Digital systems

This resource looks at how museums are developing IT systems and networks to address the changing needs of the organisation and its audiences. Once your museum has identified its digital people and created its new digital strategy, it is time to think about the IT systems – both software and hardware – that you need to have in place to support your colleagues. Unless you are very fortunate and are building a new IT infrastructure from scratch, it is likely that your digital development will involve the gradual development and improvement of a legacy setup. So how do you plan for the long-term, while enabling your museum to be agile and creative with content and technology?

Step 1: Understanding where we are

The first step in any development or planning is to understand where your museum stands today. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your setup? What are the systems people are actually using (as opposed to the ones that the museum formally thinks they’re using!), what are the fixed points such as contracts or local authority IT policies, and what plans are in place for things like refreshing IT equipment? A quick IT audit can reveal all sorts of interesting things about your museum. We have seen museums that operate dozens of different collections management systems, spread across multiple departments. There may be ‘unofficial’ IT projects going on in corners of the museum that you never knew about! There is no single way of carrying out an IT audit (and there are some very complicated approaches based on auditing standards), but some things you might want to consider include:

  • The departments or functions in your museum (eg. finance, collections, learning, front-of-house etc).
  • The IT hardware in use in each department, including PCs, tablets, mobile devices and servers.
  • The software used by each department, such as finance systems, collections management software, email, productivity software.
  • The people authorised to use a particular piece of software.
  • The term or period of contracts and licenses relating to hardware and software.
  • A critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the software people are using.
  • An assessment of the risks or security issues associated with a given software or hardware platform.
  • Any information about disaster recovery, backup or emergency planning.
  • Information about any standards you are using, such as Spectrum.
  • A tally of the costs associated with each software or hardware platform.
  • Information about any policies pertaining to your software or hardware.
  • A description of your network environment (eg. local area network, WiFi).

Carrying out an IT audit is an additional piece of work, but it is one that you can often find a volunteer to help with. It is useful to consider an approach based on a combination of self-assessment questionnaire and face-to-face conversations (people are often happy to tell you about systems that they wouldn’t feel comfortable about writing down!)

Step 2: Principles and objectives

Now that you have a comprehensive understanding of the current setup in you museum, you can start to set out principles and medium-term objectives that will guide your decision-making and prioritisation. The principles underlying your IT setup almost act like a service level agreement, setting out what your museum and your staff can expect from their IT. Again, there is no standard approach to this, but some areas you might want to consider include:

  • The refresh or write-off cycle of your hardware (this is often set by the finance team as part of a broader policy on depreciation).
  • A statement of commitment to providing access to high-quality IT services, including reliable connectivity and development support.
  • A statement of how different teams or departments can request new hardware or software.
  • A statement of how hardware and software will be supported in the organisation (and how people can call on IT support).
  • Information about training or development for staff in making effective use of systems.
  • Prohibition or guidelines on developing new systems not part of the museum’s overall IT provision.
  • Any statements of general principle, such as a commitment to open-source systems or avoiding lock-in to systems.

Alongside these principles, it can be helpful to set out medium to long-term goals for your IT systems. These can include things like:

  • A commitment to ensuring network access across the museum.
  • Migrating to new hardware (or virtualising into the cloud).
  • Commitments to upgrade existing systems.

It is often useful to include these goals in your digital strategy (or your more general forward plan) and to secure buy-in from someone at a senior level to ensure that they are periodically managed and reviewed.

State 3: Visualising your systems

There are many different ways of thinking about the systems in your museum. Sometimes, systems are designed around the specific needs of a particular team or department, and are really only used by that team. These are ‘standalone’ systems, designed around a specific purpose. Just as most museum activities, however, involve people across different teams, so too do most activities need to interact with different systems. For this reason, it is often useful to get an overview of how the different hardware and software systems fit together. This visualisation of your systems is sometimes referred to as a ‘stack’, because of the way that different functions stack on top of each other. A key consideration, when planning for the development of the different IT systems in your museum, is how effectively they enable the different people across the museum to work together, and how adaptable they are to your current and future needs.

