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DigiCULT
V
irtual communities can fulfil the cultural
needs of people to enrich or rediscover
their ancestry by creating a social digital
space for people sharing a common memory.
Whether it be of genealogical origin, common place
of origin or other common ground, `such virtual
communities could play a role in safeguarding the
intangible or living cultural heritage', stresses Isabelle
Vinson, editor-in-chief of Museum International,
published by UNESCO.
`People's needs are at the centre of virtual
communities', states Vinson, `whether these needs
are professional, economic or cultural.With respect
to the latter one can assume that due to globalisation
more and more people want to get back to their
roots.That could be their country of origin or the
traditions of the group they feel they belong to. Do
not forget that migration is a major phenomenon in
our world of today. But even people who live in the
same area where their parents and grandparents have
lived revert to old customs and traditions to make
them feel they belong somewhere.'
`Virtual communities are a means to overcome
geographical and cultural barriers. In a sense they are
a way to reconstruct something that has collapsed in
the modern world. It is a bit awkward that you need
sophisticated technology to re-create these forlorn
entities.You use modern technology to compensate
for the changes that are brought about by, at least in
part, post modernity. But it seems to work. Actually
people do not have to come together in real life to
make a virtual community work.'
Based on the cultural needs of people to coalesce,
virtual communities can play an important role in
safeguarding intangible cultural heritage. UNESCO
defines this type of heritage as the practices, repre-
sentations and expressions, as well as the associated
knowledge and the necessary skills of communities,
groups and individuals. It manifests itself in narratives,
performing arts, traditional craftsmanship and know-
ledge.Vinson: `For virtual communities to play a part
in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, a more
universal role is needed. At the moment less than 10
per cent of the world's population has access to the
Internet.'The `digital divide', the subject of
UNESCO world summits in Geneva (2003) and
Tunis (2005), continues to inhibit this.Vinson:
`The digital divide is not just a matter of opening
up Internet cafés in developing countries and giving
people access to the Internet.The barriers are not
only a lack of infrastructure and money, but there are
also cultural barriers. Literacy in certain languages, for
instance. Or familiarity with certain concepts. Or the
fact that in some cultures women do not have access
to education or information.To create a culturally
sophisticated virtual community, a lot of conditions
have to be met. On the other hand, the Internet
provides a much cheaper way of communicating
with the rest of the world. So it is definitely worth-
while to address these questions and make the digital
world accessible.'
The question is whether better access to the
Internet and virtual communities does not lead to
a decrease of cultural diversity and the gradual
decline of the intangible cultural heritage.Vinson
does not think so; in her view the virtual commu-
nity is a pre-eminent place to stimulate and cherish
traditional narratives, arts and traditions. `It already
happens', she enthusiastically points out, `several
institutions get involved in virtual communities and
use them to collect narratives and indigenous know-
ledge and customs.' However, she cautions that future
developments are hard to predict, because we live in
a time of cultural transition. `That gives us the
opportunity to explore and compare old and new
ways of communication. Unlike science, for instance,
the cultural heritage sector is not forced to use ICT.
You can still make an exhibition without using the
Internet. So the cultural sector and cultural insti-
tutions in particular are in a very good position
today to test the cultural implications of virtual
communities and other effects of the use of ICT
on cultural diversity.'
Museum International
http://portal.unesco.org/culture/
A R
ENAISSANCE IN
C
ULTURAL
D
IVERSITY
: A
UNESCO V
ISION FOR
V
IRTUAL
C
OMMUNITIES
A
N
I
NTERVIEW WITH
I
SABELLE
V
INSON
By Joost van Kasteren
Digicult_THI5_JS_090104 09.01.2004 14:33 Uhr Seite 24