Europeana - 2016

On 9-10 July, Europeana Creative's Culture Jam was held at the Austrian National Library. During the two days, we spoke to some of the speakers attending the conference to learn more about their work and their vision for the future of digital cultural heritage. Here, Milena Popova, Business Development Manager, speaks to Wolfgang Wild, creator of Retronaut, and author of Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine published by National Geographic.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in connecting heritage to the creative industries?

I think of two challenges. One is that the term “the creative industries” is very broad and we use it to encompass anything that includes some degree of creativity - and that can range from dance to record labels and everything in between. So, if we are a cultural heritage institution and we have materials or assets which we think are of value for these industries, then we need to start by asking for which industries and in which ways.

So we need more segmentation, more specifics?

Yes… Retronaut has been a start-up and one of the things I’ve learned about start-ups is that it is very easy to answer the question “Who will use your product?” with “Everyone” i.e. everyone will use our product, will use our website.

"One of the great questions for a new start-up product is not "Who will use it?” but  

“Who would be highly disappointed if our product no longer existed?”"

This may be true and it certainly makes everything sound very exciting and simple but it usually means that we end up with a product that nobody actually *loves* and, especially, nobody wants to use. One of the great questions for a new start-up product is not “Who will use it?” but “Who would be highly disappointed if our product no longer existed?” As cultural institutions, we should look for people who will miss our “product”, our cultural heritage assets, people who will be significantly disappointed if they didn’t get to see or read or interact with our product.

But what about the case when people just don’t know about the existence of this product? They can’t be disappointed about something they don’t know about.

That’s why we need to start not with what we’ve got but with what people actually want. Because if we don’t do that, we are acting as though our collection is of more significance than our audience.

When we take that view, we believe people should want to engage with our resources. However, if we reverse that perspective and start by asking what is it that people actually want that may connect to what we have to offer, then we can start to tailor what we show.

Let’s say we have a million digitised objects which the world has not seen. We could argue that if only the world could see our objects, it would engage with them. The implication of that approach is that we need to show the world all the objects until one accidentally triggers the audience into engaging. Whereas if we start with the question “what is it people actually want to see or do already?” and select objects that fulfil those needs, then we have much faster and more efficient engagement between our objects and the audience.

So the first challenge is not to think of the creative industries as a whole but as specific sectors, companies and individuals, and question in detail what those groups are seeking.

The second challenge relates to how we connect the creative industries to cultural heritage. Most probably, the creative industries don’t frame the question this way. They don’t walk around wondering how they can connect to cultural heritage; they are walking around thinking about whatever creative challenge they are working on or doing. So, our challenge is how we find out what, in our collections, might be important to what the creative industries are already doing.

"In my experience the best opportunities, the most important, life-changing moments, have come when things collapse."

What are you most excited about in that area right now?

Two main points. It is not that I am excited about budget cuts in the cultural heritage sector; neither that there isn’t enough money for cultural heritage; however, in my own experience, the best opportunities, the most important, life changing moments have come when things collapse.

Very often this is related to economics. Let’s give you a personal example: when Retronaut all but ran out of money because I wasn’t thinking in the right way, or because I wasn’t able to raise the investment I wanted - that forced me to think very precisely about not only what I was doing but also who I am. And it is through figuring out who I am and who I want to be in a very specific way that now I am in a very different place, in a very positive place. Nobody likes to be in a situation when money is scarce; however, I know personally that from this come the best opportunities.

The second one is that I am devoted to the Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum is, in the words of Simon Sharma, “a curatorial revolution” and I agree with this [statement]. All the things I’ve looked for in a museum are there, to the extent that I, slightly radically, now say that it is only possible to either be like or be unlike the Rijksmuseum - there isn’t another paradigm.

What are you most excited about the Europeana Creative project?

Clearly, Europeana Creative has been about trying out what’s possible to do with cultural heritage and all of these experiments have worked out as all of them are about learning. The other thing that excites me is the quality of some of the experiments. All of the experiments are good but some of them are especially good. One of my favourites is VanGoYourself. Everything about that is right to me – its focus is very small and specific, and its branding & presentation are beautifully executed.

"The details are not the details. They make the design."

- Charles Eames

I agree with designer Charles Eames who said ‘the details are not the details. They make the design.’ In VanGoYourself, all the details are right, which is both rare and special.

What do you hope to see in the next few years that shows a meaningful connection between creative industries and heritage?

The core thing I’d like to see happening (and, again, I see it already happening in some places like the Rijksmuseum), is that GLAMs, particularly museums, are aware of what they have that no other place has.

This is often a spectacular building but, more importantly, unique and special objects. I want the museum to be a physical place and I want it to have three-dimensional objects. So, if the focus shifts back on to museums as physical places with physical objects, it will become really clear what their value to almost any of the creative industries. Once you have segmented the creative industries, you can see really easy connections between each of them and an amazing physical place and – especially – the objects inside. So, tightening the focus on that will make the value offering of museums and other institutions to creative industries much easier to articulate. As a result, we will see many more collaborations with the creative practitioners who want to express what they are doing in a special place or with a special object, and with particular audience, all three combined. That’s what I’d like to see happening.

And digitally, I would love to see, and I do see this, especially in Europeana Labs, a shift from a focus on quantity to quality. As an example, I would like to see more online projects that show big and beautiful images, and only big and beautiful images. I would also like to see less focus on metadata, and more focus on data - and by data, I mean images.

Images are so often used as illustrations for textural information, rather than as information in their own right. So, digital projects that are both smaller and better - smaller scope, better result.

Showbiz Culture 2016

As the creator of Retronaut, Wolfgang Wild curates and shows photographs that show an entirely different side of history.  He is "guest photo editor" for this issue of our magazine, and we highly recommend you to visit Interview by Emma Tucker.

Your mission has been to change how people perceive the past - do you think you've achieved this in different ways across the years you've been working as a 'retronaut'?

I *do* want to change the way people see the past, so that it becomes more useful.  Most of us imagine the past to be dead, behind us, over and done with, and unconnected with the present and future.  I wanted to shift that perception so that the past becomes more of a timescape of possibilities, a creative index of ways to construct the world, ways that we can use now.  It is for us like a back catalogue, available to be recurated and recreated with, in our version of now. I have no evidence that I have achieved this shift, but I do know its a message I've been maintained. 

"Alan Bennett described history as "just one thing after another""

People seem to be endlessly fascinated with depictions of history, what do you think drives this interest?

For me, history is not what is fascinating.  Alan Bennett described it as "just one thing after another", and I agree.  What is fascinating to me is the strangeness that there were other people alive in their version of "now" - just as much "now" as my "now". The illusion that the past is separate from our present is a very hard one to overcome.

What is it that keeps you intrigued by historic images, and wanting to keep working with them?

I continually seek out historic images that do not fit with my internal map of the past.  It is these images that tear a little hole in my map, and when they do so, they give me as close an experience to time-travel as I have been able to experience.  In fact, all my work with Retronaut is a result of my inability to do what the child version of me wanted to do, which is to go back in time.  The impossibility of making that journey keeps me anchored to the past and to historic images.

Your work is broader than the Retronaut site, and you're also working with museums and other institutions, can you talk a little bit about the work you do with them?

Last year I was guest curator at Museums and Archives Northumberland, in England. I worked with the team there to explore new ways of curating and sharing images and objects.  I use a methodology called SPEED to determine which material is likely to most engage with an audience.  We enjoyed exploring the archives looking for pictures and objects that had SPEED, and the result was a physical exhibition.  It was massively exciting for me to move from the digital curation to physical curation. 

Your first book was also published last year - what did you want to achieve with this?

It was a thrill for me to be able to work with National Geographic.  Firstly because it is a very august institution, and that has been a great showcase for what Retronaut is, and for the type of institutions Retronaut can work with.  And secondly, because it is something that my mother-in-law has heard of.

ABC Future Tense - 2015

Time is the ultimate remix: Retronaut founder

Wolfgang Wild has a distinctive philosophy of time. The founder and editor of the popular retro-photography site Retronaut argues our new ability to readily access the images and artefacts of the past has given us a chance to rethink our notions of the present and the future.

Most of us have a linear model of time—we imagine the past behind us, we're standing in the present and the future is ahead of us.

