In the quest to understand how museums can create value for users/visitors online, IdeK is asking five questions to colleagues around the world. First up is Douglas Hegley, Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Five questions on Digital online offerings
Please tell us about yourself
I am Douglas Hegley, Chief Digital Officer at Minneapolis Institute of Art in the USA. I’ve been working in the cultural heritage sector for more than 20 years, driving digital transformation and working collaboratively to help organizations through the many resulting changes. A core part of my professional practice has been helping museums lean into digital content production and sharing, to deepen audience engagement and embrace a global audience. Recently, I’ve also been focused on issues of strategy, leadership, and using data to inform decisions.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) enriches the community by collecting, preserving, and making accessible outstanding works of art from the world’s diverse cultures. Mia’s permanent collection has more than 89,000 objects, including world-famous works that embody the highest levels of artistic achievement, representing the world’s diverse cultures across six continents.
The museum offers free general admission, hundreds of public programs, classes for children and adults, and boasts award-winning interactive media experiences that have helped to broaden and deepen Mia’s roots in the communities it serves.
Today museums are expected to deliver value online, not just use the website as a shop window but engage new as well as loyal audiences, or audiences that might not even visit the museum physically. What should the digital online offerings of a contemporary museum comprise?
Perhaps first it’s important to define what it means to “deliver value online”. The word “value” in this case is intrinsically woven into the definition of a museum along with its primary responsibilities and activities. To that end, any digital offering would need to align with one or more of the following:
- Institutional Mission, Vision, and Values
- Audience Engagement
- Revenue generation (earned and contributed)
There is a rather wide range of digital online offerings that a museum in today’s digital ecosystem must consider. Overall, we have the responsibility to engage the public with our collections via digital channels, while at the same time ensuring that our online presence supports marketing initiatives; enables customers to purchase tickets, buy merchandise, become members, and make donations; and provides the necessary logistical information about a museum visit – our audiences expect all of those online interactions to be seamless, familiar, and mobile-first.
Digital is particularly adept at storytelling, with the capacity for hyperlinking and layered content offerings. When a museum provides engaging digital stories online and in-gallery, they will find success. In addition, layered digital content can provide audiences access to the full range of a collection, including what they would not be able to experience even if they were onsite. That might include objects not on view, research, conservation work, deep-dive stories, or archival histories. Done well, digital will connect learning, fund-raising, and other information for both visitors and staff.
Other important factors that will have an impact on delivering value via digital include:
- Usability – good interface design makes a huge difference.
- Innovation – we must balance the need to support digital and traditional advertising and public awareness with the need to be proactive in the digital space.
- Prioritize audience needs – base decisions on what works for the audience, using feedback to drive change.
- Accessibility – All efforts need to meet minimum accessibility requirements and better yet exceed those in order to create experiences that are open and available to audiences with a broad array of accessibility challenges.
- Global – digital offerings must be inclusive of the needs of individuals from a broad variety of spoken languages and cultural/socio-economic backgrounds.
How can museums deliver value online to younger audiences, considering their online habits and of course privacy and integrity.
The LaPlaca Cohen “Culture Track 2017” report lists four reasons why digital appeals strongly to cultural experience audiences: (1) access to more detailed information, (2) activity is shareable digitally, (3) deeper understanding of content, (4) makes the activity feel new.
Quoted from Culture Track 2017: “This represents a great opportunity for identifying how and if technology can truly enhance and deepen the cultural experience in ways that nothing else can—making the future of digital in cultural experiences about much more than a shiny new device or an app. Therefore, when exploring a new digital strategy or initiative, organizations should start by asking questions such as: Is this enriching, or distracting? Does this simplify the experience, or make it more complicated? Most importantly, does this feel authentic to who we are and how our audiences engage with us?”
There remain worthwhile questions about the return on investment with digital – questions that get to the heart of measurement and money. No organizations – and perhaps especially nonprofits – aim to spend needlessly or extravagantly on anything, including digital. However, digital can seem current or even sexy, and organizational leadership can be lured into some questionable decisions and expenditures, especially if they fall for the myth that younger audiences are only interested in digital. Many organizations have been scarred by one or more big-ticket digital projects that seemed like they would be impressive but then delivered paltry results (see museum mobile apps for example – many of which have been expensive wastes of time and resources).
Younger audiences can be engaged online, especially via mobile and social media. Perhaps more importantly for museums, that engagement can lead to an actual visit. Museums thrive when people show up, regardless of age.
To the topic of privacy and integrity, it is incumbent upon us to act not only within standing legal requirements, but also with an acute awareness of data ethics. We can learn about our audiences and plan for digital initiatives by collecting meaningful data about them. But museums have existed in a rather hallowed space of trust – the general public has an implicit assumption that museums respect truth, and act in good faith always. That means that we should only collect data that is useful to us, we should be transparent about all such activities, and we should make every effort to adopt best practices in data integrity and security.
Creating value online long term as a museum will affect traditional work methods and organizational structures. What do you consider is the most important step for museums to take to build capacity for value creation online?
Repeat after me: Start with people.
Building capacity for ensuring that digital will provide value is vital. From my perspective, that leads us in two inter-related directions:
- Audience participation in the process of creating digital
At Mia, we believe that collaboration is vital to the success of modern organizations. Let me take a step back and set some context. I think two things laid the groundwork for challenging the traditional, siloed organizational structures of museums: digital transformation and changing workforce expectations. Digital was perhaps the first externally driven force that had a significant impact across all of the museum silos. At first, museums tried to make digital technology into yet another silo – but the very nature of technology has been to permeate every aspect of organizations and institutions. In addition, the modern-day workforce is very different than preceding generations. We are knowledge workers, not drones doing repetitive tasks. And knowledge workers expect to have a say in what they focus on (initiatives) and how they do their work (methods). That requires a flatter, non-siloed org structure and cross-functional collaboration the likes of which museums have never really seen before. Existing staff will need some re-training, and recruitment of new staff will require a different set of lenses for evaluation, including experience with digital storytelling and digital engagement, across all museum departments.
Finally, including the audience in the process of developing digital interfaces pays off in myriad ways. Primarily, it ensures that the output of such efforts is a product or experience that audiences actually want! In addition, audiences today display a sense of joy when asked to weigh in – especially when we make clear to them that their opinions really matter.
What would you recommend to museums wishing to take the next steps towards creating and delivering online value in the upcoming years?
I believe it’s important to take a strategic approach to this work. By setting the overall vision and aligning it with the core mission, values, and current strategy of the museum, any digital effort will be more successful, easier to sustain, and less complicated to explain. Of course, be ready for financial investment, because even though many digital interfaces are not high-cost line items in and of themselves, the work around creating them and maintaining them can be overlooked in longer-term planning.
Mindset is also very important. For example, at Mia we conceive of digital as simply part of the fabric of the organization. In that regard, digital technology becomes and organizational horizontal rather than a vertical. So for us, there is no stand-alone digital strategy, neither as a document nor as a set of practices. There is a museum strategy, and digital permeates that to the extent that it will delight customers. Of course, there are plenty of museum activities that are non-digital, and at Mia this presents no conflict whatsoever. As long as we can show that customers are delighted, any initiative will move forward, digital or not.
This philosophy has a major impact on talent strategy across Mia. For the Media and Technology division, it is critical to hire and retain staff who see the bigger picture and apply their digital and technical talents to support the overall strategic plan and the core strategies of the museum. Across the museum, it is vital to hire and retain staff who embrace digital as one of the effective tools to use to delight customers. Cross-functional teams can then make the best decisions on what projects or products move forward.
The digital strategy work they have been doing at Ford’s Theatre is an excellent example of how to move an organization forward. For an overview, see their blog post Engaging the 21st Century Visitor: Digital Strategy at Ford’s Theatre.
One final thought on this topic – I believe that one of the difficult concepts for museums to fully understand might be summed up like this: A digital initiative can be simultaneously Done and also Not Finished. What do I mean by that? As an example, your organization might redesign and relaunch your website, and yet that website will continue to grow and expand and share new content into the future. Doing digital well includes being prepared for ongoing, iterative work to keep the experience fresh, up-to-date, and evolving with the innovations that take place in the digital realm that is all around us.
Can you give an example of a museum that you think creates value online and that has taken an extra step to increase their online offerings?
The answer to this question is ever-evolving. I enjoy the fact that our colleagues across the sector continue to create new digital experiences that in turn challenge the rest of us to step up – it’s wonderful. Although wouldn’t it be great if we could work together a bit more? After all, we really aren’t competitors with each other, certainly not in the eyes of our audiences.
There are a few recent examples that stand out to me.
- Cleveland Museum of Art and its ArtLens initiatives
- The Smithsonian Open Access effort is terrific.
- The One-by-One collaborative project to develop digital literacy in museums is an important resource for any museum that is dedicating resources to digital technology.
At Mia, we continue to evolve and build upon our digital practices using agile methodology and frequent iterations. Our experiments in innovation have helped our staff re-imagine possibilities, and led to cross-functional collaboration to envision content aggregation such as www.more.artsmia.org and the commitment to storytelling that can be found at www.artstories.artsmia.org. Lately, we have been compiling 3D digital content that is ready for augmented reality or virtual reality experiences, which we believe are not too far off. Examples can be found at sketchfab.com/artsmia. Our plan is to continue creating and working with our many audiences to provide engaging and meaningful digital content.