Digital myth

Mia Ridge, 17.01.2014
Museums need to explode the myth they are technologically backward
Apparently English museums are behind in the digital revolution.

This came as news to me, and possibly to you too. Admittedly, I’m biased, as I’m currently chair of the UK’s Museums Computer Group (MCG), a professional community of over 1,000 people working in museum technology.

I’ve also seen countless wonderful digital museum websites, apps, social media projects, gallery interactives and more as I’ve visited museums around the country, reviewed proposals for various digital museum conference programme committees and voted for my favourite online projects in international “best of the web” awards.

But a recent report, Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology, by independent research agency MTM, for the arts council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and Nesta, puts it somewhat differently: their analysis “by organisation type suggests that museums may be less engaged with digital technology than other arts and cultural organisations”.

Apparently museums are “less likely than the rest of the sector to report positive impacts from digital technologies, particularly in terms of revenue generation and audience development”.

This didn’t sound like the sector I knew, so I turned to the MCG discussion list to ask what its members thought.

List posters suggested possible reasons for museums poor showing, including museums tendency to be more self-critical than other organisations, and the different revenue models in place across the arts sector.

But one observant poster cut to the heart of the problem by looking at the survey design, which asked about impact over the past year: “If you have been ... doing digital things for a number of years the impact in the last 12 months may well not be as dramatic as for those who have only recently started.”

English museums have been at this “digital” thing for quite some time now.

When the MCG ran the first UK Museums and the Web Conference in 2001 the hot topics were virtual reality, online collections, interactive educational resources, broadcasting and TV, legal and technical frameworks for museum technology, community archives and “exhiblets”.

The MCG has covered the gamut of technologies in museums - from museum informatics systems, picture libraries, ecommerce, gallery interactives, multimedia, hand-held guides and social media to 3D printing and wearable technologies - since its founding in 1982, and UK museums were represented at the first international Museums and the Web conference in 1997 (and their archive of past papers should put any doubts about digital innovation in museums to rest).

Arguably, compared to the other organisations surveyed, one third of which only introduced online ticketing in the past year, museums have been leading the cultural sector.

When thinking about museums and the digital revolution, it turns out that thinking back over the past 12 years is more informative than “thinking back over the past 12 months”.

But putting issues with survey design aside, the reporting on “attitudes and organisational structure” does raise some interesting questions.

Museums report lower levels of “digital expertise and empowerment from their senior management and a lower than average focus on digital experimentation, and research and development”.

This chimes with the results of a small survey I ran in 2010 asking about the issues facing museum technologists.

There’s clearly a lot of digital expertise in museums (though it’s also clearly not evenly distributed). And some museums are almost “post-digital” as they seamlessly incorporate technology into their overall strategies and projects.

So how can we bridge the gap so that senior management in museums understand the impact of digital technologies and allow more space for experimentation?

And why does this “museums are behind in technology” meme have a certain truthy ring to it that’s hard to shake? What can we do to dispel it forever?

Mia Ridge specialises in user experience design for participation and engagement in cultural heritage and the digital humanities. Her research at the Open University focuses on the effective designs for participatory digital history and the collaborative enhancement of historical materials. Her edited volume, Crowdsourcing our cultural heritage, will be published with Ashgate in 2014.