Portrait 5 minutes of reading

Géraldine Bueken: the multiple lives of a narrative strategy expert

Article author :

François Genette

News addict, geek culture fan, digital tech aficionado and hardcore gamer, François Genette is passionate about everything related to digital. A journalist for nearly 15 years in the major national and local media, he now uses his pen to share his discoveries from the worlds he loves.

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A constant smile on her face, a determined look in her eye and a chronic inability to stay in the same place for more than a minute. She is Géraldine Bueken, the brilliant and hyperactive organiser of XR4Heritage. An event she imagined, set up, launched and which, in a way, reflects her personal and professional journey. Let’s meet up with her.

1:00 p.m. Our interview with Géraldine Bueken has been going on for no more than ten minutes or so. In that time her phone has rung twice, she has received around a dozen messages and we have been interrupted by members of her team, asking for her help by means of a: ‘Sorry, but you’re the only one who can give us the instructions we need.’

Hardly surprising. Because it is to a very large extent to her that we owe XR4Heritage. It is thus by following her around, almost running to keep up, that we try to learn more about this figure whose personality and dynamism command respect.

‘XR4Heritage is first and foremost about professional encounters. It is the outcome of a thought process which was nurtured in my head for 3 years. I wanted to create this event to offer guidance to the actors involved in culture, tourism, and the public service media, as they go through their “phygital” transformation. I insist on this word because it is both the physical world and the digital world which are coming together. The big question I asked myself was how to create attractive convergences and destinations thanks to the digital world.’

©Géraldine Bueken

Our pace quickens again and she continues: ‘For three years I tried several complementary approaches. The first was to try and inspire these actors by meeting with studios active in these areas, and also to get them to discover best practices. On these programmes I have assisted a total of 60 institutions in scarcely two years, including several cities (Brussels, Charleroi, Mons) and numerous museums.’

it is not enough to talk, you need to try things out and attempt to get convincing results.

Géraldine Bueken

She stops, turns towards us, and makes a key point: ‘My assessment after these discussions is clear: it is not enough to talk, you need to try things out and attempt to get convincing results.’ A thought then springs into our mind: here is someone who knows exactly where she is going.

The storyteller who wanted to change the world

But how did she get here? And where does it come from, this almost all-consuming desire to tell stories, and especially narratives which give centre stage to figures from our past? Where does she get this inextinguishable thirst to establish digital tools and bring together the people who will allow our historical heritage to spring back to life?

Part of the answer can first of all be found in her own journey: ‘I studied at the HIECS, in the ASEP option (sociocultural policy and organisation, continuing education). At that time, I had the utopia that you could change the world on your own. I thus had the idea of using the mass media to change people’s mindsets, break down stereotypes, bring together intercultural dialogue on a single site. This kind of idea.’

Her thing is storytelling, narration. And it was with this passion that she threw herself headlong into her first job, which would genuinely be the making of her: ‘I have a passion for Africa, ever since I was a child. I always believed that I would go and live there. After my studies I left for Morocco on an open three-month ticket. This was after a Namur film festival where I took the business cards of local filmmakers and told them that I would meet them in their country. Once I was there, I got work which led to me stay for three years.’

©Géraldine Bueken

And Géraldine Bueken spent these three years producing no less than 30 television films as an executive producer. ‘This starting point enabled me to learn how to construct stories effectively. I then mainly slipped into content as a scriptwriter for television films and feature films. What I wanted was to offer a cultural and non-elitist aspect. I appreciate the culture which speaks to my daughter as it does to my grandmother.’

There followed time spent in South Africa, after which she initially returned to Belgium, but didn’t find a way of belonging. She therefore decided to head for France, and came across someone who would have a significant impact. ‘I worked for a Sephardic Moroccan woman with whom I had a lot of important reference points in common. Thanks to her I travelled around the world, from festival to festival.’

On the strength of that experience, she attempted yet another return to Belgium, but once again didn’t manage to settle. ‘I was really struggling badly to find work, so I left for Morocco once again. And it was only recently that I got it into my head that I wanted to accomplish something on my own patch.’

An even bigger challenge in our little Belgium

And as is her habit, she has thrown herself body and soul at this idea, with a single thought in her mind: ‘I noticed that when there is a historical event, we always say that it is told by the victors. It is they who dictate history. And yet emerging technologies allow us multiple stories. It is that which we should be working on, therefore.’

She thus decided to build what became XR4Heritage. But it was not easy at the beginning, in particular when dealing with the different institutions: ‘It was extremely difficult, up until I was 35, just to be credible. Nobody listened to me, apart from in Morocco. Then again, for the Belgians I was “the Belgian in Morocco.”’ She continues: ‘I am in favour of multiple identities. I am a woman, but many other things as well. I have the feeling that the directions I have taken in my life gave others the impression that I didn’t tick the usual boxes. I am a bit too much of a free electron for Belgium. In any event that’s the image that I’ve got back from them.’

©Géraldine Bueken

Little by little, things started to develop, and she managed to convince people around her of the merits of XR4Heritage, but also of ambitious and related projects such as the Avatars of Heritage, focused on the invisible figures of Belgian history. A project which she would like to carry as far as 2030, in using emerging technologies to showcase these historical or invisible characters. ‘The Avatars of Heritage is clearly a project which is intertwined with my personal experience. What motivates me is the battle against stereotypes, against racism. And so, in the museum sector, decolonisation and the fight against xenophobia are central for me. And to do that you not only have to include emerging technologies, you also have to change the storytelling techniques.’

To achieve her goals there today remain very significant challenges to be overcome, but things are developing positively: ‘I think that there are a lot of people who, up until now, carried projects and who didn’t have a concept. They theorise a lot. Me, I bring them a narrative which enables them to accomplish their objectives!’

A smile on her lips, she concludes: ‘I think that, today, we have great partners around the table. We have actors from the cities, actors from the museums, actors from the training sectors, university-based innovation studios, and a network throughout Europe.’

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