The last two decades have witnessed a flourishing of digital content across the heritage and academic sectors. Whether through the creation of digital discovery tools, mass digitisation and online delivery of content, or the creation of new virtual user interfaces; digital technology has come to complement traditional analogue formats to create an altogether richer user experience. The creation, delivery and curation of digital content provides great opportunities for audiences more actively to engage in, and enrich, both collections and the research based on them.
In doing so, our audiences have gone from being consumers of heritage content to active creators and curators, helping us to contextualise and interpret our rich and diverse collections. Crowd-sourced content has revealed the many hidden secrets behind heritage collections, giving them greater contemporary relevance and adding an increased complexity and diversity to established narratives. Digital platforms have democratised the experience and interpretation of heritage collections, not replacing the richness and importance of a physical encounter, but complementing these and widening their appeal. Finally, galleries and search rooms have been pebble-dashed with touch screens, hashtags, and barcodes. Our visitors are now as likely to leave with a mobile-phone app as they are with an exhibition poster. In doing so, the development of digital technologies have presented new opportunities for collaboration not only between our institutions, academics and sectors, but also new ways of collaborating with our users, whatever their purposes.
Digital platforms have provided many new and exciting opportunities, yet they have also presented new challenges for heritage and academic organisations. In what ways can we ensure that digital engagement is truly ‘engaging’? What is the relationship between online ‘hits’ and actual footfall? How can we better capture the meaningful ‘impact’ of engagement via digital means? And during a time of austerity, how can all sectors make the case for innovative digital engagement, not as an indulgent luxury, but as a necessity to preserve the broader relevance and wider-recognition of collections? This conference aims to explore the possibilities and also the pitfalls of digital engagement.