Learning to Let Go: Changing Patterns of Participation and Learning through the Digital Collections of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS)
For over 100 years RCAHMS has been charged with recording, interpreting and sharing information on the built heritage of Scotland. In recent years the institution has been involved in a number of online initiatives, both independently and in partnership with other organizations.
This paper reports on findings from doctoral research conducted between 2008 and 2012 at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Education, in partnership with RCAHMS, which investigated the institution’s approach to digital innovation and online practices. The paper also offers an institutional perspective on how the research has fed into RCAHMS’ digital strategy, and reports on recent online initiatives which embody the institution’s vision.
The collaborative research project involved an ethnographic study of RCAHMS and a virtual ethnography of its digital archive Canmore, re-launched in 2009 with enhanced user functionalities. These include the ability for the public to contribute original material in the form of images, data and comments; public engagement with the archive is further supported through a link with the photo-managing site Flickr, where user-contributed photographs are stored.
The paper examines different types of user contributions to Canmore in the first year since its launch, and reflects on participation patterns, which are also contrasted with experiences on The Commons on Flickr, another important example of collaboration between heritage institutions and the successful social media site. Different models of online engagement with cultural heritage content are then discussed involving, respectively, granting access to public collections on institutional websites versus allowing the release of material onto mature social media sites. Implications of the different approaches are examined in terms of institutional practice, users and content, in relation to RCAHMS and cultural heritage practice more widely.
From RCAHMS’ perspective, the paper reports on how participation in the research project offered the opportunity to focus attention on digital innovation at various levels within the institution, and how follow-up AHRC Beyond Text funding secured the scoping and implementation of further online developments consistent with RCAHMS’ new strategic vision.Two current projects in particular embody such vision: Scotland’s Places, in which RCAHMS is working with the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland to create an expanding online ‘Heritage Hub’; and the collaborative project Britain from Above, with English Heritage and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, in which social media will be demonstrated as being an integral part of future online strategies.
The paper concludes with a mention of Digital Futures of Cultural Heritage Education, a recent project funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, through which RCAHMS and the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums Scotland, set out to create a forum to share expertise, encourage collaboration and set a common research agenda for digital innovation in the Scottish cultural heritage sector.