Digital domain

How museums 
are using digital technology to transform their working practices and engage audiences
Jonathan Knott
Conducting on-site visitor surveys using iPads rather than paper has made a big difference to museums in Bristol. Zak Mensah, the head of transformation at Bristol Culture, which manages the city’s public museums, says that because paper surveys needed to be transcribed by volunteers, it could take months before the findings could be used to inform the museums’ work.

“We were onto the next exhibition way before we got the results of the last one,” says Mensah, whose role includes overseeing the organisation’s digital team.

“If the feedback said there was no seating and the lighting was poor, it might be six months before we found that out. And by then we would have launched the next exhibition and made the same mistake. 
By moving to iPads, we get immediate feedback. And staff can find all the survey results on their mobile phone, their desktop, in work, at home – wherever 
they want.”

Museums have realised the potential of digital technology to help them understand and engage audiences, whether on physical premises or online, and increasingly they are looking to integrate it more deeply into their work. But to make the most of digital opportunities, venues may need to make changes to how they operate.
One of Bristol Culture’s key aims is to understand its audience better. So for the past few years it has put a high priority on gathering data about them, using visitor surveys and interviews, and searches entered at on-site kiosks. This knowledge is used to develop services that are more closely aligned with what users want.
One area where this data has had an impact is in programming events, says Mensah. In March, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery held an immersive theatrical evening event that attracted 400 visitors. 
“A year or two ago we wouldn’t have been confident enough that people were interested in that kind of thing, but now we know from our data that they are,” he says.

Alongside providing richer and more timely data, another advantage of working with digital technology is that it is easier to adapt services to user needs as they are being designed. One project where this has happened was during the creation of an app for on-site visitors that launched last year.

“We originally thought people would use the app to walk around individually, but the feedback was that people wanted to use it with their friends and families,” says Mensah. “We didn’t know where the app would end up when we started the project.”

Agile approach

Bristol is increasingly adopting this kind of experimental attitude across its museum service. “Instead of trying to do all things, all the time, digital tools enable us to make changes affordably and quickly, and see how they work,” says Mensah. “We’re much bolder about not trying to achieve  perfection at the beginning.”

This type of flexible approach, often referred to as agile, is used in technology companies and is now increasingly being embraced by other types of organisations, including museums. An agile approach was used by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to design its award-winning new website, and the Science Museum Group developed a virtual reality experience in 12 weeks for its new mathematics gallery, which opened in December last year at its South Kensington site in London.

But Oliver Vicars-Harris, a consultant who has worked on digital projects with large museums, says there are significant barriers to developing a digital culture in cultural institutions. “Digital culture and museum culture are complete opposites,” he says. “Digital culture is, by its nature, disruptive and all about reinvention, whereas cultural organisations are much more long term in their thinking.”

Vicars-Harris worked on putting the Tate collection online in the mid-1990s, which he says met resistance from some curators who wanted to maintain their gatekeeper role.
“It was seen as a huge threat to the status quo in some areas,” he says. “We have come a long way since then, but there are still some entrenched viewpoints that are hard to shift.”

Digital technology opens up many opportunities for distributing a museum’s content, whether that’s done by the marketing team on social media or blogs, or by the digital team in an app. But there is often a reluctance to give staff the freedom to use intellectual property in this way, 
says Vicars-Harris.

Taking risks

Another stumbling block is that museums tend to be awarded funding for large capital projects rather than the experimental initiatives that digital services typically arise from.
“When museums have told a funder that they are going to deliver something specific, they are committed to doing it, even if it becomes apparent early on that it’s going to be rubbish,” Vicars-Harris says.

He helped the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London develop its digital strategy, which was approved by trustees last year, and makes recommendations designed to overcome these barriers. Alongside ring-fencing an annual revenue budget for digital, these include “relaxing control over publishing information, taking a more open approach to content sharing and offering multiple voices”.

Sarah Tinsley, the head of exhibitions and collections at the NPG, says: “We are looking at how to take a more open approach, recognising obstacles that are common across the sector and looking for new ways of working that allow us to be less risk-averse.”
The gallery has set up a digital communications content group that establishes and trains “content 
champions” across the institution “to help ensure a wider, richer spread of content development”. It also hosts regular Instagram takeovers to provide a platform for different voices from within and outside the organisation. These have included students from Central St Martins, in London, and the photographer David Gwinnutt. The gallery also uses Facebook Live broadcasts in the same way.

Data plan

Another museum that is opening up its content digitally is the Science Museum Group. It has published data on more than 250,000 objects in its collections online, 
free to reuse under Creative Commons licences, with the aim that this will be used for research, creative and audience engagement purposes. John Stack, the group’s digital director, says the initiative is inspired by “a belief that digital enables audiences to use the collection in ways not previously possible”.

To encourage people to use the data, the Science Museum is holding hackathon events, the first of which was in February. Stack says the results included games, chatbots (see p41), visualisations and a prototype wearable device that tracked the visitor through the museum and then printed out a postcard of the objects they had looked at longest. “It was great to 
see so many different uses of the data and 
so many approaches,” Stack says.

The hackathon was organised by the Science Museum’s Digital Lab research project, which was launched last year with sponsorship from multinational technology conglomerate Samsung and aims to explore the potential of new technologies through experimental short-term projects.
But it’s impossible to establish a digital culture in a museum if the idea doesn’t 
gain support beyond the digital team. At Bristol Culture, a key focus is developing digital skills among staff, says Mensah. But rather than trying to impose a digital transformation, he has adopted a softly, softly approach. This can be witnessed in the gradual adoption of the project management tool Basecamp across the organisation.
“It started off with just the digital team using it, then it was rolled out to a few other parties,” says Mensah. “Now there are lots of people, such as in conservation, who want to get skilled in using it.”

But while there has been progress in integrating digital into the museum service, Mensah says there is still some way to go. “Measuring the journey on a scale of one to five, I’d say we’re a comfortable three now.”  

Jonathan Knott is a freelance writer. John Stack, the digital director at the Science Museum Group, is chairing a session on collections digitisation at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Manchester (16-18 November).

Creating a digital strategy

Alex Morrison, the managing director of digital media agency Cogapp, says that an increasing number of museums are creating strategy documents to define and formalise their approach to digital. “As the digital agenda has got more important for museums, it’s needed more thought and planning,” he says.

Cogapp recently published a guide to help them do this. It quotes management professor Richard Rumelt’s definition of a strategy as “a cohesive response to an important challenge”. The document seeks to help museums diagnose their situation, decide on a broad approach to addressing it and then translate this into specific actions that are grounded in reality.

The classic error, says Morrison, is “to come up with a grand vision without having thought through the implications”. He warns that “you can’t build a great new website if you haven’t got the resources to do it”.

He stresses that a strategy is only effective when it has the support of senior management. “Strategy only means anything if it comes from the top,” he says. “The word strategy derives from the ancient Greek word for general, so 
the general has to be present.”

The ultimate aim of some museums is to integrate their digital strategy into their wider organisational strategy. But Morrison believes it is better to keep them separate, because the digital world is moving so fast that a digital strategy will probably need to be updated frequently.
“It’s not a sensible position to say that digital is just the 
same as anything else,” he says.

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