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  • 4DHeritage team

Heritage and the great digital migration

Why is the metaverse a useful prompt for us to re-imagine heritage stewardship and how has Coronavirus helped?

Heritage experiences are on a digital migration and the challenges faced by heritage organisations during lock down have forced us to be a more creative, to collaborate more, to move faster and begin to imagine what heritage might mean in a metaverse.

Risks are intrinsic to any migration, as one leaves the familiar and ventures into unknown territory. In the world of heritage somewhere on the horizon is ‘the Metaverse’. As we get closer to it, its shape will change. It is just an idea for now, but it will shape not just the stewardship of heritage, heritage experiences but also the skills needed in the heritage sector.

There is no agreed definition of what we mean by the Metaverse, but here are two definitions:

The venture capitalist Matthew Ball, author of the Metaverse Primer describes it as:

“an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”

Facebook has a simpler definition:

“The ‘metaverse’ is a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”

Such definitions remain abstract, difficult to related to, but they can force us to think outside the box.

Advancing towards this new world could lead to a golden age for heritage, allowing it to be more accessible and understandable than ever before. Ideas such as these are particularly challenging for the heritage sector in terms of where heritage might be in this new world where time and place become uncoupled if one takes a traditional view of heritage. The Cambridge Dictionary describes heritage as ‘features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages, or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance’. In the Oxford English Dictionary, heritage might be understood to be a physical ‘object’: a piece of property, a building or a place that is able to be ‘owned’ and ‘passed on’ to someone else.

The new world of the ‘metaverse’ challenges these concepts and traditional practices around heritage stewardship whose foundations are often link to the to a sense of place or the authenticity of a tangible object; and for whom ‘virtual reality’ is an oxymoron.

What is the next milestone we should be seeking on this journey? This is a crucial question if we are going to navigate the route safely and efficiently.

But for many in the arts, heritage, tourism or educational sector, the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has had shattering consequences, and institutions are focussed on survival more than pioneering new paths. They are seeking stability rather than the uncertainty and risk of evolution. Getting it wrong at this time can endanger the very survival of such institutions. We need to be imaginative, collaborate more and share lessons as to what does and does not work.

Here is one example of an innovative response to a heritage event on a remote Suffolk shore.

A fragment of a substantial ship was washed up on the shore after a storm. Its provenance was unknown, and its integrity threatened by every high tide and subsequent storm. Lock down meant that it was inaccessible to any experts, museums and heritage centres closed and there was no funding mechanism to support a formal response to this event.

Nevertheless, it became a talking point for the local community who began to share stories of other shipwrecks that had been past down through storytelling or even as first-hand accounts written in private diaries or photographic collections.

The story was picked up by the local media and then in the national and even international press, and the flow of stories and insights became ever greater.

Photogrammetry and 360 imaging enable the waterlogged planks of wood to be captured in high resolution as well as the context of the beach in ‘virtual reality’ with anyone with internet access around the world.

A webinar on the wreck led to hundreds of people attending with an audience that spanned the globe.

This process and event offered a glimpse into the opportunities that the metaverse might create for the world of heritage.

The horizon is a long way off and so what are we doing today? More important than the technology is how we engage a new generation with these stories, and what skills and expertise will they need as heritage champions and to find jobs.

4Dheritage has teamed up with the Centre for International Learning and Leadership to run an introduction to immersive storytelling for young digital curators. This should not only provide them with a compass to begin to navigate the digital world, but also provide valuable technical insights as well as the soft skills that could enable them to emerge as leaders on this great migration.

The focus so far has been on immersive storytelling but this is just one element of the tool kit that will be needed on this migration. It has a much broader relevance for future education and intercultural connection..

We aim to scale this programme, making it ever more accessible to young people across a range of countries, not least our own. We are therefore looking for partners in the UK and around the world, to share ideas and experiences, to ensure young people are ever better prepared for the journey ahead.

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