Going digital is bloody difficult

Full of fun, fire and faff

Our project #digiRDG: Town and Country addressed the question:

what the hell does digital mean?

and, more importantly

oh god what are we doing

In answering both we grappled with diversity, made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot of things and went viral with an absolute unit.

Here is how it all happened, and what we learned:

The context

#digiRDG: Town and Country was an Arts Council England project with a budget of £275,000, and was a partnership between the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) and Reading Museum. The project ran from November 2016 – April 2018. Both museums are now working together as a National Portfolio Organisation consortium funded by Arts Council England until 2022.

I was employed as Project Manager, the MERL’s Marketing Manager Alison Hilton spent one day a week (but actually much more) as Project Lead, and we had two full-time Diversity Trainees, Charlene Marriott and Nitisha Ramrekha-Heeramun (more on them later).

The MERL and Reading Museum are, respectively, part of the University of Reading and Reading Borough Council, who also provide our IT support and infrastructure. Neither museum had a digital team, though both museums did digital stuff (websites, social media, databases, information management etc.). Only the MERL had a Marketing Manager, who also led on social media and the website. Reading Museum has around 10 FTE staff, the MERL around 35 (including our archive and library). None of the project team had digital backgrounds, and only one of us has a Museum Studies MA (don’t hold it against me).

Our project was very much about how smaller and mid-sized museums, archives and libraries can get to grips with digital technologies and ways of working.

Our Theory of Change

At the core of our project was this Problem Statement:

Our audiences are not as diverse as we’d like and our digital behaviour is not as effective as we’d like, which could lead to irrelevance, being left behind and, ultimately, not being sustainable.

This statement was decided by the directors of both museums during a Theory of Change workshop where we mapped out:

  • the Impacts we wanted to achieve
  • our 3–5 year Outcomes
  • the Outcomes for the end of the project
  • and the actual activities and outputs which achieve those outcomes.

We then assigned resources against these outputs and made an action plan. We booked in regular review sessions with our evaluation consultant Laura Crossley to ensure we were collecting the right data and to check our progress against our outcomes.

See our Logic Model here:

Going agile

Even before making our Logic Model, we were certain of one thing: we needed a new way of managing projects. It needed to be adaptive, to allow us to fail and learn fast, and to deliver results within our 18-month timeframe.

After myself, Alison and Reading Museum’s manager attended the 2016 Arts Marketing Association Digital Marketing Day, we fully bought into the idea of agile management methods. I wrote a blog about it.

Two years later and…we are not a fully agile pair of organisations, but we are agile enough. We have embraced the ideas of Minimal Viable Product, continuous reflection, iteration and making our workflows visible. We only ever did one actual Sprint (but it worked). We also now have a common system across our two museums, which is no easy feat.

For many of us across the two museums, ‘agile’ is manifested in KanBan boards. These began as physical ‘To Do->Doing->Done’ boards and mountains of post-its, and has now morphed into adoption of Trello for tracking and co-ordinating work across not just teams, but across both organisations.

Trello makes our work visible to each other, gives us a place to dump the information in our minds and keeps us organised. We have roadmaps for the whole organisations as well as our teams, and more detailed boards for projects, exhibitions, blogs, social media and inductions.

It’s not perfect. Our next stage is to lay down the law in how our boards are organised, and to give proper training and support in how to use Trello.

If Trello is a new concept then read this, and here are some example boards from our team:

Digital Literacy

It’s no secret that museum workforce skills are not keeping pace with the increasing importance of digital technologies to our work. It’s been recognised by government, it’s been recognised by Culture24 and it’s been recognised by us.

To determine the scale of the problem we did a digital audit with Fiona Romeo of staff confidence, awareness and skill level in using digital technologies and ways of working.

We used the findings from this audit to do four things:

Digital Dens

These were monthly sessions on different digital skills and topics, ranging from external sessions on Wikipedia and 3D scanning to internal sessions on taking photos with smartphones and Instagram.

The Digital Dens were well attended and staff enjoyed them, but:

  • practical sessions work best
  • sessions which answer a practical need are better.

Skillshare

We bought subscriptions for all staff to the online learning provider and made a curriculum focusing on creative digital skills.

Even though staff said they wanted the opportunity to learn on their own time, take-up of Skillshare was incredibly low. The reason was always the same:

no time.

Giving people the opportunity for self-led learning wasn’t enough; to truly make it work, you have to force people to take the time.

Towards the end of the project our Archive team built Skillshare into their monthly training hours, and other colleagues did find it useful for dipping into for solutions to particular problems.

In the end, I’m not sure paying for a service achieved any more than what finding free Youtube videos or online tutorials could have done.

One-to-one executive sessions

These were intended to be monthly sessions with both museums’ directors on different digital skills and strategic planning.

Our one-to-one manager sessions never happened and were a casualty in favour of the Digital Dens, which took a lot of time to write and deliver.

An equipment cupboard

We bought a suite of things like cameras, live-streaming equipment, audio devices, Google cardboards, lights, speakers, projectors, 3D scanners and tripods which all staff, volunteers and project partners could use.


Conclusions?

Digital literacy is difficult.

You can buy people equipment but it’s unrealistic to give every colleague training in how to use everything. You can create a training programme, but if it doesn’t address practical skill gaps or lead to any activity it can be pointless. And it may be better to exploit the free training resources out there on blogs and Youtube rather than pay for an expensive service.

When surveyed at the end of the project, however, 75% of staff were satisfied or very satisfied with our investment in new technologies and skills training, with 25% neutral. Of the options for future training, these were the three most popular options:

  1. Time for independent exploration (trial and error) 62%
  2. Monthly group workshops (i.e. the Digital Den) 55%
  3. One-to-one support from colleagues (‘mentoring’) 55%

To ensure we keep on top of things in future, we will be:

  • coordinating a training programme that addresses skills gaps identified through annual digital skills surveys. The majority of our sessions will be practical.
  • Reviving our managerial coaching. I’ve committed to monthly coffee mornings with both museum directors. We’re hoping that booking it into the diary and getting us out of the museums will force us into the routine.
  • Abandoning Skillshare and compiling a list of free resources instead.
  • continuing with our Digital Skills Induction survey, which allows us to see how we can train new staff. You can see a copy of our survey here.

Engagement

At the beginning of this project we had heady dreams of doing the kind of exciting public projects people usually talk about at conferences.

We realised very rapidly that none of our colleagues had any spare time, we ourselves are definitely not community engagement experts, and that we’re much better at boosting other peoples’ projects and doing proofs of concepts.

The case studies below scratch the surface of 18 months which included being an accidental IT support team for the museums, running social media and our websites, assisting with other events and dealing with the million day-to-day things which pop up.

Going 3D

As part of our equipment cupboard we bought a Lulzbot Taz 6 3D printer, with the idea of exploring how 3D prints could help those with sensory impairments.

We also wanted to explore the potential of these objects for public workshops, so we went to a science fair at Highdown secondary school to try out three things:

  • Exploring authenticity using a real object, a 3D-printed object and a 3D virtual model
  • 3D scanning objects using iPads
  • using 360-degree images in Google Cardboard headsets, showing Reading Abbey Ruins during conservation

You can read more detail in our blog from the time, but what we found out from this group is that people prefer real objects but enjoy virtual models, would rather 3D-scan their friends rather than objects, and find VR the most exciting thing on the planet.

#rdg21

Our Museum Studies student Gracie Price took museum social media by storm when she ran the #museum30 campaign, where people on Twitter and Instagram shared photos on different themes each day.

We paid Gracie to run a similar campaign for Reading called #rdg21. The campaign was very much left up to Gracie, as we were interested in seeing whether the success of #museum30 could be replicated with the people of Reading.

We got in touch with local influencers, made a splash and did pretty well, with 2147 posts on the hashtag.

Digital Takeovers

We ran the second ever MERL Late, which are a series of evenings aimed at 18–30 year olds, with live music, cocktails, activities and talks.

We invited colleagues working in digital humanities and with digital technologies from the University of Reading to come show off their stuff, as well as people from the town such as our local hackspace, rLab. The event was a success, and we ran a second Late in 2018.

While they are very hard work we’re keen on making them regular, as well as running the same event in Reading Museum. They are great for putting a flag up for your communities to say ‘we’re interested in doing this kind of thing with you’.

The Brewup

Our next step up from the Digital Late was directly involving people in the town with artistic and technological interests and skills.

On a Saturday in March 2018 we ran a day-long workshop where we got 28 people into teams, bounced ideas around the theme of animals in our collections, and awarded prizes based on the resulting project proposals. These included creating new narratives around objects on social media with young people, running geocache-esque scavenger hunts advertised through Reading Buses and running 3D workshops based around the collections.

The planning of our NPO has thrown a spanner in kicking off these projects properly, but the plan is to meaningfully involve people with technical and artistic skills in running interesting projects and making interesting things from our collections more regularly.

Berkshire Show and Brexit

When trying to think about projects where the MERL and Reading Museum could work together best, the theme of town and country made most sense. In particular we felt that both urban and rural people tended to live in their own bubbles, and that the museums could help puncture those.

We worked with volunteers from both museums on an audio project exploring issues that cut across the rural and urban. Our first opportunity was the Berkshire Show, and the themes we settled on were ‘what does the countryside mean to you?’ and Brexit.

We brought in local artist and audio expert Felicity Ford, who trained us and the volunteers in interview technique, how to record audio properly and then how to mix, edit and finish a proper piece of audio.

The resulting piece can be heard below, and featured in a community display exploring Brexit at the MERL in 2018:

Bird Trail

One thing we rapidly realised was that we needed to work with people who knew what they were doing, rather than teaching ourselves everything.

We don’t know how to do augmented reality. We’d done a little using the free app Aurasma (now HP Reveal), but nothing standalone.

Step forward Luca Ottonello, a PhD student at the University of Reading who makes robots, 3D models and holograms in his spare time. He whipped us up some augmented reality in Unity where, when you pointed a camera at a trigger image, a 3D model of a bird popped up. It’s simple, straightforward and rewarding, and we’ve used it as both a garden and gallery trail with both families and adults.

Now all we need to do is buy some android tablets and create a system for loaning them out to the public.

The Reading Museum Blog

One of the simplest but most rewarding things we did was give Reading Museum a blog – something we otherwise wouldn’t have had the resource to do.

Thanks to a Digital Den series of blogging workshops led by Anna Faherty, we had a strategy, we knew who we were writing for and we had a suite of skills for honing in on key blog formats, ways of writing and making interesting titles. We hold blog meetings every two months, have a blog buddy system for checking over each others’ work and organise all of our blogs on a Trello board.

The best thing about the blog is that staff have really bought into it, we have a variety of voices and we have a whole new way of communicating with our audiences.

Our websites

Both the MERL and Reading Museum have recently built new websites, and our project brought extra funding for things like Reading Museum’s blog and the MERL’s upcoming online exhibition feature.

What it also brought was the capacity to consider how we manage our websites, how we involve staff and to push through a user-centred approach. We now regularly run user testing sessions to make changes to both websites, enforce the writing of alt text and are preparing a clearer system for staff access to the website.

Accessibility

Our only Sprint of the project was to suss out how we could make our museums more accessible to those with mental or physical impairments. We discovered that the most useful and simple thing we could do was to make Accessibility information clearer on our websites, and particularly for those on the autism spectrum.

We worked with various children and adults with ASD as well as the Centre for Autism at the University of Reading to create:

  • A social story of the museum, with images showing every area of the museum, what to expect and what activities there are
  • A Sensory Map showing the different light levels, the level of noise and the interactive elements of the museum
  • A Google Streetview Tour, made with a Ricoh Theta S camera and the Google Streetview app, which shows every public area of the museum except the first floor store (see our blog)

Once the Reading Abbey Ruins are open and current renovations of Reading Museum’s galleries are complete we’ll be doing the same on those websites.

Absolute Unit

It wouldn’t do to not mention the absolute unit, our Twitter viral sensation of April 2018. You can read a lot of the detail in this blog about how one sheep and a subsequent campaign got us 23 million impressions, 1.5 million engagements and 24.5k new followers.

One of the best things about the absolute unit was that it proved that social media could accomplish the mission of the MERL in a way almost impossible to replicate onsite. It also demonstrated in itself why there needs to be room in our strategies for a bit of fun and humour, and how being more human can pull people further along the ladder of engagement from Awareness to Advocacy.

You can download my report on the Unit here.

Traineeships

Last but not least are our diversity traineeships. Neither museum had done a traineeship where we specifically recruited for two new colleagues according to Arts Council England’s definition of diversity.

The two people we recruited, Nitisha Ramrekha-Heeramun and Charlene Marriott, were the exact people we were looking for: keen learners, enthusiastic and friendly. Nitisha originally studied Law and had worked and volunteered at the MERL for some years already, and Charlene was brand new into the museum sector.

We knew the importance of making these traineeships co-led, and we ensured that both our trainees had time in different areas of the museums, archive and library before focusing on their areas of interest. Both also attended courses on the University of Reading’s Museum Studies undergraduate degree programme. They also, of course, helped with the entire project’s activity, and wrote regular blogs too.

Giving Nitisha and Charlene ownership over their traineeship was essential – the confidence the process gave them meant by the end of the project both were independently running public workshops and events. All of us, however, believe we could have done with a bit more of a formal structure and programme so they knew what to expect over the whole project.

We also did not tackle the idea of diversity well enough. We acted as though their existence was enough to make the museums more diverse, when in fact we should have been empowering them to diversify our content and programmes and effect change in the museums. In the latter half of the project we explored the issues of diversity much more closely with our trainees, with franker discussions of its importance and how we could improve.

We would definitely do a traineeship again. However, we would be more realistic about the time and resource they require, make it a more formalised programme and do more to directly tackle our problems with diversity with our trainees.

Conclusion

The most important thing this project gave us was time and capacity.

Without either, we would probably have continued adapting ad-hoc to the digital world, leading to a messy reckoning further down the line.

Having had the capacity and time, it is hard to pontificate to those with neither. What I hope we can do instead is to show where we have made mistakes so others won’t make them, and how to get the most value with the least effort.

What we can say is that we reached the majority of our intended outcomes, both museums are in a stronger place, and we can continue our work in our National Portfolio consortium. For more detail, have a look at our full evaluation report by Christina Lister (or the executive summary).

Here, though, are my broad points for others trying to grapple with going digital:

Involve your whole organisation in deciding what ‘digital’ means to you, and how it can help achieve your aims.
Invest in equipment. If you’re going to do digital content properly it has to look decent, but that doesn’t mean you need the Adobe suite and the best DSLR – very often, a mid-range smartphone camera and GIMP will do.
Take the time to attend conferences and training days, and don’t always send the same people. If you can afford neither, lurk on the Museums Computer Group list, follow people working in digital and social media on Twitter and read their blogs.
If you don’t have the expertise, look for it among your local residents, your stakeholders and your volunteers. Never be afraid to ask for help.
The work is never done. The most important thing to change is the mindset of yourself and your colleagues. Be adaptable, evaluative, iterative, collaborative and communicative.

(And don’t fuck it up)


If you want to talk to me about our project, DM me on Twitter: @adamkoszary.

Like what you read? Give Adam Koszary a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.