Baby strides: Becoming more digital museums

Eight months ago Arts Council England gave us some money to go digital. ‘Us’ being The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), a university museum, and Reading Museum, a local authority museum.

‘Go digital’ – it turns out – means a whole host of things.

It is a project which has seen us experiment with new ways into the sector with our Museum Trainees, iron out the wrinkles working between two very different museums, link with local groups we never knew existed and get deep, deep, deep into the world of digital strategy and content.

As museums we were not newborn babes in the digital world, but neither were we set up to do digital properly. Neither museum has a digital team, and only The MERL has a dedicated Marketing Officer. Digital has no budget further than ongoing costs for systems and one-off costs for individual projects. It is fair to say that our adaptation to much of the new digital landscape – social media, SEO, AR, VR, maker culture, 3D modelling and all the rest of it – was ad-hoc at best, non-existent at worst.

And yet, six months into the project proper (not counting two months for recruitment) and less than a year to go, we have made progress. The museums are collaborating, staff are learning and systems are changing.

The Digital Audit

We had to start with a Digital Audit. We commissioned Fiona Romeo, formerly of MoMa, to come and review our staff, systems and content to tell us where we were strong, where we were weak and how we could spend our time most wisely over the project. Integral to this was asking all staff about their levels of digital access, skills and confidence — data we will use to benchmark our success at the end of the project.

The Digital Den runs every month on a different digital theme. It’s intended to be a welcome, warm space to learn new things and ask questions.

Based on Fiona’s recommendations, we have embarked on a training programme made up of four different strands:

  • A series of monthly digital training sessions, called the Digital Den, where we run workshops, talks and training for staff from both museums in things as disparate as 3D scanning (thanks, Tom Flynn!), blogging and Wikipedia.
  • For those who prefer to work at their own pace, we have a subscription to Skillshare shared with all staff at both museums, as well as the odd PhD student. We have a curriculum for people to follow based on their feedback in the Digital Audit, and everyone is free to use it at home for whatever skills they want.
  • Where we don’t have the expertise, we have invited consultants in for targeted training, such as in blogging and filming techniques. Some of these are folded into Digital Den sessions.
  • To ensure digital concepts and skills are embedded at the top, we are running 1 – 1 sessions with both museums’ directors to cover digital topics at a more strategic level.
  • To track everyone’s progress in particular areas of training, we’re trialling a badge system through Credly. Most areas are three-tiered at the moment, running from Beginner to Pro to Champion. If staff find it useful, we’ll look at expanding it into more specific achievements (i.e., ‘Had more than 100 reactions on Facebook’).
Our badge system is trialling whether gamification can encourage staff to take up training (as well as being a handy way of tracking who has which skills)

The Logic Model

To make sure we’re not embarking on irrelevant projects or training, Arts Council England were very specific about us planning and evaluating our project with the Logic Model, and I’m glad they insisted.

Laura Crossley helped us put ours together using the results and recommendations of the Digital Audit, and we regularly review it to make sure we’re not going off track. We envisaged our super long-term outcomes, i.e. ‘More diverse and broader audiences for both museums’ in ten years, and then worked backwards by looking at what we needed to achieve in 5 years to allow that long-term goal, then what we need to achieve by the end of the project, what specific outputs we need for that, and the resources available.

It is a living document, and we use ours to update both museums’ directors on our progress, running down our agreed outputs and outcomes and seeing where we’re delivering and where we’re not.

Going agile

Having a Logic Model for where you want to go is all very well, but it is pointless without having a well-managed team. Both I and our Project Lead, Alison Hilton, were wary of a project which could very easily be complicated by numerous stakeholders with no effective mechanism for keeping track of what’s going on, who does what and how we review progress.

Very early on we knew we wanted to adopt agile ways of working. Alison had heard good things about it in her AMA Digital Marketing Fellowship with Sara Devine at Brooklyn Museum. After attending the agile-heavy AMA conference in December 2016, we were sure.

Our coach, Belinda Waldock, showed us how to manage our workflows through Agile boards, how to work in sprints, how to reflect on our work and get things done faster. The concept of Minimal Viable Product has saved many a task from spiralling into complication, and post-its are reproducing across the museums at tribble-esque rates.

(If you’re interested in our progress, see my other blog about it.)

Getting our houses in order

All of the above could reasonably be described as a culture shift in both museums, or at least the beginning of one.

But we are not complacent. There is no point in learning about content strategies and personas and digital production skills without tools and thinking behind it. We are embarking on a rethink of both museums’ digital strategies and all the accompanying guidelines and How-To documents. The purpose for our content will be agreed by all, and how we produce content will be a shared job supported by our forthcoming core digital teams. It is essential that all staff understand what the museums stand for online, how we communicate our content and why we do it.

A key aim of the project is to produce a digestible digital handbook which succinctly sums up our purpose, audiences, guidelines and where to find more detailed How-To guides. And alongside this the #digiRDG team is exploring how we can plan and coordinate content through tools such as Slack, Trello and Google Drive, and slowly introduce these tools to colleagues without freaking them out.

To look at all the above you’d think we have only thought of getting our own houses in order, and to some extent you would be correct. There are limitations in both museums which mean we cannot embark on exciting digital projects straightaway because we don’t have the baseline that a digital strategy and workforce provides.

A dedicated digital team is unrealistic for museums of our size, and we are looking at carving out systems and content teams from existing roles for both museums; and for Reading Museum the content and systems teams will likely be one and the same. We need to crowbar digital practice into our colleagues’ already overstretched roles, but we’ve found that enthusiasm for the sheer power and reach of digital content is a good motivator.

If a 360-degree video tour of The MERL from a cow’s perspective isn’t a culture shift then I don’t know what is.

The public

The point of this project is, of course, to deliver for the public, to involve our audiences and broaden our appeal as museums.

We are working on public projects, and are well aware that digital should be implemented only as the right solution to a problem rather than for its own sake. Our purpose is not just to produce digital products, but to facilitate digital in other projects, connect the museums to local techies and creatives and to experiment.

A manifestation of this was our Digital Takeover for Museums At Night, the product of engaging with Reading’s HackSpace, University academics, ArtLab, local artists and others. We have been attending local Geek nights as well as art forums, and we intend to raise the flag for both museums to say that we are open and willing to collaborate on interesting digital projects. We’re keen to take advantage of Reading as a major tech cluster, home to start-ups as well as companies such as Microsoft and Oracle. We’ll soon be actively seeking members for a Digital Forum to advise our museums on digital strategy and products.

Our trainees

Helping with all this are our two Museum Trainees, Nitisha and Charlene. Their appointment is a deliberate diversification of our workforce and an exploration of a new way to enter the sector. Neither have a Museum Studies MA and one has no previous museum experience, but during their traineeship they are sitting in on the University of Reading’s undergraduate Museum Studies programme. We work in sprints shadowing and training in particular areas of museum work, reviewing real job descriptions from other museums to make sure the skills they’re learning in cataloguing, curation, digital marketing, public programmes and everything else are ones museums need.

The next bit

The above only scratches the surface of the individual tasks, the innumerable negotiations, the shots in the dark of exploring digital as non-digital museum people.

We are slowly becoming digital people, whatever that means, and our project is predicated on the fact that we will all need to become more digital to survive as relevant museums. How we get there, however, is a labyrinthine maze of institutional idiosyncrasies, individual personalities, powers beyond our control and hard graft.

It is an exciting project, and I hope you check in to see how we do by May 2018. Keep tabs on it by following me here on Medium and on Twitter, as well as our trainees Nitisha and Charlene.

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