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Back to the future: the cultural heritage of universities

30 March 2018

by Christa Neuper
Rector University of Graz

Universities shoulder a great deal of responsibility. Through their research, on the one hand, which makes a major contribution to the development of human society. And through their teaching, which ensures high-quality education for future generations. Another element is the significant cultural heritage shared in particular by the tradition-rich universities of Europe, brought together under the umbrella of the Coimbra Group. The universities of our network have recognised how important this is and founded the “Heritage” working group in response.
It is beyond dispute that the large number of collections and their valuable holdings represent an essential part of the dynamic history of scholarship. Furthermore, the history of each university is usually tied closely to that of its respective region and thus resonates far beyond the boundaries of the campus itself, even contributing to a broader sense of identity. For this reason, the preservation, communication and interpretation of both tangible and intangible heritage is a particularly important task. But this is about more than just safeguarding and conserving. Our cultural and intellectual heritage must be presented in a way that will continue to speak to an interested public in future, even in times of rapid change. University museums play an essential part here in that they both preserve objects and, at the same time, relate them to the present. They fulfil this responsibility not only by creating exhibitions but also by making their collections available in digital form, performing pioneering work in the process.
The digital humanities, too, have risen to these challenges, developing innovative solutions well-grounded in scholarship for bringing history into dialogue with the future. Researchers at the University of Graz have, through their collaborative efforts, assumed a leading role in Austria in this field. With its Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities, first established in 2008 and since 2016 the home of Austria’s first professorship for digital humanities, the University of Graz has a widely respected research centre. Alongside the University of Vienna, it is also a collaborative partner in the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities (ACDH) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW).
Since last year the University of Graz has offered a master’s programme in digital humanities. In addition to receiving a solid grounding in the field’s theoretical basis, students also gain practical know-how in the scholarly application of modern IT technologies to research issues in the humanities.
The University of Graz has also taken the lead in setting another milestone, by working in recent years with partner organisations to develop digital records, archiving and access for the scholarly and cultural heritage of the Austrian state of Styria. For the first time ever, the collections of a number of Styrian institutions and their individual holdings, including nearly 10,000 postcards, important official documents and unique archaeological artefacts, have been brought together on one website and made available under Open Access for virtual examination and tours.
This also was the model for the virtual “Coimbra Group Exhibition”, launched by the network last year, which provides a fascinating insight into the cultural heritage of our universities. The current overview exhibition presents just a preliminary selection of objects. The aim is to extend the online platform in the
coming months and deepen the cooperation between our universities. More than simply providing a tour through 500 years of European history, the project’s goal is to illustrate the important role that universities play in our societies in a contemporary and engaging way that speaks to the public. After all, our universities are both places of knowledge and havens of cultural inheritance of and for countless generations.