Reflecting on digital platforms for participating in the 2020 Association of Critical Heritage Conference on ‘Futures’

By Cassandra, Inge, Susanne & Tan

We were all a bit nervous but excited to attend and present at the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS) 5th biennial conference which was moved to an online platform due to Covid-19. Some of us feared that the online format would create more barriers than accessible entry points, potentially leading to a lack-lustre isolated conference experience. However, we are happy to say we couldn’t have been more wrong. The online format allowed for a personal approach: in this article we reflect on how the online conference enabled our participation, connection across participants which was nicely integrated with communication on social media. We then touch upon how it impacted our own curated session: ‘Infrastructures and future possibilities for participation’.

Sometimes conferences – the sounds, the sheer number of people – can feel overwhelming. While initially, the huge number of ACHS sessions and presentations was a bit confusing, we found once the live sessions began it was easy to navigate the ExOrdo platform upon which the conference took place. A menu of events each day made it easy to select the live sessions and related pre-recorded material that were interesting and relevant for each of us. Already on the first day of the conference, we noticed how the live sessions actually lowered some barriers for us to join the conversation. While at previous conferences some of us have felt unsure about if and how we could or should participate in Q&A sessions and discussions, during ACHS we realised we felt less inhibited. This was in part, due to the protection of semi-anonymity in writing down questions in chat boxes, but also the way it made us be really specific in the questions asked: The questions for presenters had to be typed out in a limited number of characters. Furthermore, during the live sessions attendees could more easily go from session to session; no running between different buildings, and there was a constant comfortable supply of coffee and snacks at home.

The online format also made it easy to switch between screens and keep up with social media communication and conversations around the conference content. For instance,  during the conference we noticed there was a more ‘natural’ element to conferencing than we had experienced in an offline setting. Comparatively offline, it can feel uncomfortable using a phone or laptop to tweet while listening to a talk. As a result, many of us felt we were able to join the lively online conversations more easily. The conversations on Twitter were continuously flowing and it actually felt like we got to know many other researchers this way. The use of the platform enabled us to follow up on discussions, connect ideas and serendipitously start a meme competition. A conversation about having plants in the background led to many presenters to ‘up their plant game’. Taking place inside everyone’s homes, the presentations and Q&As seemed to set up for a more personal connection. More so than at a physical, on-site conference, people let their guards down, they were at ease as they joined the conversation from their own living rooms.

This ‘at-home-experience’ also opened up the potential for what felt like personal connections. Depending on the size of the group that attended a session or discussion, people were invited to become ‘panelists’ which meant that they could also switch on their cameras and microphones to ask questions. This allowed for a more personal and genuine interaction.

However, due to the size of many attendee groups, this was often not possible and questions had to be submitted via the separate Q&A chat instead. The allocated time of 45 minutes per each panel’s Q&A was also a bit short that some of us left the panel still eager to learn more. The separate coffee sessions with early-career researchers (ECRs) allowed for a more informal meeting, though the size of the group also turned that into a bit of a waiting game sometimes. Overall, the ACHS 2020 conference functioned as an introduction to the critical heritage studies association which presented itself to us as both an exciting field of research and a friendly and diverse group to become part of. We met some wonderful people and our research interests have been reignited with new forms of inspiration.

Experiencing the first few days of the conference impacted how we approached and felt about the Q&A for our own curated session. Titled ‘Infrastructures and future possibilities for participation’ our session aimed to lay out the complexity of the notion of infrastructure in all its vibrant meanings and roles within the museum sector. On the practical level, we tried to shed light on the problems of scaling up, breaking down and failure of different forms of infrastructures, and discuss how this is intertwined with the materiality issue of today’s digital representations. On the conceptual level, we looked for a way to describe the multiple contexts and different social worlds in which participation is put into practice in and by museums. During and after the Q&A session, the four convenors were glad to see our initial idea could contribute to the ongoing scholarly efforts of finding appropriate ways to analyse social relations constructed around the new logic of the digital and experiential knowledge production in the cultural heritage sector. In our panel discussion we playfully made a connection between our session’s focus on infrastructures and Jennie Morgan’s proposed concept of “vibrant infrastructures”. The conversation continued beyond the format of the online conference.

To conclude, as suggested by Inge Zwart and agreed on by us all: ‘In the end, I fulfilled my supervisor’s Isto Huvila’s (Uppsala University) idea of what a good conference experience might be: hearing at least one interesting paper presentation and connecting with one new person. I reached that goal within the first morning of the conference!’



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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764859.