Valérie Senghor, Deputy Managing Director in charge of innovation, development and major projects at the French National Monuments Centre (CMN), gives us an overview of digital mediation in the French cultural world, more specifically in the museum and heritage sector.
How digital is the culture sector in France? Does the French cultural exception, meaning the fact that French cultural creation is favoured by national policies, apply to digital technology and cultural innovation, and if so, how?
Structural changes have been underway for several years and bear witness to the fact that the cultural sector has been profoundly impacted by the emergence of digital technologies. It has helped bring the cultural sphere closer to economics, research and entrepreneurship, and has also inspired a logic of experimentation and innovation within organisations, opening them up to collaborations and partnerships with new types of players.
The cultural exception applies when we talk about the creation of a work, the creation of content, devices and exhibitions, whatever the medium or method of distribution: on-site, online, via audio or on social media. We can see the creation of a truly French sector in these areas with high-quality private and public players, and institutions which are playing a fundamental role in launching innovative projects by acting as instigators, sponsors, producers and co-producers. As such, these productions are able to benefit from a streamlined procedure in the event of public consultation and can more easily benefit from State aid.
What opportunities are new technologies bringing to the world of culture? What are the possible challenges which arise when installing these technologies in cultural heritage buildings, tourist sites, museums, etc.?
The emergence of technologies in the cultural sphere has contributed, to a certain extent, to bringing together culture and citizens. It makes it possible to move towards more participatory formats which engage visitors more by presenting them with digital works and immersive or interactive systems such as virtual or augmented reality
I see constraints both upstream and downstream of projects: upstream due to the complexity of choosing technologies given the issue of rapid obsolescence, or a lack of understanding of how techniques can be improved to keep up with changes in the uses of technologies. Downstream, the challenges are linked to the specific operational characteristics of sites that are not specifically designed to accommodate devices which often require complex maintenance, without a specialised team.
What are the implications in terms of the internal transformation of professions and practices within the establishments?
There are many different practical issues in this area when it comes to the management of monuments. Take, for example, the accessibility of monuments: at CMN we have tested the use of remote-controlled robots to organise visits for audiences who are unable to access the site, for example due to disability or geographical distance.
Heritage preservation work is also impacted by the ease with which architects can now access 3D models of monuments in order to carry out detailed diagnoses of the state of the sites and thus better plan works projects.
What about the relationship with the public? Do users/visitors have to adapt or, conversely, is it the cultural, museum and heritage sector that is making the effort to adapt to new uses? Is it right to talk about making an “effort” to adapt?
Our relationship with the public has been transformed by digital technologies and digital communication methods. Virtual experiences online, for example, make it possible to prepare visitors for their physical encounter with the monument, and also to extend that encounter. Mixed-reality technologies revive the traditional experience by adding an educational and sometimes playful dimension.
Certain types of media intervention can confuse audience demographics that are more accustomed to a traditional approach, but it is worth noting that elderly people in particular use augmented reality devices with great ease, pleasure and interest. Since these digital mediation tools are designed and developed in harmony with the premises and taking into account their unique features, it seems to me that the notion of “making an effort” is obsolete, because these technologies are respectfully integrated into monuments while enriching visitor knowledge and/or experience.
Do digital technologies promote access to culture? How can we measure that impact?
Digital technology is one of the factors contributing to access to culture, but it is part of an overall strategy that involves considering many different parameters, such as physical accessibility to a location, opening hours, ancillary services, programming, etc.
Measuring the impact is a major challenge. CMN is involved in the Data & Museum research project, the aim of which is to enable cultural institutions to act as places of experimentation and reflection for data collection and analysis. Digital systems generate lots of data, but the interpretation and analysis of the latter is not always a simple task. I feel it is important to be humble in our approach to this question of impact, to consider it from both a quantitative and a qualitative point of view and to consider the long term, because the question of expanding the audiences who access culture is part of a complex societal movement.
Could you give us some examples of particularly innovative experiments in combining digital technologies and the cultural sector?
The HistoPad is an augmented reality device used at the Conciergerie, a monument managed by CMN. Presented at the Focus on Digital Mediation, it makes it possible to recreate missing parts of the space, notably the cell in which Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned.
I was won over by the production quality of the Lucid realities project “The Water Lily Obsession”, focused on the work of Monet and presented at the Musée de l’Orangerie. Beyond the aspect of facilitating interaction with the work, it is truly a piece of art which stands out thanks to the great delicacy of the perspective offered on the pictorial material.
The Millennial Cities exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe was a great success in terms of attendance and media coverage. I believe it marks a turning point in the field of museography and reveals visitors' interest in this new type of exhibition, which offers a powerful emotional experience.
Why a heritage incubator? After a year of operations, what's the verdict?
The Heritage Incubator offers start-ups the opportunity to spend a year experimenting in one or more monuments, under real-world conditions, with the support of the team that manages the site and while interacting with visitors. The challenge is twofold, on the one hand start-ups are testing an innovation before it is put on the market, and on the other hand the CMN monuments network are testing solutions on-site in response to specific issues of mediation, accessibility or heritage promotion... For example, the Sherlock start-up has created cross-media content to promote a monument which is closed for refurbishment.
The community around the Heritage Incubator is growing and its range of services has expanded this year thanks to the receipt of a grant which covers part of the costs of the start-ups’ experiments. The monuments have also gotten interested in the area, and more and more of them want to welcome start-ups onto their sites!
You took took part in the Focus on Digital Mediation by the Institut français, which aims to promote the international export of French expertise. What did you learn from this experience?
I felt that this Focus was an excellent way of starting to build an international network of professionals who share the same challenges in different environments. Being able to present the members of the CMN incubator start-up delegation, and being able to invite them to test mediation approaches on-site in a network monument, in this case La Conciergerie, enabled the establishment to provide a practical example of their digital mediation policy.
In june 2019 Valérie Senghor took part in the Focus on Digital Mediation organised by the Institut français, which aims to promote the international export of French expertise. Find out more about the Focus on digital mediation.
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