Is it time for a rethink on how digital technology is utilised?

Rob Sharp, Issue 118/05, p7, 01.05.2018
The sector has given a cautious welcome to the UK’s first policy recommendations bringing together culture and digital. By Rob Sharp
The government’s Culture is Digital report, published in March, could help museums rethink how they use digital technology, according to those who gave advice on the publication.

The report’s policy commitments include the National Archives convening a taskforce to address barriers to the strategic digitisation of collections, and London’s National Gallery setting up an “innovation lab” for creating content and enhancing visitor experience.

Several organisations, such as Nesta and the Space, are to develop a metrics framework for assessing audience engagement across digital platforms. Recommendations also address intellectual property and developing relevant digital skills.

Funding for digital initiatives is addressed in the report, but no new money has been made available. Instead, support for projects will come from existing funds.

Tonya Nelson, the head of museums at University College London, who was seconded to the Digital Culture Project, says: “People are very happy that money is going to be devoted to skills development. People were afraid it was all about new innovative projects and being pushed, when really they needed more support.

“What we found out in the study is that the power of digitisation comes through being able to access different kinds of collections and having all those things aggregated.”

Nelson says organisations also need more support with intellectual property issues, as this is preventing them taking on digital projects. This will also be addressed, with the government’s Intellectual Property Office working with organisations such as the British Library to offer guidance and training.

No one-size-fits-all

Nelson says it’s great that so many agencies are charged with delivering and taking forward the recommendations, but adds that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in a sector comprising such a wide range of museums.

“We didn’t want to say ‘you have to have these people or these sets of skills’, because that’s just not feasible,” she says. “We wanted to create a network of resources, so organisations could approach that and say ‘this is what we need, can you help me in this particular area?’. It’s about understanding how digital can help them achieve the goals of their strategy.”

Jane Finnis, the chief executive of Culture24, who was also seconded to the project, says it was an important first step.

“I’ve been saying the same thing for years – and these are the first policy recommendations in the UK that bring together digital and culture,” says Finnis. “All of the recommendations are now being worked on in terms of the detail.

“The recommendations are only the beginning. It’s about using the investment we have as a sector and using the resources we already have. But it’s going to be very difficult
for organisations to build their digital literacy. It’s hard to build new skills.”

Finnis says it is impossible “to ignore the changes in society that digital culture has brought”. She adds: “I’m talking literally about how people live their lives and communicate. For me, this isn’t about technology, it’s about bigger changes in society. We’re still at first base, looking at our feet, thinking there are loads of problems here, and this report shines a spotlight on that very well.”

Tonya Nelson will be among the speakers at Museum Tech 2018: A Digital Festival for Museums, a Museums Association one-day conference at the Museum of London on 7 June.