Remotely possible? Access to collections data during lockdown

Map of UK showing fairly distribution across the country of museums unable to access collections information remotely.
Museums unable to access collections data remotely

Staff and volunteers from around 40% of UK museums are without access to the collections information they need to work remotely from home. That’s the headline finding of a survey carried out by Collections Trust in the first few weeks of the nationwide lockdown, and it’s a problem shared across museums of all types and sizes. CT trustee Taniah Simpson crunches the numbers and sees a sector struggling with basic issues of digital resilience.

Across the UK museums, like other organisations, have had to change the way they operate in the current global pandemic. They have been forced to close their doors unexpectedly, not only to the public but also to staff and volunteers, unprecedented in peacetime.

Unable to provide physical access to the collections they hold, those not furloughed have been proactively looking at ways to continue their collections-related work remotely, not least to stay connected with audiences through social media and other online content. But what does this mean when staff and volunteers aren’t able to access the raw material of museum content – collections information – from home?

At the very beginning of the UK lockdown Collections Trust posted a short online survey asking some key questions about the challenges (or not) of accessing collections information remotely. We had a hunch it might be a widespread problem, and wanted a snapshot of its extent and an understanding of the issues and barriers facing the sector.

Over the first three weeks of April 2020, we received responses from 265 UK institutions. In some cases, we had more than one response from the same place, often with revealing differences depending on the seniority of the respondent within the organisation. There were a handful of additional responses from elsewhere in the world. Firstly, thank you to everyone who responded. We know you have many other priorities and concerns at the moment.

Pie chart showing 63% of museums can view collections information online, and 37% cannot.
Are your staff/volunteers able to view your collections data from home (eg from an online database on your website)?
Are you able to view and work with your collections data from home?

We first asked: “Are your staff/volunteers able to view your collections data from home (eg from an online version of the database on your website)?” An encouraging 167 institutions (63%) reported that they could, with 97 (37%) saying not. However, when asked whether staff and volunteers could access the collections database remotely in order to carry on working as they would at the museum, only 152 institutions (57%) said they could, and 113 (43%) said not. Tellingly, a number of larger museums that answered “yes” to the second question qualified it by noting that, for example, only senior managers with work laptops could access collection management systems via a VPN (virtual private network).

How many staff and volunteers are affected?

We also asked how many staff and volunteers needed to access collections information in order to carry on working from home, but were unable to do so. The 113 institutions who said they could not access their collections databases remotely reported that 441 staff and 232 volunteers were affected. In several cases, respondents did not give figures, but reported that staff had been furloughed or all volunteering suspended.

Pie chart showing 57% of museums can access their collections management systems remotely, while 43% cannot
Can you access the collections database remotely to carry on working as you would at the museum?
What software do you use?

We asked what software museums used for their collections data. For reasons of commercial confidentiality, we won’t publish those results here, but where respondents gave us permission to share their responses with the relevant software suppliers, we have done so. We know from follow-up conversations that they are contacting those customers and, in many cases, there may be temporary workarounds. We have compiled a round-up of the support being offered by those suppliers who are Spectrum Partners. So please do contact your supplier, as the solution to your problem might be simpler than you think.

What are the main barriers?

When we asked an open question about the main barriers preventing access to collections information from home, about half the the 113 institutions without access mentioned problems with their own institution’s IT infrastructure. This response is typical:

“Our new CMS … is able to support remote working but our internal IT infrastructure is not set up to support remote desktops, and secure network access through VPNs etc. to enable us to use the database.”

Other problems reported include the provision of equipment such as work laptops, and restrictions on the number of software licences available:

“We are a small museum and have single use licence, but even with multiple use I gather it would not be possible.”

Slow connection speeds, and only partially-computerised collections data, are also problems:

“Our database only contains a very low percentage of collection as in process of being entered on to [the CMS].”

You also told us of staff placed on the government job retention scheme, who are not allowed to work even if remote access to collection information were possible.

Conclusion

So what did the survey tell us?  Given the many challenges you told us about, it was encouraging to hear that a majority of museums can access basic collections data, if only to view via an online version on a website. Those with entirely web-based collections management systems are, unsurprisingly, faring better than those hosted on the servers of, say, local authority IT departments with stringent security requirements. But too many museums – including some of the biggest – are unable to give their remaining staff and volunteers remote access to the information they need in order to do any kind of collections-related work.

Considering the recent talk in some quarters about museums entering the post-digital age, this survey suggests a sector struggling with basic issues of digital resilience – and perhaps not just when it comes to collections data. We suspect the way we all manage collections information will change in the longer term as a result of this, and thank all those who shared their current experiences with us. Your responses will help shape our approach to helping the sector tackle these challenges.