Laura Gibson (KCL) - 2014-15 Students

New Narratives or Old Nightmares: Can digitisation really democratise South Africa’s museum collections?

Digitisation projects have the potential to make cultural heritage accessible to greater numbers of people. When audiences are permitted to interact with online collections and to contribute new information to them, there is a sense of wider public participation, or democratisation. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that access to the Internet is not equal, that inequality is fractured along old colonial lines and that participation often occurs at the surface level without disrupting undemocratic power structures persisting at the core of cultural heritage institutions.
While a Western interpretation of democratisation may rest on the assumption that knowledge should be available to all, some North American and Australian indigenous groups seek to limit access to certain forms of cultural knowledge and develop digitisation projects that enable this. Such multiple “digital ontologies” that better reflect communities’ ways of structuring knowledge as well as their interests and priorities may be more helpful in terms of truly democratising cultural heritage collections, but this notion has received scant attention in South Africa so far. This research will attempt to bridge this gap by delivering a model for developing digitisation projects sensitive to the fact that democratisation is neither politically nor culturally neutral.

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