up the Past’: “A sense of place in virtual environments and real experiences is not just a consequence of being surrounded by a spatial setting but of being engaged in another place. A place is particular, unique, dynamic, and memorably related to other places, peoples, and events, and it is hermeneutic” (Champion and Dave, 2007, p344).

These ‘multiple modalities’ include exploring the possibilities of tangible or sensory experiences of virtual places and objects, coupled with crowdsourced data linked to user perspectives and experiences, with the aim of providing a wider interpretation. In relation to this, Scot T. Refsland, Marc Tuters, and Jim Cooley discuss the potential for developing an online collaborative project for mapping cultural heritage: “Virtual heritage could greatly improve its efficacy by developing user-centered and dynamic systems for nonlinear storytelling [through a definitive archive of spatial culture]. Such a system would give users the sensation of being able to navigate beyond the official story of heritage into a web of interconnected complexity” (Refsland, Tuters, and Cooley, 2007, p415).

Through an understanding of the ways in which Cultural Heritage is interpreted, disseminated and received, artists can conceive of new methods of producing work that responds to its potential exhibition environments. Conversely, by presenting new methods for understanding the context of production, art can be considered through anthropological factors, enabling greater equivalencies with which to compare art cross-culturally.

Further reading:
The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms