Technology — Are Museums Keeping Pace?

This article first appeared in the 2016 Winter issue of the Canadian Museums Association’s magazine, MUSE: The voice of Canada’s Museum Community. (Vol. 35, issue 1, pg. 40–45)



Technology is disruptive, and the recent proliferation of technological innovation in our society has forced many in the museum sector to do a lot of soul searching. Museum professionals everywhere are devouring conference sessions, white papers, blog posts, and webinars that focus on the “future of museums” and how museum can keep pace with “change”. Everywhere you turn there are discussions about how museums can navigate this ever connected and information soaked world. Many talk about how museums can change, should change, and the challenges of change. The fact is, Museum have always existed in times of change, change is not a new challenge. It is the pace of change that is challenging, we are in an era of rapid innovation at a scale not seen before in our recorded history. Recently, there has been more thought into how museums should look to integrate digital technology across the organization rather than keep it in a silo to keep pace with this rapid innovation. Integrating digital technology practices and the agile design approach usually reserved for technology start-ups into museum-wide practice has also been discussed more and more at conferences and in blog posts.

Many museums have been slow to recognize that having an app, a responsive website, a robust social media presence, or a mind blowing digital activation are tactics and have overlooked foundational strategy.

In a 2015 Museums and the Web paper, then Director of Digital & Emerging Media at the Cooper Hewitt, Sebastian Chan wrote, “Often it feels like museums make decisions about the appropriate use of technology based upon short term internal needs — the need to have something ‘newsworthy’ …. and occasionally to meet the assumed needs of a specific audience coming to a specific exhibition.” Have you ever sat in a meeting when a senior manager has said, “we need an app”? We’re putting the device before the visitor, so to speak, and not focusing on what really matters. Museum need to update their overall strategy and practices if they are to remain relevant. Adding a shiny new piece of technology as an afterthought to our gallery experiences will not save museums. Worrying about change will not help either.

The Internet is the printing press of our time and has disrupted the way the world creates, shares and consumes information. As traditional knowledge institutions, museums are deeply affected by this and have been playing catch up for decades as the pace of innovation increases exponentially. Michael P. Edson, the Smithsonian’s Director of Web and New Media Strategy, wrote about this recently in his CODE | WORDS essay, Dark Matter. Edson explains that over the last 25 years, “…. Despite the best efforts of some of our most visionary and talented colleagues, we’ve been building, investing, and focusing on only a small part of what the Internet can do to help us accomplish our missions.” What we do know is that people have integrated their digital presence into their physical lives and expect the same from museums, but for the most part museums still see digital technology as an add-on to a traditional gallery/exhibition experience.There are many different theories, strategies, and tactics that could be discussed in an article with this title, however there are three that will help museums to better equip themselves to remain relevant in this century. The focus for museums should be on building a sustainable digital foundation with proper human and financial resourcing by increasing the digital capacity of our staff, being agile, and creating valuable digital engagement onsite with our communities.


The problem is that if digital technology is not integrated within the overall strategy, producing a costly app or other digital experience will not help deliver on the institution’s mission. It becomes a shiny and expensive piece of trash nobody wants or needs. Museums say they want to be part of this digital world but very few have or are willing to put the proper resources in place. Very few museums have been shifting resources to keep pace, yes resources are tight across the sector, but valuable digital initiatives take real time, real staff expertise, and real money to produce. Proper human resources are also a major issue. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York has 70 people working in their Digital Department. (Sept. 28, 2016 update: The MET lays off 34 employees) Yes, the Met is one of the largest museums in the world, but whether you are a small historic house museum or a large institution, proper human resourcing is just as important as the financial side. Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer; and Loic Tallon, Deputy Chief of Digital, explained in a recent post on the Met’s blog how their Digital Department is evolving to meet today’s challenges. “None of the changes we are putting in place is revolutionary, but the changes respond to the changing expectations and habits of our audiences, new practices within the digital sector, and the strategic priorities of the Museum.” The Met is in touch with reality and innovating accordingly.

There are two choices, museums need to staff up or build capacity within existing staffing structures. In the best case scenario museums would do both, but not everyone is the Met and funding is difficult at the best of times. As stated in the 2015 New Media Consortium — Horizon Report: Museum Edition, building digital capacity within your institution is a solvable problem. Enabling your staff to take on new challenges and learn new skills can be extremely rewarding for your staff. Do you have staff who do not know how to code? Encourage them to learn, there are multiple websites and free courses online, enable your staff and have them in turn teach other interested staff. Ed Rodley, the Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum discussed accepting new challenges in a post on his blog. “What are the prerequisites necessary for a person or an institution to embrace new ways? I have four suggestions; Vision, Desire, Attitude, and Focus.” Often, there may be a vision and a desire to increase digital capacity but the attitude and focus are lacking. You need all four attributes to feed innovation. Museums need to stop chasing the shiny new technology and ensure their human resources are adequate to compete in the creative and innovation economy. In many cases we do not have the resources to go out and hire, nor can we compete with the salaries of hottest tech companies. That means it is up to museum professionals to be constantly learning new skills and sharing those skills with colleagues. At the Royal Ontario Museum, we hold monthly workshops where we focus on one small aspect of the digital world, the session is an hour long although we only present for ten to fifteen minutes. This leaves plenty of time for discussion and questions, we learn together. These sessions began in 2012 when the web team decentralized access to the ROM website and continued when we decided to encourage the use of social media by all staff to build awareness about everything the museum does. In 2015, having as many digital competent staff is invaluable, if you can also instill an agile mindset you will be well on your way to realizing your digital transformation.


