Barriers to digital participation within the Australian cultural sector: mediating distance, unlocking collections

Holcombe-James, I 2019, Barriers to digital participation within the Australian cultural sector: mediating distance, unlocking collections, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Media and Communication, RMIT University.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Barriers to digital participation within the Australian cultural sector: mediating distance, unlocking collections
Author(s) Holcombe-James, I
Year 2019
Abstract This research interrogates the apparent dissonance between the dominant Australian cultural policy narrative and the lived dynamics of digital participation in two contexts: remote Indigenous communities, and adults over 65. The research uses a combination of digital and non-digital ethnographic field work as well as collection and analysis of existing organisational data.

Australia has two national cultural policies: Creative Nation (Department of Communications and the Arts, 1994) and Creative Australia (Australian Government, 2013). The narrative that bridges these policies suggests that distance will be mediated and the nation’s cultural collections ‘unlocked’ (that is, made accessible) through digital participation. Drawing on media and museum studies literature, this research defines digital participation as a communicative practice with the potential to facilitate inclusive and accessible outcomes. Through mediating distance and ‘unlocking’ cultural collections, the cultural sector will include all Australians irrespective of location, and provide unfettered access to the nation’s cultural heritage.

However, as Ian McShane (2005) argues, these narratives are predicated on universalist assumptions of digital access that are not borne out by empirical research (p. 392). How can distance be mediated, and cultural collections be ‘unlocked’, if there are barriers to the digital participation that would enable this?

Persistent digital inequity – defined as the intersections of privilege and attitudes that influence access to, and use of the digital (Katz & Aspden, 1997) – is well-researched and the established literature aided in identifying two very different field sites: (1) Desert Mob 2017, and (2) Victorian Collections and the Veterans Heritage Project.

Desert Mob is an annual remote Indigenous visual arts festival held in Alice Springs. Desert Mob non-digitally mediates the distance between creators and consumers by bringing together artists and the publics that purchase their art. Simultaneously, Desert Mob traces geographic digital divides, as well as Indigenous/non-Indigenous digital disparities. Desert Mob 2017 is thus used here to examine whether, and if so, how, digital participation mediates distance when confronted by spatial dynamics of the digital divide.

Victorian Collections is a web-based and free-to-access cataloguing platform for community collecting-organisations. The Veterans Heritage Project is a series of capacity-building workshops designed to support Returned & Services League (RSL) Sub-Branches in using Victorian Collections to catalogue, and thus ‘unlock’, their cultural collections. Given that such community collecting-organisations are typically staffed by elderly volunteers, Victorian Collections and the Veterans Heritage Project interacts with the ‘grey’ digital divide: the gaps in access and use that affect those over 65. Focussing on the Veterans Heritage Project as delivered at the Lara RSL in mid-2017, Victorian Collections provides a productive site for examining not only whether, and if so, how, cultural collections are ‘unlocked’ when doing so interacts with demographic dynamics of the digital divide, but also the efficacy of responses to these.

The research develops and applies to each field site a media ecologies framework (Fuller, 2005) comprised of platforms, practices, and publics, paired with a typology of three barriers to digital participation: non-digital, digital, and postdigital. The research presented in this thesis contributes to our understanding of the complexity of digital participation, and argues that this complexity is insufficiently addressed in cultural policy.

Responses to the dominant policy narrative in each field site were (1) confronted by multifaceted digital inequity, (2) enacted by publics, rather than individuals, and (3) shaped by choices between barriers to participation, and thus between which publics participated, and how. Although Desert Mob 2017’s digital participation mediated distance, it did so as a barrier to the cultural participation of distant consumers, rather than to the digital participation of remote dwelling Indigenous artists. Likewise, although Victorian Collections and the Veterans Heritage Project facilitated the cataloguing of the Lara RSL’s cultural collections – a step towards ‘unlocking’ them – the barriers to digital participation confronting cataloguers restricted consumer access, and ensuring the collections were obscured, rather than ‘unlocked’.

While it has long been acknowledged that the cultural sector makes choices between publics (Gillard, 2000, p. 126), that these choices extend into the digital has been underscrutinised. By providing a detailed account of two field sites where distinct choices were made between which digital and non-digital publics participated and how, this research challenges the dominant Australian cultural policy narrative: to what extent can – or should – cultural policy account for the dynamics of digital participation? In asserting that through digital participation distance will be mediated and collections unlocked, Creative Nation (Department of Communications and the Arts, 1994) and Creative Australia (Australian Government, 2013) establish the context to which the cultural sector responds. By disregarding the extensive body of digital participation literature, these policies ensure barriers to digital participation remain, responses to these barriers are divergent and have exclusionary outcomes, with stark consequences for the Australian cultural sector’s inclusivity and accessibility.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Media and Communication
Subjects Media Studies
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Studies
Keyword(s) digital participation
cultural sector
digital divide
media ecologies
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Created: Tue, 03 Dec 2019, 14:35:50 EST by Keely Chapman
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