Advocating for digital work in your museum – 5 reasons why digital matters

There is no getting away from it, digital culture and online technologies are changing every aspect of modern life.  Professionally, this process is called Digital Transformation and it is taking place across every sector.

In essence it is about enabling new types of innovation and creativity within a particular domain (retail, banking, music etc), rather than simply enhancing and supporting the traditional ways of doing things.  As the CEO of the huge technology company Adobe says “the status quo is not a strategy”.

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1 Audiences expect it | 2 It’s really useful | 3 It’s strategically sensible | 4 It’s playful | 5 It can change the world

Most of us experience this on a personal level and have either accepted or been forced to accommodate the transformation in how we shop, book our holidays, manage our money or choose what TV to watch.  But for many of us working as professionals in the arts and heritage sector these changes have yet to reach fully our daily working practices. The digital transformation of the museum sector has only just begun and many of us lack the digital confidence and skills to know what to do. Some of us are not even sure that we want to embrace the changes we see or if they are a good thing.

In the last few years, funders such as Arts Council England and HLF have identified building digital skills as a priority for our sector, which is an important start, but this only tells part of the picture. For many of us there are big internal challenges in getting digital transformation talked about, understood more fully and prioritised internally.

So how can we begin to advocate for the value of digital work in our museums?  This article sets out 5 reasons why digital matters to help you find the right way to talk to any senior management, directors or trustees that are yet to be convinced!

1  Audiences expect it

In the UK 76% of adults have a smartphone and 80% use the internet daily or almost daily. As technology advances, so do the behaviours of audiences, especially younger audiences. We are no longer passive receivers of culture; increasingly we expect instant access to all forms of digital content, to interact and give rapid feedback.  Audiences expect digital information to be easy to navigate and for digital content to be easy to find, enjoy and share.  Think of those increasingly digitally literate children, the young people and adults carrying out so much of their work, learning and leisure time online and with digital tools. If museums are not there, interrupting their journeys around their digital spaces with content and services that work quickly, simply and easily, and that are relevant and useful to them, we’ll just get left behind altogether.

2  It’s *really* useful

Whether your museum is a one-person band or a multi-layered, multi-venue national, digital technologies can help to make your organisation more efficient, resilient, sustainable and responsive. Getting your basic info (opening times, address, parking, facilities etc) online in the right way can ensure people find you easily. Getting even a few of your top collection items digitised and published out into the right platforms, can improve the reach and impact of your whole organisation. Investing in back office systems can save huge amounts of staff time and money. Setting up good practices in how you analyse the data coming from the systems you are using, can help you to be more responsive to user needs and able to respond to problems more quickly.

It’s not all about the latest kinds of digital technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) – it is about getting the basic stuff right first. It may not be as sexy, but if you get that digital connective tissue between your collection records, audience data, interpretive content, ticket sales, websites etc working right, you enable collaboration and evidence-driven decision-making that breaks down departmental silos.  Considering how you can reuse your own digital content, across your different internal systems or in your external promotions and communications, will ensure you a high return on any digital investment.

3  It’s strategically sensible

Any museum hoping to get public funding today will find that funders expect it. The direction of travel from Arts Council England and HLF is towards supporting more digitally literate organisations that have a digital strategy and are considering how to build digital capacity. The drive to become more digital is not just directed to arts & heritage organisations (it is mandatory for all band 2/3 NPOs to have a digital policy).  DCMS reviews of Arts Council England and HLF in 2017 acknowledge the need to develop the digital literacy of these funders as well. 2018 also saw the publication of the Culture is Digital report by DCMS which is the first ever set of policy recommendations that consider digital and culture together – a sign of the importance of this new area of practice for the whole sector and the UK government.

4  It’s playful

Working digitally – creating digital content, digital storytelling, publishing in digital channels, using social media – can be a great way to start a conversation, ask a question, make a comment, tell a joke and share a story. It can help you to be responsive to things that are happening around you in real time. It can be a place to try out something new that you have a hunch about, without having to take a big risk. It can allow you to play around with the tone of voice of your organisation, have fun with your brand and speak more naturally to different types of audiences. Digital is fast-moving, ephemeral and in the moment – all qualities that can make it fun and playful for audiences.  Digital tools and technologies can also add huge value to an experience and can create entirely new experiences that can be rewarding and immersive. Digital technology is breaking down the silos between the cultural sectors, blurring the lines between disciplines – theatre blends with film; computer programming merges with sculpture, the possibilities are still being explored and museums have a lot of rich content to contribute and are trusted spaces.

5  It can change the world

Our shared desire to make the world a better place is what binds the museum community together. We have a passion and commitment that would be the envy of any commercial business!  The knowledge, ideas, evidence and testimonies to past human tragedies and triumphs that our buildings and collections hold mean that we have an absolutely vital role to play in society. We need to be active participants, informed, equipped and confident to play our part – making it easy for people to discover and use our content in ways that suit them. We need to harness digital’s power to promote and support safe spaces in which communities can come together to learn, create, make connections and have conversations, safe spaces for thinking, inspiration and cultivation of ideas.