Master Thesis: Building new perspectives on heritage by translating the digital to physical

For my Master Thesis I worked as an intern at the Making Culture Lab at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. As I turned a virtual exhibition into physical elements it brought up questions on the current discourse on heritage and digital heritage. The polarisation of the digital and the physical world support the perspective that objects are valued above all other heritage experience. From the perspective of my assignment this would create a situation where the original digital experience would be less valuable than the material/physical experience.

LauraJane Smith provided a theory that could match my situation better. She distanced herself from the thought that heritage is a thing, and defines heritage as an experience.

It is value and meaning that is the real subject of heritage preservation and management processes, and as such all heritage is intangible

(Smith, 2006, p.56)

This theory suggests that there is a more equal relation between states of physical or digital, as these states are no longer decisive to the value of heritage experiences. This would suggest that value and meaning of heritage could transcend materiality. This hypothesis could be further explored through the execution of my internship assignment so : a successful (fulfilling the criteria of an heritage experience) and effective (it has become material/tangible) translation from digital to physical would prove that value and meaning of heritage could transcend materiality.

 The research allowed me to answer the research question:

How can the process of translating a virtual exhibition to physical elements provide evidence for the theory of LauraJane Smith; that heritage is an experience?

Materiality helps to make meaning as was brought forward by many other authors (Dudley, 2010). This case however proves that materiality can be changed to generate the same meaning. Focussing the definition of heritage purely on materials and objects is thus not the only way to preserve and secure meaning. This realisation makes meaning more central in the definition of heritage and it makes an experience transcend the value of objects. This new position of heritage experiences makes heritage intangible in nature and thus provides proof for the theory of LauraJane Smith.

This research conclusion is limited to the situation of this case. The translation was possible for the Sq’éwlets heritage but this isn’t enough to make it valid for all heritage. This research and this conclusion are an encouragement to look for more proof.

Looking beyond the research question, my thesis asked how the polarisation between physical and digital could be reduced through this project and through the theory of Smith. This research shows that physical and digital both carry meaning. Even more so it shows how the experience of heritage can be supported by a combination of physical and digital elements. This may be due to the social acceptance of digital interactions or to the improved mediation technology. Further research will be necessary to define this.

Do you want to know more about the first nation community; the Sq’éwlets ?

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