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The risks of knowing cultural heritage only virtually


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The Conversation

Julia Pavón Benito

Professor of Medieval History, University of Navarra, Spain

Paul Valery's "lost images" are now part of our daily lives. What the French philosopher warned in 1931, in his work The Conquest of Ubiquity, has become a reality in today's society: thousands of images and sources of information flow on network, apparently "lost", distributed and disseminated often automatically, without us stopping to think about them.

With the advent of the digital era and the new models of knowledge, management and knowledge dissemination of cultural heritage (the tangible and intangible bequest of peoples), our contact with this heritage has taken a Copernican turn. It is now possible to "access" at the click of a button the halls of the world's museums, dictionaries and documentary repositories, scientific collections and monuments.

The possibility of finding and reproducing images from our entire cultural heritage on the Internet has made it possible to revalue and preserve contributions from different civilizations. The democratization of access to culture has opened the windows to human achievements of any time and place. This can be seen in the data access and visits by Internet users to major museums, cultural centers and monuments since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which number in the millions.

But like all advances in this globalized world, the generation of the flow of cultural "metarealities" has the danger of generating disconnection and even short-circuit with the aesthetic instructions or sensitive proposals of objects, realities, traditions, customs, expressions or works of art. That is to say, the virtual flow is so great that the connection between images and the real and tangible objects and events they represent is lost.

Cultural consumerism
More or less, and according to the Italian professor Nuccio Ordine, we are in an era in which, detached from true knowledge and contemplation, there is the danger of falling into the cultural "dictatorship of profit". There is even the danger of drifting into an intense mass cultural-tourist consumption.

The discussion, therefore, is served. Especially if the fragmentation of knowledge continues to collide with the true perception and valorization of the cultural heritage. A fragmentation that is the result, among other things, of the increase in today's reproductive capacity thanks to the information revolution. Let us not forget that visualizing or accessing the bequest of our ancestors does not turn us into cultivated people, nor does it drive away ignorance. To access is not to understand, nor to learn.

If everything were to be reduced to viewing, without taking into account the intellectual and consequently sensitive quality of the observer, beauty and contemplation, knowledge and the aspiration to the true knowledge would be shipwrecked in a digital sea.

Mediating museums
Although André Malraux, in his essay The Imaginary Museum (1947), conceived as something transcendental the role of museums as mediators for the transmission of culture beyond their physical locations, the spaces to be filled between the "guardians" of erudition and the general public are still infinite. Let's not fool ourselves, curiosity or interest in the knowledge is not reduced to the consumption of technology, although it does not discard it either.

Aware that the digital is merely a means to try to give voice to cultural expressions of humanity, given the demand for access and consumption, everything could be reduced to delve into the question of communication. What is it that produces the rift between access to cultural heritage through a virtual experience and the real knowledge of this heritage?

Or rather, as Olimpia Niglio asked herself in this context: "Do we have the intellectual, cultural and emotional distance to avoid demonizing the digital and, at the same time, not being annihilated by it?

The answer to this question is frightening. Entering into dialogue and connecting with what cultural heritage is and means implies a profound self-reflection, at core topic staff and educational: we must ask ourselves about our own cognitive path, as opposed to mere reproductivity, in an era of mass Digital Communication .

In final, and simplifying, to embrace the instrumentalization of what the digital media offer us to access and initially know the cultural heritage could strangle the ways of its valorization.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.