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How heritage charities are embracing the digital era

It’s an exciting time for heritage and culture organisations, as funding and skills opportunities open up new pathways into digital transformation

Heritage organisations like museums, collections, historic sites and buildings, conservation charities and history societies across the country are taking part in the online launch of National Trust’s Heritage Open Days – England’s biggest free heritage festival that launched this Friday (September 13th) until the 22nd September.

Not only is the event a huge volunteer-led initiative involving some 40,000 volunteers across 5,000 events, it’s showcasing the power of social media and the web to celebrate our rich cultural heritage, architecture and history.

Under the hashtag #HODs, charities are showcasing thousands of free local events and experiences online, and people can search for what’s happening near them on the National Trust’s website.

The campaign includes an online photography competition and the National Trust is asking volunteers to share their stories from the last 25 years of Heritage Open Days, to be featured in an interactive online map.

Inititatives like #HODs have shown the enormous value that heritage organisations of all shapes and sizes can gain from embracing digital media, bringing history to life for modern day audiences and staying truly relevant.

From the use of 3D modelling of archaeological sites to large-scale digitisation projects for the long-term perservation of heritage collections, digital technology is opening up the past in new and unprecedented ways – but there is still enormous untapped potential.

In early 2018, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) published a report called Culture is Digital – a call to action to all parts of Britain’s cultural sector to seize upon the possibilities of digital, along with some key policy commitments.

Since then, the Government has built on its commitments with the launch of Arts Council England’s Digital Culture Network, bringing tech expertise and arts and culture organisations together to help boost their use of technology and skills through cross-sector workshops and training.

Also onboard are the National Lottery Heritage Fund, who have commited to investing £1m in digital skills. Alongside this, it’s working with Arts Council England to create and pilot a Digital Maturity Matrix tool, allowing heritage and culture organisations to benchmark their progress, identify improvements and make an evidence-based case for digital transformation.

Digital maturity is where digital activity is embedded across an organisation as part of the strategic vision and throughout every part of the business, from its creative output and audience outreach through to e-commerce.

The tool will be based on existing platforms such as the NCVO’s Digital Maturity Matrix, which helps charities of all kinds assess their capabilities across eight key areas.

There will also be a Digital Culture Code of Practice much like the one designed for the charity sector as a whole.

Against this background, it’s a truly exciting time to be a heritage organisation. Being better equipped with digital can help organisations better respond to changes, stay relevant and remain sustainable over the long term, and heritage organisations are no exception.

In fact, as Tom Webster-Deakin, Digital Marketing Consultant, National Trust recently explained at the inaugral HeritageDot conference, heritage organisations have an important role to play in engaging with communities on their own terms and in a reciprocal way, by embracing digital channels and looking at digital differently:

“Digital start-ups often exist in a culture of risk-taking. Most of them fail, but that’s the point. However, we can learn from the ones that survive. Mature start-ups can’t afford to risk it all any more, but they maintain cultures that allow them to evolve. We’ve adapted before and we can do it again.”

Visit @heritage_dot on Twitter for a wealth of examples and learnings from the conference.

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