Down but not out

Digital Media
February 14, 2014

If you tried to view our website this week there’s a good chance you’d have encountered a big, fat nothing. For 24 hours our website was down. We were victim to the world’s largest ever denial of service attack (DDoS).

It reminded me that one of the most interesting things that can happen to a museum is forced closure. Some of the best stuff occurs when museum doors are closed. Not in a ‘Night at the Museum’ kind of way. I mean when they’re closed for months, years even.

Take the Rijksmuseum. It was closed for almost a decade for refurbishment. A decade. For a museum, or any brand, that’s a long time to work out what you are, what you stand for, what you’re offering to the public and – most importantly – how. When, like the V&A, you hold some of the nation’s most loved treasures, you have a duty to share your collections – that’s just a bit harder when your doors are closed. But, that ten year closure prompted the Rijksmuseum to have a digital presence that is way more impressive than most museums’. It had to be.

This is not news for anyone who’s part of the museum world. We all look at their Rijksstudio with admiration and, let’s face it, a little envy. As you may well know, the Rijksstudio is on online collection of 125,000-odd masterpieces offered up in brilliantly high resolution. And – this is the best bit – you can do what you want with them. You are free to download them, zoom in and inspect the tiniest details of brushwork, share them through a personal studio (a bit like a Pinterest board). Or you can do something creative with them, like make your own upholstery or wallpaper, iPad cover or tattoo, like Droog Design has done.

Droog created a tattoo inspired by a flower painting in the collection called Still life with flowers by Jan Davidszn de Heem from the 17th Century.
It’s not just the continent that’s seeing all these excellent digital ideas prompted by museum refurbs and closures. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has been shut for a year while they fix a rather leaky roof. The folk there created a lovely blog, Darkened not Dormant, which has documented not just the roof repair, but given a window on lots of other fascinating behind the scenes work. Where, for example, do you put a T Rex and an Iguanadon during a refurb? They also have Once in a Whale, a blog about conserving their five whale skeletons, where you can find out just what happened when they uncovered a sperm whale mandible.

It’s not just their blogs that are creating online buzz but the museum’s Twitter feed too. It was back in March last year that the Museum of Natural History announced it was live and squawking on Twitter with the utterly charming @morethanadodo handle. (The only downside for me is the inevitable earworm of the Bee Gees’ ‘More than a Woman’ whenever I peruse their tweets.) The museum reopens its doors tomorrow morning, and it – quite rightly – is getting a lot of love and eager anticipation on Twitter.

As is the case with lots of great innovation, it’s when you’re faced with real restrictions and rigid parameters that the real creativity happens. And, as you can see from these brilliant examples, it’s far worse to have your website down than it is your doors closed.

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