Digital culture, monetisation and value

Originally posted December 2010

This post is a response to a lively thread on the Museums Computer Group e-list about the Cost of Sales, which was sparked by a Twitter chat about whether museums should fully assess the cost of running an image sales operation. When it transferred to an email discussion it became much more philosophical and political, especially after Nick Poole raised a challenge from an international financier about the lack of clear monetary value  in digitising cultural heritage. Now, my thoughts on the discussion may seem so philosophical and political that I’m not even posting it on the MCG list but on my blog.

I agree with Nick on the need to talk with financiers, to appreciate their perspective and learn from business. This may seem very unlike me, but I have partly been stirred to say this by his rousing keynote at the UK Museums and the Web conference last Friday. My take is that we need to proceed towards a more business-like mode in a way that is profoundly ethical and ecological, to the extent that we need to lead bankers and business to see value very differently, and that by doing so we can help change the world.

I’m not an economist or a business specialist, but an educationalist above all, so I maybe have no right to contribute to a debate about monetisation but I want to raise the issue of rapidly changing relevances and the importance of shifting our frames of reference. The key to advocating and generating value is establishing, and stretching, contextual relevance. I think digital culture & heritage people must shift from being technologists who are servicing the dominant modes of value, into leaders capable of transforming their organisations. As a sector we can then join the vanguard alongside the Commons and Social Enterprise movements, where technology enables an opening of access to  culture, for widespread change. (I say ‘vanguard’ but it’s worth remembering that the earliest dated printed book, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, was marked as for free universal distribution nearly 1200 years ago.)

The least significant aspect of our context is the economic crunch. You could even argue there isn’t a money problem, but that there’s just a money flow problem. There are great reserves of money, for example the top European companies are sitting on around 500 billion euros, not to mention the wealth of other internationals and the high net worth individuals. Public money isn’t flowing to UK culture so much now because the response to the deficit is ideological, and there is an entrenchment of values that favour financial growth for the sake of corporates over the wellbeing of the commons. This entrenchment is allowing a backlash of philistinism, allowing the multivalence of culture to be overlooked, only valued when it is a valuable commodity due to rarity or celebrity or market demand. The few public cultural organisations that have managed to work that system of commodity, brand or celebrity have been more successful at tapping those reserves. The Tate is one of those few, having just announced a £45 million revamp alongside their £215 million extension at Tate Modern. This magnetism is partly related to the oiling (in two senses) of the worldclass value of the British market for modern and contemporary art. None of this critique is meant criticise the Tate, especially as it plays a great role in education and in showcasing radical and participatory art such as Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds. (Incidentally, to monetise this artwork, have they considered selling 10 seeds for £1 after the show? I’d pay that, especially if some of the profits went to charity.)

So, if smaller organisations in the MLA & arts sectors want to tap that corporate source too, they may want to emulate the operations that attract money, by using digital media to build brand, a sense of glamour around a place, a sense of aura around the originators or cultural objects, and to present the artefacts themselves as totems of power. That approach can certainly make a great visitor experience, and can stimulate support and even learning. But it can also be very superficial. I want to propose that they should look elsewhere for their relevance.

I’m not just talking about looking beyond the financial value of culture to alternative ways of defining capital that are ‘softer’ and, well, indefinable. So many reports or pleas about the value of culture, though they may say much that is heartening and useful, are either circular (‘people want that soft indefinable something and they’ll pay for it, so, look it yields money) or self-defeating (‘you can’t tarnish the softer indefinable stuff with money, you just have to accept its otherness’). The problem is that our dualistic model holds hard economic value in opposition to soft cultural value (cultural = ethical, aesthetic and spiritual). If we synthesised the two, with money and culture not in opposition, we would see something I call ‘biosphere capital’. This is about resources for survival, and that is as hard-headed and sensible as you can be, harder in some ways than money, which is pretty abstract. It’s also about drawing on all the resources of the human spirit and memory to achieve it.

If the sector wants to embrace relevance, this is what matters: The scientific consensus that the planet is heading, at current trends, to a temperature increase which may not sustain mass human life before the end of this century. Also, wrapped up with the causes and effects of global warming are resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and chemical pollution. As these take effect, there will be a major increase in conflict (ranging from low level crime to the threat of nuclear war) unless we can counter dominant values that separate humans into civilisational clusters, to foster a spirit of collaboration and tolerance.

The time may come soon when we start to say that if cultural & heritage organisations aren’t pulling out all the stops to tackle this overarching ‘wicked problem’ then they don’t deserve public funding. Also, given that corporate wealth is really commonwealth (in private hands), we might argue that they don’t deserve corporate funding either.

So, what are all the stops you can pull out to make an almighty noise, and how (in the brackets) might you afford it?

You can work with financiers and corporations to change what business is, to change the way they work, to enable the success of a knowledge economy that does not harm the environment. (That’s why I think digital people in the cultural sector are important, because knowledge is the key, and also because knowledge & technology companies tend to be more keen to forge a sustainable future. Can you make a case for their investment? Can you innovate together?)

You can work with educationalists to help people be more creative, resilient, tolerant and better able to access knowledge to apply it to action.(The education business is set to grow massively in countries like India and China. Can you package and sell expertise and assets internationally?)

You can work with Governments and civil society organisations to promote cultural democracy and diplomacy. (If gentle respect for human craft and natural diversity becomes the norm, it can help counteract aggressive and destructive attitudes, and you can generate income by developing trade in craft, ideas and knowledge.)

You can work with scientists and academics, and wider communities of enquiry, to unlock the knowledge that is in archives, biodiversity banks, and in living cultures, and also to help protect and preserve that knowledge. (Can you work as partners with Knowledge Transfer teams in Universities to seek financial investment?)

You can work with contemporary creative and cultural practitioners to develop metaphorical and participatory outcomes that can accelerate public understanding and ethics. (In UK, if the MLA sector is drawn under the Arts Council, there will be more opportunities for arts & museum joint programmes.)

They can work with social and health services to ensure that cultural resources and spaces aid wellbeing. (NHS reforms mean a greater localisation of services, with needy individuals given personal budgets for their care.)

What has this got to do with the Cost of Sales debate? Maybe not a lot. Or maybe everything. It’s a plea not to think too small, not to regress to past practices of business in being more business-like. If being business-like is like being a farmer, it’s about making a shift from vast agri-business (monocrops, forced fertility, asking for public subsidy, ultimately unsustainable), to permaculture (where you mix and match, experiment, always have something to eat, and you swap seeds & glut with others). It’s a plea to think as broadly as possible in mapping all the assets that can generate value (not just your digitised collections, but ideas, venues, brand, supporters etc), and all the ways they can generate value (especially ecological value or Biosphere capital). It’s a plea to invest in digitising a collection not because it’s immediately clear how it will make money but because it’s immediately clear why that knowledge helps sustain life. It’s a plea to remember that knowledge only wants to be free.


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