Beyond Visitor Experience

How and Why to Change the Conversation about Technology in Museums

Jun 29 · 7 min read
Photo by Rodolfo Cuadros on Unsplash

When we think about technology in museums, most of us tend to think about apps that help visitors navigate through a museum. If we think about what tech in museums will look like in the future, chances are our minds go to augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR). Few of us think about tech from a back end or infrastructural point of view, except when expressing irritation at the shortcomings of a CMS, or how to improve or change the content on an institution’s website. But museum tech extends far beyond these few familiar touch points, and museums are far behind other industries when it comes to thinking about how tech can support the more effective and efficient execution of institutional goals.

The conversation about how and when technology can be impactfully leveraged in museum management played a significant part in this year’s Museum Next: London — one of a series of conferences that fosters conversation around the most urgent challenges facing museums today, and provides a platform to those voices making waves to meet those challenges in an innovative way. While technology has often played a big role in how museum professionals talk about innovation, that conversation is changing to encompass a broader scope of applications for tech in museums beyond the visitor experience apps and interactive exhibits that are usually top of mind.

Among the conferees and presenters, Kati Price, Head of Digital Media at the V&A Museum and Catherine Devine, Business Strategy Leader for Microsoft Museums & Libraries were especially insightful contributors whose presentations were key to illuminating what museum tech beyond the interactive looks like.

A major takeaway from the conference that both Price and Devine pointed to is that the next big, visitor-facing technological innovation will likely be augmented and virtual reality. But, while those technologies have been deployed in some museums, leveraging them in a way that is both dynamic enough to truly be a value-add, and inexpensive enough to not be overly burdensome to an institution, is still a few years off. In the meantime, conversations about technological integration in museums can and should be focused on applying available technologies to existing processes that haven’t otherwise been updated in a long time, such as content management systems and digital collections.

Some other key points illustrate where the leading edge of this industry is in mid-2019:

· There is not a ton of tech knowledge in museums, and that has to change. Devine identified the skills gap in technology, data analytics, AI & machine learning as a significant problem which, if left unchecked, will keep growing. Without these tools, museums will have an ever-more difficult time with audience retention and collections management and, as this gap widens, institutions will have an ever-more difficult time catching up. For institutions looking to rectifying these oversights cannot simply hire a tech lead. As with any other successful initiative, Devine argued, technological acumen has to be centralized, committed to by top leadership, and bought into by all key players.

· Investing in closing the tech skills gap is worth it, and a growing number of institutions understand this. Tech isn’t something to do on the cheap — it’s something to invest in the same way, Price told the audience, as those departments museums are accustomed to investing in, like marketing or exhibitions. Without proper funding, any initiative — tech or otherwise — will ultimately fail. But just as important as funding is leadership. Digital transformation, after all, is not about the tech, but about the people. Once key team players on board, innovation that can improve the organization as a whole will be more plausibly within reach.

· Institutions with an integrated tech vision need to follow up with product roadmaps. Impactful tech is baked into, and derived from, the core mission of an institution. But the success of any subsequent undertaking will turn on having a plan for that initiative that considers the total product lifetime. There must be a plan for how to market and launch that product, a roadmap for how to improve on that product during its lifetime, and also a plan for sunsetting that product. Speaking of product development…

· Most institutions shouldn’t be in the business of building their own app. Doing so requires a type and level of expertise that most institutions do not have in house. But finding and working with a software developer unfamiliar with the particularities of cultural institutions can strain the talent you do have. Rather than expending time and money reinventing the wheel, consider acquiring any of the white-label or network-connected solutions available on the market that will enable you to meet the needs for your audience, without the outsized outlay of time, money, and human capital it has historically required to get there.

· Museums shouldn’t be trying to compete with the sleek, immersive installations that are commercially available from retailers — not only because it is an undue financial burden relative to the pay-off, but because, fundamentally, such an experience is not authentic to most museum missions. Be true to the kind of institution you are and, with diligent investments in marketing and other areas that can help grow awareness of, and loyalty to, your brand, visitors will come for what you can best offer them.

· Tech isn’t just about visitor-facing products and services, as Devine pointed out several times during the conference. Tech includes back-end applications of AI, smart buildings, and different kinds of digital engagement to support not just a person’s visit to your museum, but also their pathway to get there and experience after they leave. Tech also includes the application of data about how people are interacting with your institution both in-person and online. This can be used to learn what is most appealing to visitors, and can help your team know how to best direct efforts — either by refining those components of your institution, or by applying those lessons to areas that may be lagging. Tech is also a way to think beyond the physical museum, as in the case of M+ Museum Hong Kong. M+’s pursuit of a digital format for their collections as a stop-gap while their building was being built has resulted in a cutting-edge, all-digital collection with phenomenally engaging content that is accessible worldwide — a lesson many museums undergoing, or about to undergo, renovations or re-locations should take to heart.

· Almost everyone is frustrated with their CMS, but it doesn’t have to be like that. The old stalwarts of content management that most in the museum world relies on are built on technology that is more than a decade old, and the rest of the technological universe has come a long way since then. In the context of technology that is available today, museum-specific CMSs are neither lightweight, nor sufficiently customizable. While migrating content can risk seeming like an undue burden on an institution’s human capital and/or financial resources, there are a number of open source, lightweight CMSs that can come much closer to fitting a specific team’s needs. Switching may well save you time, money, and frustration currently expended wrangling with the current CMS you have.

· Proper systems architecture is crucial. This is something Devine mentioned, but which I think is the easiest to overlook in the context of cultural institutions. Because of the rate at which technology is changing, institutions need to begin thinking about establishing architectures that don’t have to be re-built every time the technology they connect to changes. This means looking at the big picture and planning for the long-term: where will your institution be in 6 months? 5 years? 15 years? While taking such a long view approach might seem daunting, it will end up saving you time and money — and the time and frustration you would otherwise spend constantly trying to play catch up can be allocated instead to furthering institutional goals.

· If your institution hasn’t already begun to think about these things, now is the time to act, and there are a plenty of resources that can offer a good roadmap for your institution. In addition to conferences like the Museum Next series, Devine also notes that there are plenty of opportunities to outsource work to external teams to accomplish something without taxing your own team. Historically, museums haven’t outsourced much relative to other industries, but in an age in which specialized knowledge is increasingly competitive and hard to keep in house, most places need to start reaching beyond their walls if they want to stay competitive. Your insider knowledge about your institution, coupled with the technical expertise of an outside agency, can enable your organization to move the needle in an innovative and impactful way.

While the prospect of implementing some or all of these changes might seem daunting, the impact of not embarking on, or refining, an integrated digital strategy can have far-reaching consequences. Importantly, this is an optimal time to take up such a project, because there are more people who are more knowledgeable on the subject than ever before, and the available technologies are pretty robust.

It’s time to reframe the conversation about technology in museums as a core operational consideration, rather than something to consider integrating periodically or piecemeal into the occasional project or strategy. Whether within, or beyond, the museum context, leadership in 2019 must be co-terminus with tech leadership. Thinking in this way will go far in helping set any institution up for success throughout the twenty-first century.


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Product strategist & consultant passionate about digital experience & design thinking. Fitness fanatic, dog parent & partner to a designer. They/them.