Making Space for Digital Initiatives: New Era Infrastructure in Cultural Institutions

Large touchscreen tables are part of the interactive digital experience at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Professionals in cultural institutions have grappled with the question of how best to approach digital and emerging media for decades. The longevity of annual conferences such as Museums and the Web (first meeting in 1997) and the Museum and Computer Network (first meeting in 1979) attests to the importance the cultural sector assigns to this question. However, the rapid pace at which emerging technologies develop is often understood as being at odds with the considerable organizational inertia of these institutions. Add to that the myriad other demands (collection, preservation, curation, access, education, etc.) these organizations must balance against their already limited resources, and it’s easy to understand institutional wariness toward adopting new technologies. Still, the great potential of digital and emerging technologies is driving cultural institutions to embrace these media to advance their missions in innovative and profound ways.

For the past several years, a concerted effort has been underway at cultural institutions to incorporate the digital more centrally and consistently than in the past, when digital initiatives were often undertaken and executed with little interdepartmental coordination. This disjointed approach led to the underutilization of digital and emerging media; using it for merely promotional or marketing purposes, or treating digital initiatives as satellite, short-term, and nearly disposable projects, rather than as projects capable of contributing to the institution’s mission in significant and substantive ways.

Cultural institutions are now taking steps to give digital initiatives a central rather than peripheral role in the pursuit of long-term goals and objectives. Whatever their specific mission or cultural areas of focus, such institutions aim to ensure that digital initiatives are cohesive across the organization, and to include them into organization-wide strategic planning. As digital and emerging media have grown in sophistication and become more seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, digital technologies have begun to play a larger role in the programming efforts undertaken by many cultural institutions. Indeed, some organizations have made digital technologies a fundamental part of their institutional mission by incorporating them into major initiatives.

The term digital initiatives is broad, referring to any or all of the following projects at cultural institutions:

  • Handheld/mobile apps

  • Social media

  • Websites

  • Online collection access

  • Digitization or other digital content management systems

  • In-museum interactives or other displays

  • Data-driven research (such as digital humanities or visitor experience)

Several examples have emerged in recent years of large institutions taking serious steps to make digital and emerging media central to their organization’s structure, their pursuit of their mission, and to their visitors’ experience. For instance, Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art encourages visitors to interact with and interpret works of art through large digital displays, and The Pen at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum provides visitors the opportunity to curate and annotate their visit, and to later revisit their experience online. Many large organizations have committed to entire digital departments: this is the case at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The digital departments at both of these institutions are headed up by Matthew Majeski and Jonathan Lee respectively, professionals whose background and expertise lies mainly in the marketing and tech fields, rather than in cultural program development or non-profit management. While the efforts underway at these institutions are laudable and inspiring, this reimagined organizational model requires a significant investment of potentially costly new resources. The typical result is that only the largest and best-funded institutions having the capability to build and sustain dedicated digital departments.

Jonathan Lee presents an interactive digital wayfinding kiosk developed for the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

However, resource limitations do not necessarily keep smaller cultural institutions from making digital and emerging technologies a central part of their mission advancement. These organizations have developed ways to work with what they have at their disposal to pursue digital initiatives without implementing significant changes to their organizational structure. Rather than assemble an entirely new department, these institutions will disperse the responsibilities that typically rest with dedicated digital teams among employees in already existing departments: social media may be managed by marketing, websites may be designed by IT, and digitization may be undertaken by rights and reproductions.

As mentioned earlier, this approach has been plagued by inconsistency in the past, as seen in the outdated and neglected digital initiatives borne by many museum websites and app store listings. To avoid these pitfalls, the individuals who shoulder digital responsibilities at smaller institutions work together to facilitate interdepartmental cohesion. Depending on the size of the institution, these individuals may simply communicate closely with one another or form a digital committee to convene on a regular basis. Where these organizations lack digital capability in one area or another, they seek outside help, hiring freelancers or contractors, or collaborating with individuals or groups at other cultural or educational institutions.

Institutions that are associated with a university or college are particularly well-situated to collaborate with faculty and students on digital projects. For example, when the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History opened a new mineral hall with minimal wall labels in the style of an art gallery, it enlisted the help of computer science students to design a mobile app to allow visitors to determine their own experiences. Institutions not directly affiliated with a school seek out these collaborative opportunities as well, as is the case for Chicago 00, a series of augmented and virtual reality experiences from the Chicago History Museum. The project is a collaboration between the Chicago History Museum, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and SAIC students. Partnerships like these allow cultural institutions without dedicated digital departments to tap into the expertise of digital producers and to deliver digital media that serves their mission in innovative ways.

Augmented and virtual reality technology used for the Chicago 00 Project to showcase local city history.

Discovering how to better utilize digital and emerging technologies is a key part of the cultural institution’s continual effort to engage and draw in audiences. As institutions of all sizes move to incorporate digital initiatives in a central way, serious consideration needs to be directed towards the role that these projects will play in the future. Now that digital and emerging media feature prominently in advancing the institution’s mission, will they eventually aid in actually reshaping that mission? Given the aforementioned organizational inertia that can characterize cultural institutions, this possibility should not be taken lightly. As some cultural institutions have been slow to employ digital initiatives in the past, they may also be hesitant in allowing digital departments or committees to have a voice in updating their mission to serve communities in the years ahead. If given the chance, however, the professionals specializing in digital technologies, and the innovations and initiatives they foster and bring to fruition, could continue to have a profound effect on the relevance, accessibility, and longevity of the institutions that we rely upon to inform, provoke, and inspire.


Further reading:

The Emergence of the Chief Digital Officer in Cultural Institutions: Digital Technology Needs a Voice within Arts and Culture Leadership, Russell Reynolds Associates

Article advocates for making digital a core element of long-term strategy for cultural institutions at the senior management level. Includes recommended approaches for achieving this goal.

The Digitized Museum, Art in America

Offers examples of how museums have featured digital as a central component of activities undertaken to further their mission.

Strategies Against Architecture: Interactive Media and Transformative Technology at Cooper Hewitt, Museums and the Web

Essay offers additional insights into the conception and implementation efforts that went into the Cooper Hewitt’s redesign process.

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