Visioning in the digitally mature museum

This ‘explainer’ by Dr Marco Mason forms part of University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums.

The resource is aimed at museums that are already confident in undertaking digital projects and are making use of digital technologies in many areas of their work. For other museums it may offer inspiration by showing what can be achieved once digital practice becomes an integral part of your approach to all aspects of your museum’s activities.

Jump to: What do we mean by ‘visioning in the digitally mature museum’? | Why does visioning matter? | How do I build the vision? | How do I define appropriate strategies? | How do I cultivate digital practice? | Where does digitally mature visioning have an effect? | Further reading

What do we mean by ‘visioning in the digitally mature museum’?

Visioning: this is the process that inspires a common view of the museum or organisation in the future to achieve strategic objectives. The ‘visioning process’ helps museums of all sizes to achieve their objectives and fulfill their organisational values, while recognising that museums’ values and objectives exist in a digital society where digital activity permeates everything we do.

A digitally mature museum: this is a museum in which digital practices are ‘everywhere and nowhere.’ Digital approaches are not necessarily limited to one corner of the organisation, such as its IT service, but spread across all museum practices. We also describe this as a ‘post-digital’ museum as “digital media is now an innate part of museum practice” [Ross Parry, 2015]. See the further reading section below for more on the academic theory around this.

In terms of the digitally mature museum, the ‘envisioning process’ is about achieving organisational objectives, fulfilling values, and therefore developing projects in the future. To put it simply, visioning is the process of realising the organisation’s vision.

When we think about visioning we have to think about three building blocks, which are all related:

  1. Vision and values: The museum’s vision aims to define why a museum exists (i.e. its purpose) and what the organisation needs to achieve to be successful in the future, through the definition of clear museum values and overarching objectives.
  2. Strategies: The development of a set of strategies provides direction for planning to implement those organisational values by defining goals.
  3. Practices: These plans are put into practice throughout day-to-day activities.

There are then four ‘digital routes’ that are embedded across these strategies and practices. Depending on what aspects of digital activity we are thinking about, we need to consider:

  • How digital activity is created.
  • How digital activity is managed.
  • How digital media are used.
  • How digital activity is understood.

Why does visioning matter?

  • Visioning matters because it provides museums, their staff and their volunteers with a common purpose, a shared strategic goal and programme of work and suggested best-practices to work towards. This is particularly important in digitally mature museums, in which digital practice influences so many roles and skills across the museum.
  • Visioning supports museums when they embark on a digital transformation. It is essential to have a clear understanding of what your museum is and why it exists (this is the museum vision) and the direction you want it to take (this is about strategic goals). Creating your vision and strategy is an essential part of any museum transformation process and of any digital change.
  • Visioning is a central process in modernising your museum and driving it towards transformational change because visioning starts from expressing museum values. These values respond to and express changes in the sociocultural, economical, and digital landscape in which museums operate. This understanding of context allows museums to adapt more easily to a fast-changing (digital) world.
  • Visioning is crucial in (digital) museum transformation because museums tend to rely mainly on digital technology to pursue digital transformation. In fact change has more to do with organisational culture and values, planning, and day-to-day activities than technologies.
  • Vision and strategy provide people with a cohesive view. They help people to visualise the future of their museum, by providing the necessary common vision.
  • Visioning is a process that can guide museums through digital integration rather than disruptive technological transformation.  Museums that rely on technology-driven transformation alone are less effective in terms of digital transformation because they lack a clear and effective visioning process. Visioning leads your museum through the process of transforming working culture. It allows people to develop a ‘digital’ mindset and digital practices that are aligned with and – most importantly, embedded within – the museum’s culture and organisational working practices. This approach, is necessary because, as Collections Trust suggest, it is about culture change:

“In the long-run, ‘going digital’ is all about achieving a lasting change in the working culture of your organisation.”
  • Visioning is a process that works toward a change in organisational culture by operating across the different levels of strategy and practice (see the digital routes outlined in What do we mean by visioning? above). From activities taking place and tools used within museum practice, to strategic direction and evaluation and the organisation’s core values, digital practice is understood and integrated in different ways at different levels. This is what allows digital activity to be normalised, integrated and embedded rather being viewed as a separated activity or project that exists on its own.

How do I build the vision?

First, you have to set out a clear vision statement. This outlines those values that shape the organisation’s culture and defines what the museum wants to be. As the museum vision fundamentally belongs to (and results from) the museum’s people, their mindsets and behaviours are motivated and inspired by the values embedded in it. Every digital activity should be – directly or indirectly – driven and inspired by the museum’s vision.

You have to understand the context in which your museum operates before establishing your vision. This means defining the social, economic and cultural contexts in which your museum exists. The resulting values will reflect its context and its current priorities and future trends. In a digitally mature museum, digital activity, in most cases, is not a museum value in itself.

You have to create a vision that ‘belongs’ to museum people and stakeholders. The only way to achieve this is to create the vision with people and not for them. This means understanding the needs of staff and volunteers, as well as stakeholder’s demands, by investigating internal and external expectations and needs.

Make the vision simple and clear to all, within and beyond the museum.  The vision should become embedded in culture and practices. Use the most effective means available to keep it visible and present. It should not remain hidden in a drawer of the director’s desk.

Communicate the core vision (and strategy) to allow alignment with it across the whole organisation. In other words, museum people and practices, including digital activity, can align to and are working in line with the museum’s overall purpose and values. At the same time, a clear vision delivers a strong message to the outside world and external stakeholders about what the museum is and how it is viewed by the people involved in it. For example, if your museum’s values express a clear understanding of social context and the mediascape (or the world in which the museum is operating, as broadly portrayed by mass media) it is more likely that donors and volunteers will make a connection and support your museum.

How do I define appropriate strategies?

A strategy is the plan that allows you to fulfil the museum’s vision (that is its purpose, values and overarching museum objectives). A strategy is inspired, nourished and guided by the museum’s vision. To fulfil this, a set of specific strategies are created to give direction to the overarching strategic objectives (for instance a visitor engagement strategy, a collections management strategy, a public spaces strategy, a marketing strategy, a social media strategy or a digital engagement strategy). The digital strategy can either be a separate strategic plan or integrated into all of them (in which case there is no need for a separate digital strategy).

All in all, a digital strategy:

“Should be a driver for change that is not about technical development, although this is important to consider, but more about how to ensure digital fits into a wider public engagement strategy and programme of activity”

Derby Museums Digital engagement strategy, p70

A digital strategy sets particular objectives for digital programmes or for a digital presence within existing and future museum programmes and gives direction to implement them. A digital strategy is the document that defines how a museum can move forward using digital activities across its programmes.

The strategy should address (but not necessarily be limited to) the following main issues:

  • People – your staff and volunteers, audience and internal/external stakeholders
  • Context – your institution within the existing digital landscape, for example, in relation to other museums locally and globally or, more in general, to the evolving digital landscape
  • Performance measurements
  • Guiding principles
  • Actions – for delivering the strategy
  • Principles of good practices that your museum has considered to implement the digital strategies (which will result as valuable insights for future reviews and refresh of the strategy).

A digital strategy should start with people and not technology. Museums should understand their audiences, staff, and external stakeholders by defining who they are and what they need and want. Dedicate a section to this crucial aspect.

A digital strategy should be reflective of the existing digital condition of the organisation. This reflective exercise can be facilitated by exploring the museum’s digital landscape – through a critical understanding of the digital nature and presence of digital activity in other museums both locally and globally. In addition, a digital strategy should promote communication with peer organisations – for instance through communities of practice (see Developing a digital community of practice and How to set up a digital community of practice) – working on similar projects. This will allow you all to benefit from shared experience and expertise. In this reflective process, museums have to bear in mind that the specific purpose of digital transformation can vary from one museum to another. For example, a key issue for most institutions is how content-rich museums have digitally created and made available their content.There are several relevant resources available to the cultural heritage sector such as Collection Trust’s What does digitising collections involve? Pathway.

Other sources of support include conferences dedicated to museums and digital issues, many of which offer open access to papers and proceedings and a wide range of resources signposted on this Digital Pathways site.

A digital strategy should justify every action by defining performance measurements such as ‘key performance indicators’.  Measuring the performance of a particular activity, in which digital elements play a part, allows the museum to ensure that what is delivered matches aspirations and meets the demands and objectives of stakeholders. This is not about measuring technological performance but rather how digital activities contribute to visitor engagement, communication, developing the museum brand, etc.

A digital strategy should clearly state the guiding principles of digital transformation before defining tools and operations to implement it.  For example, in their digital engagment strategy, Derby Museums believed in the importance of “defining the digital ethos” because digital transformation “lies in the ethos behind the messaging”. One of their guiding principles states that the importance of “inspiring digital conversation [as] a natural process” should be considered when planning ways to implement strategic goals. The emphasis here is on ‘conversation’ and not on any digital technology to be used to as communication tool.

A digital strategy should define a ‘roadmap’ for delivery and offer direction on how to put the strategy into practice. This part of the strategy needs to define which tools and techniques are appropriate to use to deliver it. First of all, museums have to identify the main strategic objectives they are trying to achieve in the future and, only then, consider how digital can be employed to achieve those strategic goals (rather than starting from the question ‘what can we do with this particular digital technology?’) For example, the digital strategy may provide direction on how to create and manage digital content across platforms.

A digital strategy should not necessary be disruptive. It can be conceived as an incremental framework for short-, medium- and long-term sustainable digital programmes to achieve the organisation’s core goals in stages. This approach allows the museum to make changes and innovate through refinement rather than investing a large amount of money, time and resources straight away.

A digital strategy should respond to rapid changes in the digital landscape and evolving digital trends in the cultural heritage sector. It should be flexible enough to correct and change priorities if key aspects of the landscape change. It is part of the strategy to review and refresh the strategy periodically.

A digital strategy is the expression and result of consultation. Everyone involved in the museum should contribute to the process that leads to the creation of the digital strategy. Ultimately, however, the responsibility rests with museum leaders to make it effective across teams and departments.

How do I cultivate digital practice?

Digital success relies ultimately on how your museum operates and on staff practices. Practice is what allows strategies to fulfil the museum’s vision and enact its values. 

