Recently, there has been a lot of debate about the future of the National Archives as part of the Central Vista project. Will the content be stored in temporary storage for safe keeping, or will some of the documents be transferred to temporary storage for public access? Suggestions have been made to allow partial digital access online even as archivists continue to digitize records to preserve them for posterity. In recent years, cultural institutions across the country have rushed to jump on the digitalization bandwagon – and the pandemic has only accelerated this need to combine technology and culture. Many custodians of heritage view successful digitization projects as a fantastic way to organize data, enable accessibility, and significantly create a repository that ensures accountability and security.
Often millions of public money are injected into these efforts. Take, for example, the National Mission for Manuscripts project (the pilot project was set up in 2006) to create a digital resource of manuscripts covering themes, aesthetics, scripts, illuminations and illustrations. However, the catalogs are mostly available in English and Hindi, creating an accessibility barrier for people, even though the digitized folios were written in a variety of ancient languages. Some state archives have digitized thousands of wallets, which are now on hard drives, made inaccessible in the absence of meaningful interfaces.
So what are these huge scan readers for? These are questions to which we must seek answers.
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In the cultural domain of the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums), digitization takes various forms. Generally speaking, this is the process of collecting data in the form of words, visuals and audio-video material in digital formats. To give an example, the hundreds of artifacts in traditional museums will typically undergo a two-step scanning process, with each object digitally photographed in multiple ways and sometimes filmed. This is supplemented by information corresponding to the object in predetermined metadata standards. Cumulatively, all of this data is searchable, making it a powerful way to access, inform and educate people about art. Many public organizations make these databases accessible to everyone. “Open Access” in the digital world therefore means free access to both information and its unrestricted use for anyone, anywhere.
Although apparently a great company, Open Access and its digitization in place expose particular dilemmas. Access to physical objects is one thing, but digital information is apparently borderless. Digitization raises ethical, legal and copyright complexities that all institutions must reflect on as they continue to fulfill their mandates. For example, indigenous communities sometimes have no say in how digital material from their material culture is used.
Take, for example, the 2018 Sarr-Savoie report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, which describes at length the restitution of African cultural heritage. This was sparked by Marcon’s state visit to Africa in 2018, where an open statement hinted at a decolonization of French museums, which hold material from countries they had colonized or conquered. As part of the restitution process, the report recommends that material belonging to ethnic communities be fully digitized and made available as part of an open access digital initiative. While this might sound like a good idea, perhaps the decision should come from the communities themselves, as many artifacts can be sacred or sensitive. Difficult ethical and moral decisions continue to surface from a history of colonization and conquest.
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We rarely look at the negative effects of over-digitization, but it should be noted that with digitization comes an element of control and thus opens an ethical box of worms. For example, it is usually initiated by wealthy institutions, transposing their prism of beliefs onto digitized material that is presumably open access. Digitization is also costly, and usually digitization priorities are decided by funders and their interests or biases.
In India, too, funding agencies and governments decide which stories to exclude or include. Thus, you will find many marginalized stories that cannot find a place in digital archives. In addition, we have documented the same ‘white man story’, thus reinforcing the colonial ideas that were at play 150 years ago. You have Dalit writers, curators and artists from minority communities screaming out loud about their stories that don’t find their place in digitization processes.
Today, as we move from physical objects to virtual collections, why can’t we expand the collection to include songs, oral histories, and subordinate cultures, which are often overlooked in physical space? For my part, I try to chronicle the oral history of Buddhism as it is practiced today in Maharashtra. This is very different from Buddhism which was practiced centuries ago. It is a vibrant new form, with strong Ambedkarite roots. Why is there no point in looking at religion and cultures as they are alive today? Where are the new digital archives compared to digital copies of analog material? Do we need another photo of the Mohenjodaro Dancer, the Chola Natarajas or the Buddhist Stupa torana? Perhaps it is time to widen the discourse.
Plus, every time an artifact is digitized, we create a new asset – and it’s worth considering the limits of copyright, or lack thereof, for that new entity. Copyright laws in all countries are territorial, so custodians should consider that when digitizing, these “digital” assets are imbued with copyright and intellectual property rights applicable in the country of digitization. Continuing with the example above, while France may return objects from the musée du quai Branly, to Paris, Africa, the museum will still effectively retain the digital assets of these artifacts, as they were generated in this country. The museum, incidentally, has a significant number of objects looted in Africa, including some of the famous Beninese bronzes taken from the royal palace there in 1897.
In India, digitization initiatives mimic already awkward postcolonial legacies. The National Portal and Digital Repository for Museums of India, maintained by the Union Ministry of Culture, is a centralized digital inventory of nearly a dozen leading Indian museums that still rank ‘types objects ”in categories such as manuscripts, ornaments, anthropology, tropes popularized by 19th century colonial ethnographers, historians and archaeologists. It is time for an independent and reborn India to reclaim its heritage in digitized spaces with representations based on ethnic communities, cultures and geographies.
Digital technology, while opening up incredible frontiers for sharing and collaboration, must therefore proceed with caution and prudence. A slow digitization option with moderate debates will benefit individuals, institutions and nations.
Importantly, as with many other human endeavors, it may be preferable to proceed with balanced moral and ethical interests when digitizing heritage, adopting an inclusive and participatory approach that attempts at the very least to protect and inform all. stakeholders.
Deepthi Sasidharan is Museum Heritage Consultant and Director, Eka Cultural Resources and Research.