Cultural heritage with digital technologies: new imaginaries through time  

*For details about the artwork and artists, check the links in the embedded Sway below. The photos are from works exhibited at the Palestinian Museum at Birzeit in the West Bank.

Cultural heritage is not a direct aim of OLIVE project, in the sense that the activities do not focus on cultural heritage issues per se. Cultural heritage is, however, about the symbols and aesthetic developments that are associated with the growth of our communities and wider societies. Cultural heritage, therefore, is sine qua non in and for education and educational research.  

According to the definition provided by UNESCO

Cultural heritage includes artefacts, monuments, groups of buildings and sites, and museums that have a diversity of values including symbolic, historic, artistic, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological, scientific and social significance. It includes tangible heritage (movable, immobile and underwater), intangible cultural heritage (ICH) embedded into cultural, and natural heritage artefacts, sites or monuments.  

It would be, therefore, no exaggeration to say that it is not possible to implement an international (or any) project, such as OLIVE is, in the absence of cultural heritage. Some manifestation or element of cultural heritage is present in some form, be it in an explicit or implicit way. Especially nowadays, when sustainability is prioritized in the wider educational discourse, cultural heritage is becoming more and more a vital part in higher education curricula, particularly in connection with the use and applications of digital technology.  

Within the framework of OLIVE project, visits to places such as HEUREKA as part of the exchange program of staff from Birzeit University and Al-Azhar University Gaza in Spring 2022 is a manifestation of cultural heritage elements. Heureka is a science centre in Helsinki that combines technology and art-inspired installations to signify the state-of-the-art in socio-economic and technological development and innovation.   

In fact, the impact of digital technology has generated a variety of discussions and even introducing the notion of digital heritage as ‘new Renaissance’.  

For instance, the exhibition Exploring the Ancient Near East (National Museum of Finland, Helsinki, May-September 2022) combined conventional with digitalized materials to showcase aspects from the daily lives of those who lived in ancient times in the area. In addition, the exhibition aimed to highlight the fragility that resulted from unauthorized archaeological digs and illegal trade of the region’s heritage, along with the tragic marks of continuous ravaging wars. 

Cultural heritage, therefore, grows at the intersection of political, historical and socio-economic developments. Vice versa, socio-economic developments become visible, further analyzed and deeper understood through cultural heritage artefacts or other manifestations. Digital heritage, then, concerns both the ways of representation (I.e., through digital means) and the methods used for such representations. 

The National Museum, for example, includes the work of Hilma Granqvist, the Finnish anthropologist who studied the life of rural Muslim women in Palestine in the 1920s. Through photography, the dominant visual method of the time, Granqvist changed the ways Muslim women were represented in the western world. But, in the male-dominated scientific world, Granqvist’s was not an easy task. A clash between the woman-scholar’s perspective and the academic status quo was inevitable. As much as an ethnographer’s participant observation is a recognized research method currently, it was hardly taught, talked or part of official curricula less than a century ago.  

Granqvist, therefore, was not a forerunner in the growing interest in the anthropological study of the Islamic Middle East only. Importantly enough, her work contributed to a shift in the narrative of anthropological research by opening up spaces for the researched to articulate their own voices through the use of visual methods.  

In a similar way, nowadays, digital technologies allow for complex transformations and trajectories to emerge through combinations of written text, soundscapes and visual-scapes. The exhibition Narratives of the Palestinian Coast (Palestinian Museum, Birzeit University, 09.21-10.22), for example, aims to shed light on the history of the Palestinian coast. Toward this direction, the exhibits and artwork are presented with multiple sensorial, digitalized and audio-visual methods.  

The Dove (1993) is an example of artwork by artist Nasser Soumi*. As the description of the work informs, the artist was inspired by the story of a sailor who was exiled from Yaffa in 1948, becoming a refugee in Tyre, Lebanon.  

“The sailor believed he would return to his city and finally sailed back; but, when he arrived at the coast of Yaffa, the Occupation forces arrested him. The soldiers searched his boat, but they did not find anything, not even food provisions. When they asked him why he was in this place, he answered that he had been longing to see “the Dove”. This is what sailors from Yaffa used to call their city as it appeared to them from afar upon their return by sea. At first, the soldiers did not understand what he meant, first thinking that “The Dove” was a codeword. Once they realized that he had come to see his hometown, they imprisoned him inside the boat. The sailor remained feeling alienated after returning to Tyre and did not assimilate into this new society. Less than a year later, he died of grief at the separation.”  

To convey the story, quicklime, indigo, dried orange peel and seashells from the sea of Jaffa were used for the artwork.  

Such alternative artistic approaches shape new materialities and new imaginaries of the future by both innovating the making and visualizing of heritage. Concerning the Dove, the artwork opens up a window to a less familiar perspective on Palestinian modern history.  

Heureka, the National Museum of Finland and the Palestinian Museum are only some examples of how cultural heritage can lead to new imaginaries with the use of digital technologies. The technologies used in these examples vary from photography to contemporary audio-visual methods and serve wider educational purposes. In all cases, representations through digital means and audio-visual methods show the potential of technology to transform the way we relate with materiality and get a deep understanding of heritage and its relation to sustainable living and societies.  

*For details about the artwork and artists, check the links in the embedded Sway. The photos are from works exhibited at the Palestinian Museum at Birzeit in the West Bank.

Evidently, this approach to heritage through a multi-directional digital lens can lead to growth at multiple levels (e.g., educational, economic, socio-cultural), thus both justifying the metaphor of new Renaissance and claiming a position in modern curricula.

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