Digital dawn

Mark Macleod, 03.06.2013
MuseumNext: senior managers now recognise importance of digital
It started five years ago as an unconference in Newcastle with one key speaker and a small room of delegates - all were expected to participate.

This year MuseumNext was in Amsterdam with 400 delegates and keynotes from New York (Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum), London (Science Museum), Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) and Dublin (Science Gallery), and it was difficult to prevent people participating.

A keynote from Seb Chan started the conference on a strong footing with an honest look at his achievements and ambitions for the Cooper-Hewitt's digital offer.

Two elements resonated with me: he wanted to hire people smarter than himself then give them training; and the idea that “the prototype is the product” (he termed it “institutional wabi sabi”).

Although not new ideas for success, it is important senior museum professionals hear and adopt such bold strategies.

The idea of launching something early was repeated in other sessions by the V&A and Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and I hope will be seized by leaders and curators in smaller museums.

Sections of the museum audience have experienced beta products (think Google) - once an idea is out there its suitability can be truly tested and facts instead of fiction can then be used to develop future versions, be they websites, collection APIs or collections online.

In times of austerity, participation and relationship building are necessary and this was not lost at MuseumNext with examples in the UK from Your Paintings, the USA from Affection Management and Ireland from the Science Gallery where exhibitions are often “Wow”, sometimes “Eewww” but always thought provoking and participative, for example Blood Wars.

A new word for me from this session was ablative: "ablative cultural institutions allow projects to be done by or with the public or draw ideas from the public", akin to a web 2.0 for museums.

Innovation and sharing successes and failures also featured with MOSI and the Happy Museum showing how museums contribute to social, economic and environmental change.

Flow Associates updated their 2012 presentation on Museums 2020 and Audio Tour Hack showed big museums were not averse to unauthorised audio guides which review an exhibition creatively, specifically the art of John Chamberlain viewed as post-apocalyptic transformers history.

Previous MuseumNext conferences left me inspired to experiment with augmented reality and online communities and to visit new contacts. 2013 was a conference that consolidated relationships and left me thinking museums’ digital offering is now receiving more recognition from senior management.

An example is the Rijksmuseum's recent launch of Rijks Studio, complementing the redeveloped museum.

Its success can already be seen, with iPad users spending an average of 15 minutes on the site, while online and mobile visits both increased by over 100%.

We heard the director wanted the website to be visual and they were then focused on the term “close” in everything they delivered.

Observing a steady growth in senior buy-in over the five conferences confirms the importance of digital tools to all museums.

Each must at least consider their collection and audience then decide if there is a need to make changes - for example is your museum website mobile compatible?

Moving the digital discussion closer to an institution's strategy means conferences like MuseumNext, Museums and the Web and Bits2Blogs remain important; ensuring ideas, creativity and networks around technologies continue to be shared.

Visit the conference tumblr for more links to presentations, blogs, images and tweets compiled over two days of activities.

Mark Macleod is a freelance museum professional and blogs at