Exporting digital cultural assets – are we ready?

To remove cultural property from the UK, the owner has to apply for an export licence depending on the media, age and value of the item. If a licence is required, then an Expert Adviser assesses whether the item is deemed to be of national importance. If so, an export block is issued to allow UK institutions an opportunity to purchase the item. If it is not deemed significant enough, the export licence is granted.

The current process assumes that items are physical and are crossing international borders. But what happens when the item is not physical or tangible? What can we do when there is no border control on the internet?

In short, are we ready for the export of digital items from the UK?

A map of the world at night with a network of bright lines between countries

I was recruited by The National Archives as part of the UK Research and Innovation Policy Internship Scheme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to explore this question. The evolution of digital technology presents the possibility that digital archives will soon be available to purchase on the public market. I was asked to write a report to review the current export policies and supporting mechanisms in place (such as tax relief schemes and acquisition finding), to see whether they are fit to protect digital cultural assets.

I use the term ‘digital cultural assets’ rather than ‘digital property’ because it can be argued that, since digital is not physical, it cannot be property. Even so, it does not detract from the fact that digital items can be a reflection of our national culture.

My research has identified disjunctions between current export policies and supporting mechanisms:

  • Export policies and supporting mechanisms place too much emphasis on the term ‘object’, immediately excluding any born-digital material
  • Policies need to be revised after Brexit as our understanding of export and internet security is predominantly based on EU mutual support
  • Judging the authenticity or the copying of digital cultural assets is a minefield of logistics, ethics, financial costs and legalities
  • Export criteria is partially based on the financial value of an item. How do we value a digital cultural asset when there is no market to compare it against?
  • The Export Adviser requires specialist knowledge to determine whether or not an item is of national importance. What are the criteria of this role when it comes to digital cultural assets?
  • What security can be implemented when a digital cultural asset could bypass a physical border and be transferred over the internet?

One conclusion is that there is a lack of awareness that digital can be a cultural asset, let alone that it is at risk of export.

The report (which is now available to read) is only the beginning of a very complex web of conversations that need to take place before the export process can be revised thoroughly. Although it seems daunting, the questions that this report raises are an exciting insight into the future of collecting in the UK.

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