Ten things for my museum colleagues working in digital [from #MGAConf2018]

The last few months I’ve noticed increasing debates about the ROI and sustainability of digital projects in museums. I haven’t been at Museums and the Web (Vancouver) or AAM (Phoenix) in person this year but with a lot of long term staff leaving the museum field it’s a discussion that is long overdue.

And so with being added at the last minute to a session at Museums & Galleries Australia’s annual conference, I cobbled together a bunch of provocations for my museum colleagues.

If you’ve been in the sector for as long as some of us have then many of these will seem self-evident.

1. You need to stop comparing your museum to an ‘art museum’.

Art museums get a lot of press these days and its not just because the PR departments in the largest ones do a good job. The big art museums are big brands, and in the US they have powerful boards with connected to global political and financial influence. But of course not all museums are art museums. In fact in Australia we call art museums ‘art galleries’ and what Americans call ‘art galleries’ we call ‘commercial galleries’. In Australia the ‘art galleries’ are more easily recognised by government and business as ‘tourism attractors’ in an ‘experience economy’ than other types of museum, and contemporary art openings are valuble opportunities for political capital, social capital and cultural capital to mix.

If you are not an art museum then your access to this influence is more limited — which is also why you see a lot of history and science museums dabbling in contemporary art. Several of my colleagues might even say ‘Contemporary Art’ so as to clearly distinguish between the kind of contemporary art that excites tourism boards, city governments, hoteliers, and investors and the other kind of contemporary art that is being made by people who can’t afford their rent.

2. You need to stop comparing your museum to a US museum.

Related to the above, US museums are disproportionately discussed in the global press. The international centres of finance and media remain New York and London, and as a result it should be no suprise that museums that are ‘visible’ to media companies located in those cities will be more widely covered. This is obvious, however it turns out that museum professionals are very good at amplifying these already loud media voices on social media.

It doesn’t help that our world has beome a slow motion car crash and all of our attention is being sucked into a vortex of US politics, but if you are in Australia it might be helpful to remind yourself that we have a different history, different beliefs, and different issues that are more pressing. That doesn’t mean we shoudn’t find allies with museum workers overseas, but even something as simple as comparing working conditions requires an understanding of the radically different contexts.

3. You almost certainly can’t afford the digital unicorns.

Hiring staff is hard in Australia at the moment. Our talent pipeline, especially for digital staff, is poor and new staff often arrive into crisis situations making for a very challenging, over-stretched environment in which to ‘develop new skills’. And recruiting from the private sector means competing on the basis of salary and conditions with companies whose profitability is either already established, or, because of venture capital, is not the point.

4. Your most successful digital initiatives are marketing campaigns.

Museum people have a tendency to downplay digital initiatives that have been born of marketing campaigns. Sometimes this is because of historical frictions between digital teams and marketing teams — a little like the old divide between education and curatorial. But for the vast majority of museums who can’t afford a digital staffer, it will be the marketing person who is doing a lot of the digital work.

5. An app still won’t save you although it might make your board happy for another quarter.

I hope I don’t need to explain this one.

6. Your privacy policy still lets your marketing team do Facebook data mining.

Marketing teams are being pushed to be ‘more effective’ and get better ‘cut through’ and although your privacy policy has been updated, it almost certainly still lets your marketing team do ‘retargeting’ and deep segmentation. In the light of Cambridge Analytica and a growing distrust of Facebook and related companies, it might be wise to find alternative ways of ‘connecting with your audiences’ that doesn’t involve tracking their behaviours around the rest of the web or segmenting them into every more reductive profiles.

7. You secretly want every visitor’s email address.

In the absence of more sensible ROIs, collecting the email address of every visitor seems like a logical thing to want to do. If we had those email addresses, we say to ourselves, we could tell our visitors about all the wonderful things we do and even personalise them to their interests.

The reality is that we don’t even treat the existing email addresses we have with the appropriate level of care and service. Let’s agree to talk again when the open rates with your current email lists are over 50%.

8. You are complicit.

Its 2018. To think that anyone might consider that museums might actually be neutral seems ludicrous. Our institutions, like every institution, operates in a economic and social system of surveillance capitalism, built on the back of histories of colonialism and exclusion. We are complicit — in fact we all are.

Some of us have more power than others and when we design technical systems and solutions within our institutions we need to design for default behaviours that don’t make things worse.

Humans are deeply flawed. Our systems are equally flawed. Our societies have grown increasingly polarised and species extinction looms every closer. We can drown in depressive hedonia, or we can build — we can’t stand still and wish it away though. We can’t do this alone — we need coalitions. Lets acknowledge our complicity, organise, and move forward.

9. Digitization is not the solution, its just a new set of problems.

Too often I hear that digitization is something museums need to be doing — as if its optional. It isn’t. I’ve said before that the table stakes for a museum at the moment is to have a digitized collection and for that collection to be available online. Too few are anywhere near this. But let’s not confuse these table stakes with being any kind of solution.

Digital objects, digitised objects, are more fragile than their analogue ‘originals’. Digitised objects exist in systems that require power, engineering, maintenance, software development. At least analogue collections were relatively stable in airconditioned conditions for many decades.

10. What’s your institutional capacity building strategy?

Often the lasting change is NOT the technology itself but how it changes the possibility space of the institution as a whole. Did it change the nature and content of exhibitions, collecting, & public engagement? Otherwise it’s ‘just another app’ [a tweet from me a while ago]

Short term ROI in the museum world is an unfortunate inheritance of corporatism combined with the nature of project based funding. Whilst it is legitimate and eminently sensible to ask “did this project achieve its stated goals? Did it reach its intended audience? Did it make the impact we expected?” — these are all outward facing goals.

The bigger and more significant question that needs to be asked is “did it build new capacity for the institution?”. More often than not the answer is no. Maybe an App boosted engagement in a temporary exhibition, or a collections website redesigned made it easier for researchers to find the beginnings of what they were looking for, or a social media coup managed to have teenagers talking about the main themes of an exhibition for a few weeks. These are all good short term outcomes.

But they are not transformational.

Your museum needs a strategy that develops its institutional capacity to do new, different things, and probably for new, different types of people.


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Seb Chan

I’m currently the Director & CEO at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne. Previously Cooper Hewitt (NYC) & Powerhouse Museum (Syd).