Danny Birchall, Issue 116/06, p14, 01.06.16
Picture imperfect
The government’s first white paper on arts and culture for 50 years, published in March, promises “culture for everyone” in a framework of increased diversity, shared funding and the advancement of Britain’s “soft power” in the world.

The use of digital technology forms a key part of the paper, but it falls far short of a coherent and convincing vision. Statements such as “the digital experience is itself becoming a ubiquitous ‘place’” reflect a deeply muddled thinking about what digital practice in cultural heritage actually involves.

While promising to commission (yet another) report on the way forward for digital collections in the UK, its focus is already tight on using this technology as a means of broadcast and distribution.

A push to increase the quantity of digitisation isn’t matched by any sense of what the uses of material might be for “everyone”. Digital becomes a tool for dissemination only, delivering things such as online tours of “real” exhibitions.

So much is missing from this picture, starting with the potential of digital as a creative and expressive medium. The paper fails to even mention The Space, the arts council/BBC-supported funding agency for digital arts.

The potential for new ways of looking at collections, and supporting connected and participative communities to do that with, is ignored in favour of single-dimensional and modest goals for digital activity. If we want to achieve “culture for everyone”, the digital picture, at least, needs to be much fuller.

Danny Birchall is digital manager at the Wellcome Collection, London