Rike Maier interviews Anna van den Broek from Europeana to learn about how digitalising Europe’s history secures access to the past for all.

photo ww1
Photo called “Postkarte Landsturm” on Europana; Licence: CC-BY-SA 3.0, One of the many postcards in the Europeana 1914-1918 project.

E&M: What is Europeana?

Anna van den Broek: It’s Europe’s culture connected up for you. We are Europe’s digital platform for cultural heritage: we provide an online platform where our visitors can enjoy, share, play with, and of course, re-use much of Europe’s cultural heritage from its many museums, archives galleries and libraries. It’s all easily and freely accessible. You can find more than 40 million items on the site. It’s really all about making Europe’s cultural heritage available for everyone in one place – and this is all thanks to the hard work of the 3000 cultural heritage organizations who have digitised their collections so far. So, whether you want to create a game using artworks from Europeana like The Milkmaid by Vermeer, or print the painting onto a calendar for your granny instead… so many things are possible.

E&M: What do you think, is there really such a thing as a common European heritage? Or isn’t it rather a conglomeration of national cultures?

Anna: Yeah, I do think there’s a shared heritage. One of our projects, Europeana 1914-1918 is really a great example of this. It’s a project about the First World War where we bring people together across borders, from different generations, and help them share their personal family stories of World War I. It really helps people to understand the past and to appreciate the cross-cultural differences as well as the things we have in common. I really think there’s a shared heritage as well as distinct national cultures, and I think those personal stories that connect people with their past and their shared European history bring that out well.

E&M: Do you help put together those kinds of projects?

Anna: Yes, I’m focused on content marketing. At Europeana we have many exhibitions. We usually start by collaborating with a partner or project partner. We collaborated on a virtual exhibition together with the Digital Public Library of America around migration called Leaving Europe: A New Life in America. We had a curator on both sides of the ocean, and together we created a unique exhibition highlighting European and American content. Our partners do the curation and use content that was made available via Europeana, sometimes from their own collection and sometimes from different collections, and put it together. We at Europeana create the final exhibition and of course share it with our audience. What I think is really great about these virtual exhibitions is that we can combine objects from different collections, for example a work from Russia and a work from Belgium that would never have been combined in an exhibition that physically took place somewhere.

Ellis Island circa 1901- on Europeana; work is in the public domain. Ellis Island in the port of NY, an inspection station for immigrants that had a kindergarten and a library.

E&M: Can you give an example of a recent online exhibition on Europeana?

Anna: One of our most recent online exhibition is a World War I exhibition that we did together with the Austrian National Library on the Google Cultural Institute platform, a platform we recently started using. We tell the stories around the war; it starts with the “To My Peoples” announcement and goes on from there. This was actually a “physical” exhibition from Austria and we took parts and snippets of it and put it online so everybody can enjoy it without necessarily having to go to Austria. It’s a lovely exhibition with drawings from children, but also pictures of soldiers in the trenches and very political documents. So our virtual exhibitions sometimes combine art from different places and sometimes take entire exhibitions from one museum online.

E&M: You mentioned the advantages of virtual exhibitions, like the possibility of bringing together pieces of art that otherwise never would be combined. Do you think Europeana or online exhibitions in general are the museums of the future?

Anna: Well, we do spend much of our lives in digital spaces nowadays. We store everything there, and we share our passions and information we care about. Therefore I think it’s important that museums, archives, galleries and libraries – really all of them – are in this space as well and show the great treasures they have in their collections and the resources they have. Also, I think that not everybody could visit a museum in Athens or Prague or just go to Paris for the weekend to visit the Louvre. So with museums online, everyone can have this access. Of course, on the other hand, nothing really beats the real deal. You can’t really replicate the physical experience of visiting a museum, but I do think virtual exhibitions can offer something extra, something important alongside the traditional museum visit. You can provide people with the opportunity to interact with culture in a different way.

neu rembrand
Self-portaits by Rembrandt; in the public domain. The many faces of Rembrandt. Put together by Anna on the Europeana blog.

E&M: One thing that comes to mind is that you can really easily copy the images you find online. So as a user, am I free to download and play with the photos I find on Europeana?

Anna: It’s important to us that people who discover content through Europeana know what they can do with it. So every work (digital books, images, audio files) you find through Europeana has a rights statement that describes how you can use it. Some are without restriction and have an open licence, like Vermeer’s Milkmaid I mentioned earlier, some works require permission from the rightsholder. Europeana doesn’t store the content itself, users are always redirected to the museums or other institutions that host the content.

E&M: There’s so much content on Europeana, it’s almost intimidating. For someone who’s never heard about Europeana, what’s a good way to approach it? Should I search for a specific exhibit or how do you use the platform?

Anna: Ha, that’s a tricky question! It’s really amazing how many items we have already collected over the past six years, more than 40 million. That’s precisely why we create the online exhibitions for example. But we also share lots of content on Facebook and Pinterest and create mini collections on our blog, like one from all the self-portraits of Rembrandt on Europeana. We also collaborate with Retronaut on creating mini collections, like the one about skiing behind a horse! Not so long ago, we did a survey to see what visitors would like to search for and what they’d like to have on Europeana.

Photo: In the public domain, Early haute couture in Paris

We found out that people are more interested in browsing through content on a given topic than searching for a specific item. So this year we’re launching the “channels” concept that will let you browse content on Europeana by theme. We’ll start with a channel dedicated to art and art history as well as one on music and everything around music and sounds.

E&M: While you are doing this work, did you ever discover a favourite piece of art or something that really inspired you?

Anna: Yeah! I find so many of them! Europeana is filled with little treasures and great works. I’m really a big fan of content that’s slightly different from the ordinary, slightly disruptive. So I was once searching content for a blogpost on fashion, when I stumbled upon a collection of early street-style photography. They were exactly like what you now see on many fashion blogs, but this was from the early 1900s during the horse races of Longchamps, Paris. It was during a time when women’s fashion was going through this big change, women had more freedom, no more corsets, haute-couture dresses came up and lots of oriental-style fashion was born. So the collection shows beautiful pictures of women, some of them even standing on chairs, in haute-couture or oriental dresses, watching the races.
There are lots of hidden things like that on Europeana, that I just love to find and share with everyone.

E&M: And what does Europe mean to you?

Anna: I will keep this short and sweet. Europe, for me, means unity. And not everyone may agree on this. But Europe really inspires me, to see how strongly we are connected although we are also diverse and different. I think that’s really the beauty of Europe.

E&M: Thanks for the interview, Anna.

The interview was conducted by E&M editor Rike Maier.

Cover photo: Ross Mayfield (Flickr); Licence: CC-BY-NC 2.0

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