The digital transformation of museums is a long-held aim, and while there is broad agreement on what the challenges are, finding solutions has proved trickier.
These challenges include a general lack of confidence, which was one of the key findings of One by One, a research project led by the University of Leicester designed to help build digitally confident museums.
But digital confidence and skills are improving, according to the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s second Digital Attitudes and Skills for Heritage report, which was released in early 2022. The report found that increased digital activity during the pandemic was key, with digital becoming more embedded in day-to-day working practices.
“The research shows that the sector’s skills have increased over the past year,” said the report. “These centre around ‘business critical’ digital practices – including working online and keeping the public connected to heritage during the pandemic.”
But other factors are holding back the digital transformation of museums. One is the failure of organisations to develop effective strategies, something highlighted by Digital Impact in Museums & Galleries, a report commissioned by the Museums Association and Art Fund.
The report identified two other barriers to progress: a lack of sharing digital knowledge across the sector, and even within organisations; and the need for a flexible and responsive funding for digital work.
Related to the funding issue, some in the sector feel there is an urgent need to develop a shared digital infrastructure. Progress is being made, particularly with the recent launch of the Museum Data Service.
This plan – by Art UK, the Collections Trust and the University of Leicester – will create a digital infrastructure that will pool the records of millions of objects and share them for use by the public and researchers. The service will launch in the autumn.
The sector’s other large-scale digital project, Towards a National Collection, is a five-year research programme funded by UKRI’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The aim of this £18.9m initiative is to “support research that breaks down the barriers that exist between the UK’s outstanding cultural heritage collections, with the aim of opening them up to research opportunities and encouraging the public to explore them in new ways”.
The institutions involved in Towards a National Collection include Tate, National Gallery, British Museum, Science Museum Group, National Museums NI and Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales.
The project’s director, Rebecca Bailey, thinks it will have benefits across the sector. She says: “Our overarching aim is to work in collaboration with the sector to bring added value to single-organisation web-spaces and databases, by harnessing innovative machine learning and accessible open-source tools and processes to open up collections to new research and enhanced public engagement.
If we can do that in tandem with promoting, supporting and developing career pathways in digital humanities and computer science to continue to innovate and deliver, I will be particularly pleased.”
This year, Towards a National Collection will develop guidance materials aimed at supporting small and medium-sized cultural organisations with modest or very little existing digital capacity to set up core digital collection infrastructures. Bailey is also investigating ways to work with the Museum Data Service.
“The full mission of digitising, safeguarding, connecting and making accessible the UK’s outstanding digital cultural heritage collections cannot be delivered by just one programme, however extensive, but requires an ecosystem of leaders, partners and funders,” she says.
As well as facing the challenge of delivering on its promises, Towards a National Collection has to overcome cynicism born out of the experience of seeing big projects such as this fail to work for both the sector and end users. These include Culture Grid, which was set up more than a decade ago to help organisations share collections, but was abandoned in 2021.
So, what’s the answer? Effective knowledge sharing and support for users on the ground are particularly important, according to Anra Kennedy, the content and partnerships director at digital consultancy Culture24.
“With a big data project such as Towards a National Collection, as well as the technical strategic advocacy work that has to happen, there needs to be skills support and confidence building among the museum staff on the ground who will be creating and using it,” says Kennedy. “And the end users need to be considered as well – that is an element that can be underestimated.”
She feels many lessons about why large-scale collections projects fail should already have been learned. “As a sector, we should understand all this because many projects have evidenced the challenges and stumbling blocks for projects that try to bring together collections in digital spaces and make them more relevant and accessible,” says Kennedy.
Another key issue is how digital work is funded. Andy Ellis, director of Art UK and one of the leaders of the Museum Data Service, sits on the Towards a National Collection steering committee and is supportive of the project. But he feels public funding for digital initiatives needs to be more strategic.
There is a serious lack of joined-up thinking in government about the digital strategy for the cultural sector
“There is a serious lack of joined-up thinking in government about the digital strategy for the cultural sector,” he says. “On one hand, £19m is being spent by UKRI on researching how to connect the national collection digitally. And on the other, Art UK, the only organisation that is successfully bringing together online a major part of that collection – the nation’s art – is going to be without any regular public funding from this year. There is something wrong there.”
Arts council funding
Art UK has applied three times to become an Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation (NPO), but was again knocked back in last November’s funding round announcement. The arts council is also going to stop supporting Art UK through its strategic funding programme. The organisation had to look to the US for funding for the Museum Data Service, which is backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Culture24 was also cut as an NPO by the arts council, which is continuing to fund The Space, which was set up to help artists and organisations make art and reach new audiences digitally. ACE says The Space has been funded as one of its Investment Principles Support Organisations.
As well as supporting museums’ digital needs through its Investment Principles Support Organisations, ACE says its Digital Culture Network is designed to help organisations in areas such as web design, digital strategy, social media, data analytics and e-commerce.
It has worked with 144 museums since 2019, which has included providing webinars and in-person sessions to help museum staff improve their digital skills, as well as creating resources tailored to the issues museums face around digital technology.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital progress, certain principles will be useful. The effective sharing of expertise, knowledge and experience is vital, as is flexible and responsive funding. Museums should also be crystal clear about the purpose and aims of their digital work.
Could an over-arching digital strategy for museums help? Possibly, but there are no signs of one emerging anytime soon.