The government wants to see people enjoying Britain’s national collections from the comfort of their own homes

Sector looks to digital future

Simon Stephens, 03.12.2019
The government recently announced funding for a new digital initiative but museums are wary of top-down solutions that don’t learn from past mistakes
Among a flurry of announcements in the few weeks before the election date was announced came the news that the UK government is providing £19m for a programme that could see “museum exhibits viewed in people’s homes, libraries and schools”.

“The new programme could eventually see art and culture made fully accessible to everyone, with the digitisation of cultural collections allowing people across the country to enjoy Britain’s national collections from the comfort of their own home,” says the publicity for the project, which was announced jointly by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).

“This could expand cultural treasures to those in remote areas and help local museums to engage visitors with innovative, immersive experiences.”

Despite the ambitious aims, there is concern that previous large-scale projects to create national digitised collections have failed.

‘Left to crumble’

“I did get a shiver of worry about the DCMS project,” says Mike Ellis, director of consultancy Thirty8 Digital. “Making a monolithic central resource just isn’t what either the sector, or frankly the internet, is very good at. Things look great for
a year, then investment inevitably falls off and it is left to crumble.”

Others in the sector are concerned about top-down government-led projects that might not meet the needs of museums and the public. “This feels like yet another groundhog day for the cultural sector, with a government that can’t let go of its obsession with innovation and buzzwords when it comes to digital,” says a digital specialist working at a major London cultural institution who wishes to remain anonymous.

“‘Novel technology’, ‘digital catalogues’ and ‘interactive exhibitions’ not only already sound like stale bread from the DCMS bakery, but also ignore the actual foundations of good digital practice in the sector that have been built around apparently unglamorous but necessary, important and impactful things such as digitisation, product development and social media.”

Digital consultant James Morley welcomes the possible injection of new money but says that the focus should be on enabling the sector.

“I’m worried by the over-emphasis on ‘exhibits’ and ‘experiences’, seemingly pre-empting solutions” Morley says. “Likewise, they need to shift from using the term ‘visitors’, and talk about audiences , re-users, co-creators, enablers and third-party platforms.”

The five-year £19m programme will involve Arts and Humanities Research Council Independent Research Organisations working with universities on a series of projects that will be overseen by a leadership fellow. The initiative is part of the Strategic Priorities Fund, which supports research and development, and is delivered through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Collections data

UKRI is also involved in a separate museum digital initiative, following the publication of a research and innovation infrastructure roadmap. This includes a Collections Trust proposal to develop a national aggregator for collections data. This is different from the plan to create a national digital collection, as it is not intended to be a destination site for the wider public – instead, it will be a research and curatorial tool that will connect the collections data held by museums.

There is not yet any funding attached to the project, but Kevin Gosling, the chief executive of the Collections Trust, is hopeful that this will be forthcoming. “UKRI’s infrastructure roadmap programme is intended to guide exactly the kind of long-term thinking and investment we need,” he says.

“As a national body that spans all the disciplines represented within our collections, and has deep and long infrastructure experience, UKRI is well placed to help museums join up and futureproof the results of current digital initiatives.”

Gosling believes a tool that brings collections data together would benefit the sector in several ways, including reaching audiences through the creation of new content; supporting dynamic collections management; improving partnership working; and helping to improve audience data.

Digital aims

Many of the government’s digital aims spring from its 2017 Culture Is Digital report, which set out how museums and galleries can benefit from digital technology.

“Since the report, there have been welcome attempts to join the dots in terms of technology and the museum sector,” says museum consultant Jon Pratty. “That said, there are also continuing attempts to go down blind alleys of development that, to me, appear influenced by the big national and international partnerships.

“At government and funder level, results are sometimes characterised by an obsession with top layers of technology development, such as virtual reality and augmented reality. What we really need are efforts to understand the whole culture, heritage and tourism landscape, and the data and infrastructure that might really bring lasting value in the future.”

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