Digital, huh, what is it good for?

I maintain what I hope is a healthy scepticism towards the use of ‘digital’ when it comes to museums and heritage which mostly involves being a snarky bastard on the Internet and probing platitudes about digitisation in museums. This has led some to believe that I’m some sort of Luddite or just anti technology because it takes us away from the 300 year old unique selling point of museums which is people come to look at and experience things and only use the Internet for shopping and boobies.

Which couldn’t be further from the truth (ish)! I’ve been a keen gamer my whole life and a denizen of the Internet for a little less than that, cutting my digital teeth trolling the witchcraft forums, surviving the great LiveJournal wars of the early 2000s and arguing the finer points of the Colony Wars lore. I’ve written book chapters and lectured on the virtual museum, colour laser scanning, museum websites and the use of technology in museum spaces.

I’m not against ‘the digital’ in general, I’m more for a holistic view and use of digital technologies in resource poor museums and as a user as well as a creator, against implementing  costly projects because of the ‘machine that goes bing factor‘ or without evidence of need, use or longevity that continues to plague many museum digital projects.

To my mind there is still (and I’ve been formally banging on about this since 2005) a blind lust for digital projects in museums without asking basic questions like, who is the audience? How do we sustain this after launch? What are our measures of success? What are we going to stop doing to invest time in this? How will this fit in with the rest of what we do? and crucially, what are we going to do when the technology isn’t working for the inevitable technology-gods-only-know-why-reasons?

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in speculation and serendipity, the suck it and see approach, it’s just that practically your £10,000 project is never going to make the same waves as Wikipedia, Google or Flappy Bird so you best make sure you’re prepared for that or rein in those expectations a tad.

The other thing that is frustrating sometimes is that, in general, most museum professionals aren’t very tech-savvy. There are some amazing culture tech professionals out there (you know who you are) and they truly are merging technology with use, but they’re still a rarity. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t explore what we’re not comfortable with ourselves, that borders on unethical, but we shouldn’t try to do it all ourselves. Get people in who know the tech, the sector and most importantly audiences and be wary of the snake oil merchants. The digital cultural industries are live fast, die young, fundamentally at odds with museums which are a slower and older beast.

For my own reference and to save clunky Twitter threads in the future, here’s what I think are ten important questions museums need to ask when embarking on a digital project be it, tweaking the website to investing in the emperor’s new technology virtual reality. None of these are rocket science but in my experience, they often go unasked.

Who is the audience? Number one priority. Who is the proposed audience for what you are proposing? It’s 2016, I’m sick of going on about it, and there are still organisations equating vague notions of ‘putting things online’ as accessible to everybody. It isn’t and it likely never will be. UK organisations are awful at providing their content in English only which wipes out a huge slice of the potential users. Double check your content is mobile compatible. Less of a problem these days but avoid plugins or downloads as this prevents schools, university cluster rooms and people accessing content from Wii-Us, toasters and watches. There’s also the overlooked issue of what your content is. In many museums we’ve inherited the bulk of the collections and most parts, in most museums will only ever be of niche interest. Is a two-year project digitising the world’s best Spoons of Yorkshire, Hats shaped like Rabbits or Rodents from Faroe Island the most effective way of making the collection accessible to potential users? Or do you already have good links with the niche communities you want to engage? Who is the audience for a digital project is also intrinsically linked to the question who is the museum’s existing audience? There’s still so much naivety when it comes to even the most cursory examination of digital audiences. There are a lot of analytics tools out there, for free. Implement surveys, question your physical visitors on use of digital content. You can’t aim for new or wider audiences if you can’t quantify or qualify existing ones in an atomised way. Some of our ideal users for digital tools (researchers) are actually tech adverse (the pound jar overflows from world experts who don’t know how to get their Powerpoint to project when hooked up to a projector).

Does anyone in the workforce use what is being proposed? Most people are in museums for the love, not the money. Most of them are the geeky core, you’d hope to attract with a digital project. They love museums for being museums and are likely to visit other museums in person and online and drag their children, partners, friends and families along. They also visit the same museums more than once in their lifetime, which I’m fairly sure the vast majority of people don’t. Many of them are also core users for the more museum-y resources. Use their expertise and experience when sounding out new projects. As I mentioned above, we shouldn’t just cater for ourselves but alarm bells should be ringing when you find out that nobody has ever used a museum app both in terms of the in-house expertise to deliver one but also the potential broader audience.

What is the problem being solved? Priority number two I think with the sub-question, could this be done cheaper and easier? For your laser specified audience (above), is an online word document realistically as, or more effective than a bespoke new platform? Do you have an issue with family or secondary school engagement that can be solved with technology or is that in fact the audiences you already cater exceptionally well for? Is the issue efficiency? In which case, how much time is a digital solution going to save? Stuff like this is still getting published about mass digitisation of collections. Yes the workflow and cost may be down to $1 a specimen but what problem is this solving? Is this cost, solving the most pressing issue in the museum?

Who is doing it well, who is doing it badly? Look for inspiration or just copy the best. Despite being part of the geeky core, there are very few museum resources I use regularly, if more than once and if it’s not natural history, it has to really be good/fun/interesting for me to return to it. The flip side of this is there are a tonne which are doing it badly. Missing links, 200 clicks to get to content, missing pages, broken references, hidden contact details, poor or no export tools, broken on mobile, linear experiences, crappy design, awful colour combinations, no accessibility options, unclear site navigation etc. etc. etc. Draw inspiration from outside of what other museums are doing too. What tools or sites do you got to for ease of use? There’s at least two tax-dodging portals which are hugely popular because they are intuitive, well optimised and (worryingly) bespoke. One of them is also explicitly about objects. Hmmm, if only there was a link to what we do?

What is the lifespan of the project? The pound jar is now the pound mountain for every project launched with no end in sight. What is the lifespan for the interactive/game/portal/website? Where will the funding come from after the initially funding runs out? Who, in the building, has responsibility for the access and maintenance? How much is it costing per day/week/month of proposed use? Alternatively, at what point should the plug be pulled to save embarrassment?

How are you going to tell people about it? Martha Henson nailed this one in the blog Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly so read that, and er stop doing it.

What measures would make it a successful project? Is it a billion people/bots from god knows where spent an average of less than three seconds engaging with your content? If so, congratulations, you’ve got a success on your hands. Otherwise, you need to.. and there are a few people who are so bored of saying this .. have your measures of success laid out up front, updated throughout and reviewed at the end. Some serendipitous successes will emerge only once a project is launched but if you’ve put resources into it banking on nothing but serendipitous use, you’re not being effective.

What happens when the electricity runs out? In both the short and much longer term. This may just be my irrational worrying about the future but from experience I have useless hard drives, CDs, USB sticks and even floppy disks. I know of museum specimens that were planned to be destroyed in order for them to be digitised and only exist digitally that are now lost forever because a laptop had a brain freeze. yet the two hundred year old card index is still going strong. Digitisation used to be seen as a way towards sustainability but now I’m not so sure and if you’ve ever had one of those ‘Network maintenance’ days at work, you will have noticed that we rely on technology a lot, bordering on not being able to function without it. There are also implications here for recording our digital output as museum objects themselves. I wrote an unpublished book chapter on the preservation of video games and video game culture, a medium that’s barely 40 years old. We’ve lost a lot already and that’s with larger audiences and better software skills than we have. I’m not saying we should stock up on the tinned beans and powdered water (just add water! Oh…) just yet but make sure that contingency is built-in and there’s no weak links that could result in the loss of lifetimes of work.

How are you going to record this in a collections management system? I touched on this above. Have a plan for how to record all the crazy digital projects that specifically use collections on a collections management system. Many museums struggle to record use in exhibitions, publications and teaching let alone 3D scans, 3D prints, X-rays, VJ sets, 3DS downloads, press, podcasts, Wikipedia mentions, blogs, gifs, interactive clothing and AR apps but these are just as much part of an object’s history. Have a strategy on what you’ll preserve, how you’ll preserve it and why. Some people on the cutting edge manage all of this procedurally, others are creating archives to be sifted and sorted later. As a collections manager who deals with collections daily, knowing the full history of an object is key to deciding about preservation, future use and either way in the decision to dispose of collections.

How are you going to share the making of this project? The museum sector is fantastically fire and forget, moving from one project to the next or worse, working towards launch date with no strategy for ensuring the ‘long tail’ in terms of promotion, preservation or expertise. Write your projects up either in publications or a project report and share it widely. Again, I’m dozing off writing this sentence yet again, but the cliché about reinventing the wheel is cliché for a reason and sometimes, the lessons learned and the solutions devised can be much further reaching and longer lasting than the project itself. A related secret number 11 on this list is to build in scaleability and shareability neither of which are proper words. One of the great assets of working digitally is that assets and software are in theory much easier to share for sector wide benefit. Don’t keep projects closed or proprietary, both good and bad aspects of this are evident in the British Museum with Google Project.

Here endeth the rant. Agree/disagree? Have some more key questions? Drop a comment down below.

UPDATE: 10 seconds after publishing: MOST OF THE TYPOS.


10 thoughts on “Digital, huh, what is it good for?

  1. Thanks for linking to my post. This stuff SHOULD all be so basic and I can’t believe it still needs to be said, but it does, so thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no, thank you! It was your post that set a seed in my brain and then a number of examples of this recently wanted me to put fingers to keys (again!).

      Annoyingly though, this is more than likely to only be read by those who know better in any case!


  2. Very interesting! Are you able to elaborate on your very last sentence – what do you see as especially good or bad in the Google/British Museum project?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Simon and thanks for the comment. I think what’s great about the BM partnership is that it’s a very polished attempt at more than just dry web content. There’s a (limited in my opinion) browsability (not a word) of content driven by the collections.

      What I don’t like about the museum of the world project is that is seems to be an exercise singly aimed at promoting two large brands. Smaller museums don’t have a chance at developing something like this, and why would they need to because the museum of the world has it covered? What I would have loved to have seen is the British Museum deliver a platform that could be filled out with content from museums the world over. As a genuine sector leader when it comes to digital content, look at and collections online it would have been timely to try to work sector wide and to provide developing content. Sadly this is a visit once and forget project. Usual grumbles about flashy interface, mobile compatibility and over-design too.

      As for the Google Cultural institute, in general. I’m not sure what it’s there for and even with the Google backing, who is it for? I’ve had a quick play around but can’t envisage the problem it is solving. I revisit when I’m updating my lectures on digital culture but it still seems to be stuck at ‘you can see the canvas in higher definition than you’d want’. More worrying is how it keeps getting pointed to as a great thing.

      The other gripe is that it’s the digital version of where museums were years ago. Museums should be more than their ‘treasures’ proudly brought to you by Google. What about the other 99% of the collections we hold? With Google and the British Museum and other large museums behind it, if this truly is the best we can expect for object oriented digitisation then I’d argue we shouldn’t bother.


      • I’d also like to add that I could be totally wrong too! In lieu of further information, this is my opinion.

        I’ve not seen any use information at all and if it exists, it may be that diverse audiences do find it hugely useful.

        UPDATE: Committing crimes against blogging by spamming my own comments but just put two and two together! You likely worked on all three of these projects so would love to hear your insight if you’d offer it!


  3. Hi Mark. No, I didn’t work on any of these projects. As you’ve clearly worked out, I am at the BM, which is what prompted me to ask more, but in a very different area (basically, fundraising). I know some of the people who did work on these projects, though – I’ll flag up this discussion to them and see if they’re interested in adding anything.


  4. Nice post. Thanks! It does come down to two things – understanding your the audience
    and your roll out strategy:
    I’ve long been a critic of online collections, asking who are they for and are they worth the (substantial) investment. I often get shouted down by my colleagues however… Often we are our own worst enemies!
    Another point is that we wouldn’t launch an exhibition or event (well, mostly) without a carefully considered marketing strategy and same should be said of digital products.


  5. Thought provoking post. All good points about covering the basics of creating an exhibit regardless of whether it has a digital component, or is exclusively digital. The thing is, outside of the world of old stuff, is this vast already digital world of new stuff crated in the cauldron of real time. Field cards are lovely, and who can debate the lure of old letters and journals documenting important discoveries of whatever the field. But now there’s a stream of communication that lives in real time on Instagram and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook etc. There’s a two prong question underlying the question of why digital that deserves a mention. Permanent preservation of collections is one thing, the other is the narrative of the what, who, how, why and when of a collection/exhibit that should be considered temporary to begin with. The audience for narrative is digital, and will only continue to grow in that direction. Like most decisions, exclusivity in digital shouldn’t be an all or nothing equation. But integrating digital as a way of providing accessibility to that audience beyond the audience you know is a frontier worth experimenting with, and that is okay.


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