But that is not necessarily the way that time works. Actually, we are not always moving forwards. The limitation of the linear model is that the past is behind us—it becomes something that we don't see and we don't use because it's over and done with.

"When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s the things of my childhood were far removed from me—toys, programs I'd seen—it was hard to track those things down. Now all of that is instantaneously available to all of us pretty much all the time."

We almost have a social prohibition against looking back. We have the story of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt, and we talk to people about ‘looking forward’ and let's ‘move forward’, whereas in fact we can think of the past in quite a different way, not by using the word 'past' but by thinking of it as a timescape.

Imagine ourselves standing at a central point and looking out in time, looking out at all the things that we've done before, all the versions of the world and the versions of ourselves that we've created and curated; they are all in front of us and they are available to us to remix into our own version of now.

The digital tools that we have, particularly the internet, have served to collapse our sense of time.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s the things of my childhood were far removed from me—toys, programs I'd seen—it was hard to track those things down. Now all of that is instantaneously available to all of us pretty much all the time. So the ephemera of what has gone before is much more available to us to use, and our sense of the distance of time has collapsed.

There are quite a few advantages to a non-linear model of time. One is that with the linear model of time, the past is dead and it's over and it's behind us. Whereas with a non-linear model, the past becomes the sum total of all that we've created so far, all the versions of now that we've created, all the versions of the world and of us, and that means that it's free and available to us to reuse.

That's a very positive point of view; rather than the past being something which we think we should learn from but never do, it becomes something that we can employ in our own version of now.

"We become remixable and curatable to ourselves."

Another advantage is that rather than thinking of ourselves as fixed in the present and in a static version of ourselves, we become much more remixable and curatable to ourselves.

In other words, we recognise that we are not heading forward into a future which is a different place to where we are now, it's all one big now and it's always in flux and changing, and that includes ourselves. So it's a liberating message that we are free to re-curate ourselves in any way that we want to be.

I started Retronaut as a rather elaborate way to show people that the version of the past that they thought was the case wasn't necessarily the case, it wasn't fixed. And the reason I did that—this was the elaborate bit—was to help people to think that if the past isn't fixed, maybe the present isn't fixed, maybe I can make changes much more fluidly.

Putting that in a very practical sense and using a small analogy, I like to think of somebody's wardrobe. If we have a wardrobe of clothes, we don't just wear the newest garment that we've bought, which is at the front of the wardrobe, the whole of the wardrobe is available to us, all the different points in time, for us to remix and re-curate and change.

Some people might only wear the very latest thing, but in general we have a much more fluid approach to our back catalogue of clothes, and that's how I like to think of time, that we can have this fluid approach to the back catalogue of all the different ways that there have been.

There's a rather philosophical point to be made here which is: what is the nature of time? What are we talking about when we talk about time?

Without change, without some form of change, then there is no sense of time. So time is actually a way of measuring change, it's a way of measuring the relationship between one thing and another as that relationship changes. In the same way that length is the relationship between two points, so time is the relationship between two points as they change in relationship to each other.

In other words, rather like length is a container, so time is a container for all the behaviour that exists in the universe. So the behaviour of how people have their hair, how buildings are made, how galaxies evolve and so on and so forth.

What that means is that what we are dealing with in time is not some directional arrow from past to present to future, but a set of behaviours that we can change in whatever way we want them to be changed. Nothing is fixed, there's just this one moment which is the now and then there's all the things that we choose to do.

In terms of our concept of the future, the future as we tend to perceive it doesn't exist and it can't exist. You see this a lot with political parties. There was a Labour Party manifesto that I remember in the UK, which was A Brighter Future Fair For All, and it showed a family gazing over some hills into the sunset, and there was a sense that the future was over the horizon.

And we know that that's not true. The future in that way never comes, it can't come because it doesn't exist. There's only the present moment, and there's what we do in that present moment; it's the behaviours that we exhibit in this present moment, the tools that we choose to use, the ways that we choose to behave, the ways we choose to dress or interact with each other.

So the great news about that is there is no future and the moment of action is now and always will be now.

Wolfgang Wild is the founder of Retronaut. He is also the author of the 2014 book Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine published by National Geographic. This is an edited version of an interview he gave to RN’s Future Tense.