Increasing appetite for creative digital technologies among young cultural heritage defenders
“The site is the story, not the technology. The technology is just the tool that we use to deliver the content and tell the story of our cultural heritage.”
Mike Gogan, Director of Virtual Experience UK
Following a call for expression of interest that received over 550 applications from the Arab Region, 50 finalists have been selected based on their expertise in cultural heritage protection and application of digital innovations to participate in a regional workshop held in Tunis, Tunisia, on 13-14 December 2018.
Culture is at the same time a material and immaterial wealth, a space for exchange and dialogue, a factor of peace, an engine of development and economic growth, and an essential component of identity. “In an increasingly interconnected world, with more diverse, multicultural and urbanized societies, it is through knowledge of each other's cultures and respect for diversity that we can build a common future. In the face of repeated attacks targeting the most precious and universal product of human genius - cultural heritage - there is now an urgent need for action”, stated Souria Saad-Zoy, Programme Specialist at UNESCO and manager of the NET-MED Youth Project, during the opening of the two-day workshop.
Art and new technologies can provide young people with new means to tell, interpret and influence the protection of cultural heritage artefacts among non-traditional audiences, thus complementing scientific and classic approaches. Indeed, the creative representation of cultural heritage allows for new cultural expressions and revamped social engagement. This approach can minor youth exclusion from the culture sector and increase opportunities for them to exercise power and agency, thus materializing youth potential and this is what NET-MED Youth is about.
The workshop took the form of a laboratory of ideas. Hatem Bejar, member of the Tunisian association “Edifices & Mémoires”, took the audience on a journey into the past: “rethink your own memories and imagine that all these memories, of each individual, together constitute what is called the collective memory. This is where it all started, and today, our digital citizen and scientific approach has led to the identification of 520 sites in Tunisia.” He was joined by his compatriot Hatem Drissi, who explained how “opening the doors of augmented reality could play a key role in valorizing cultural heritage”, notably through his Virtual Lab, that showed “an increase of 50% of the time spend in a museum in Tunisia, when art is mixed with new technologies”.
Ahlem Kebir, co-founder of the magazine Ineffable in Algeria, recalled the importance of making culture accessible to everyone. “We need to involve young people in the protection of their heritage by making them the first ambassadors of their own culture, they are the best placed to describe their heritage as they perceive it, and this is what culture is about”. This idea also set the bases for the creation of MentorNations, a youth-led NGO created in Tunisia and beyond by Melissa Sassi, who recalled during her speech that “according to the United Nations, 60% of the developing world lacks access, skills, and utilization of technology and 15% of women are less digitally connected compared to their male counterparts. Digital literacy is a human right and protecting culture today is essential for peace tomorrow”.
At the same time, renowned international experts also took the floor to insist on the challenges posed by new technologies, and the carefulness needed to use them when applied to heritage. According to Pr Eugene Ch’ng, any actor “making use of digital technologies for cultural heritage must be careful so as not to be overly focused on technology itself, lest the cultural heritage content that technology is meant to convey becomes secondary. Digital technology must support the research, conservation, and communication of cultural heritage, and reciprocally, heritage data used for developing better technologies for supporting heritage research should be encouraged”.
Articulating the real and the virtual, the workshop underlined the need to challenge traditional approaches to cultural heritage protection and promotion, opening new avenues for cultural heritage representation, interpretation and documentation through youth/user-friendly, pedagogical and creative technologies. It allowed participants to better understand the power of virtual reality, augmented reality, creative 3D simulations and scannings, QR codes, or gaming, when applied to cultural heritage.
Trained by Fabrizio Galeazzi, expert in new technologies with Virtual Experience and from the Universities of East Anglia and York, participants gained new skills in 3D visualization and modelling. “The workshop taught me new innovative techniques that I am looking forward to share with my colleagues. We used to take several pictures of the same building in order to reconstitute it digitally, and this time-consuming process only resulted in an average 2D reconstitution, where we now know how to use 3D softwares, that will totally increase the quality of our daily work in conservation and urban planning”, said Bayan El Faouri, young architect and activist from Jordan. Participants all agreed on the benefits of this training: saving a lot of time and efforts and offering more accurate results when it comes to reconstitution of heritage, thus improving its protection and preservation. Jihad Kmail, digital architect from Palestine, expressed that "the tools we have learned to use today will help us assess damage and injury, but also restore, repair, analyse and prevent them tomorrow”.
The event also offered young people the opportunity to network and share their ideas and experiences in engaging in cultural heritage safeguarding, a fundamental prerequisite of democracy, a pillar of freedom of expression, and an essential element for the wellbeing of societies. “I feel so lucky to have met some of my compatriots and activists from other countries who fight day and night to preserve our beloved heritage. I received another dose of motivation to do even more what I have already done for 6 years.” said Reda Kerbouche, young participant from Algeria.
As part of UNESCO’s and the EU’s commitment to engaging youth in safeguarding their cultural heritage and promoting inclusive cultural policies, NET-MED Youth has launched a series of initiatives enabling partner youth organizations to protect endangered cultural heritage in the Arab region, highlighting the themes of peace building, dialogue, and cohesion and leveraging cultural heritage as a resource for youth entrepreneurship and development.
UNESCO and the EU will ensure the follow-up of this meeting. In the days that follow, we will launch a call for projects to which all participant are invited to apply. Two grants will be awarded to two winning projects from the region, capitalizing on the skills, technologies and concepts that have been developed during this meeting. Stay tuned!
NET-MED Youth is the best example of a successful partnership between UNESCO and the European Union in the field of youth engagement. Since its launch, NET-MED Youth has strengthened the political, media and cultural influence of young people and facilitated their transition to the labour market. NET-MED Youth is seven (7) national youth think-tanks implemented, 4 000 people trained in networking and public policy review. It is more than twelve (12) studies on the needs, aspirations, and potential of young people. NET-MED Youth is also an improvement in the representation of young people in the media through attractive content that expresses their aspirations in a fair and equitable way.
Activities building skills among youth organizations and young journalists; to enhance youth representation in media and promote freedom of expression, media and information literacy and youth-generated media content.
Activities joining youth organizations, employment experts and different national stakeholders to engage in dialogue and work together on unemployment solutions and skills needs.
Activities empowering youth to participate in the communal and national development, revision and implementation of national youth strategies and public policies.