Digital intangible cultural heritage commodities and their use in heritage organisations for engaging visitors and audiences

Annie HicksMy research is concerned with representations of intangible cultural heritage in the digital realm, particularly the Internet. Intangible cultural heritage has been defined as, ‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts’ (UNESCO, 2014).

The digital revolution has resulted in a shift of how we express, perform and pass on traditions, social practices and rituals. For example, oral traditions such as folklore/story telling are increasingly being told via social media platforms such as Twitter and blogs, recipes and food traditions are being passed on through sites such as Pinterest and Instagram and new rituals are emerging as a result of how we interact with the world via technology. These intangible aspects of culture are evolving into our cultural heritage.

My research will be looking at these new intangible cultural heritage commodities, which are ‘born-digital’, that is, they are created in the digital environment. More and more museums and cultural organisations are realising that they need to adapt to include and embrace an increasingly digitised world in order to engage visitors. Material objects of cultural heritage are being appropriated by museums in the digital realm, such as the recent project of the British Museum and its contents being built in the online game, Minecraft. This rebuilding project relies on ‘crowdsourcing’, whereby the online community provide the ideas, content and time. There is however, the question of how the intangible cultural heritage associated with the building and the objects can be best represented and performed with the technology available? How are museums and cultural organisations going to negotiate the living culture that is associated with these objects, within the living culture in which we exist which is evolving and developing in response to a digital form communication?

My research takes place in a very fast paced environment, with technology and behaviours changing rapidly, the questions will no doubt change in order to adapt and respond to this and to emerging academic discourses within the field I am studying. I shall be holding onto my hat!

Digital Technology as Vulnerable Heritage

Intangible cultural heritage gives context to society and cultures allowing for a deeper understanding and more immersive experience of heritage, thus adding value to collection curation, visitor engagement and learning within the heritage context.

Some heritage organisations have created ‘born-digital’ exhibitions and a number of contemporary artists are creating ‘born-digital’ works of art. A large number of musicians are composing via digital technology and distributing only on the Internet and by file sharing.

Recently, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) created a Charter for the Preservation of Digital Heritage. This acknowledgement by UNESCO of the need for preservation demonstrates that digital cultures are embedded in our lives but that that they may be vulnerable to the intangible qualities of the very platform on which they are sited. Digital technology is constantly evolving, new versions of software can rapidly outdate, the internet itself could be rebuilt at any time, possibly resulting in a loss of precious expressions of our living culture.


I graduated in 2012 with BA Hons in English Literature and Writing from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. Whilst at Anglia Ruskin, I was awarded the Undergraduate Research Scholarship 2011 to work as researcher for Professor Rowland Wymer’s contribution to The Complete Works of John Ford for Oxford University Press. The research focused on performances of the renaissance play, The Witch of Edmonton and comparative reading of play texts written in Elizabethan English. In addition to this, I acted as image researcher to Professor Mary Joannou for her article on the novelist Jean Rhys for ‘Women: a cultural review’, obtaining copyright permissions for image use from cultural and heritage organisations across the world.

In 2013, I was awarded an AHRC Postgraduate Studentship for MA Cultural Policy and Management at Sheffield Hallam University. This taught MA, allowed me to explore heritage, management of cultural organisations, culture and society. I graduated in 2014 with distinction.

In 2014 I was awarded an AHRC Heritage Consortium PhD studentship.

Supervisors: Dr Luigina Ciolfi, Sheffield Hallam University, Dr Karina Croucher, University of Bradford, and Andrew Pollard, Sheffield Hallam University