Being agile is not about who can dart between display cases the fastest without knocking them over. Agile, born out of the software development industry, “… involves multidisciplinary teams working in short sprints (of between one and four weeks) to produce functional software. The concept relies on cooperation, communication, and team spirit,” says the Rijksmuseum’s Digital Manager, Peter Gorgels. Agile is also about realizing that the web is never finished. You don’t redesign your website once and it is done, we live in a world where we need to be constantly updating to provide our community with services they want and need. Assessment is key in any agile project. We need to be honest in this process, give staff the space to admit what is not working, and have an honest consultation with our community. The Rijksmuseum used agile to overhaul their website in 2012/13 and more and more museums are using this process for project management on more traditional projects. Museums usually move from one project to another in a linear way, often around exhibitions. They do research, write the narrative, select the objects, build the exhibition and put it all together. After it is finished everyone pats each other on the back and moves on to the next project. In agile, the phases overlap and everyone on the team is involved from day one. The project may have an end goal and date but the process is one of collaboration and experimentation, of trial and error and transparency but also evaluation. Taking a process usually reserved for software development, working cross-departmentally and completing incremental deliverables to an overall project and applying it to museum practice is one way museums can move into the 21st century. Integrating a process usually reserved for technological development can lead to multiple benefits not originally accounted for as seen at the SouthBank Centre in London, UK, and it will most likely help you solve problems you did not know you had. Proper resources, finding new ways to work and realizing the potential of your digital engagement presence online as well as onsite are all foundational elements for a 21st century museum.

Digital Engagement

How many of you have sat in a meeting where a colleague has said, “we can’t put that online, it’ll give it all away!” Well, have you ever googled the Mona Lisa? There are millions of photos of her and the Louvre is the most visited museum in the world. In 2015, that argument is just not valid anymore. Starting with the Rijksmuseum in 2013, museums all over the world have been opening up access to their collections, copyright free. In a recent article in the New York Times, Koven J. Smith, Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art stated the new reality. “The days of art museums being reluctant to release content are drawing to a close.” Further to this, “The big-picture goal of the open-content movement is to make our entire cultural heritage accessible.” It is time we understand that digital engagement is just as important as onsite engagement, that we must do what we can to provide people with access to our collections, our information, and our stories.

We also need to expand our thinking of what constitutes a visitor, with online visits to museum websites far outpacing physical visitation, it is time to understand that online visitors are visitors too. In 2015, the first place you have to capture someone’s attention is online. If you do not take care to nurture that potential relationship online, they will be less likely to darken your door. This year’s New Media Consortium Horizon report listed “Expanding the Concept of Visitors” as a key trend accelerating technology adoption in museums. Your online and digital engagement presence has direct implication to your museum’s reputation, which has direct implications to your bottom line. People take photos of everything and if your museum allows photography (and in 2015 the benefits of earned media cannot be ignored), ignoring the sharing of those photos on social media is a huge mistake. The word of mouth that your visitors are creating is more valuable than any paid advertising you can do. Think about the last thing you purchased, did you research it online first? Did you look at pictures of the product online? Did you ask for comments or reviews from your family and friends? How did all of these influence your purchasing decision? Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer for IMPACTSwrote in a post on her blog that, “Social media and online engagement positively contribute to your bottom line by enhancing your reputation, which is a significant driver of visitation.” Further, Dilenschneider backed up her claim with data saying that, “reviews from trusted resources are 12.85 times more influential in terms of your organization’s reputation than is the advertising that comes out of your budget.” We live in a world where we can no longer attempt to tell people we are fun and interesting places to spend time, we need our community to do it for us. If we are paying attention to what our community is saying online while they are onsite and having a dialogue with them, that is when we can begin to see real value of our digital engagement efforts and our visitors become more than visitor, they become a community.


What all of this comes down to is value, value for the museum and the community it serves. Increasing your digital capacity, deploying agile practices across the organization and recognizing the importance of onsite digital engagement all lead to value for your physical and digital community. Jasper Visser, the keynote speaker at the 2014 Canadian Museums Association national conference wrote in a post on his blog that museums who employ, “… technologies to systematically engage employees, audience and other stakeholders to maximize their co-created value,” are the ones who are truly taking advantage of the digital tools available to us in this age of innovation. Visser went further and provided an equation that explains this activity. “What you — the institution — are really good at + What others can contribute to this = Something that has added value to the both of you.” With proper resourcing, employing an agile process, and recognizing the value of your online presence, museums can begin to understand their real and potential value to their community. An app, a website, or a fancy and expensive virtual reality experience won’t demonstrate your true value or deliver on your mission.

It is extremely difficult to sum up these thoughts more concisely than the conclusion of John Stack’s Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital a Dimension of Everything. It states that, “… digital used to be the concern of one department at Tate but will soon permeate all areas of work in the museum. This transition will require the right level of resourcing, leadership and engagement from across the organization.” Leadership is one aspect that I did not mention here because traditional leadership is also in flux and a topic for another article. That said, anyone can be a digital leader in your organization, the move to a digital transformation does not have to come from the top, down. Stack also said, “We will achieve this (use digital platforms and channels to provide rich content for existing and new audiences for art) by embracing digital activity and developing digital skills across the organization.” The relevance of your organization in this time of incredible innovation is the responsibility of every staff member. You are responsible for building capacity but also understanding and advocating the importance and value of digital technology and engagement. You are also responsible that your work adds value to the lives of your community and you are responsible for looking at new ways to work, including more collaborative approaches with your colleagues and your community.Initializing your digital transformation will far outweigh any app or new tech tool in terms of value to your community. Proper resourcing, being agile, recognizing the importance of digital engagement and working with your community to create value will enable your institution to not only deliver on your mission, but to keep pace and remain relevant going forward in the 21st century.

W. Ryan Dodge


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