Cultural heritage is both everyday and political

What happens to our cultural heritage when it is digitalised? When versions of Viking-era jewelry circulate on Pinterest? When their colour, form and descriptions interact with the algorithms of the big platforms? Questions like these are the research focus of Bodil Axelsson, professor of cultural heritage.

“Cultural heritage engages lots of people; it’s part of our everyday lives, but also the political sphere. So it’s important to study it”, she explains.

On November 10 Bodil Axelsson is giving her inaugural lecture with the title "Museums and the cultural heritage of digitalisation".

What does your research focus on?

In recent years my research has concerned digitalisation at museums – a process that doesn’t only include digitalisation of collections and archives, but that also connects administration, collection management, research, education and how visitors are addressed.

My latest research project investigates what happens when digital versions of museum objects circulate on global platforms like Pinterest, YouTube and Google. How does curation – selection, contextualisation and presentation – change when our human meaning-creation interacts with algorithms’ automated selection, platform economy and global technical and material processes?

I also study the curation of digitalised Viking jewelry, contemporary interpretation contexts, digital museum objects’ forms, colours and descriptions, and machine learning algorithms that find patterns and connections in large data volumes.

What aspects of cultural heritage interest you, and what made you want to study cultural heritage?

It fascinates me how cultural heritage can take so many forms, and I like that such a theoretical curiosity is necessary, to create understanding for the processes of cultural heritage. The research field of critical cultural heritage studies is growing, and constantly adopting new forms, and this openness suits me. When the field emerged there was a lot of interest in how nations created history, traditions and rituals in order to form and legitimise national, cultural, social and political community. What remnants and narratives were activated for which groups and purposes? These were central questions. Now there’s more focus on global aspects and international conventions. Cultural heritage is studied in relation to solidarity and representation in heterogeneous and polarised societies – urban planning and local economic development, armed conflicts, post-colonialism and decolonisation, climate change and sustainability.

 

Research about how cultural heritage is created and preserved but also destroyed and forgotten is important because cultural heritage processes can lead to both cohesion and conflict.

 

What makes cultural heritage research so important?

Research about how cultural heritage is created and preserved but also destroyed and forgotten is important because cultural heritage processes can lead to both cohesion and conflict. The notion of heritage includes questions about what is left for posterity. Cultural heritage engages lots of people; it’s both everyday and political.

What would you like to focus more on in your research?

I want to continue doing research on digitalisation and museums. Perhaps I'll return to how museums collect material today. I’d like to study cultural heritage processes outside Sweden or in a comparative perspective. I also see a great need for reflection about how cultural heritage policy and research policy affect what is digitalised and how. In recent years I've struggled to understand how machine learning works in and is used for the circulation of digital images, so that could be another road to continue down.

About Bodil AxelssonShow/Hide content

Bodil Axelsson completed her doctorate at Linköping University in 2003. Her thesis concerned how the Alvastra Monastry Ruin acquired its value as a cultural heritage site over a long period of time, and how this value was communicated and challenged by way of annual theatre performances. Her subsequent research has focussed on how material remnants and narratives are selected, formed and changed in the operations and contexts in which they are positioned. She has studied the cultural heritage that is included in publicly funded conservation, as well as collective memory and use of history.

Read more about Bodil Axelsson and her research here.

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