Can you dig it? An archive for an inclusive city

Apr 6, 2022

On a busy street, a man is horizontal, hovering in the air. With just the strength of his arms he is holding himself out from a signpost like a billowing flag. The photograph comes from an exhibition documenting the 40-year history of the phenomenon that brought such distinctive scenes to Rotterdam: Breakdance.

Breakdance may feel like a modern phenomenon to some, but Dig it Up and the Rotterdam City Archives are working hard to help people understand that history is not just wars and empires – it is something that you are a part of. “I believe in a bottom-up approach to cultural heritage, not a top-down approach,” says Rotterdam Digital Archivist Marie-Claire Dangerfield. “Myself and Dig it Up’s director Simona da Silva, are quite passionate about making culture accessible to people, that it shouldn’t just belong to memory institutions like museums.”

It was this passion that fuelled the city’s collaboration with Dig it Up, a local grassroots cultural heritage organisation that works to preserve people’s memories and memorabilia of local history. Dig it Up came to the city looking for technical support to help create a system that ordinary residents could use to digitise their cultural knowledge and artefacts.

Five Mount Everests

What they needed to develop was a consistent and usable metadata system that ordinary people could use to upload their cultural artefacts in a way that would make them easily organisable, searchable and available to other interested parties. “Metadata is not that confusing,” Dangerfield reassures me, “it’s just a fancy word.”

Metadata is not that confusing, it’s just a fancy word. — Marie-Claire Dangerfield, Rotterdam City Archive

Metadata is just data that describes data, so if you want to upload a photograph, a document or a video, the metadata is just the information about when you put it up, the time period that it is from, what the content is about and simple details like that. However, it is these simple details that make the difference between order and chaos. “We have 42 kilometres of city holdings,” Dangerfield explains – if you stacked that up, it would be about five times as tall as Mount Everest. Without basic data that describes each piece, just imagine trying to find what you’re looking for in a pile that high.

The city also lacks the manpower to digitise the whole of its enormous archive, so having people directly upload their artefacts presents an enormous advantage, “You can let people do the work beforehand,” Dangerfield says, which means the city archivists don’t have to spend hours mulling over photos and trying to decide where they’re from or what they are of. And with a system in place, once you enable someone to use it once, they can keep uploading things independently. “You give people the tools,” Dangerfield recalls the old adage, “You teach a man to fish and he’ll never go hungry.”

Metadata for metal

Some of the first institutions to work with the new system were local music venues like Baroeg and Hal4. At first, Dangerfield noted a reticence about participation: “A lot of people have this perception that archives are for ‘proper history,’ and then, when you talk to them, they realise, ‘Oh yeah, I took part in proper history, I’m a part of the past.’” For Dangerfield, seeing people make that connection and become empowered to claim their part in history is the most rewarding aspect of the project.

Baroeg is a focal point of metal, goth and hard rock culture, not only in Rotterdam but in the Netherlands as a whole, and throughout it’s decades of operation has held onto everything from photographs of 80s gigs to meeting notes. Being an alternative music venue in quite a suburban neighbourhood, they have even held on to decades of complaint letters that they have received, all ready and waiting to take their place in history. “Seeing the staff and volunteers at Baroeg really enthusiastic about being able to share their knowledge, their experience and their life, that was really sweet,” Dangerfield recalls.

The venue Hal4 has hosted everyone from local Rotterdam acts to big names like Nina Simone and The Cure, and their collection of posters is a treasure trove, especially those from the earlier days when posters were often hand drawn or collages that have a zine-like artistic quality. Now these are all available as one of Dig it Up’s online exhibitions so people alive at the time can revel in the nostalgia, and younger generations can be inspired by the artistry of the past.

Contributions to the archive range from movements like breakdance, where a range of photos show the long-running diversity of the city; to collections around the theme of gay culture that explore the history, economics, politics and aesthetics of homosexuality in the port city from 1904 onwards; to the work of a much-loved local photographer who exercised his trade taking black and white photos of children in pedal cars outside the Blijdorp Zoo.

Open-source archiving

Allowing people to enrich the city’s archive in this fashion presents vast and incalculable value, but there are costs associated with it. It requires time and money, and dedicated staff like Dangerfield to make such a programme a reality, but the brunt of such costs come in the initial phase. These costs can be distributed, as was the case in Rotterdam where the city council, the city archive and the non-profit Dig it Up all contributed with the city bearing the greater part of the financial burden. “But after that,” says Dangerfield, “it’s minimal cost.” Though she warns that some effort must be planned to keep the programme alive.

And indeed, seeing the success of the programme in Rotterdam, many others are expressing interest in launching similar projects. Institutions such as Museum Rotterdam and the Rotterdam Library are considering the model, as are other Dutch cities like Amsterdam, and even national bodies such as the Dutch National Photograph Museum. To implement the technical side, the city used OMEKA-S, open-source, cultural-heritage-focused software that is available for any city or institution to make use of.

The project is continuing to garner international attention, and was recently featured as a case study in the European Union’s culture project Cultural Heritage in Action, in which Eurocities has a leading role. Cities, national authorities and other interested institutions will have the chance to learn more about it through an online peer learning visit to Rotterdam courtesy of the Cultural Heritage in Action this spring (you can sign up here).

Everyone wants to feel included. — Marie-Claire Dangerfield, Rotterdam City Archive

Besides enriching the archive, this process is also a great way to promote exploration and use of the archive’s existing holdings. “Everyone wants to feel included,” Dangerfield explains, “If you’re working strictly with an archival audience, you’re probably going to get a lot of the same types of people who study the same kinds of things. But it’s not going to attract a diverse audience, and it’s not going to create a new audience.” For Dangerfield, this is a huge benefit seen from bringing in other organisations – they bring their audiences with them.

From your past into our future

Archives have the potential to present immense value to cities, residents and visitors, but first the key has to be turned in the lock. “The archive has always been accessible,” says Dangerfield, “but we also need to make it inviting. People should be able to see their own image of the city accurately reflected back in that institution.”

What does the future hold for these repositories of the past? Dangerfield is uncertain. On one hand, she recently visited a class of history students who had never looked in an archive – it’s a strange world in which groups of goths and rockers have more experience engaging with first-hand historical material than classes of history students. On the other hand, she has had a host of experiences working with people through the archives that convince her that the value of such institutions will continue to shine.

She still remembers vividly her most impactful experience as an archivist, when she was able to work together with a holocaust survivor to find the original arrest warrant that, at the age of sixteen, would have sent him to a concentration camp but for his daring escape. It is moments like this, when ordinary people engage directly with the bounty of the archives, that attest to their enduring power for a world that seeks to understand and engage with the history that has built our present and will shape our future.


Credits for pictures: © DIG IT UP 2021

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