Reading Macchiavelli’s “Prince” is not a gargantuan task. Still, I postponed it for years, until last october, when my wife, daughters and I drifted into a bookshop in Florence at dusk and looked for some reading that could complement the autumnal athmosphere of the Renaissance tower where we stayed. Somehow Florence itself seemed to tacitly urge me to buy the booklet.
It was enlightening, of course, I knew very little about the city and it’s history. In stead of directing my attention towards Italy I always have focussed on the art, culture and history of Burgundy and its great dukes.
One passage, however, struck me with force, because it fits like a glove on the small and sometimes rather stale world of cultural heritage institutions with is multitude of auxiliary organisations and their consultants: “… there is nothing more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution. The innovator makes enemies under all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm partly for fear of their adversaries, who have the existing laws on their side, and partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience” [Niccolò Macchiavelli, The Prince, Penguin Classics, 2003, p. 21]. A little further on the same page he says ” … unarmed prophets have come to grief”.
It is striking how true this is. Most innovations in the digital accessibility of cultural heritage in the Netherlands were the result of the combined vision of a relatively small group of people who were active in all segments of the sector, in the institutions, in government, in business, in academia. The concepts of web 2 and 3 were part of many plans and advisory texts long before it became the popular topic of conferences. All interesting and lasting changes could be made by the political force supporting the vision. Resistance to innovation mainly originated in establishments that were used to a placid form of unchallenged authority.
Macchiavelli’s lesson is a sound one, and still very fresh und usable in everyday practice. When a cultural heritage institutions develop new information strategies, it is very important not to draw all attention towards the mission, but to consider the role of individuals. Change can appear threatening to people. That is not necessarily bad. As long as these emotions are not overlooked.
Amusing is the fact that now the world of the web has changed, the most ardent enemies of innovation in heritage institutions are now fervently shouting “web 2.0!”. Of course, the visionaries already know that just beyond the horizon web 5.0, ‘the narrated web’, awakes.