The importance of data in the cultural sector

An interview with Saskia Scheltjens (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) - 02.12

Media & Culture Fast Forward has undergone several reboots these past months. But don’t worry: we’ll still be offering a packed programme filled with inspiration. This week we’re giving you a preview of the session on Dataism. Hostess Saskia Scheltjens, head of Research Services at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum explains in an interview by co-curator Debbie Esmans. 

We named our session on Culture Fast Forward “Dataism”. This is inspired by the need we feel for more attention to data in the cultural sector. Do you share this concern?

Saskia: Actually, I’m a librarian and in this profession people focus on knowledge and information. Ever since I became responsible for all collection information and data within the Rijksmuseum, I use the same slide when I have to introduce my department at conferences. It shows the Rijksmuseum and in big bold letters: Knowledge, Information, Data. Nowadays, people only focus on the latter. But by showing this slide, I explain they don’t cancel one another out. It’s a continuum. This goes for museums and heritage, but also culture and society in general. 

Just as you had to manage knowledge and information properly, this is now also the case with data. Data is also a human matter. Several philosophers are very jubilant about this transformation, but at the same time they are also fairly uncritical. In the Netherlands there are a few interesting female philosophers who do take a critical look at this evolution, such as Miriam Rasch and José van Dijck. You should never blindly believe one thing. This also applies to the blind belief in the power of data. You have to be aware of that continuum and realize that it is not as seamless as today’s information society would have us believe. Everything has to look smooth and slick, while people who work with data and information know that it actually isn’t. Data is human-made.

Once you do it, you discover that data can be digital gold. Or is that not so obvious for the cultural sector? What should you pay attention to?

Saskia: This datafication is also noticeable within the Rijksmuseum in everything from security to finance, collection management, marketing and restoration. We work intensively with data in every domain. In the past, this mainly revolved around the digitization of the collection, so that it could be shared as openly as possible. That is the whole story of Open Data that the Rijksmuseum started very early on. Nowadays, other data has also become valuable. For example, Google will be more interested in user statistics, than information about the collection.

The way in which large companies such as Google, as well as streaming services approach society at the moment, is so aggressive. You have to arm yourself against that. If you do not deal with it critically or transparently, then you’re just selling yourself away. In the long run, you will end up in too narrow a straitjacket. It is essential to make the importance of that transparency clear.

If the corona crisis has accelerated anything, it is the digital transformation. Many domains underwent this transformation, including the cultural sector. Temporary initiatives were set up there, but it did not really lead to a sustainable business model. As a cultural sector, should we think differently about the value of what we offer? For example, will there be a shift from data to a more service-related offering?

Saskia: The Rijksmuseum is a public institution. Our collection is 100% public property and that also applies to the digital version of it. Once we made that click, sometime around 2012, it was a small step towards opening up almost our entire collection. There is little internal discussion about this business model. You should not attempt to monetize that digitized collection. Rather focus on events and services related to this. In the case of the Rijksmuseum, our spectacular building is available almost 24/7 for events that tie in with the collections. The only question is how you translate that in an interesting way, so that you can also receive part of the financing.

Here in Flanders, I follow with great interest, for example, the attempt at a digital transformation of the Boekenbeurs. But this also plays a role in museums, theaters, … How do you translate that old reality into a digital version where you can give people a sense of added value. How do you make them want to pay for it too? In this respect, Flanders is not necessarily behind the Netherlands. This discussion is global. The fact is that you cannot just copy that physical reality one-on-one to the digital one. Nor is it a matter of digitizing everything. There is always friction in digital reality. Pretending there isn’t one is falsifying history. There is acceleration, but we will always be in a kind of hybrid reality in which a physical reality is more or less related to the digital.

What is the path we are going to plot? Are there elements in the digital transformation of which you think: that’s the way to go?

Saskia: At the moment there is a lot to be said about the added value that artificial intelligence can offer for culture. I find that very interesting. We attach great importance to the future of AI, but often forget the cultural bias that comes with it. I find the discussions about polyphony in culture essential. And a lack of polyphony is very interesting to map with AI. We can use that technique to analyze things we have done in the past. That way you get ownership of those processes. This is on the condition that the way in which we do this is transparent and is approached critically.

The ethical aspect of technology, for example also in terms of privacy, is indeed something that is still too often overlooked. Is exposing that lack of polyphony with AI a task for the cultural sector, according to you?

Saskia: Definitely yes. I notice a big difference between Flanders and the Netherlands. The whole discussion about neutrality is much more fierce in the Netherlands. Not so much because everything should be neutral, but because people here are convinced that the fundamental lack of neutrality must be recognized. It must be discussed. It must be insightful. You have to be aware of the balance of power. And culture plays a major role in this.

This discussion is also prevalent within the heritage sector. When it comes to decolonization of museums, my impression is that the discussion about this is flaring up in the Netherlands and that there is still a lot of room for development in Flanders. An interesting project is, for example, the mapping of colonial terminology to describe heritage. Is there no better description? Are there multiple perspectives? Is that polyphony clearly present? Many of the works in the Rijksmuseum date from the “Golden Age”, but does that name do justice to the perspective of everyone from that time? Recent sensitive matters concerning the colonization of Indonesia and Suriname are also currently under discussion. For example, in the Musea Bekennen Kleur initiative, in which I also participate on behalf of the Rijksmuseum. In Flanders this discussion is more difficult, because the cultural field is much more politically charged. But this is a necessary public discussion, in my opinion.

You work as a Belgian in a Dutch museum. Are there any other differences in the approach to data between the two countries?

Saskia: The sector in the Netherlands is bigger, richer and more professionalized. If you work in Belgium, you will know everyone in your field within two years. In the Netherlands, there’s more frequent collaboration with international partners, the research world and commercial partners as well. There is greater synergy there to do things. In Flanders, people are often more creative, although they are often too modest to enter into large collaborations. The Flemish make themselves smaller in advance, although that is not necessary. Yes, it is difficult. But that is the case everywhere. There should certainly be more ambition and pride in what is being achieved in Flanders.

I said it before: at Culture Fast Forward you’ll host a session entitled “Dataism”. The session starts with a short keynote by you, followed by a number of specific cases. Which case do you look forward to?

Saskia: The best thing about Media & Culture Fast Forward’s setup, is that it is broader than its own sector. Sometimes I find it interesting to look at what is happening in related sectors. Getting out of your comfort zone every now and then keeps you on your toes.

Not all cases have been confirmed yet, but for now I am already looking forward to Anna Ridler’s story. She is a London-based artist who started making neural networks herself. The idea that you can do that yourself, is almost surreal. All over the world, the same large networks are used, which explains this cultural bias. And that is precisely why Anna wanted to do things differently. You need artists for that: to color outside the lines.

For one work she spent more than two years taking pictures of tulips. In doing so, she has created enough data to make art. It is a creative criticism against the absolute belief that data can solve anything. When I saw her presentation in Tate at the beginning of this year, it was mind blowing to me. And then I think: people are wonderful. Reality pushes you into a small corner, but creative people keep discovering a new universe to explore.

And with that, it has almost become data optimism. Thank you, Saskia!

Interview by Debbie Esmans
Manager Policy & Strategy at meemoo