In recent decades, many museums have been actively engaged in developing digital platforms for the preservation and enhancement of national cultural heritage. Digital heritage platforms can better serve societies if they are specifically designed to communicate multiple forms of cultural citizenship and to encourage various forms of cultural inclusion and participation. The project Canada’s Got Treasures provides some very important lessons.
Through the act of promoting its national image abroad, Canadian cultural diplomacy serves to build a strong sense of national identity for positive international recognition of the state’s culture. Digital diplomacy is widely accepted in Canada and has been extensively utilised through building and sustaining the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). The network offers a wide variety of online programs and provides interactive resources such as the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC). Canada’s Got Treasures is an online portal developed by the VMC in cooperation with national heritage institutions including the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Canadian War Museum, the National Gallery of Canada and others. Using popular social media networks, such as YouTube and Flickr, the project aims to build an online interactive repository of Canadian national heritage through contributions by national cultural institutions, as well as by ordinary Canadians. Interested individuals are invited to take part in the project by contributing their own personal photos and videos to the online collection of national treasures and thus share their personal understanding of Canadian heritage.
Museums have always engaged with the most important political issues and have been an important part of civic life. However, in recentdecades, due to such phenomena as globalization and increased immigration, the role of museums to build cohesion and reconciliation among dispersed multicultural communities in
western societies has significantly increased. With the upcoming 150th anniversary of Canada, the National Heritage Committee set new important cultural objectives for museums to play a leading role to ‘promote pride andbelonging amongst all Canadians and (…) to promote education and sharing of culture
across the country.’ The Canada’s Got Treasure project serves as an illustration of this government initiative
to connect diverse cultures of Canada for collective cultural activities that promote national citizenship. The project allows Canadian museums to connect with each other and their audiences through the use of digital
technologies and aims to ‘highlight Canadian museums’ collections, news, collaborative projects and resources’ for professionals and broader audiences. As the official project report indicates, the Canada’s Got Treasure portal was launched on International Museums Day (May 18, 2010) and was further advertised through a cross-promotional partnership among Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the National Film
Board and the Heritage Network.
The project aimed to create a communal public space for sharing cultural treasures of museums and ordinary Canadians by creating an online gallery based on the platforms of such popular social networks as Flickr and
YouTube. Project reports indicate that through experimenting with social media the portal intended ‘to reach young adults, an age group that can be difficult for museums to engage’ and to involve them in the collective practices of national cultural representation online. Through the active use of empowering and enthusiastic invitations, displayed on the home page of the web site, the portal communicates the democratic principles of the project design that aims to stress the significance of public contributions. On first glance, the design and democratic rhetoric of the portal suggests the high potential of this project to build an inclusive place for everyone to voice their understanding of cultural heritage and cultural identity. However, this structure and democratic sounding slogansshould not overshadow the actual cultural processes that are taking place within the context of this project.
In application to the Canada’s Got Treasure project, the very design of the project that involves collaboration of authoritative national cultural heritage institutions with ordinary Canadians defines the power dynamics within
the project. First, the professional quality of the museums’ photo and video submissions to the
project gallery creates a gap between museum project’s contributions and those uploaded by the public. In many cases, “do-it-yourself” quality of video and photo submissions of ordinary Canadians fail to compete with the professional work of museums that have more experience and resources to represent cultural objects
through different mediums. Moreover, the museum contributions are displayed directly on the project portal, and the public’s submissions can be viewed only on the YouTube or Flickr sites. As a result, the quality and the design priority of the representation of museums’ objects on the project’s portal creates a sense
of superiority of museum content over the content submitted by the public. Though the project does not articulate implied competition and is not based on the principles of contest, the collective representation of national identity is not based on the principles of equality (not the equality of access to projects’ participation, but the equality of representations within the project).The Canada’s Got Treasures portal communicates an inherent dominance of cultural heritage institutions in representing national collective culture through the major voices of museums. By strengthening the authority of museums within the project to speak for the public, the portal mutes ‘the concerns: ‘whose heritage is being referred to?’ and ‘who is defining it for whom?’’. In this way, though people are rhetorically empowered to represent their cultures in the project, the multicultural complexity of the nation is suppressed.
Online cultural participation
New technology is discussed by many authors as a potential tool in the revitalisation of democracy in its various forms and has been researched through the analytical lenses of political activism. Some scholars indicate that
collective uses of the Internet promote social capital that can be significantly enhanced online through participation in online communities and can further lead to strengthening democratic relation in the offline world. However, I employ a more critical framework of the democratic potentials of the Internet pubic space in which
new media technologies are understood as communication means to govern and control the society. The use of online technologies in building active citizens’ communities helps to sustain the processes of social management and control, as well as to maintain political and administrative cohesion.
