Measuring the Impact of China’s Digital Heritage

This research investigates how to best assess the impact of China’s digital heritage (数字遗产, Shuzi Yichan) and will focus on digital museum resources. Recently, technological innovation has become central on the agenda of China’s heritage sector and this has influenced policymaking. The Chinese government has increased the investment of financial and human capital within the sector, which led to the increase of digital projects for the long-term preservation and wider reach of heritage resources. The following are a few examples: in 2000, the Palace Museum created the Digital Palace initiative to provide greater opportunities for the public, particularly young people, to get involved in heritage activities, and then in 2012, Baidu launched the Baidu Digital Museum project aiming to transform physical museums into virtual museums. Furthermore, in 2019, the National Library of China decided to archive over 200 billion Weibo posts for preservation and research purposes. The China Biographical Database (CBDB) project, initiated by the Harvard Yenching Institute, now features the biographical information about over 400,000 individuals from the 7th to the 19th century for the use of research into social relations. The China Knowledge Resource Integrated Database (CNKI), launched in 1996, is now the largest Chinese academic database worldwide.

At the same time, questions arise asking whether the financial and human inputs are being used effectively and whether these digital resources are having societal impacts that accord with the heritage organisations’ goals. It is also unclear what forms of evidence project teams can use to improve their service quality and to ensure resource sustainability. Within the literature of heritage studies, there has also been a growing emphasis on how to measure the impact of digital resources and what impact means for cultural organisations (Meyer et al., 2009; Selwood, 2010; Tanner, 2012; King et al., 2016). These issues point to the need to assess the impact of digital heritage in China, which prompted my core research question: how can the impact of China’s digital heritage best be assessed?

To narrow down the research focus, I conducted a preliminary investigation with three questions in mind: what cultural heritage means in the Chinese context? In which domain is impact assessment (IA) of digital heritage most under-researched and why? Are there any measures and tools in place for the IA of China’s digital heritage? Although the research focus is on the IA of digital heritage, a clear definition of Chinese cultural heritage is essential for a holistic understanding of the cultural values inherent in audiences’ engagement with digital heritage; it also provides the building block for IA. As Tanner (2019) suggests, knowing what to measure and why we measure them are the important prerequisites of IA.

A review of relevant literature reveals that the definition of Chinese cultural heritage is, in fact, obscure. The concept of cultural heritage (文化遗产, Wenhua Yichan), originally known as cultural relics (文物, Wenwu), did not exist in China until the 20th century. In 1985, China ratified the World Heritage Convention (WHC), adopted the definition of cultural heritage and has since been incorporating western values into its heritage practice. These values involve organisational management and a well-theorised discursive framework for heritage practices in China; the framework includes a series of concepts, ways of categorising heritage resources and principles for heritage conservation. Notably that the practice of adopting western values is doubled with China’s political directives. Although there are changes in, for instance, the missions of Chinese heritage organisations to be more people-oriented, traditional ideologies such as political stability still play a crucial role in shaping China’s heritage sector.

The literature review also unveils a paucity of applied research on IA of digital resources in the museum domain, compared with that in the library and archive sectors. It is important to fill the gap, given the pivotal role museums play in presenting and creating personal/national identity through symbols of cultural identification embedded in their vast collections. Similar to ‘cultural heritage’, the concept of ‘museum’ also derives from the West but is constantly shaped by China’s political ideologies. Thus, to obtain a thorough understanding of the context in which IA is to be implemented, I propose the first sub-question:

RQ1: How do Chinese culture and Western heritage discourse shape ‘cultural heritage’ and the museum sector in modern China?

When examining previous IA practices, the research identifies that the current indicators used for IA in the heritage sector are problematic. Numeric achievements have been the primary concern of most IA activities since IA emerged. Metrics like the number of page views and the return of investment are often used as key indicators for success. Yet, these metrics are only a partial representation of the impacts digital heritage is having on public life. The inadequacy of numeric metrics highlights the urgent need to develop indicators that can demonstrate the multiple dimensions of the impacts digital heritage is making, supported by evidence with sufficient depth and validation. A further review of existing IA models identifies that the Balanced-Value-Impact (BVI) Model (Tanner, 2012) would work for the development of multidimensional impact indicators. However, since the model has not been applied to the Chinese context, it is essential to explore if the instruments within the model fit the unique setting of the Chinese cultural landscape. Accordingly, the second sub-question arose:

RQ2: Which indicators can demonstrate the multidimensional impacts of digital museum resources in China? How should the BVI Model be adapted to fit the unique setting of the Chinese cultural landscape?

The situation analysis of China’s heritage and museum sectors finds that the cultural policy in China requires all heritage institutions to be guided and assessed by the central government. This hierarchical structure of heritage administration leads to significant power asymmetry among stakeholders. The government, for instance, has dominant power over Chinese heritage practices including the approval of impact indicators and their application strategy. Therefore, the government’s perspective on cultural heritage organisations would have a significant influence on the design and usage of impact indicators. Moreover, although the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (国家文物局, Guojia Wenwuju, SACH) has established a points-based museum evaluation framework, the top-down nature of how this framework is designed neglects the varying perspectives of a wider stakeholder group. It is important to address the distinct needs different stakeholders have for digital heritage. Given that, it is important to ask:

RQ3: How do different stakeholders’ perspectives on cultural heritage organisations influence, or are influenced by impact indicators and their impact on strategy?

In summary, this research identifies a gap in literature on measuring the impact of digital resources in the cultural heritage sector, and the museum domain in particular, by considering the need for Chinese cultural heritage institutions to adapt tools for implementing IA. It is especially important to obtain a holistic understanding of the Chinese heritage and museum sectors and to develop indicators that can demonstrate the multidimensional impacts of digital heritage. Meanwhile, it is crucial to examine how existing IA models, such as the Balanced-Value-Impact (BVI) Model (Tanner, 2012) might be employed in the context of digital museum resources in China and how the model may need to be adapted to fit the unique setting of the Chinese cultural landscape. Given the complexity of the stakeholder network within China’s heritage and museum sectors, the research seeks to understand how different stakeholders’ perspectives on cultural heritage organisations influence the design and application strategy of impact indicators.