Guest post: Cultural remix – Have context, provenance, and truth had their day?

In the last workshop of the day on ‘Business models, rights & ownership,’ I enjoyed a great winding and unresolved discussion with colleagues in the cultural heritage sector around these two questions:

  • Should we be concerned about how users rehash and remix content in ways that obscure the original content?
  • Does that only matter to curators?

We discussed the twinges of excitement and concern that come in equal measure when carefully crafted and nurtured content  is set free on the internet for all to enjoy, regretting that we’ll likely never know what wild life it all may eventually lead, the pathway back to its trusted home surely to be lost. We may not own these works, no, but they have been in our care, and as curators we’re devoted to knowing the complete story of these items, and ensuring they are looked after and valued accordingly. Out on their own though, stripped of this context and broken apart, who will know them like we do as their parts mix amongst the wild bits and bytes of cyberspace?

This matters to curators. It matters because we are keepers, custodians, and educators with a duty to build and maintain trust within communities, not simply the objects they create. That trust can quite easily be broken, even with the best of intentions. Remixing poses a unique challenge for institutions like the British Library, whose primary concern is in information preservation and dissemination.  Always lurking in our engagements is a latent concern about the spread of mis- or disinformation which might degrade the public’s trust in us.

Take for instance our rich collection of video recordings by ethnomusicologists Rolf Killius and Jean Jenkins capturing traditional music and dance from India. Available to all, one might easily imagine these remixed beautifully to contemporary sounds by an innovative video artist, and this could be a brilliant way to highlight this history and community. Or not. What if the re-use, though well intentioned, could be interpreted as political, provocative, or an embarrassment for the local community? Who is ultimately to account for taste and indeed appropriate re-use, when the collection is supposed to be owned by the people?  What if the unfortunate remix is mistakenly attributed to the British Library and what are the implications of this for future collecting from that community if, as caretakers, we have not protected the context of the recordings that they have gifted to us?

Yet, interpretation differs from one individual to the next, from one culture, one society to the next. We walk through a cloud of information every day and we remix that world around us in our brains minute by minute. We curators may present the stories of objects as we know them, carefully crafted in a trusted institutional setting whether online or onsite but how any one person will ultimately absorb, understand or relay that material is naturally out of our realm.

So we’re still left wondering, is preserving context really just a myth, and have the concepts of provenance and truth had its day?

Photo by Flickr user Anirudh Koul. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 licence.

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