It’s a tough call to make, really. On the one hand, we could look at it in the light that Melissa Terras shines for us – as an avenue for creativity, even if the avenue is rather full of potholes and road blocks. On the other hand, there’s the more serious pros and cons that Robert Leopold presents – an issue of exploiting parts of certain cultures when they should be kept secret, versus helping to share knowledge of those cultures with the public. No matter which way you slice it, digitizing aspects of culture is a pretty complicated pie to bake. It has benefits for some, consequences for others, and ultimately just leaves everyone rather frustrated.
For Terras, it seems that frustration comes from how inaccessible cultural works are on the Internet. Her blog post focuses on the “creative reuse of digitised cultural heritage content,” which is basically a fancy way of saying “using cultural artwork and turning it into something new.” Mostly, she rants about how difficult it is to find any cultural content to use in creative projects, no matter what the project might be. While there are some institutions that actually have online archives of artwork and whatnot, like The British Library, it’s still incredibly lacking in content. Terras pins a lot of the blame for this on “the shackles of copyright”, since most works are protected under copyright laws, and thus can’t be put online for public use unless they’re from before the 1920’s or so. And I have to agree with her on that one. Though copyright is obviously important, it’s incredibly difficult to do anything creative with cultural content when the only sources available are a century old, at least. Hence, we have constant battles with sites like Youtube that take down posts and videos with content still under copyright. Huge buzzkill to the artists of the online world.
Apart from the copyright obstacle, Terras also complains about cultural archives’ confusing interfaces, poor image quality, and lack of acknowledgement for how much effort goes into reusing cultural content. She uses examples like couch cushions and corsets that have old artwork on them, and all the resources and time an artist has to pour into those things in order to make them. Obviously those artists deserve some credit for their work, regardless of whether it was made using art that wasn’t originally theirs. Out of curiosity, I went on Etsy (an online store Terras mentioned and I’ve purchased from before) and perused a bit of the works on there. Below are some of the things I found.
Now, these were just a few things among thousands and thousands of works on Etsy, but they all exemplify the possibilities that can come from having access to cultural artwork and content online. And that’s the point that Terras tries to make. By being able to use cultural images, artists can reuse them and create something at once new and the same, giving new life to old works. And to be honest, I think that’s pretty incredible. Particularly when a work is already outside copyright laws, I think reusing these kinds of things should be encouraged. Let the artists flourish with these cultural mediums.
Of course, there is a downside to making cultural content readily available, as there is with everything. Robert Leopold’s article discusses a conflict that arose over the Smithsonian and the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) trying to add Cherokee manuscripts to their public archives, ones that detailed medicine man practices that were supposed to be kept a secret among Cherokee medicine men. A large portion of the Cherokee people involved in the conflict were against sharing these manuscripts, as it went against their traditions for other people to know these secrets, even among their own tribe. These “sacred formulas” weren’t meant to become cultural content for everyone to see, despite insistence by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian that they were an important part of history and should be available to read. Though some Cherokee people actually supported sharing the manuscripts, since it allowed their language to be studied and spread beyond the few groups that still understand it, most were adamantly against it. Archiving this kind of private cultural content has the potential to violate the same culture being promoted. Some things are meant to be kept within the walls of the culture itself, and not tossed around where anyone can see them.
That, I think, is reason enough to compromise when it comes to making cultural content accessible in a digital realm. With things like artwork, particularly done by artists long gone, sharing with other communities is pretty acceptable. Doing so would allow for new creations to be made, and for the artwork or other content to be appreciated in fresh ways. When it comes to more internalized aspects of cultures, however, like the Cherokee manuscripts, they should come with a word of caution. It may benefit some people to have that content available online, but it could also hurt the people and culture where the content originated from. And so, we seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to digitizing culture. There’s no fine line where benefits can be separated from consequences; they’re interspersed. Perhaps we’ll figure out what should and should not be shared with digitized culture someday, but for now, it’s still a bit of a head-scratcher.