Finland to advance digital cultural heritage

Finland to advance digital cultural heritage – Joint statement by the Finnish Heritage Agency and the National Archives of Finland

Only a few days ago, the Director-General of the Finnish Heritage Agency, Tiina Merisalo, and the acting Director-General of the National Archives of Finland, Päivi Happonen, published a joint statement on advancing digital cultural heritage in Finland.

The statement describes the current situation of the cultural heritage institutions in Finland and argues how digital cultural heritage advances democratic access and signifies a game-changing investment into the future, worldwide. Within this context the statement also refers to our Time Machine initiative – one important aspect being to accelerate the digitisation of cultural heritage as to make its benefits available to current and not only future generations: ” The digitisation of cultural heritage is a key issue of our time.” The European Commission recommends the digitisation of Europe´s cultural heritage by 2025.

Finland is represented with over 40 member institutions in our Time Machine community and we are thrilled to be pulling in the same direction with one of our strongest member countries.

An English translation of the statement can be found below.

Big Data of the Past Means New Services in Cultural Heritage Sector

Finnish cultural heritage institutions preserve a huge amount of material on the past and present of our country. The National Museum alone has about half a million objects from Finland and the rest of the world. The National Heritage Agency has an image collection of about 18 million images and an archaeological collection of about 2.5 million objects. The National Archives is cherishing more than 200 kilometers of unique documents. The amount of data retained by numerous other actors will further increase the massive volume.

Although physical material is invaluable, data in digital form enables large-scale and democratic access as well as the exploitation of our cultural heritage material. The digitisation of cultural heritage is a key issue of our time. In digital form, cultural heritage benefits, among other things, education, research, data economy, urban planning and tourism service providers. It also provides easily accessible material for developing one’s own cultural heritage relationship as a resource that supports society.

In Finland, cultural heritage has been digitized since the beginning of the 21st century. The aim is to improve the availability of material to allow everyone to get acquainted with, for example, objects, maps and written descriptions of their own family or domicile from their sofa. In recent years, digitality has taken on new dimensions, with artificial intelligence enabling the mechanical recognition of printed and manuscript text. 3D modeling has brought objects as unprecedentedly accurate digital copies to the eyes of a researcher or interested citizen. Digitisation is no longer just about scanning but also about managing the big data of the past. For climate reasons, it is important that the large storage capacity of the cultural heritage sector can be reduced in the future. Here, too, the increase in the supply of digital material is a key.

Despite more than 20 years of persistent digitisation, only a small amount of the material from the Finnish cultural heritage institutions is in digital form. About 35 percent of the collections covering about 4.9 million objects stored in museums have been digitized. Only four percent of the archive material has been digitized. The reason for the slow progress is the amount of data. At the current pace, the work will take 200 years.

Digital cultural heritage is advancing in the world – what is Finland doing?

The benefits of digital cultural heritage have been seen around the world and are being vigorously promoted. Estonia and the US National Archives NARA are currently investing heavily in digitisation. In 2020, West African Ghana decided to invest $ 115 million in digitising its archives and improving its online access.

There is also a consistent effort in Europe to increase the digitisation of cultural heritage. The 2005 Faro Framework Convention of the Council of Europe recognizes the right of everyone to access their own cultural heritage. The goal will be achieved most comprehensively and cost-effectively through large-scale digitisation. In 2011, the European Commission recommended the full digitisation of Europe’s cultural heritage by 2025. The Commission is also setting up an Excellence Centre for 3D digitisation of cultural environments and has recently issued a recommendation on a common European solution for the preservation of cultural heritage data. Investing in making digitisation more efficient has been seen as a significant investment in the future.

In Finland, the government programme states that Finland must have a validated and permanent digital history. A preliminary study of the National Digitization Center, commissioned by Mikkeli’s development company Miksei Oy last spring, promotes this goal. In addition, an initiative called Time Machine is advancing in Europe, which aims not only to accelerate digitisation but also to re-process the mass data of the past with an advanced artificial intelligence product. Finland is actively involved in the group with the help of 40 Finnish member organisations.

Digitisation should be accelerated and developed so that we, today’s Finns, can enjoy its benefits. The time span of digitisation should be shortened from centuries to decades. However, political will and goal setting are needed, and decisions should be made soon. Otherwise, the prospect is that digitization, which is becoming increasingly necessary, will be left to future generations.

Tiina Merisalo, Director General Finnish Heritage Agency
Päivi Happonen, Acting Director-General of the National Archives of Finalnd, Docent National Archives of Finland