‘Ethics in Digital Heritage’ – a conference report from Dr Matsuba Ryoko

The Ethics in Digital Heritage conference took place on 11 January 2020, Science Building, University of East Anglia. Conference programme available here

Digital archiving, digital publication and digital communication are now established in a wide range of institutions and organisations. The conference ‘Ethics in Digital Heritage’ brought together leading scholars from archaeology, museum studies, law, big data analysis, social media studies, community engagement, disaster heritage management and heritage industries to consider the ethical issues raised in the digital management of heritage.

In this brief report I cannot cover all the issues raised at the conference. Instead I will concentrate on what I regard as the five key questions that arose from our discussions.

1. Ownership: We discussed the fluidity of the meaning of ‘privacy’, the meaning of ownership for minority groups and the relationship between authorship and anonymity when analysing big-data.
In the case of digital activities in museums, image rights to our cultural heritage need to be balanced through open or closed data source management and the provision of low- or high-quality images. As we heard at the conference, each museum follows different schemes and guidelines to deal with data management.

2. Media literacy: Many users are passive data consumers who do not themselves create data. In terms of using web content, it is important to think about how information on websites is likely to have been translated and interpreted. Neither of those are neutral activities. We discussed that this ‘blindness’ of internet users involves the choice of ignoring the unreliability of web content. We should be radical with our suggestions in relation to ethical issues. We also discussed the generational gap in understanding the web and in media literacy. Younger generations are more familiar with using the internet. They need to be made aware of good practice in the use of information gleaned from the internet. We also need to provide those of older generations who are not familiar with the internet with a solid grounding in media ethics and help them cultivate an understanding of media content.

3. Authenticity: The conference raised the issues of ‘authenticity’ of digital reproduction. In this case, authenticity relates to how effective digital reproduction is in indicating objects’ historical timeframes, their places of origin, and modes of production.
We need to think about the best ethical practice when producing digital reproductions. Especially, in the museum or heritage industry, this has to do with the creation and public display of replicas. How can we use them reasonably without damaging the cultural importance of the original, or people’s emotions toward their lost heritage, or an institution’s reputation and values?

4. Global ecosystem: New cutting-edge digital products are appearing in rapid succession. Where is all of our out-of-date equipment going? Waste is destroying the global ecosystem, by being sent to third world countries. This is a form of ‘digital colonialism’. Is ‘decomputerising’ the solution? The conference suggested the awareness of global issues has been led by the rapid turnover of technology in digital consumption. 

5. A template for ethical guidance: As we see, the ethics of digital heritage needs to encompass a wide range of values for tackling both local as well as global issues, and both the views of minority and mass audiences. Some of the papers proposed basic models for ethical codes, appropriate ways of living within global ecosystems, and guidance for people’s engagement with digital heritage.

The Sainsbury Institute for the study of Japanese and Cultures initiated ‘Digital Japan’ in May 2018. This conference was a timely response to the increasing importance of digital archiving, research practices, and exhibitions, and also a great opportunity for further developing connections with specialists in various research areas.

Dr Matsuba Ryoko
Senior Digital Humanities Officer