Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse

Fletcher Cole (University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia)

The Electronic Library

ISSN: 0264-0473

Article publication date: 6 June 2008




Cole, F. (2008), "Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse", The Electronic Library, Vol. 26 No. 3, pp. 425-426.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The intention of this compendium of 22 essays by an internationally wide range of authors is to “critically analyze and theorize on themes of museums and heritage in relation to ‘digital culture’ “(p. 1). The editors aimed to be “concerned not simply with the implementation of digital technologies themselves” (p. 1), and to move away from a discourse which up to this point has been simply “descriptive and introspective, focusing on projects and their technical considerations”(p. 3). Rather, the focus was to be on “the relationships created within cultural complexes such as the philosophical, historical, social, artistic, biological, geographic, and the linguistic” (p. 1). However, the “purely theoretical” was to be avoided also, seeking some combination of “theory and praxis”.

After an introduction by the editors the chapters are grouped into three parts.

In Part I (“Replicants/object morphologies”) consisting of 6 chapters, the idea of the museum (and art museum) object is explored, especially as it relates to digital, photographic and multimedia representation, in geographically local (e.g. in the museum building) and inter‐networked modes.

Part II (“Knowledge systems and management” – eight chapters) looks at the museum, and the perceived challenges to established ideas of authority, audience and intellectual control, presented by the advent of digital and networked multimedia.

Part III (eight chapters) is more technological specific, in that it discusses virtual systems in relation to cultural heritage. The presentation of place, space and the tangible, and together as an ecology, is discussed, each in an individual essay. Reports on particular projects using location‐aware devices, hyper‐documents and a visualization application in archaeology, conclude the book. There is a short five page index.

The collection generally follows UNESCO's all‐encompassing definition of “digital heritage” as “resources of information and creative expression … produced, accessed and maintained in digital form”; therefore many of the ideas and discussions will resonate with anyone involved in the area, irrespective of their institutional affiliations.

However, in the main we are left to draw our own conclusions about what is meant by the “critical discourse” promised in the title. Much of the theoretical discussion is highly eclectic, in the style of cultural studies and art criticism theory, but is tantalizing in the numerous presumptions needing extensive critical re‐examination. The opposition between historical/material cultural object and digital/virtual replicant is a recurrent topic, and while some good points begin to be developed, no one essay goes sufficiently deep in its deconstruction. Some of the long‐standing debates in related fields, such as the social studies of technology (Suchman, Haraway), would provide a useful resource from which to extend the discussion.

The collection is unlikely to provide sufficient systematic guidance and stimulus to be used as a text at post‐graduate level, although it will provide many starting points for discussion among advanced students. It would therefore be better to describe the collection as preliminary, as reflective rather than critical, and to see its value as a handy record of many of the topics currently up for debate in this area.

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