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Is digitisation of archives opening up a can of worms?

Digitisation throws up ethical, legal and copyright complexities that institutions must think about

Many marginalised histories don’t find space in digital archives.
Many marginalised histories don’t find space in digital archives. (iStockphoto)

Recently, there has been much debate about the future of the National Archives under the Central Vista project. Will the contents be stored in a temporary space for safekeeping, or will some of the documents be transferred to an interim holding space for public access? Suggestions have been made to enable partial online digital access even as the archivists continue to digitise documents in order to preserve them for posterity. In recent years, cultural institutions across the country have hastened to jump on to the digitisation bandwagon—and the pandemic has only accelerated this need to combine tech and culture. Many heritage custodians see successful digitisation projects as a fantastic means to organise data, enable accessibility and also meaningfully build a repository that provides accountability and security.

Often, crores of public money are pumped into these endeavours. Take, for instance, the National Mission for Manuscripts’ project—the pilot was set up in 2006—to create a digital resource of manuscripts that span themes, aesthetics, scripts, illuminations and illustrations. However, the catalogues are mostly available in English and Hindi, thereby creating an accessibility barrier for people, even though the digitised folios were written in a variety of ancient languages. Some of the state archives have digitised thousands of portfolios, which are now sitting in hard drives, rendered inaccessible in the absence of meaningful interfaces.

So what purpose do these mammoth digitisation drives serve? These are questions we must seek answers to.

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In the cultural realm of the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums), digitisation takes a variety of forms. Broadly, it is the process of collating data as words, visuals and audio video material in digital formats. To give an example, the hundreds of artefacts in traditional museums will typically undergo a two-step digitisation process, with each object being photographed digitally in multiple ways and sometimes filmed. This is augmented with information corresponding to the object in predetermined metadata standards. Cumulatively, all this data is searchable, making it a powerful medium to access, inform and educate people about art. Many public organisations make these databases accessible for anyone to use. “Open Access” in the digital world, thus, means free access to both information and its unrestricted use for anyone anywhere.

While apparently an excellent endeavour, open access and its incumbent digitisation do lay bare peculiar dilemmas. Access to physical objects is one thing but digital information is seemingly borderless. Digitisation throws up ethical, legal and copyright complexities that all institutions must think about as they continue to fulfil their mandate. For example, indigenous communities sometimes have no say in how the digital material originating from their material culture is used.

Take, for example, the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron that describes in length the restitution of African cultural heritage. This was triggered by Marcon’s 2018 state visit to Africa, where an open statement hinted at a de-colonisation of French museums, which hold material from countries they had either colonised or conquered. As part of the restitution process, the report recommends complete digitisation of material that belongs to ethnic communities and making it available as part of an open access digital initiative. While this might seem like a good idea, the decision should perhaps come from the communities themselves since many artefacts might be sacred or sensitive. Difficult ethical and moral decisions continue to surface from a history of colonisation and conquest.

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We rarely look at the negative effects of over-digitisation but it is worth noting that digitisation comes with an element of control and thereby opens an ethical can of worms. For example, it is typically initiated by wealthy institutions, transposing their lens of beliefs on to digitised material that is presumably open access. Digitisation is also high-cost, and, typically, digitisation priorities are decided by funders and their interests or biases.

In India too, funding agencies and governments get to decide whose histories get excluded or included. So you will find many marginalised histories don’t find space in digital archives. Moreover, we have been documenting the same “white man’s history”, thereby reinforcing the colonial ideas that were in play 150 years ago. You have Dalit authors, curators and artists from minority communities shouting hoarse about their histories not finding a place in the digitisation processes.

Today, as we shift from physical objects to virtual collections, why can’t we expand the collection to include songs, oral histories and subaltern cultures, which often get left out in the physical space? I, for one, am trying to chronicle the oral history of Buddhism as practised today in Maharashtra. This is very different from the Buddhism that used to be practised centuries ago. It is a new vibrant form, with strong Ambedkarite roots. Why is there no interest in looking at religion and cultures as they are alive today? Where are the new digital archives as opposed to digital copies of analogue material? Do we need one more photo of the Mohenjodaro Dancing Girl, the Chola Natarajas or the Buddhist Stupa toranas? Maybe it’s time to expand the discourse.

Additionally, each time an artefact is digitised, we create a new asset—and it is worthwhile considering the copyright boundaries, or the lack therein, for this new entity. Copyright laws in all countries are territorial, so custodians must consider that when they digitise, these “digital” assets are imbued with the copyright and intellectual property rights applicable in the country of digitisation. Taking from the above example, then, while France might send back objects from the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, to Africa, the museum will still effectively hold on to the digital assets of these artefacts, as they were generated in that country. The museum, incidentally, has a significant number of artefacts looted from Africa, including some of the famous Benin bronzes taken from the royal palace there in 1897.

In India, digitisation initiatives mimic already awkward post-colonial legacies. The National Portal and Digital Repository for Museums of India maintained by the Union ministry of culture, is a centralised digital inventory of nearly a dozen prominent Indian museums that still boxes “object-types” into categories like manuscripts, ornaments, anthropology, tropes popularised by 19th century colonial ethnographers, historians and archaeologists. It is time that an independent, resurgent India reclaims its heritage in digitised spaces with representations based on ethnic communities, cultures and geographies.

Digital technology, while opening up incredible frontiers of sharing and collaborating, must therefore proceed with caution and care. A slow-digitisation option with moderated debates will benefit individuals, institutions and nations alike.

Above all, as with many other human endeavours, it might be best to proceed with balanced moral and ethical interests when digitising heritage, adopting an inclusive and participatory approach that at the very least attempts to protect and inform all stakeholders.

Deepthi Sasidharan is a museum heritage consultant and director, Eka Cultural Resources and Research.

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