Step 4. Make a plan

Once you understand your current and future needs (ideally set out in your digital strategy) and the way your people need to use IT systems to support their work, it is important to set realistic priorities. It is very rare that a museum gets an opportunity comprehensively to overhaul its IT systems, hardware or software all at once. Instead, you will need to set out short, medium and long-term priorities. Museum IT development is often quite ad-hoc and responsive. This is why it is useful to set out long-term objectives, so that you can be confident that short-term decisions form part of your overall strategic direction (and also to avoid the risk of wasting money as technology rolls ever onward). Your plan will be specific to your museum, but it might address:

  • Short-term (immediate) priorities, which might include things like information security, urgent upgrades or replacements for outdated equipment or specific targets relating to other activities such as events or exhibitions;
  • Medium-term (1-3 year) priorities, which might include things like staff training and development, supporting new functionality or activities or the deployment of a new website;
  • Long-term (3-5 year) priorities, which might include plans to virtualise your hardware into the cloud, migrating to a new collections system or introducing a new system such as a Digital Asset Management System (DAMS).
Things to consider

Once you have audited and visualised your IT systems and set out objectives for how you want to develop them, there are some useful additional points to consider:

Hosted vs. Cloud

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about whether organisations should maintain their own IT infrastructure in-house, make use of locally-hosted infrastructure (such as servers) or ‘virtualise’ both their software and hardware by situating them offsite in the cloud. There are pros and cons on both sides, and the right decision for your museum really depends on your scale, your needs and budget and how much access to have onsite to local IT support. A locally-hosted IT setup gives you full control over your systems, but needs constant maintenance and support to ensure that it is reliable and supports the needs of your staff. A Cloud-based or remotely-hosted setup can reduce costs and allow you to add extra capacity when needed, but can cause issues for your staff, particularly when accessing applications through a browser.

Modular and scalable

Without going too far into techno-jargon and buzzwords, one of the key considerations in developing your museum’s IT provision is how it will grow and adapt to meet future demand. We have already seen in the previous decade an increased emphasis on online interaction and the emergence of social media as well as new handheld and mobile technologies. This pace of technological change is likely to continue as people make more use of connected devices in their daily lives. There is no way to guarantee that your systems will be future-proof, but there are some things you can do to give yourself a fighting chance:

  • As far as possible, use standard formats for your electronic information – even if your systems are proprietary, it is important to try and avoid ‘locking’ your content into any one system or platform. Being able to migrate relatively easily from one platform to another makes it easier to adapt to future needs;
  • Choose ‘Spectrum Compliant’ systems – the Spectrum standard has been designed around the current and future needs of collections professionals, so whether you are developing a Collections Management System or a Digital Asset Management System, the ‘Spectrum Compliant’ badge gives you confidence that a system meets professional standards and that their developers are actively working with the cultural heritage community to develop new functionality;
  • Either choose a middleware platform such as the ‘Collections Information Integration Module’ (CIIM) from Knowledge Integration, or ensure that your systems support API (application programming interfaces) so that they can share information seamlessly across different parts of the museum (and with 3rd parties if that is something you want to do);
  • Avoid contracts or licenses which lock you in to one version of a given software platform – always try and ensure that your support and maintenance contracts include an upgrade clause to allow your museum to benefit from ongoing improvements to functionality and new features.

It’s all about the people!

It is vital to remember that any development of digital strategies, systems or applications is first and foremost a question of managing change in your organisation. The best IT setup in the world will fail if people don’t feel comfortable using it, and if it doesn’t support them in doing their jobs, 9 times out of 10 they will find workarounds that will cause more work and expense further down the line. It can be useful, whether you are a large or small museum, to consider setting up a ‘Digital’ or ‘IT’ working group, made up of non-specialists from around the museum, who can meet periodically, talk about how things are going, identify emerging needs and ensure that changes are feed back into the organisation effectively.

Date created: 2014

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust