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Europeana Deputy Director Harry Verwayen: in the digital age, heritage institutions have to offer services that the audience needs

29. June 2017 - 16:16
Harry Verwayen, Deputy Director of Europeana. Photo: Harry Verwayen
Harry Verwayen, Deputy Director of Europeana. Photo: Harry Verwayen

Harry Verwayen, Deputy Director of the European Heritage Network or Europeana, is one of the keynote speakers at the Estonian Presidency conference “Cultural Heritage 3.0: Audience and Access in the Digital Era“, which will be held on July 12-13 in Tartu. In an interview for the ministry’s information bulletin, he talks about the challenges that heritage institutions are faced with in the digital era, as well as the possible solutions.

What is open culture? What does it mean for you?

To me the concept of ‘Open ‘Culture’ stands for an open, transparent society where access to networks, knowledge and services is available for everyone. A ‘culture of openness’ therefore goes further than merely making digitized cultural objects available under an open license, although that is of course a crucial component. But being truly open means that you make your culture available in such a way that it maximizes the engagement of your audiences. This means that you first need to understand their needs and design your services accordingly. Pretty quickly other crucial components such as the technical formats (min 1200 pixel wide jpg or tiff?) and the delivery mechanisms (website or API?) will then come to the surface.

What can cultural institutions do better to engage the public, to be more open to their audience?

Cultural heritage institutions have most of the time centered their activities around collections, not people. This is perfectly normal for institutions who have as their primary mandate to preserve our heritage for future generations. But to maximize our impact in the digital age we need to understand the stakeholder’s needs in a much deeper way to deliver services that really matter to them. A good starting point in my opinion is to develop a solid impact framework for your organization, so that everyone gets a deep understanding of how the institution plays a role in the lives of specific stakeholder groups. This understanding will lead us to a different mindset on what needs to be done to stay relevant in this day and age. To give an example:  we have currently digitized over 300 mln objects in Europe but only a fraction of that (3%) can be used the context of the institutions websites. That means you can’t use it in social media, Wikipedia, education or apps. There is still a world to win out there. 

What are the innovative tools or services that Europeana offers?

Most people will know us from the Europeana Collections website, where we bring together over 50 million digitized objects from libraries, museums and archive across Europe, including Estonia of course. But that is only the most visible part. We feel it is our job to support cultural institutions to open up their collections. We develop interoperability standards like IIIF, which allows richer access to images, legal frameworks such as and recently where we invest in tools that allow institutions to assess their social impact.

How can local schools, teachers and students use Europeana for their activities?

Some teachers already go to and find material there that they can use in their classes. But we are very mindful that the curricula in Europe are wildly different, and that the content needs to be curated for educational use. That is why we partner with organisations like European Schoolnet, and communities of teachers such as eTwinning. We see a lot of potential in this area and will be investing heavily in making heritage available for teachers in the years to come .

What are the biggest current challenges in bringing the institutions and the users/audience together?

Demands of our audiences change fast while institutions tend to move  slowly. Our focus is on the long term future so we run like diesels. If we want to really engage audiences in what has been called the ‘age of experience’ we will need to become more agile, better able to adapt to the needs of our audiences. But the start is relatively simple. Make all your content available in formats that allow for practical use: decent quality sizes, clear (preferably open) right statements delivered through well thought through user interfaces.


What is Europeana?

Europeana is an initiative launched by the European Commission about a decade ago to promote European cultural heritage through a web-based platform that includes the digital heritage of libraries, archives and museums. Through Europeana, people have free access to more than 53 digitalised objects from the whole of Europe and beyond, since the objects are from the collections of nearly 3500 institutions and 40 countries. The objective of Europeana is to bring together the institutions that are guardians of Europe’s rich cultural heritage and the people who would like to experience that heritage; however, another objective is to facilitate and promote the use of digitalised cultural heritage and foster the creation of new content.


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