It is essential to avoid viewing ‘digital-as-technology’ and looking at digital as ‘thing’ on its own in your museum. Instead it is more helpful to think of ‘digital-as-activity’, and as something that is integrated with other museum activities.

Phase two of One by One defines a model that focuses directly on understanding the digital components of an individual’s activity (see Report Phase 2). By focusing on the term ‘digital activity’, we created a model that emphasises the importance of an individual defining their active relationship with ‘digital’, whether as technology, content, system, culture or product, rather than having to specifically define ‘digital’ itself.

The model defines fours dimensions of digital activity:

  • How digital activity is used (use of particular digital tools, platforms or technologies).
  • How digital activity is managed (the ways in which museum people manage digital systems, workflows, resourcing, projects, partnerships and more).
  • How digital activity is created (how and what we create, for example creating content on digital platforms).
  • How digital activity is understood (how we think about digital; digital is something to reflect on).

Digital practice in an organisation is not just about recruiting a digital ‘super-expert’ or buying expensive digital tools. This will not be sufficient, if digital practices are not driven by a clear vision and an effective strategy. It is important that leadership takes responsibility for making changes by developing and communicating strategies and supporting and integrating digital activities in museum working practices. This approach will be crucial to avoid practices that are too technology-driven rather than insight-driven.

Strategies should support practices that foster activities in an open way to share knowledge and learn collectively, by encouraging peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. Being open in this way enables museums to be more responsive; a necessary condition in an ever-changing digital world.

Visioning can produce positive effects and foster innovation only when it supports collaborative practices in organisational working culture. Collaboration is paramount to changing the inward-looking or isolating culture of an organisation (a situation often found in museums of all sizes and structures).

Where does digitally mature visioning have an effect?

Museums should promote a digital culture across teams and departments. I started this resource by saying that in the digitally mature museum digital is ‘everywhere and nowhere’; and I conclude it by underlining that a museum with digitally mature visioning is an organisation in which everyone should be responsible for using, creating, and managing digital activity.

Further reading

Features and benefits of digitally mature museums

Museums are not just adopting new technology, but rather they are embedding digital in their vision and strategy, organisational working practices and skills sets, and ways of thinking and decision making.

Parry (“The end of the beginning: Normativity in the postdigital museum” 2013) describes this digital transformation as an emerging condition that is defined with the concept of the “post-digital museum” (also referred as “the digitally mature museum”), explained as a transformation that sees digitality acquiring a normative presence and penetrating into museums’ missions, structures, and practices.

To find out more about the postdigtial museum / digitally mature museum:

Parry, Ross. “The end of the beginning: Normativity in the postdigital museum.” Museum Worlds 1, no. 1 (2013): 24-39.

Another valuable source to find more about museum post-digitality is the recent Routledge handbook of museums, media and communication.

Drotner, Kirsten, Vince Dziekan, Ross Parry, and Kim Schrøder, eds. The Routledge handbook of museums, media and communication. Routledge, 2019.

I report two illustrative extracts from two chapters respectively:  

According to Dziekan and Proctor (chapter From elsewhere to everywhere: Evolving the distributed museum into the pervasive museum)

“the term ‘postdigital’ can be defined as a response to the entanglements of media life after the advent of digitalization. Rather than approaching the processes, experiences, and actuations of digital as indistinct from other, non-digital aspects of material culture and societal practices, postdigital instead describes a hybridized approach through which the implication of computation can be broached as a defining problematic of contemporary life.”

Barry & Dieter, 2015

The theorist and SFMOMA digital specialist Peter Samis (chapter Revisiting the Utopian promise of interpretive media, p. 47) describes how:

“digital technologies have moved from the periphery to the center of museums’ institutional awareness and identity, and from siloed departments to pervasive presence.”

Human-centred design

We can identify some characteristics that are often part of the human-centred design process:

  1. It is necessarily focused on people and aims to develop a deep and empathic understanding of visitor experience.
  2. It is a collaborative practice carried out by multidisciplinary teams and, often, with visitors.
  3. The team follows an iterative process that helps members to move from generating insights about people (e.g. visitors) to generating ideas, testing them and finally to implementation.
  4. Within this iterative process, prototyping is considered an integral practice.
  5. To accelerate learning and foster collaboration, visualisation methods such as sketches and diagrams are used.

For more information, see Mason, Marco. “Design-driven innovation for museum entrances.” Museum Thresholds: The Design and Media of Arrival (2018): 47. (Preprint version).

A successful example of human-centred design in Derby Museums

Derby Museums embrace a human-centred design (HCD) culture as part of their working practice and organisational working culture. It is one of the tactics they employ for delivering strategies (an HCD strategy handbook was specifically created and made available for all staff). It aims to promote more collaborative and human-centred practices.

Resources of these emerging practices in HCD and Design Thinking

Dana Mitroff Silvers (Design Thinking Facilitator and Digital Strategy Consultant) runs a website that makes available to museums different resources and examples of DT projects:

Kati price (Head of Digital Media, Digital Media) actively writes on topics related to HCD practice and presents V&A (digital) projects: