Digital Strategies for Heritage (DISH) – the 2009 conference

I’ve recently returned from the Netherlands (Holland as the locals call it and Rotterdam to be more specific) where I attended the 2009 Digital Strategies for Heritage Conference (DISH2009). The main organizers of the conference are the Netherlands Institute for Heritage and the DEN foundation. The latter organization, Digital Heritage Netherlands is the Dutch national knowledge platform for information technology and cultural heritage run by my long-time friend and colleague, Marco de Niet. I was on the advisory board for this biannual event and chaired a panel during the conference.
rotterdam delfshaven

It was very well-done. I believe that this gathering has now become the most important heritage conference for Europe (it would be the equivalent of a combined WebWise and Museums on the Web in the United States). There were over 600 delegates from twenty-three countries in attendance. They were a good mix of digital heritage practitioners, project leaders and administrators and they approached the conference from a shared vision of mobilizing heritage materials on the web that doesn’t exist in the US.

There were a small number of American attendees most of whom had keynote or other significant roles on the conference program. I think that some of them didn’t understand the extent of the investments that have already been made in the Netherlands and more generally in Europe nor the extent to which a shared motivation has taken hold. This was not an audience that needed to be hectored about the need to present their collections and their institutions on the web or the imperative of a user-centric perspective in doing this work.

All of the conference presentations are available from the DISH slideshare feed. I particularly commend to you the keynote offered by Josh Greenberg of Digital Strategy and Scholarship at New York Public Library about staff expertise and digital strategy. I thought he effectively demonstrated the impact that staff use of existing web tools and interaction opportunities can have on an institution’s profile via the creation of communities and networked interests. The problem is that this kind of use isn’t deeply embedded in our expectations of staff nor is it native to existing skill sets. Both gaps can be addressed with management attention and investment. Ross Parry of the Museums and New Media group at the University of Leicester delivered a closing keynote that provided a nice framework for thinking about digital heritage efforts and the end points of the evolutionary path created by this work.

A keynote on business model innovation that was very popular with the delegates was delivered by Alex Osterwalder, an unaffiliated author, speaker and consultant. Check out his presentation which was delivered with good stage presence and considerable audience management skills. It gave me pause. I’m afraid it re-ignited among many the notion that if they only thought about it differently their digital objects would yield a new and important revenue stream. I fear the effort that will be poured into this bottomless well which has yielded very little for any but the very largest brands in the heritage domain.

He and his colleagues had just released a book on Business Model Generation which a group in the Netherlands had used to create a series of scenarios and business models for Dutch digital heritage. This group’s work was pulled together into a book that was distributed to the delegates (Dutch only – English version coming soon). I’m looking forward to seeing their work. Perhaps it would allay my concerns about unreasonable expectations.

Overall an important and satisfying conference.

P.S. The conference organizers made the experience interesting and pleasant with a variety of extra gestures – all the conference bags contained light bulbs that delegates could put into patterned light boards, three small dishes to be used as voting tokens for research projects that presented, and bits of colored ethernet cable which could earn you chocolates if you matched the color up with another delegate. None of this was overdone and it seemed very effective at creating a cordial group feeling.

5 Comments on “Digital Strategies for Heritage (DISH) – the 2009 conference”

  1. Thanks for sharing about the conference. Staff expertise is one that really should not be ignored. We’ll copy the bulb and chocolate thing too.

  2. Simone, Thanks for the comment. I thought your keynote was a great set-up and companion piece for Josh’s advice. You explained the power of communities and he gave some practical advice about how to mobilize staff in the creation of those communities.

    You and I have different ideas about the importance of twitter and conferences. I wasn’t surprised at all that DISH didn’t have a big twitter feed.

    At most of the library conferences where I speak (except for those focused on library technology) there’s virtually no twitter activity.

    You are right that the real questions are why, who, and how.

  3. Thanks for the clear post. I gave a keynote on the building blocks of a digital community building strategy. (Why, How, Who and Where, and how to overcome myths and barrieres). My impression of the audience was that it was very mixed, most of the museums are very far technology wise in putting the collection on the web or launching a very advanced website, but very few have actually a strategy underlying these new technology on how to really network with the many more communities that can be reached. Only 4 people really twittered during the conference (Jasper, Theo Meerenboer, Hester and the CTO of the RIjksmuseum) and they were the ones who were further ahead with a vision than a lot of people I talked to later. Here you see that only 4 twitterati do not make for objective reviews of a conference where 600 are present.

    Someone told me that she was very glad with 100 fans of her museum on Facebook, but when I asked what the purpose was to be on Facebook, the only answer was (good for our identity). No strategy what to offer, or how to engage. 100 evangelists or bloggers are very different than 100 readers.

    So of course the museums know that they should be on the web and should try to reach users, and that was not the message. But where are these users, why do you reach them, how do you reach them and who is reaching them are very relevant indeed as message and questions to anwer.

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