An Outsider’s View of Museum Digital Strategy

Written by | November 21, 2016 | Posted in Insights, Museums, News & Culture

I’ve been involved with digital strategy for over twenty years. I founded my first web design firm in 1995 when websites could have any color backgrounds, so long as they were gray. I’ve consulted and advised companies large and small: colleges, agencies, non-profits, start ups, publishers, healthcare, manufacturing, banks, venture capital firms, and more. But I just returned from the Museum Computer Network conference in New Orleans, having recently accepted a new position as CEO of Cuberis, a web design and digital strategy firm specializing in museums and cultural institutions. I took a lot of notes, talked to a lot of people, but I came away from this conference with two overarching impressions. One, museums are extremely complex organizations! And two, God bless museum directors! It seems to me, as someone new to museums, that museum directors must be dizzy from contending with the vast array of competing concerns, competing voices, multi-faceted goals (often in tension with one another), compounded by the velocity of change that digital technologies are having upon their institutions.

The Association of Art Museum Directors code of ethics establishes that,

“The position of a museum director is one of trust. The director will act with integrity and in accordance with the highest ethical principles… a museum director is obligated to implement the policy of the governing board for the benefit of the institution and the public. The director is responsible for ensuring that the institution adopt and disseminate a code of ethics for the museum board, staff, and volunteers.”

The museum director, under the guidance of the governing board, is entrusted with stewarding their institution’s mission–to protect, preserve, and promote their collections. Museum directors bear a great weight of responsibility as they serve institutions that were founded to speak to us from the ages, and unto the ages. Museums are generational institutions, with generational trusts. They preserve our cultural heritages–not only for the benefit of our communities today, but for our children, and our children’s children.

This weighty trust, and important stewardship, is being seriously impacted by the digital revolution. The information age presents museums with some amazing opportunities to expand their reach, and deepen engagement with their collections–goals that are perfectly aligned with their ultimate mission to cultivate knowledge and experiences through the cultural treasures they preserve. Yet, at the same time, these very technologies are competing for, and eroding, our attention spans, distracting us, and in the words of Neil Postman, we’re “amusing ourselves to death.”

So while it’s true that digitizing and opening up access to a museum’s collections can indeed extend their reach to many who may never have opportunity to visit a museum’s facility–and likewise scholarship and research is wonderfully enabled through digital access to museum collections–while this facet of a museum’s mission is bolstered–digitization also puts downward pressure on encouraging actual museum visits. The same digital initiative both serves and undermines different facets of a museum’s mission.

And it’s not just competing goals that stand in tension in the digital age, but the effort to digitize entire collections, and the technical costs of enabling rich search capabilities requires significant allocation of a museum’s limited resources. Accessing collections on the Internet is free for the visitor, but getting collections there in the first place is not free to the museum. It may be, however, that the deep seated appetite for more and more access to free information, fostered by the information age, will mean museums simply have to work toward free and complete digital access to their collections. But maintaining facilities, staff, storage, and security will never be free to a museum. And so the digital revolution is demanding more from museums, even as it diverts its resources, and decreases the public’s presence in its halls and galleries. All this even as other sources of funding continue to shrink through diminished grants, and reduced government allocations.

To make things even more challenging, museums sometimes become the playground for bleeding edge technologies, like augmented reality, virtual reality, and all sorts of very shiny technological projects and installations. While these initiatives are usually funded through grants, and may have a short term positive impact on engagement and attendance, such endeavors–while produced by grant–are not always maintained by grants. Legacy projects can become a technical albatross to a museum, requiring ongoing allocation of shrinking resources after a grant is used up. And that cost does not even begin to measure the opportunity costs of such projects. Human resources, and museum opportunities are limited–just because a thing can be done, and has funding–is it always in the museums best interest to assign its attention and human resources to these efforts?

Then there’s social media. Don’t even get me started on social –  SQUIRREL!

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These are real problems. Digital is both helping and hurting museums at the same time.

But then again, for every digital technology that perhaps ought to be ignored, there are others that really ought to be utilized for the practical improvement of a museum’s operations. Customer relationship management and email automation, for example, could significantly help with membership cultivation, donation solicitation, and event registration. A basic content strategy with old fashioned SEO optimization can mine and marshal the riches of information and create abiding digital resources from the work already being done by researchers, curators, and educators. Museum directors have to decide which digital initiatives ought to be prioritized, which should fall within the museum’s operational budget, and which should seek grant funding I have to imagine that our museum directors must often feel overwhelmed by the clamor from digital initiatives. Discerning the real opportunities from the distractions must be profoundly perplexing for museum directors.

I’m new to museums. My points of contact are currently few and remote. But I don’t think these kinds of challenges and tensions are likely to get simpler as I get closer. But I do hope that my long history with digital strategy will perhaps add some ballast to the boat as directors make important decisions about digital strategy for their museums. Good thing I get energized by a challenge–I’m looking forward helping our museum clients navigate these waters!

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Eric Holter, Owner & CEO

Eric’s passion is to make sure museums focus on the most meaningful digital strategies that serve their core goals–helping them to cut through the clamor of an ever-increasing set of possibilities–to focus on the real opportunities digital offers our treasured cultural institutions.