By Ivo Oosterbeek

Working with communities in Portugal, Spain and France, the MEMEX project was launched in 2019 and aims to create a digital space for new forms of interaction between marginalized individuals and cultural heritage. The idealized mobile app will resort to geolocation and augmented reality capabilities combined with a collaborative storytelling methodology and audience development strategy, aimed at groups at risk of exclusion. We present a reflection on the structural and circumstantial challenges presented In this first half of the project’s life.

[Image: Credit@ MEMEX Project

The impacts of social mobile technologies have been a matter of public discussion in recent years. These issues have strongly put into focus questions surrounding civic rights (notably the right for privacy), mental health (specifically the stress and anxiety associated with technological habits) and social cohesion (with a growing polarization of opinions and development of ideological bubbles impermeable to heterodoxy). 

At the same time, cultural professionals are increasing their capacity to respond to the needs of new publics, adopting methodologies and strategies that legitimize their existence by enhancing their social utility. Among these, audience development encompasses a range of tools that builds on the needs of audiences and of cultural institutions, within various degrees of participation. 

The MEMEX project was launched in this landscape, it aims to address the ability to promote social inclusion through heritage, mediated by mobile technologies. The project was designed to develop a digital storytelling mobile app with geolocation and augmented reality capabilities, whose main content providers would be culturally marginalized individuals. The project is currently testing the storytelling methodology in three different social contexts: inhabitants of a priority neighbourhood in Parismigrant women in Barcelona; and Portuguese-speaking migrants in Lisbon.

The technological divide

Mobile technologies are ever more present in our daily lives, allowing us to stay connected with the world around us in new ways. They enable a greater reach for human connection, both between individuals, and between institutions and individuals. 

At the same time, they create their own set of difficulties. They have been found to have detrimental effects on mental health (increase in anxiety), acuity (loss in attention span), as well as on the fragmenting of social cohesion (promoting filter bubbles). They also create new and less visible forms of exclusion, given that participation in the digital sphere requires resources that are not equitably available. 

The MEMEX project has been conscious of these issues, addressing them through a permanent negotiation model of management, which includes: 

  • incorporating a mediation and co-creation storytelling framework that is being tested in the pilot projects in Barcelona, Lisbon and Paris. As the main goal of the project is to foster social inclusion, heritage mediation must aim at meaning-making rather than information delivery. The adopted methodology starts by leveraging personal experiences and connecting them with heritage, in a narrative process that is collaboratively enriched.
  • addressing issues of cultural participation and civil rights at all stages of the project, starting with a clear working definition of concepts such as Cultural Heritage and Audience Development, but also by critically thinking about the impacts of each heritage activity and technological development on the project’s participants. 
  • establishing independently verified ethical procedures that aim at supporting the rights and needs of the end beneficiaries of the project, marginalized individuals themselves. This is guaranteed by having local Ethics Committees for each of the project pilots checking and approving activity procedures before their deployment, and by having an external Ethics Advisor to verify that those procedures are complied with.

The cultural challenge

Social inclusion is a hot topic in the cultural sector, an indication that the problem persists after decades of cultural policies aimed at forming a free and conscious citizenry. While efforts in the public education sector have reached most citizens in many European countries, cultural participation remains a privilege of a small population segment.

Critical thinking has also been an issue in the minds of culture professionals for some time, partly because it is understood to be the main tool used to address the disinformation and lack of heterodoxy that characterize social interactions in the digital sphere. Cultural institutions and professionals have been taking up this challenge by adopting more interactive and participatory methodologies, enabling them to be more responsive to the needs of the public, while creating more meaningful and useful experiences.

The MEMEX pilots prompt participants to engage in cultural heritage from a critical, reflexive and creative way, through its symbolic appropriation, mostly by adopting:

  • an Audience Development approach, in which a convergence between the needs for cultural institutions meets the needs for individuals to participate in the collective elaboration of cultures. Activities that promote contact between participants and local heritage are fundamental to satisfy two essential requirements for the meaning-making process: objective knowledge of the heritage (given by experts and formal sources) and a subjective understanding of that heritage (retrieved from past experiences or prompted by mediation during the project’s activities). 
  • a digital storytelling framework, that can promote meaning-making based on heritage by resorting to a transversal competence that is integral to how humans communicate. As stories have been one of the most common forms to create and communicate meaning, participants are guided to organize their thoughts into short story formats using a streamlined version of digital storytelling.

Meeting the social fabric

Cultural participation does not exist in a vacuum; it usually starts in family contexts and the first institutions we meet (often educational in nature), in such a way that individuals do not become conscious of their citizenry before its development. 

In the context of the MEMEX project, cultural participation is addressed to adults, individuals whose socialization is no longer primarily (if at all) happening within a formal education setting. As such, the efforts to promote cultural participation must be understood within the scope of civic rights, and integrated within the framework of existing social inclusion processes. If culture is to be as much a right as financial, food or health security, then it needs to be developed and promoted through the same structures.  

For this reason, in each of its pilots, the project is working in tandem with local social sector organizations, entities to which social inclusion is a fundamental feature and, importantly, that are recognized as such by the communities they serve. Initiated  in late 2019, the MEMEX project recognized the unequal effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in diversified social strata. Particularly in the case of at-risk populations, these effects drastically decreased their responsiveness, as financial and health insecurity became constant shadows bearing over their day-to-day survival. 

The pandemic also affected their capacity to interact in the physical world. It imposed limitations on the ability of social sector organizations to reach out to their audiences, which in turn hindered their capacity to enlist participants in the project. This required a strategy of persistence, able to address the needs of the target populations and of the organizations that support them, weighting circumstantial risks with project requirements. 

Supporting cultural participation through technology

To address the convergence of these three dimensions navigated by the MEMEX project  (the technological, the cultural, the social), the application under development incorporates a range of functionalities aimed at responding to many of the previously presented challenges. We can focus on those addressing the issues of social fragmentation and alienation within two categories:

  • Designing for collaboration: while mobile applications are centred on individuals, the creation of a tool requiring some level of collaboration in a storytelling process enables the establishment of a participated meaning-making process, where meanings need to be negotiated between individuals to a certain degree, even if with less intensity than in an analogic process. Asynchronous collaboration also opens the possibility for new types of cross-cultural dialogues, enriching their symbolic expression even further.
  • Enriching the experience with real world interaction: using digital technologies to relate to physical heritage can be an alienating practice, but resorting to geolocation and augmented reality capabilities can help re-establish a connection between the digital content and the real world. The MEMEX application aims to use these technologies not only to enrich the content, but also to “ground” the experience of these stories, and link them to the concrete places they refer to. 

Adapting cultural dynamics to the needs of individuals and groups

In human-centred interactions,it is a common expectation that all exchanges must be adapted to fit individuals. This expectation does not exist only in cultural practices, as it can be easily found in education or health practices as well, but it is an almost central aspect of the cultural experience. 

What this means, in practice, is that a negotiation process exists not only in meaning-making but also in other aspects of the whole interaction. The degree of participatory practice will, of course, depend on a number of factors, not least the interest of participants and the capacity of culture professionals to accept the sharing of their power. 

In the MEMEX project we have so far come across two of the important lines that tend to blur in participatory processes, regarding the differential approaches to symbolic appropriation according to expertise level. While traditional meaning-making about heritage is a privilege of the specialized few (by virtue of age, by merit of scholarship, depending on the culture), the challenging of social hierarchies has been a staple of reflexive western democracies:

  • Knowledge authorship: the development of scientifically reviewed content should not impede the proliferation of creative and co-created content. The bulk of verified knowledge created by experts should instead be seen as a powerful resource to better understand the topics individuals explore. Objective approaches are fundamentally different from subjective approaches and should be recognized as such. Reflexive and critical thinking, not only about the contents consumed but also those produced, is instrumental to the preservation of citizens’ rights, as well as to the legitimation of experts.
  • Changing the world: new interpretations of heritage reshape our understanding of the Past, and with it, our imagination for the Future. As such, creating a space for reinterpreting heritage is a powerful tool to rethink new social transformations, but this critique should also be true to the transitional core of heritage – something that we inherit, and that in turn we promise to future generations. Interpreting heritage should be a constructive act, and heritage should be cared for by those who tell its stories.

The MEMEX project will keep working on these challenges, reaching out to new audiences and stakeholders for the next year and half. More information about the project here.

Biography

Ivo works at Mapa das Ideias, a cultural mediation company that also believes in the importance of staff bios. To ivo’s chagrin, in the company’s website, it states: Ivo [in uppercase!] has a Master Degree in Pre-Historic Archaeology and a degree in Graphic Arts. He is also trained in Cultural Tourism Events Management. Member of the Instituto Terra e Memória, the Quaternary and Prehistory Group of the Geosciences Center (uID73-FCT) and collaborator to the Mação museum. Is currently finishing a Master in Science Communication and works at Mapa das Ideias since 2014 as a consulting manager with Ilídio Louro.

MEMEX project twitter: @MemexProject Mapa das Ideias twitter: @Mapa_dasIdeias

Email: ivo.oosterbeek@mapadasideias.pt

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