Nick Poole is the chief executive of the Collections Trust

Nick Poole

Nick Poole, Issue 111/12, p17, 01.12.2011
Let's seize the digital opportunity
In the midst of last month’s Eurozone crisis, you could be forgiven for failing to notice another, quieter European development.

In October, the European Commission adopted “Recommendation C(2011) 7579 on the Digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation”.

This innocuous-sounding document has far-reaching implications for the future direction of museums, archives and libraries across Europe and their relevance in an increasingly connected world.

Since 2008, the European Commission has been working towards A Digital Agenda for Europe, a multibillion-euro programme promoting the use of technology for business, government and social welfare.

The new recommendation mandates EU member states to support the Digital Agenda for Europe by increasing investment in digitisation and online access to cultural heritage in a strategic way.

Specifically in the UK, the recommendation challenges the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the governments of Wales and Scotland and the Northern Ireland Executive to make 3.94m digital assets available to the Europeana website by 2015.

Unlike most other European nations, the UK has no national digitisation strategy. This lack of coordination between policymakers and funders has seen us squander the early lead achieved through the £50m New Opportunities Fund Digitisation Programme.

Instead of capitalising on this investment, a piecemeal approach has seen much of the content fall into disuse. The UK government is one of only seven not to make a contribution to the annual costs of the Europeana programme – an attitude which is putting at risk millions of euros of potential investment in UK museums and galleries.

UK cultural institutions have demonstrated extraordinary creativity and resourcefulness in embracing technology, but too many of our most promising digital projects have failed to achieve sustainability due to a lack of strategy and investment.

But things may be changing. Arts Council England is exploring the possibility of a joined-up digital strategy. The Heritage Lottery Fund is proposing to invest in the use of technology to engage audiences.

The Digital Public Space, led by the BBC, highlights our role in supporting education  and helping to drive digital literacy. The Strategic Content Alliance is uniting organisations to find practical solutions to issues such as copyright, public-private partnership and sustainability.

It is not too late to capitalise on the opportunity for museums to create a new, vibrant and compelling digital offer. What we need is a digital renaissance – a coordinated, programme designed to deliver universal access to our shared heritage online.

Nick Poole is the chief executive of the Collections Trust