Investing in the past, for our future

Fiona Hyslop speaking at XpoNorth, the creative industries conference supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Picture Paul Campbell.

From World Heritage Sites to ancient monuments, listed buildings to historic battlefields, cultural traditions to our myths, stories and legends, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland has a wealth of riches in history, heritage and archaeology.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the Scottish Government’s development agency for the region, recognises the importance history and heritage plays in the economic and cultural development of the Highlands and Islands. The themed year provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness and promote the region’s unique cultural treasures. In addition HIE has established a new scheme to support social enterprises operating in the cultural heritage sector by providing financial support to introduce digital innovation.

HIE views 2017 as an opportunity to stimulate awareness and uptake of these new technologies as a means of sparking interest and interaction with culture and heritage in innovative ways. The new Digital Adoption Investment Scheme will provide the financial resource required to implement emerging digital technologies that engage audiences with cultural heritage collections and sites. This will allow operators to improve the visitor experience, and create opportunities to enhance commercial growth.

Douglas Cowan, Director of Strengthening Communities at HIE, said: “Cutting edge technology such as virtual and augmented reality is increasingly being applied in new and innovative ways by cultural heritage organisations, particularly to enhance the visitor experience and broaden opportunities for remote participation. These new digital platforms for exhibiting heritage collections is are leading to the development of new business models and ways of working across the heritage sector.”

A number of digital projects are currently being considered through the scheme. These mainly relate to heritage organisations developing new digital technologies in the areas of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) to exhibit their collections and sites and to increase visitor footfall. Some of these projects are identifying further opportunities to involve local communities in developing the creative content for these digital platforms.

Other projects relating to digitalisation of heritage archives and creation of digital libraries to make them more accessible and provide new research services are also being considered. Popular Sutherland social enterprise Timespan is a good example of a company already using VR to exhibit its heritage.

“Future proofing the past is a very important issue,” said Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs. “how we ensure we have sustainability in our museums and heritage organisations, but also embrace the opportunities that some of the technologies offer us. Thinking about new ways our exhibitions can perhaps reach not just existing audiences but new audiences as well. Creativity and innovation are clearly part of that.”

Hyslop was speaking at a panel session at XpoNorth, the annual creative industries  conference established and supported by HIE and held in Inverness in June. Her comment led a debate about the authenticity of digital forms of art, and physical and cultural heritage. The panel was asked about the authenticity of digital recreations. Rupert Harris, founder of AVM, a production company that brings together art, entertainment and technology, spoke about its creation of ‘Ai Weiwei 360’, an online version of the Chinese artist’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

“He created these art works and he wanted us to create a digital experience around those things,” said Harris. It consisted of navigable 360º imagery, video and audio channels, helping people to discover the meaning, context and technical detail of Ai Weiwei’s work and was the first exhibition to be captured in photorealistic stereoscopic 3D.

“What he didn’t want is for us to recreate his art works. Putting something together that is as close to the physical theme as possible, while at the same time doing what digital does best is a challenge.”

Asked by Hyslop whether digital companies could have a role in the curation of art and heritage, Harris agreed. In the case of the Ai Weiwei exhibition, he had taken a decision to highlight a work online, an installation consisting of 90 tonnes of steel reinforcing rods straightened by hand after being recovered from buildings that collapsed in an earthquake. “If you can use something as a reference point to begin a conversation online, then I think that is a great way of doing it,” he said.

Stuart Jeffrey, Research Fellow in International Heritage Visualisation at the Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualisation, said there were other important considerations in the validity of the digital form. For example the intent of the creators, the intended audience and whether they feel that it is for them, and the network of relations involved in the production process. “That’s why I’m so interested in communities and community groups,” he said.

“If, for example, a monument has existed in a community for thousands of years and, for conservation reasons it’s being removed, their reaction to having a replica given to them is probably not going to be positive. But if that digital replica is created by themselves, with experts, then there that is a mechanism that can help us break down barriers to how this kind of thing is received by audiences.”

Jeffery also urged people to think beyond the technology: “I think we are all very excited when we see new opportunities provided by technologies like VR, AR and 360° photography, but [we should be] moving away from thinking about these technical modes of dissemination. It’s about the personal experience rather than simply the sophistication of the mode of delivery.”

To find out more about HIE’s support for the themed year, visit