Making the Digital Museum Human-Centered

Earlier this month, before the clocks rolled back and sunset still came at a reasonable time, Ray, Robert, Eric and I were in New Orleans for the Museum Computer Network (MCN)’s 2016 conference. We were there to talk, think and hear from museum professionals on all aspects of a museum’s digital network; from websites and accompanying integrations, to social media, apps, digital interactives, and the people who run them. The theme of the conference was “The Human-Centered Museum,” so before I get into this recap it’s only fair if I explain what makes a museum human-centered.

A focus on people

Okay, so this seems obvious, but when we really got down and thought about it, we realized that often the people part of the museum is overlooked or taken for granted. Cait Riezman’s Ignite presentation, “My Friend, the Museum” touched on this when she pointed out that often the first words we use to describe a museum are not words we would use to describe a real person.

Riezman goes on to say: “If our institutions are going to be living, breathing, changing members of our communities, maybe even as friends, then it only makes sense that the core traits we associate with them should be real, human traits.” Her final argument? That for museums to become human-centered, museums must first be more human.

So if people are what make the museum human-centered, how can we ensure that the digital museum is also human-centered? I’ve compiled the following suggestions as answers to this question based on the great conversations and sessions presented throughout the conference.

Accessibility and inclusion initiatives should be at the forefront of a museum’s human-centered strategy.

Think of people first. This means all types of people—young, old, people with disabilities, people from different backgrounds or with different opinions. Accessibility extends beyond ADA compliance and web accessibility to making sure the museum is not excluding certain groups or narratives from its storylines in physical and digital spaces. There are several ways we can make the museum more inclusive: by listening to the conversation, thinking about the different ways people will join in on the conversation (for example a visitor with visual impairments using a screen reader on the website), and then sharing stories of people that don’t often get their stories told in a museum. Starting conversation about inclusion (or a lack thereof) in a museum is a big step to take since many people are often sensitive to opening up themselves or their institution to criticism that can sometimes come from these conversations. To help, speakers in the session Creating Anti-Oppressive Spaces Online put together this GitHub repository for attendees to reference, and tips and tools were shared on Twitter throughout the conference.

Tweet by @SinaBahram: "Here is how to make your #mcn2016 image-based tweets human-centered and inclusive to all. Please share"

Here’s the link shared in the tweet above so you can make your tweets accessible:

To be more human-centered, digital strategy should be open access.

Open access is a hot-button topic for museums at the moment as many begin to display their collections online and participate in conversations around copyright, fair use and other logistics that go into making a collection available online. Some people consider open access to be another facet of accessibility because it gives people with physical or economic disadvantages the ability to “visit” and learn from the museum despite the challenges they face. When you expand content available through a website it blurs the line between the digital and physical space—allowing all users to interact with the museum before, during and after a visit.

Open access is also important because when museums release original images of works in their collections online they become the authoritative voice on the image. Users can look to museums as a resource instead of using a 3rd-party source that may have an incorrect reproduction. In one session, Liz Neely urged attendees to consider open access from the end-user’s perspective. She pointed out that online audiences expect museum websites to look like the rest of the Internet by presenting rich visual content with information about that content easily available. Nothing is more human-centered than considering audiences’ needs from all perspectives and then meeting them where they want to be.

Support staff with empathy and solid communication structures to maintain innovation.

Museum visitors aren’t the only humans in the building; museum staff play an important role in shaping the personality of the museum. If they feel listened to and fulfilled, their work will be happier and more productive. Staff at all levels should work to break down silos that form in an institution that may be a hinderance to active communication, and work to include digital strategy in the primary strategy of the museum. (You can read an example of the benefit of merging digital strategy that was shared on Twitter during the conference from SFMOMA here.) With digital strategy in mind there were many discussions on innovation, but innovation doesn’t apply only to tech projects. Innovation can also be a change in a museum’s mindset around workflow or staff support. For example, attendees expressed concern over the growing number of tech projects that are launched but aren’t maintained by the museum after the newness of the tech has worn off. They called for museums to analyze their existing legacy systems before bringing on new tech to ensure there are enough resources in the museum to support and maintain it.

Tweet by @alisonsigns reads "Future of museum technology: INFRASTRUCTURE. Would you let a pipe leak? A foundation rot? No! Then why do we bandaid broken tech? #MCN216"

How will you make your museum more human-centered?

These are my takeaways on how we can make the digital museum human-centered based on discussions held throughout the conference, but honestly there were way too many ideas to put into one blog post. Did you attend MCN or follow along on Twitter? In what ways are you making your museum more human-centered? We’ll definitely be pondering what we can do to make the web more human-centered for our friends in museums and cultural centers, so stay tuned in the coming months for updates.

It should be noted that many ideas here are not my own; they came from thoughtful speakers, including Trish Oxford, Nikhil Trivedi, Sina Bahram and Eric Gardner in Creating Anti-Oppressive Spaces Online; Effie Kapsalis and Lanae Spruce in Sparking Inclusive Dialogue; Peter Jaszi, Andrea Wallace, Ronan Deazley, Liz Neely, Simon Tanner and Anne Young in So, Can I Use that or Not? Navigating Rights, Reproductions, and Risk in an OpenGLAM World; Agnes Stauber, Laura Mann, Douglas Hegley and Jane Alexander in Funding Models for Museum Tech Projects; Sarah Bailey-Hogarty, Erin Fleming and James Provenza in A Human-Centered Approach on the New SFMOMA Website; Shelley Bernstein, Suse Cairns, Rob Stein and Nik Honeysett in After the Launch; Catherine Bracy in her keynote speech and the many wonderful people Tweeting under #MCN2016. You can see more from the Twitter conversation in our moment below: