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Digitally deprived communities are a key audience for museums to reach

People listen to audio guides on Edinburgh’s Carlton Hill

If you’ve been one of the multitudes of holidaymakers heading to the UK countryside this summer, you might have been faced with slow internet connections or absent mobile signal.

And while this may be a bonus to your break, the difficulties of poor internet for the local community can be a real challenge.

COVID-19 led to unprecedented digital development which enhanced online engagement at a tremendously difficult time.

Museums may have previously offered free Wi-Fi and face-to-face guidance, adding to the resources available to the local community but with audiences accessing online projects from home, many have been limited in their engagement by a lack of skills, technology, or infrastructure.

And, while the digitisation of museums has led to extraordinarily creative, exciting and bold projects, how accessible were they? Did they extend audiences, and did they leave anyone behind?

Digital deprivation

As The Good Things Foundation report found, while 27.6million people in the UK are highly digitally engaged, nine million people in the UK can’t use the internet without help, and seven million people don’t have internet access at home.

The University of Cambridge’s Centre for Housing and Planning’s four-year study published recently stated that while it is a well-known fact that many elderly people are not online, its research highlighted that digital exclusion is not just a generational issue.

“Digital exclusion is another facet of the deep inequalities which run through the social fabric of the UK and is more widespread than many people are aware of,” it said.

According to the Office for National Statistics the main factors that influence the digital divide in the UK include age, region, socioeconomic status and whether a person has a disability.”

So why do these factors have such an impact?

Age UK believes that lower income, older age, living alone, mobility challenges and problems with memory or ability to concentrate are the most likely explanations of digital deprivation influenced by age.

In comparison, regional deprivation may be impacted by infrastructure. In areas with strong internet infrastructure, digital projects can be fabulously ambitious. But in those areas with limited coverage, it’s necessary to be more economical.

In response to this, the government is taking action to improve this situation and has pledged £22m to the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme for rural areas, which subsidises the cost of improving infrastructure to hard-to-reach areas.

In a statement it said: “This new frontier in digital connectivity has the potential to revolutionise rural communities and make them more attractive places to live. It will give people who depend on reliable connections to work from home and keep in touch with family due to coronavirus, the freedom to live and work more flexibly and will help develop thriving digital economies.”

The skills spectrum

Digital deprivation puts people at risk of even greater isolation, it makes simple tasks, such as online banking or booking medical appointments harder, and impacts employability.

The Department for Education has outlined a framework of five ‘foundation skills which underpin all essential digital skills’ which act as the building blocks for digital engagement.

These foundation skills include managing information, such as saving a photo found using a search engine, communicating using email or messaging, making transactions, solving problems and verifying information, and completing forms or creating something new from existing online media.

And digital skills, of course, span a spectrum. The ONS reported that: “In 2018, 8% of people in the UK (4.3m people) were estimated to have zero basic digital skills (are unable to do any of the activities described in the five basic digital skills). A further 12% (6.4m adults) were estimated to only have limited abilities online (missing at least one of the basic digital skills).”

So, have museums been able to reach out to these audiences using their digital engagement programmes, and support those with limited, basic skills?

Engaging digitally

The fantastic array of digital projects launched in the past 18 months by museums offers an impressive range of digital accessibility – tackling the factors of digital deprivation with projects that are broadly accessible to those with limited skills.

Collective, which brings people together through art and is based in the restored City Observatory on Edinburgh’s Carlton Hill, was able to utilise its series of audio guides for people to listen to while soaking up the views (main picture).

The Observers’ Walk project commissioned various artists to create a series of audio guides hosted on Soundcloud, appropriate to the ‘Handling Information and Content’ basic skill.

And Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth was awarded funding to support an exhibition and digital project to engage local communities by recording their experiences of the pandemic. This led to The Human Threads exhibition, which features two quilts – one physical and one digital.

“Contributors to the digital quilt have been asked to send in photos, sound pieces, films, poems or drawings to make the digital quilt, with an explanation of why they have sent their contribution, what it means to them and the story it tells. An artist will work with communities currently underrepresented in the museum to make sure their voices are heard too.”

The Scottish Fisheries Museum Covid-19 response came in the form of ‘Knitting the Herring’, a digital project which invited contributions in as photos, patterns, comments, or sending in knitted herrings. This project engaged the local, rural community while reaching out to an international audience.

Moving forward

By developing projects that are appropriate to their communities, technologically accessible and suited to areas of poor infrastructure, museums have been able to create projects that support their audiences in developing their digital skills.

And the ingenious use of basic technologies in these projects shines a light on the creative, inclusive and inspiring culture that museums can provide.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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