At the heart of every organisation is its people. People bring skills, attitudes, knowledge and enthusiasm to their work, without which museums couldn’t achieve any of the things they do. So it seems right to begin our exploration of ‘Going Digital’ in museums by thinking about the people involved – who, exactly, does ‘digital’ in a museum? What skills does the museum need to have access to in order to make the most of the opportunities of technology, while avoiding the risks?
At the Collections Trust, we think very hard about the people we’re aiming to serve. As part of the planning of the ‘Going Digital’ programme, we’ve been thinking about the different roles within the museum and how they can help or hinder the adoption of new ideas and new technologies. So far, we have identified the following groups:
Directors, leaders and board trustees in museums face a number of challenges in their work. They have to generate revenue, plan for the future and avoid risks, all while remaining true to the cultural and educational purpose of the museum. While they may or may not be personally engaged with technology, their primary focus is often how to choose the right tools to promote the success of the museum while avoiding spending money on fads and novelties.
There is a tribe in the museum community of highly digitally-engaged people, often called ‘museum technologists’, who combined deep technical knowledge with creative vision. They can see the transformative impact of technology on other industries, and are eager to ensure that museums can take advantage of the same opportunities. The enthusiasm and interest of the innovators often take them outside the sphere of technology and into related fields including copyright, revenue generation and audience engagement through social media.
There is an ever-increasing number of people working across many different roles in museums who are personally highly digitally-literate. We have gone beyond ‘digital natives’ and are now welcoming into the workforce people who curl up at night clutching their smartphone, and whose first act in the morning is to check in with their friends via an array of social platforms. Whether they are engaged in learning or leadership, collections or facilities, these people are bringing a different kind of connectedness and perspective to their work by default because that is how they tend to live their lives outside the museum.
There are also lots of people working in museums for whom technology just isn’t that big a deal. It can be useful and/or frustrating, but it is a tool alongside all the other tools they use in their work. These people may or may not use technology in their personal lives, but the evidence suggests that this isn’t particularly a function of age or demographic – there are just people for whom digital is a bit of a fuss.
A lot of the digital work that goes on in museums isn’t actually commissioned by the leaders or the practitioners. Instead, it is commissioned by exhibition designers and content providers as part of the overall process of designing museum experiences. Their decision-making is key – the IT platforms that are commissioned as part of the kit-out of a new gallery or refurbishment may well remain in place for 5-6 years. This is important because the focus is very often on ‘just get it done’ approaches, which meet deadlines but don’t necessarily serve the overall digital strategy of the museum.
There is an increasingly blurred line between the museum and the commercial suppliers of digital tools and software. Many digital suppliers report that their work with museums is much more like a creative consultancy and much less like supplying a boxed product. This symbiosis between the museums and the suppliers is critical – suppliers can bring in new knowledge and ideas from related sectors and museums elsewhere.