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July 16, 2021

ICOM VoicesCollections of Ghent: Digital Commoning at the Design Museum Gent

Olivier Van D'huynslager

Chief Digital Officer at the Design Museum Gent

Keywords: Digital; Technology; Inclusion; Participation; Urban; Open

In June 2020, the Design Museum Gent, Belgium, together with three other museums in the city and the Ghent City Archives, were granted EU funding to develop and participate in the urban innovation project, Collections of Ghent. 

Elaborated by academic and research institutions, the City of Ghent, local public authorities, NGOs, SMEs and private companies, the project intends to explore the role and capacity of digital cultural heritage in tackling urban societal issues such as social inclusion and cohesion. Collections of Ghent aims to open up the practices of the Design Museum Gent – and encourages its partners to do so. In this article, I will try to explain why this opening up is vital on multiple levels.

Community building through digital co-creation

Despite significant advances in the digitisation of museum collections worldwide, systems developed for showing and sharing collections online are often tailored to the specific needs of institutions, and therefore not adequately equipped to encourage collaborations beyond their walls. The Collections of Ghent project makes use of Internet technologies such as Linked Open Data to build the necessary technological infrastructure to leverage the full potential of digital cultural heritage in the City of Ghent.

The growing political and social unrest worldwide, leading to mass demonstrations on topics such as climate change and systemic racism, is indicative of how injustice and inequality are still very much part of our landscape today. Museums, although challenged in these times of crisis, remain unique sensemaking places in society, and have the potential to be drivers for change when collaborating with artists, designers, and their communities. To maximise this potential, museums should allow for a more inclusive interpretation of collections by involving their communities in their development and decision-making processes.

To this end, Collections of Ghent does not limit itself to working with existing collections from the participating cultural institutions. It also relies on lived public history through stories and testimonies, to reveal possible grey areas in our collections today. Collections of Ghent approaches cultural heritage as a common ground that can lead to community participation. As such, the project will enable the gathering of new information and testimonies through crowdsourcing in order to develop the existing collections by allowing the citizens of Ghent to add new objects to them. This information gathering will be carried out online, using the Linked Open Data technology. By displaying collections on a multi-voice platform, we hope to spark new conversations and relations between cultural institutions and their communities, thus fostering a more inclusive reading of our cultural heritage.

Going beyond the museum walls

Cultural heritage, art and design are subject to change – their interpretations erode and yet are often described from a single point of view. By opening up and giving agency to the citizens of Ghent to freely voice their take on cultural topics, we believe we can raise their sense of belonging. If we want to turn our cultural institutions into community-building and sensemaking spaces, we must offer room for diversity.

In order to establish new relationships with our communities, we have to reinstate bottom-up participation, especially when it comes to tackling pressing matters in the city such as social inclusion and cohesion. Collections of Ghent explores how cultural heritage can be leveraged as a means to enhance social inclusion and in effect, to raise social cohesion on an urban level. We will achieve this by organising outreach activities beyond the museum’s walls to work closely with existing urban communities. To reduce potential barriers, the project includes the development of an immersive pavilion that we call the CoGent. In this space, visitors will interact with digital objects from the participating museums as well as their own contributions, through the co-creation of narrative frames. After travelling to three neighbourhoods in the city, we will study the impact of these interventions on those communities and consider ways to evaluate and apply these new modes of interaction to the Design Museum Gent in 2023.

The Design Museum Gent (DING) seen from the courtyard. ©TRANS, Carmody Groarke and REST

By engaging in participatory and co-creation processes, we are testing the essential role of cultural heritage beyond the walls and context of the museum. Incidentally, the project does not stop at digitally unlocking the cultural heritage of the city. By means of a subsidy flow, we offer financial support to everyone for the development of digital and non-digital initiatives and projects, with the only imposed requirement that it is somehow linked with the collections gathered and made available as part of Collections of Ghent.

The project also questions the potential application of cultural heritage data outside the cultural sector. Big data increasingly influences urban development and its decision-making processes. By maximising the use and implementation of Internet in the transformation of heritage data, the project is not only looking into new ways of showing and unlocking heritage, but also aims to serve a purposeful role in other fields (for example, education, mobility, innovation), and interrogates its role within these new kinds of decision-making processes.

In conclusion, we must consider the role of museums as sensemaking places where visitors can become stakeholders in addition to being mere ‘users’. In our search for new inclusive practices, we need to explore digital technology as a social medium for establishing a more inclusive reading of our collections.

Collections of Ghent is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund through the Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) initiative.

References and resources

More about the Collections of Ghent project: