Museums doing digital and museums doing good — can we forge a connection?

Sejul Malde
Sep 27, 2017 · 12 min read
By Chocolateoak (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

To say we live in changing times insufficiently describes our current experience of the world. The pace of political, social, technological, environmental and economic changes has been dramatic, particularly over the last few years. Within such an unpredictable and fluid environment, organisations of all types are challenged to remain relevant, but particularly those seeking to explicitly serve the public realm, including museums. The question of how museums can become more relevant in and for a changing society therefore has particular currency.

In seeking out answers to this question there are two significant areas of focus within the museum sector today. The first examines the digital transformation of museums, looking to understand how museums can become more relevant in an increasingly digital culture. The other area explores how museums can shape their social purpose to become more relevant to changing social needs. Exploring the connections between these two areas, through understanding the social purpose of digital technologies, seems essential in responding to the challenge of relevance. Yet curiously museums know very little about the overlaps. These two areas are influenced by contrasting agendas within a museum, namely the museum as business compared with the museum as civic and public servant. These have long acted as strangers at the same party, socialising at opposite ends of the room and barely casting a glance at each other. Can they be brought together and a conversation struck around the social purpose of digital technologies for museums?

The digital transformation of museums

Over the last 5 to 10 years the digital transformation in many museums has gathered pace. This has leant on business practice and has embraced digital technologies to optimise the operational value and efficiency of museums through a range of new systems, processes and models. It applies the principles and language associated with a business view of digital transformation such as service design, data driven decision making, digital asset management, agile development and customer/user value. The digital transformation agenda in these museums is typified by the following practices:

· Implementing digital systems to improve internal processes such as finance, time, resource and client management.

· Improving asset management by implementing digital collections management systems.

· Engaging audiences digitally through web publishing, digital apps, mobile games and in museum technologies such as those using augmented reality.

· Promoting museum programmes, events, collections and other content via digital marketing and distribution strategies, particularly via social media.

· Capturing and interrogating large audience data sets for strategic insights.

· Generating income through e-commerce systems such as online ticketing and online retail systems.

· Designing innovative digital products and creative media.

· Creating new digitally enabled business and fundraising models.

· Developing digital strategies.

For some museums this digital transformation agenda is so evolved that digital practice has become implicitly embedded across the museum, in its workflows, processes, language, working rhythms and behaviours. This refers to the ‘post digital museum’ that Ross Parry observes in the practices of some museums where the influence of digital technology has become normalised.

The social purpose of museums

The other area of focus asks the question: what is the purpose of museums in society today? This requires museums to reflect on their place in the world, moving beyond an assumption that museums are creators of social value through their mere existence, to become more actively and conspicuously purposeful in order to address key social issues such as poverty, inequality, intolerance, discrimination etc. through their work. This area is not to be confused with the increasing instrumentalism of the wider UK cultural sector, shaped by New Labour cultural policy in the late 1990s, requiring all arts and heritage organisations to demonstrate tangible social impact in their work in order to access public funding. This current area of focus is not influenced by the vagaries of particular cultural policy pressures, but rather by a much wider debate about the type of civil society we want to live in during a time of massive social change, and the development of an increasing citizen/civic culture as a response to this.

Much of the social purpose area of focus advocates radical change in the organisational mission, mind-set and practices of museums. Robert Janes asks whether museums are mindful of what is going on in the world around them. ‘Planet Earth and global civilisation now confront a constellation of issues that threaten the very existence of both.’ In response to this he outlines the concept of ‘a more responsible museum and the need for a heightened sense of social, environmental and economic stewardship as the foundation for a sustainable future, in a time of profound social and environmental change for society at large.’ Jocelyn Dodd describes how ‘The socially purposeful museum could not be more different to the traditional museum. It actively embraces its social role, working towards the creation of a vibrant, inclusive and more just society.’ The Museums Association, through their ‘Museums Change Lives’ vision encourages museums to develop their role as socially purposeful champions, to help the public understand, debate, and challenge societal concerns.

There have been several examples of museum based initiatives, projects and research studies that have sought to respond to this rallying cry. These interpret social purpose in a range of forms. For example:

· The Happy Museum project re-imagines the museum as an active steward of people, place and planet, responding to the challenge of creating a more sustainable future.

· The current Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations aims to shape future best practice to support arts organisations (including museums) to better understand and develop their civic role.

· The National Alliance for Museums Health and Wellbeing advocates for museums to work with communities to improve health and wellbeing.

· The Creative People and Places initiative, which involved museums such as Beamish Museum, sought to connect and empower communities and create better places.

· Richard Sandell has researched and written extensively about how museums have an important role to play in promoting human rights, social justice and equality, and several museums have an explicit focus on social justice in their work.

Valuing digital social purpose

By Martin420 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There are significant resonances between these two areas of work. Both look at the ability of museums to adapt, challenge existing approaches, highlight new opportunities and, ultimately, seek out greater relevance for museums in today’s society. Despite these resonances, their connections have hardly been explored. There is very little in the way of research and practice that explicitly seeks to understand the social purpose of digital technologies for museums.

Yet the need for museums to connect these areas is becoming increasingly important. If museums are to remain relevant in our fast-evolving and increasingly digitally-influenced world they need to recognise how society itself is changing because of digital culture, and respond to these changes meaningfully. The social shift is far more profound than simply more people surfing the web or using their smartphones. It’s about changes to our identity, our wellbeing, the information we consume, the democracy we participate in and the networks and communities we connect with. This isn’t always positive, for example we are increasingly seeing the role that certain social media activity has played in creating filter bubbles, spreading fake news and challenging open public debate. But whilst digital technologies can be a driver of these changes, good or bad, they can also be used positively in responding to them.

Digital technology is helping create more open, participatory and alternative forms of democracy. This could refer to the use of digital tools to provide information and promote transparency for existing representative forms of democracy, through online consultations or by improving and simplifying the way citizens experience Government services online. It could also describe the ways in which information and communications technologies (ICTs) can promote more participatory forms of Government, by enabling citizens to make decisions directly through online tools. For example a number of parliaments, including those of Brazil and France, are experimenting with new tools to enable citizens to propose and draft legislation. Digitally driven democracy might also look to support alternative, more direct forms of Government, by democratising the public sphere e.g. participatory budgeting.

Also digital technology presents new opportunities for social innovation, enabling innovators, users and communities to collaborate and co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at previously unimaginable scales and speeds. This approach advocates the use of open data, open hardware, open networks and open knowledge creation. For example cities such as Sao Paulo and Barcelona, are using FabLabs (digital fabrication labs) to empower citizens to develop ideas that improve urban governance and meet local needs, whilst others are using shared open online data to create innovative solutions to address local urban issues. Other examples of digital social innovations include the work of charities in using mobile, mapping and cloud technologies to enhance the way they deliver social services in the developing world, or projects such as Too Wheels and Disrupt Disability which are using digital technologies to create cheaper and more specialised solutions for people living with disabilities.

There are many examples, like these, of other sectors embracing the social purpose of digital technologies to create shared value for themselves as businesses and for wider society. Can museums, as important organisations within the public realm, similarly explore the social purpose of digital technologies to create shared value?

Exploring potential models of digital social purpose for museums

So what might a model of digital social purpose for museums practice look like? Despite there being no explicit exploration of the overlap between the digital transformation and social purpose areas of focus, some museums might argue that there is already social purpose embedded in their existing digital practice. An analysis of the perceived social value of these digital practices might shed some clues.

The ‘Digitised Museum’

A significant proportion of the digital work undertaken by many museums relates to the digitising of collections, and opening up access to the public of these digitised collections through open licensing, online aggregation and publishing. More recently much focus on museums’ digital practice relates to their use of digital technologies to promote engagement with collections and exhibitions, both within the museum and over a range of online channels. There is an argument that this digital work is of immense social value, in terms of promoting the preservation, access, engagement and learning of cultural heritage for the public, which museums are regarded as the stewards of.

Whilst this is an appealing argument it is premised on the fact that museums are inherently a social good, and therefore any digitally influenced practices that promote access and engagement between them and the public must also carry an inherent socially valuable quality. In contrast the social purpose debate within museums explores a much more activist form of social value for them, requiring them to look outwards into wider society to better understand deeper social needs before exploring practically how museums can become useful in addressing these. As Robert Janes states such museums ‘purposefully pay attention to events in the outside world, above and beyond internal museum concerns.’

The ‘Participatory Museum’

Another significant area of museum digital practice relates to the use of digital technologies to support participatory practices with audiences and communities. These range from projects using crowdsourcing to improve digital collections, to using social media channels to foster greater two way discussion and interactivity with communities of interest; to embracing maker culture by using digital tools, spaces and labs to reinterpret collections, co-create exhibitions or ‘remix’ the museum. The perceived social purpose of these participatory digital practices leans towards fostering greater cultural and creative democracy by promoting participation.

Yet there are question marks over whether these forms of participatory digital practices can fill the gap identified for digital social purpose in museums. Arguably the extent of social purpose realised is linked to whether there is genuine participation running right through the work. To be genuinely participatory is hard. It requires the museum to challenge years of existing modes of working, to review its own authority, to embed the learning from the project back into its very core, and to maintain relationships with communities even after projects have finished. Museums have long struggled with participatory work, even outside of digital practice. There is a risk that participation is assumed, when focusing specifically on digital participatory work, because there is a digital element, whereas in reality the museum, its authority and its assets, still retain priority over any genuine participatory activity. Ultimately this needs to be viewed on a case by case basis, but care must be taken that perceived social purpose isn’t just limited to ‘being social with communities’, rather than promoting any meaningful socially engaged practice.

The ‘Social Museum’

A more emerging area of museum digital practice builds on ideas of participation to advocate for a co-creative approach towards its overall governance, strategies and processes. In these cases it’s more than just using digital tools to facilitate a participatory activity, rather it’s drawing on digital culture to advocate for democratic participatory values in shaping the museum itself. This is illustrated by various writers and practitioners, for example Jasper Visser calls for the development of a ‘Social Museum’ model which describes a museum that has the strategies, processes and technologies in place to maximise the value created by all individuals involved, from directors and curators to visitors and passers-by and everyone in between. Bridget McKenzie discusses the ‘Sociocratic Museum’ that goes beyond just participatory tactics towards governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities. Interesting examples of museums pursuing this form of participatory practice include the Silk Mill, Derby which through its Remake the Museum initiative encourages visitors and volunteers to become citizen curators, designers and makers, learning new skills or applying skills they already have.

There is much to learn from this when thinking about how museums understand digital social purpose. These approaches demonstrate a more convincing argument for cultural and creative democracy. The extent of participation prescribed in these approaches is significant. They focus on the core of the museum rather than on the margins, and the participating communities have significant agency and authority. They also advocate for radical organisational change that aligns with what is laid out in the social purpose debate. There are however some challenges as to whether this informs a model of digital social purpose practice for museums. Arguably the activist nature implicit in the social purpose debate is less obvious in this work. Despite the democratic nature of the participation advocated, this still relates more to influencing internal museum concerns i.e. its governance, strategies and processes, than looking to directly address concerns in the world outside the museum.

The ‘Useful Museum’

The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) provides an interesting example of a museum seeking to do just this. It presents itself as a ‘useful museum’ expressing a desire to have an influence on society and repurposing art as a tool. The museum aims to take a leading role in addressing current issues within politics, economics and culture, and contributing to change. Their programmes encompass themes such as housing, migration, inequality, regeneration, and healthcare. MIMA’s director Alistair Hudson describes how this represents a shift in mind-set and overall approach, so “it’s no longer about people trying to join in the art in the museum, it’s more about the museum trying to join in with what’s going on out there [locally]… and what’s happening in the world, and demonstrating how art can contribute to some of the main significant social problems that we have.”

Similar to the ‘Social Museum’ model, the digital aspect of MIMA’s practice has less to do with digital tools but more to do with digital culture. Hudson describes how MIMA’s philosophy of being a ‘useful museum’ is heavily influenced by digital culture, drawing upon the principles of usership and user generated input. Perhaps MIMA’s approach represents a starting point to thinking about digital purposeful practice for museums. It would be interesting to see how museums could develop this further by combining the activism of MIMA, as influenced by digital culture, with specific socially orientated digital practices gleaned from other sectors, such as those relating to digital democracy and digital social innovation.

Further enquiry

By Marco Brotto (Author sent via OTRS.) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Exploring the social purpose of digital technologies represents an emerging area of focus for museums, but one that seems critical if museums wish to remain relevant in a dramatically changing public realm. At this point we are merely scratching the surface of understanding what it could mean for museums, and there are currently more questions than answers. For example can museums embrace digital tools, technologies and digital culture to foster greater activism, civic values, active citizenship and combat social isolation, and if so how?

In formulating answers, museums can draw upon the significant work already undertaken in shaping their digital transformations and examining their social purpose. But they must connect up these two areas of work, seeking out the touchpoints that can shape future digital purposeful practice. Developing a response also requires looking outwards to better understand changing social needs and learn from the digital practices of other sectors in responding to these needs. Culture24 wants to do just this by working collaboratively across the sector encouraging debate, experimentation, reflection and learning around these issues.

Sejul Malde

Written by

Research Manager @Culture24. Trustee @situationsUK. Loves to ask questions. Find me often deep in thought somewhere between London and Brighton