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  • Skulls, skin and names: The ethics of managing heritage collections data online

    Rebecca Kahn, Rainer Simon

    Chapter from the book: Palladino C. & Bodard G. 2023. Can’t Touch This: Digital Approaches to Materiality in Cultural Heritage.

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    The care, preservation and display of sensitive cultural heritage materials in museum collections is a well-studied and highly regulated aspect of museum practice. Institutional, national and international guidelines exist to help museums treat these objects with discretion, sensitivity and respect, and ongoing discussions around decolonisation have resulted in growing numbers of these objects being repatriated to the communities from which they originated. However, although there is emerging practice at institutional, local and national levels no such broadly accepted guidelines exist for managing the digital surrogates of these objects which reside in databases around the world. This chapter explores the complexity of managing sensitive data in large repositories, and highlights the need for guidance specifically tailored to the emerging digital spaces.

    Through a qualitative analysis of open museum data harvested from the European heritage portal Europeana, we show that the proportion of this type of material is small. It could be argued that this makes managing such data even more difficult: what degrees of openness are appropriate? What are the implications for managing a relatively small number of sensitive objects in massive collections retrospectively, once they have been released openly online?

    It is important to highlight that this paper is not intended as a critique of Europeana itself. The questions we are asking apply across repositories and portals of museums and other heritage data. Indeed, Europeana provides us with an ideal opportunity to think critically about ethical, legal, and policy issues associated with managing large-scale heritage collections online under increasingly ubiquitous regimes of openness in a way that few other projects do.

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    How to cite this chapter
    Kahn R. & Simon R. 2023. Skulls, skin and names: The ethics of managing heritage collections data online. In: Palladino C. & Bodard G (eds.), Can’t Touch This. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bcv.k

    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Additional Information

    Published on Dec. 18, 2023


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