Is a Digital Strategy the answer to all your digital problems?

December 14, 2017 - All

The first day of our Digital Strategy class, we were asked by the professor, if museums should have a digital strategy. It’s a tricky question that left half the class saying yes and half saying no. And in reality and like everything in the museum sector, what works for one museum may not be the answer for another.

In the past ten years, museums have undergone a digital transformation. Museums began focusing on digital across two different spaces, one was based on the physical in-gallery experience, and the other was based on social media, web, and mobile. In order to implement and undergo a digital transformation within the organization, museums began creating separate digital strategies, which helped address specific digital needs and concerns.

A digital strategy is a document that lays out an organization’s digital vision, its objective and in some cases include actions such as creating a microsite or building the necessary infrastructure to house digital assets. Museums such as the Science Museum Group, the Tate, SFMoMA, The STÄDEL museum have created such Digital Strategies, and when you look at these strategies, you will notice they are not necessarily the same. There are a few examples at the end of the blog post.

Digital museum strategies differ depending on the museum’s culture, its existing digital framework, its vision and its size. For example, a small local museum that has 100 objects and a handful of staff members may not need a digital strategy or need to create a strategy to digitalize objects while a larger museum with hundreds of thousands of objects may need to create a strategy to digitalize their collection and publish it.

It is hard to discern if a museum needs a separate digital strategy, it is really depended on each museum. The ultimate case is that a museum would not need a digital strategy, its employees are digitally conscious and can engage with visitors and users through digital means. But currently, there is a concern that museums are not there yet and thus need that initial digital strategy to enter the 21st century. Older and larger museums tend to be the most in need to create a separate digital strategy to get over the initial hump of transforming to digital.

Digital is not only the flashy technology you see in the gallery or the website, its pervasive and affects all departments, which is why many have argued against creating a separate digital strategy. Since, at the heart of it, it is about transforming the museum culture and thus should be part of the museum overall strategy.

Museum project management has tended to follow a waterfall method in the past, you do one exhibition you finish it, and then you do another. You build a whole page for that exhibition online and you never really update it once the exhibition is over. But digitally, creating websites, apps and content needed to follow a more agile method of development, you constantly need to update and maintain. Digital strategies that have long timelines and follow a waterfall method of A. then B. then C. then finally D. Publish are most likely going to fail because the old system of doing things no longer works, and by the time they publish the content it could be outdated. For example, if the digital strategy included creating games that were developed using Adobe Flash in late 2016 by the time the website launched in 2020, Flash will be dead. Thus, the argument is it’s important for museums to undergo a cultural transformation, which includes being more agile, in order to be sustainable, flexible and ahead of the curve. There is a new pace that the museum needs to keep up with, creating audio guides and not updating it for ten years no longer works. The rate of new technologies and platforms are not going to slow down, so museums need to keep up and continuously adapt to the landscape.

In most museums, strategies are created and revised every few years. They are meant to outline the museum’s vision of where it sees itself in a few years’ time and if being digitally conscious is part of that then why create a separate strategy? By creating a different strategy, the museum strategy and the digital strategy are more likely to misalign. Moreover, for departments trying to reach the strategic goals, they will prioritize one strategy over the other rather than see it as part of a holistic objective for the museum to be digitally conscious.

Digital strategies are also very digitally focused, it’s in the title, but creating a separation between digital may not achieve the same impact and continue to perpetuate a problematic culture of digital is not the responsibility of everyone but rather that of the Digital Department. Digital includes many things, and at the end of the day, they are tools serving the museum’s overall aims. They sometimes are the solution, and sometimes they are not. Museum employees need to understand these tools and when to implement them. For example, if the museum’s objective is to attract a diverse number of visitors and have a more equitable representation of visitors to the physical museum, digital may or may not be the answer to attract a larger audience. Moreover, by integrating digital within the museum culture, museums will be empowering departments to better serve their goals by utilizing digital rather than have digital as an afterthought. For example, instead of creating new content for kids, educators will be thinking throughout the process on how best to achieve the goals of engaging with kids and it may include using digital technologies within the gallery or virtually.

There is no right or wrong on whether or not a museum should have a digital strategy. It depends on too many variables. But it’s essential to ask would the goals be better served as being part of the museum’s overall strategy or in a separate digital strategy? If it’s about a change of culture and project management style then it will be better suited to part of the museum strategy. Also, it’s important to note that strategies only last for so there’s room to experiment.

Want to learn more about digital strategy? Here’s a reading list of essays and blogs on digital strategy that helped me form my opinion and hopefully yours:

Examples of Different Types of Digital Strategies:

Is a Digital Strategy the answer to all your digital problems? was originally published in Museums and Digital Culture — Pratt Institute on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

› tags: digital culture / museums /