The Canada’s Got Treasures project incorporates free-accessed social networks, such as YouTube and Flickr, to provide a gallery space for public submissions to the project. However, Flickr and Youtube are designed to
provide individuals with representational and communication means to promote their own work online and to receive feedback from other interested parties. Though both of these websites emphasize free content exchange and community building, the links among individuals within those communities are weak and are
based on sharing common professional or entertaining interests rather than on genuine mutual values of common culture. Thus, the Canada’s Got Treasures project, by utilising popular social media sites and
not investing in designing its own gallery space where communal practices of heritage exchange could become more meaningful, creates a deeper separation among minorities cultural groups underrepresented on the portal. Through the weaknesses of these communication practices, the representation of cultural heritage through museum submissions acquires additional power and prevents various cultural groups from uniting their voices for better representation and promotion of their values and interest within the project.
Identity construction is a complex process of ideological manipulation that can be deployed by governments equally in off line and online realities. Museums play an important role in that process. Museums have a crucial role to play in reinventing these identities and developing an imagined community. Thus, the Canada’s Got
Treasures project aims to create this imagined community of national collective culture by employing a discursive strategy of the nation’s narrative. This strategy is operationalized through the project in a variety of different design and moderation techniques, which aim to highlight and illuminate shared values and
experiences of various cultural representatives of Canada to construct a unified image of a
collective national culture.
As the project report indicates, throughout the project development (From May 2010 until November 2010), over 100 videos and 200 photos were submitted to the gallery. However, the largest proportion of videos and photos
contributed was from Canadian Heritage Information Network member museums. The majority of video and photographs submitted by the public showcase the beauty of Canadian nature. Other groups of so called “treasures” represent touristic sites, objects of archaeological and historical value, architectural designs and urban spaces. A few objects refer to traditional food, like maple syrup, kitchenware, art pieces, sculptures, toys, postcards, and other ordinary cultural artefacts that neither represent a distinct specific culture nor vividly express oppositional perspective to a collective image of Canadian culture. As the analysis of the overall stream of public submissions reveals, the representation of the collective effort in sharing personal treasures within the online project unites Canadians in their understanding of national heritage rather than stresses differences
of diverse cultural backgrounds. Diverse photographs and video that in various ways refer to a shared geographical places of the country (expressed in diverse images of either natural or urban locations) emphasize commonalities between different cultural groups of Canada, celebrate shared values and inspire national feelings of citizenship and belonging. On first glance, this representational effect of national unity is achieved through democratic principles of cultural participation in the project by ordinary Canadians. However, the critical analysis of moderation and communication systems of this project reveals that the collective image of the public’s contribution to the Canada’s Got Treasures portal is a result of a curatorial work of the projects management team.
The project’s instructions for content uploading indicate that submission process can be completed only if the project’s team approves the contributed photo or video. This implies that not all the pictures and videos, submitted by the public, could eventually end up in the project’s gallery. This considerably undermines
the democratic principles of this project and signifies that the resulting image of a collective national identity developed through public participation is a mere ideological construction. In achieving its democratic principles,
the project could benefit tremendously if it would employ a crowdsourcing moderation system that would enable projects participants to vote for the submitted content in order to be accepted to the project’s gallery. This
public voting process could help not only to establish more fair power relations between the Heritage Network and the community of participants, but also to provide a platform for minorities to voice their cultural opinions and to consolidate dispersed cultural groups from different geographic locations of the country through participation in the cultural activity.Another communication technique that was employed in this portal to aid the construction of a collective image of Canadian heritage andculture is a public invitation of the management team of the project to specific individuals, groups, or companies to contribute their photos and video materials, which had been initially developed earlier for other purposes. Specifically, the management team solicited public contribution to the project by contacting mostly touristic companies (for example, Canadian Tourism) that have developed a wide
range of photo and video materials advertising Canadian heritage sites, places of touristic interests and other famous locations.The Canada’s Got Treasures portal, by claiming to present cultural heritage of the country through the eyes of the public, provides only a platform for social control and for media representation of an artificially constructed collective identity of Canada. The project once again illuminates the expanding
power of media representations in producing identities and shaping the relationship between the self and society. But not all is lost. I would like to name a number of suggestions which would be helpful for developing and implementing future similar participative projects. First, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to build inclusive cultural platforms not for communities, but with communities. Only by allowing the public
to take an active role and responsibility on all the stages of the project development and involving people in curating, evaluating creative content, voting for favourite pieces and enabling crowdsourcing censorship, can
project a achieve democratic goals. Second, it is crucial to provide people with all the necessary representational tools that would allow participants from diverse cultural backgrounds to voice their cultural standing and to represent their own culture.
However, such representation should be equal for all the participating parties and should not be placed
in a competitive context or in juxtaposition to other content which can create a sense of superiority of some culture over the other. Finally, managers of such participative projects should clearly realize that the whole
process of public engagement and independent participation is more important than a final result, which might be completely different from what was envisioned at the very beginning. The success of such projects should be measuredagainst an increased level of creativity, transformation and deviation from the initial projections. By prescribing results, setting preferences and inviting only particular types of content-providers for sharing, any participative project loses its democratic potentials and turns into a tool for ideological control and manipulation. To avoid this, the democratic cultural platforms should allow enough room for flexibility and openness to reflect the true nature of culture, which is never fixed and always in a process of development and change.
Auteur: Natalia Grincheva is doctoral researcher in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture (CISSC) at Concordia University, working on her PhD across new museology, cultural diplomacy and social media.(firstname.lastname@example.org)