Open for comment… National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources

A final draft of the Department of Arts and Culture’s “National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources” has been released and is available for public review and comment until next Friday, 21 January 2011. Click here to download. To voice your opinion on the draft, email Reinette Stander. Alternatively, the Archival Platform is also collating and forwarding all comments submitted to its website.

I have read the document and as a draft I feel it does well to tackle issues like the introduction of standards to facilitate interoperability between institutions and the development of virtual collections to protect physical ones. I will submit a more detailed comment to the Department of Arts and Culture but my initial response calls for a better understanding of what these digital resources might be used for. In South Africa where history and heritage were traditionally one-sided and used to consolidate settler histories and their right to South Africa, surely these new digital heritage resources should have relevance for the vast majority who were excluded from museums and archives, and perhaps for whom these institutions and their collections hold little significance?

In postapartheid South Africa, the ANC’s broad and reconciliatory use of heritage to unite the ‘new South Africa’ has led to grandiose projects like Constitutional Hill and Freedom Park, which have geographical and interpretational limitations. I feel that digital heritage resources and new technologies have the potential to engage and have relevance for a far wider audience. The draft document alludes to this type of potential. It estimates that more than 90% of the South African population has access to mobile phones with increasing capability to record images, sound and video and to connect to the Internet. If, as the draft suggests, we consider mobile phones to be Information Communication Technologies, then the vast majority of the population has the potential to receive and record ‘heritage’.

Yet, the draft policy raises the concern of authenticity and the need to establish authentic sources of digital heritage. The question that springs to mind is, who determines what is authentic? Institutions? And how do they determine this? My sense is that the digitisation policy has focused on facilitating standards and interoperability between institutional collections and adding to these with ‘born digital’ heritage resources. While this is a worthwhile endeavour, I am not sure  if enough thought has been given to the kind of relevance they will have to the South African population at large.

I feel that in order for digital heritage objects to have greater significance in South Africa and to be used as resources with which, for example, new forms of identity and citizenship might be produced, we should try and democratise the modes of production as much as possible. We should utilise ubiquitous mobile technologies and let those for whom these resources should have significance, play a part in developing them.

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