Inés Matres (University of Helsinki)

Cultural Heritage Goes to School

Digital technologies have brought about a change in the relationship between cultural heritage institutions and their audiences (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, 4). Museums, libraries and archives have put high efforts and hopes on digitisation as the next best way for audiences, especially youth, to engage with the past. Digital practices, such as taking selfies and sharing memes show that the encounters with historical artefacts, once considered for reverence and observation, have turned more playful. However, little is known of other forms of engagement with the past that emerge in the digital age, especially when these can happen outside institutions. In my ongoing dissertation, I investigate such engagements and seek to define digital cultural heritage (DCH) as a medium to learn about the past and how memory-work works.

To build my theoretical stance, I rely upon media theory, particularly David Buckingham’s approach to popular media in education (Buckingham and Sefton-Green, 1994). My thesis is to suggest that if digitisation facilitates that cultural heritage goes to school, this could mean for school practices what the introduction of popular media had two decades ago. As Buckingham would formulate it, an opportunity to teach and learn not “with” but “about” media. His main contribution to what media education is today, was to acknowledge pupils’ own media practices, as a way to reflect upon media at large. The resonance between discussions today around digital media, and that of the 1990s about popular media (TV, comics…) in education, allows us to advance the question of how by means of digital engagement with historical artefacts, young people can reflect about the work memory institutions do and cultural heritage at large.

To illustrate this media theoretical approach to teaching and learning about the past in the digital age, I have so far conducted ethnographic fieldwork in schools. Between 2016 and 2019 I have visited three secondary schools, interviewed teachers and students (aged 14 to 18), and conducted participant observation in three classes where cultural heritage is handled (explicitly, using digitised historical collections and less so, making use of both digital and other resources in history class). Doing fieldwork, the short assignments in which students engage every day in class, soon caught my attention. Focusing on these short assignments (how they are designed, carried out and evaluated) I follow a line of research among media and ethnography scholars that focus on the situatedness and everyday embeddedness of digital artefacts emphasising its significance in terms of use, which not necessarily meets the purpose they were designed for (Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2012; Pink and Leder Mackley, 2013).

As a preliminary overview of what has been analysed so far [1], I here present three ideas that illustrate how digital cultural heritage is meaningful in terms of the learning communities that engage, or may engage, with it.

–        Familiarising the unfamiliar. Paul Levinson’s concept of remediation originally referred to the improvements each new media technology meant to existing media (1997). This is today understood as a more complex reformative relationship that acknowledges both positive and negative effects of each new media, and considers that reformation works both ways between old and new media (Bolter and Grusin, 1999). This concept allows to illustrate the instant familiarity that students felt with historical newspapers, more often considered for scholarly use. Students’ knowledge of print newspapers, search engines and news sites allowed them to instantly work with digitised historical newspapers, while generated expectations that where partly not fulfilled by historical materials that though imbued with digital appearance, often lack descriptive metadata or content tagging typical of digital-born content.

–        The digital/historical (mis)connection. Gaver’s concept of technological affordances (1991) serves to illustrate this point. Students using digitised historical collections or digital libraries, are facilitated and constrained certain activities. A few observations from the field allowed me to contrast common conceptions about young people: that they are drawn by visual content, are more interested in contemporary than historical phenomena, and use intuitive methods that often allow them to superficially skim collections. These attitudes were challenged by the affordances of digitised historical materials (accessible through textual query, unaware of their contemporary implications and built with less intuitive interfaces), however this was not perceived as constraint by students.

–        Grassroot curatorship. The curatorial process that museum professionals share in many aspects of their labour —identifying collections worth acquiring, sampling them for digitisation, or selecting objects for exhibitions — has commonalities with the process a student undergoes when using digital sources to explore and present historical periods. However, when students visit museums with the class, unveiling the curatorial process behind the exhibition is never the purpose of the guide. Hence, their curatorial process is intuitive and often guided by personal choice or digital habits acquired in class.

As way of conclusion, I would like to suggest that the formation of a DCH culture in education should not only rely on digitisation of collections and making them accessible, which undoubtedly facilitates this aspect of “learning with”. Also, making visible to younger audiences the work that memory institutions do, would facilitate the “learning about”.


[1] These ideas have been partly dealt with in depth in my first dissertation article: Matres, I. (2018). A long way? Introducing digitised historical newspapers in school, a case study from Finland. Seminar.Net, 14(1), 43–61. 


Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. A. (1999). Remediation: understanding new media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Buckingham, D., & Sefton-Green, J. (1994). Cultural Studies Goes to School: Reading and Teaching Popular Media. Taylor & Francis.

Cameron, F., & Kenderdine, S. (eds.) (2007). Theorizing digital cultural heritage: a critical discourse. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Gaver, W. W. (1991). Technology affordances. In: 91 Conference on Human Factors in Computing (New Orleans, USA: ACM Press), 79–84.

Levinson, P. (1997). The soft edge : a natural history and future of the information revolution. London: Routledge.

Lievrouw, L. A., & Livingstone, S. (2012). Handbook of New Media: Student Edition. London: SAGE Publications.

Pink, S., & Leder Mackley, K. (2013). Saturated and situated: expanding the meaning of media in the routines of everyday life. – Media, Culture & Society 35, 677–69.