How cultural institutions can rise to the challenges of the digital revolution

by James Fox (Product Manager)

A recent article in the Guardian highlighted the breadth of issues which cultural institutions are facing. Visitor numbers declined by 1.4m in 2016, blamed on factors ranging from changes to educational curriculums, a lack of blockbuster shows, and even fears of terrorist threats. Squeezed budgets are also making it more essential than ever to create digital products and services that can demonstrate true, trackable worth that can feed back into a broader digital vision. Positively embracing the need to undertake a transformational change into more agile and lean processes could turn these challenges into opportunities.

The organisations that will succeed in responding to this new landscape will be those who focus on 3 key areas;

  1. Democratising their data and collections
  2. Responsibly embracing emerging technology
  3. Preparing for new realities

Democratising data and collections

A shift in audience expectations for information on demand1 also presents its own challenges. Exhibitions, and the chance to experience artefacts in person, curated into powerful and thought-provoking experiences retain their magic, but there’s an increasing need to take them well beyond the walls of the museum.

Of course it’s rarely possible to display complete collections at the same time, so opening up the true depth of the data available should also be considered an area in which digital can deliver significant value. And this democratisation also responds to the social responsibility that exists for institutions in taking historic events and aligning them with the events of the past. Putting the data into the hands of 3rd parties helps to foster innovation, leveraging the creativity of individuals who perhaps aren’t directly involved with the museum. Considerable scope for fresh insight also exists when data is open to academics, artists and the public to explore and curate information, perhaps even crossing over institutions which might not traditionally be combined.

The British Museum have shown the way in opening their data, starting with the provision of their collection online More than 3.5m objects are now available, both to end users and in machine readable formats for developers and technologists.

Emerging technology

We shouldn’t underestimate the value placed on authenticity and physical objects by younger generations of digital natives. Whilst the downward spiral in the number of school trips to museums might not be reversed in the short or even medium terms, 3D printing may present a way to fill the gap. The ability to handle and experience a 3D printed artefact cannot currently replace an encounter with the real object, further context and understanding can surely be found through the ability to handle a representation. As the quality improves and cost of the printers is reduced, the penetration of devices and usefulness of the printed objects look set to increase. Sir John Soane’s Museum recently introduced their ‘Explore Sloane’ project, encouraging artists and academics to experiment with a range of 3D models and hi-res images created from their collection. Two of the museum’s rooms have also been recreated in detail, enabling exploration from anywhere across the globe.

New realities

Virtual reality representations of galleries and museum spaces may struggle to replicate the authentic experience of the real thing, but releasing objects could also foster greater innovation. Organisations like the Center for PostNatural History are already using different ways to order and curate to investigate objects in interesting new ways. Google’s Tango project clearly signals their intent to push into museums into augmented reality, delivering new ways to explore collections. Mainstream awareness and adoption of AR and VR, especially post Pokemon Go and perhaps with the release of Google’s new Daydream VR headsets, should mean that we move beyond experimentation and into the realms of creating useful products.

Written by James Fox, Product Manager at Mentally Friendly. We are a digital product studio with a mission to bring new solutions and technology to the world’s cultural institutions. For a more detailed look at our principles for Intelligent Product Design, and interviews with other industry leaders, head over to

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