“I discovered how my neighbourhood developed, from the Middle Ages when there was nothing, just land and rivers, and then how the village and the surrounding city grew; how vegetables and wheat were planted, a windmill was built, a flour business flourished and, little by little, houses appeared and it became what it is today. It was very interesting to see!”
Ghent resident Dirk Martens is describing the first video story he saw when he started working as a volunteer at the city’s high-tech travelling museum that came to his neighbourhood – and stayed for three eventful months.
“Outside, there was always something happening,” he says. “People enjoyed picnics and joined workshops making things like candles and perfume linked to the area’s industrial heritage. We also had a piano which locals – and some good artists – came to play.”
They could see things in a novel way
“It was a great idea because many people don’t like to go to the museum, so for them this is more open and in their own neighbourhood and they could see things in a novel way,” he adds.
A connected cultural ecosystem
This aspiration to make cultural heritage more accessible and engaging sits at the heart of the Collections of Ghent initiative, and its innovative mobile museum known as the CoGhent Box, which came about when ideas were being explored for a new wing at Design Museum Ghent.
“The museum was thinking about how not to make another ‘paywall space’ that restricts users access in some way and how we might use digitised heritage as a conversation starter in the new wing and even go beyond the museum and reach other communities,” explains Pieter-Jan Pauwels, Senior Digital Innovation Lead, District09, the city’s digital partner.
The museum was thinking about how not to make another 'paywall space' that restricts users access
The idea was that by sparking conversations with residents, the project would be able to gather and digitise their personal and neighbourhood stories and enrich the city’s existing cultural heritage.
For this interactive concept to work, it had to be easy for people to upload testimonies, photographs and artefacts that tell their story and enable others to find them.
To make the concept more impactful, Design Museum Ghent aimed to join forces with three other city museums and Ghent Archives – whose collections were managed on different systems.
Achieving its ambitions was clearly going to require a technological leap.
“Most cities in Europe are digitising their cultural collections, but often lack the tools to leverage this cultural data to engage their citizens,” explains the project’s co-creator Olivier Van D’huynslager, Head of Digital at Design Museum Ghent. “The data is stuck within institutional silos or used on digital platforms that don’t reach out to new audiences because they lack an open infrastructure.”
Data and crowd-sourcing stories
Pauwels and Van D’huynslager and their teams set to work to digitally break down the walls of all these institutions by establishing infrastructure based on open data principles and proposing a city-wide data management plan for digital cultural heritage.
“We used linked open data, which means that even if two museums describe a certain object by a certain creator in different ways in the metadata, the system will make all possible connections, allowing data to be searchable across all the museums,” explains Pauwels.
The end result was a European first – the creation of one platform enabling easy, remote access to a city’s entire cultural heritage collection.
We hope to increase tolerance for one another and enhance social cohesion
But the opening up of cultural data to a wider audience in this way was not the only end goal of the Collections of Ghent initiative, explains Van D’huynslager.
“By offering the tools to crowdsource citizen stories and citizen insight on our shared cultural heritage, and making use of linked data to foster cultural diversity and raise its visibility, we hope to increase tolerance for one another and enhance social cohesion.”
To explore the role and capacity of digital cultural heritage in tackling urban societal issues such as this, academic and research institutions joined the initiative as partners alongside the city, cultural institutions, local public authorities, NGOs and private companies.
Participation and broader perspectives
The Covid era saw the start of the digitisation work of the Collections of Ghent project, whose budget of €6 million came from the Flemish government and the European Regional Development Fund through the Urban Innovative Actions initiative.
Over time, it is hoped that the digital collection on the platform will grow to more than 100,000 objects, stories and documents.
The CoGhent Box was to play a big part in reaching this goal.
We focused on neighbourhoods where some residents have lived for 50 or 60 years and have lots of stories to tell and others are newcomers
Once lockdowns were lifted, this immersive mobile museum set off on its journey into three neighbourhoods, where it made the idea of digitising, sharing and contributing to cultural heritage come alive for local people.
“We focused on neighbourhoods where some residents have lived for 50 or 60 years and have lots of stories to tell and others are newcomers with different backgrounds who want to know their new neighbourhood and its history,” says Pauwels.
Run by community workers, museum employees and volunteers, together with policy and historical participation experts, the team worked intensively with local people to promote the arrival of the CoGhent Box, its opening party and all the reasons they might want to visit.
Inside the small pavilion itself the eye-catcher is the story wall, a row of screens that curves around the visitor where they can choose from four local stories and use luminous spheres on the floor to direct their story.
After watching stories about, for example, a local circus family or a soon-to-be-replaced swimming pool, visitors can browse the newly digitised heritage artefacts, photographs and documents on a bank of screens and learn how to contribute their own family stories back home.
Back outside, they can take part in an array of activities for all ages from machine embroidery to memory games and making fermented drinks, as well as enjoy a drink and snack from a colourful truck, traditional pancakes, a puppet show or a musical performance.
Getting residents actively involved with Collections of Ghent doesn’t stop at the CoGhent Box.
From postcards to deep fake fun
The team was keen to stimulate the creative reuse of its collection of data beyond the neighbourhood.
A hackathon challenging teams to develop prototypes of new products and services based on the collection’s assets attracted nearly 140 participants, mainly higher education students and some professional teams, and resulted in 28 novel solutions.
Top prize went to a project based on a recent aerial photograph of the city which, viewed in a large room, allows people to go back in time and follow the evolution of the city through stories and objects.
Collections of Ghent also launched a grant fund to stimulate reuse which attracted 13 projects. This provided interesting insights into how residents, companies and academia could use the digitised cultural heritage.
Among the grant-winning ideas were a deep fake engine that can transport people’s faces into original artworks and a table-based tangible interface that allows people to ‘feel’ the heritage artefacts using texture and sound.
Ghent residents have also experimented with the city’s heritage data for fun, entertainment and commerce.
Making GIFs has proved a very popular way of remixing its images, which have also been the stimulus for podcasts and plays. And 25 local merchants have come up with ideas to put heritage in their shop windows, with products such as postcards showing life in the city through the years.
By the end of its first year, Collections of Ghent had reached 2,500 local people through the CoGhent Box and increased the number of online heritage objects to 75,000. Its success in engaging neighbourhoods around cultural heritage has also led to the preparation of a cultural participation toolkit.
Formal evaluation of the initiative’s impact on social cohesion will be used to inform thinking about how the city can integrate its best practices into the wider cultural field and different policy areas.
In the meantime, plans are underway to integrate a re-scaled, re-imagined CoGhent Box into the new wing of Design Museum Ghent, which will serve as a cultural third space for continued collective knowledge creation and use.