Creating Complex Digital Narratives for Participatory Cultural Heritage

  1. 1. Nicole Basaraba

    No affiliation given

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Many academic projects have produced digitised archives that provide public access, but public engagement is difficult to sustain, and museums are integrating digital media into their visitor experiences to engage the public. As Schreibman (2017: 281) argues, public participation in cultural heritage can generate new ideas and could challenge the top-down division between the researchers and them. In a move towards convergence of academia and the public, this paper proposes a novel approach to producing interactive digital narratives (IDN) that combines expert-produced content and user-generated content (UGC) to create participatory cultural heritage narratives. Heritage is socially constructed and communicated; heritage meanings are not frozen in time, they are the result of constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions (Giaccardi, 2012: 2). Thus, it is important to allow heritage narratives to keep evolving as society changes which calls for public participation. Some contemporary constructions of heritage have been criticised as being overly selective, presenting glamourised, nostalgic presentations of the past and excluding many social groups within a multi-cultural society (Aitchison et al. 2000: 109). The democratisation of knowledge-building is growing because audiences are not passively consuming content produced by expert historians and digital media has allowed anyone – with the access and ability – to produce, record and display representations of the past (Cauvin & O’Neill, 2017: 5). The affordances of new media create a bridge for potential collaboration between experts and the public. Participatory heritage is a form of citizen scholarship, which could result in more engaged access to digitised cultural heritage content (Carletti, 2016). It is hypothesised that IDNs present an opportunity to increase the breadth of the social groups (e.g., visitors or tourists) interested in heritage, the types of histories (e.g., different social groups) shared in the digital space, and allow for evolving interpretations and continued public contributions to cultural heritage narratives.
Interactive digital narrative is a term used by scholars who work in the areas of intelligent narrative technologies, interactive drama, interactive storytelling, and narrative games (Monfort, 2015: x). It encompasses the many different formats of digital narratives, such as interactive fiction, transmedia storytelling, web documentaries and video games (Koenitz et al., 2013). If IDN is separated into its three components – namely interactivity, the digital medium, and narrative – each part has historically been researched in different disciplines. However, IDN is “a marriage of computation and narration” that brings together perspectives from computer science and the humanities (Koenitz, 2017a: 361). IDNs combine technical developments, advances in artistic expression, and the expansion of analytical perspectives (Koenitz, 2017a). IDNs can be created for different cultural heritage applications and audiences such as, museum experiences, location-based storytelling, or other heritage installations. Cultural heritage IDNs could help preserve local history, uncover lost cultural stories and customs, and allow cultural heritage tourists to explore their own and other cultures as facilitated by a narrative framework. Examining the potential of IDN formats for creating cultural heritage narratives involves many facets of complexity. Firstly, the concept of a participatory cultural heritage narrative is complex as it involves different interpretations, representations, perspectives (some of which may be controversial) and participants. Secondly, UGC is difficult to verify for authenticity and factuality, thus the extent to which it is incorporated into a non-fiction IDN is challenging. Thirdly, the different perspectives or levels of complexity on the subject matter can be designed into an IDN system, which are designed to tell complex stories (Koenitz, 2017b). More specifically, creating a cultural-heritage IDN involves considering: how the non-linear digital narrative should be structured, the type and method of delivery of multimodal content (e.g., text, image, video, etc.), and how content from different corpora – such as that produced by galleries, libraries, archives, museums (GLAM) and governments, creative-industries, and UGC – can/should be incorporated into a new complex narrative to achieve a participatory cultural heritage while maintaining narrative control.
This conference paper will discuss these complexities in the context of how cultural analytics (Manovich, 2007) can be used to create remixed IDNs. A beta IDN system will be built as a “reverse-engineered” or remixed, web-based transmedia narrative drawing upon data acquired through cultural analytics of numerous sources of cultural heritage content. The results of user testing will inform whether the convergence of a top-down and bottom-up approach is feasible to produce a participatory narrative and inform whether IDNs may be sustainable forms for the future of cultural heritage storytelling.


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