Digital culture work should forge new connections

Universities must look beyond making cultural works digitally available towards connecting people to one another, and to new forms of creative activity, say Dinah Birch and James Coe.

The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly changed our cultural and social habits. We’re quizzing from our front rooms, sharing a drink over Zoom, and our daytime internet use has more than doubled.

Theatre productions find new audiences online, artists reach millions through impromptu gigs on Instagram, and when football resumes it may well be free-to-air.

This shift is important for universities to grasp and as the restrictions of lockdown ease, universities can help people to a deeper understanding of their towns and cities by introducing them to the rich and diverse collections in their care,

Universities are both cultural institutions and producers of cultural works. The University of Liverpool’s Victoria Building, the origin of the term “red-brick university”, displays the industrial heritage of the city and its university. The Bodleian Library at Oxford is both a working hub for research and a monument to the historic role of the university. And, as Historic England put it, the Central Hall at the University of York is “a physical manifestation of the University of York Development Plan, which was heralded as the beginning of contemporary university planning in Britain.”

Lockdown means that these buildings are presently inaccessible, but they remain key to the cultural fabric of their regions. We can imagine how through sharing virtually we might integrate the resources they represent, and the innovative research of our staff, into our common cultural experiences.

However, if our cultural offer is to do more than just put more and more content online we need to consider how culture can connect people to one another and to new cultural experiences, not just to their university.

Connection and creativity

Museums and galleries consistently bring academic and wider communities together. Cultural institutions within higher education and beyond have begun to include an online dimension to exhibitions, which will further unite these communities. Already under way, this activity has become an urgent necessity. It includes such ambitious activities as virtual tours of the Louvre, together with more closely focused projects like the University of Dundee’s Fine Art Collections, or microscopic adventures like UCL’s World of Tiny Things.

The best example of this work is where cultural offerings are built with the people who receive them in mind. For example, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner big read commissioned by The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth, has taken 40 writers and performers with 40 artists to produce 40 cultural works as they read along with the poem. It is a piece which has a central cultural theme but is produced by a wide range of participants including Jodie Whittaker, Rupert Everett, Lemn Sissay, Iggy Pop, and Hillary Mantel.

This has built a rich online conversation while the poem’s links to our current state have been picked up in the media. Importantly, this project is also hugely entertaining and engaging, something we should not forget if we are to reach out to our communities effectively.

The risk of failing to think through activity like this is that in centring our institutions we push out the communities and people who could connect to one another, and find new meanings in culture, through the use of our platforms. In effect, rather than alleviating isolation through connection our cultural offer ends up being an extension of institutional relationships not human ones.

Our activities need not only “show off” but can “bring in” – through family education activities, for instance, or collective writing projects, or in the case of Warwick and Coventry a plan ahead for a future where we will be back together.

Screen time

Once we have the correct configuration of activity the mode of delivery is equally important. Some members of the workforce will have spent more time than they might have wished in front of screens in the past few weeks, and there is a risk of excess online fun. We can overcome this in part by activities which can be directed online but carried out away from our screens – book clubs, drawing classes, writing groups, or exercises in group learning.

However, we have yet to reach a collective understanding of how we might use the online world to suggest new connections with the physical and the creative, or how our institutions can have a presence without always being present. In the coming months, the challenge is to make an active contribution to our shared cultural lives, without simply generating more noise in a busy space.

One answer is the curation of works which are genuinely suited to an online space. We should engage colleagues whose research and teaching is culturally significant, but would not usually find a wider public audience. We could choose to highlight community events, exhibitions, and artists, as a means of supporting local achievement. Selectivity helps us to reduce the volume of work, but building a cultural offer which is digital first remains a challenge.

Best suited

No matter how hard we try there will always be fundamental differences between our digital and actual lives. The Arts Council estimates that the museum sector alone employs nearly 40,000 people, contributing nearly £1.5bn of economic output. Other cultural activities – musical and dramatic performances, literary festivals, tours – add much more.

We cannot revitalise this economy online but we can present a front door to it. For example, Culture Liverpool integrates the work of the universities with a wider cultural offer, presenting a cohesive programme across Liverpool City Region.

We know that some work can only be a facsimile but this need not be the case for all of our activity, and in some instances we can enhance its value. In bringing pieces together in different ways, we can host multi-modal formats in one place, hosting joint works without the need for expensive and sometimes cumbersome infrastructure.

This model of partnership and access presents the blueprint for the cultural work that supports our collective wellbeing and economic resilience. Difficult to assess, this role is nevertheless vital. Just as we have succeeded in transforming our educational and research programmes to contend with the challenges of Covid-19, we should now revise our cultural offer.

If we can build on the premise that cultural assets are created by the whole sector, and should be available to all who would benefit, we can build experiences which are not only valuable now, but will enhance the wider contribution that we can make to the nation’s social and economic welfare in years to come.

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