How can technology improve the museum experience?

Digital Media
October 2, 2014

This weekend, I’ll be judging the final presentations at Startup Weekend Art London. Over 54 hours, teams of technologists, artists, entrepreneurs, designers, mobile developers and product experts will come together to build real solutions to the art world’s most pressing problems, using technology and business models from other industries to innovate and disrupt the arts world – all in just one weekend. The Startup Weekend folks interviewed me for their blog about some of the challenges museums are facing and where technology might be able to help. Here’s what I said…

  1. What are the main challenges museums experience?

Money – One of the main challenges for any museum is funding. Our dwindling grant in aid means we need to find new sources of income, and foster a more entrepreneurial, more commercial mindset within our sector, which, in itself, raises some interesting challenges, tensions, and – of course – opportunities.

Organisational culture – Most people probably don’t think of museums as entrepreneurial hotbeds, or as tech innovators and I’m sure all of us digital folk in the museum sector would acknowledge the pockets of Luddism that still exist within our all too often siloed organisations. We therefore need to be persuasive and passionate about the opportunities and possibilities that new digital technologies can present. It helps that there are some really interesting digital innovations happening in the sector that we can point to, like Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One or the Cooper Hewitt’s Pen.

Loss of control – Museums, like any 21st century organisations, need to get their heads around no longer being in control of their brands. Like Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, once said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Some, like frog’s CMO Tim Leberecht, would argue that loss of control is not a new phenomenon; in fact, we’ve got more control over the loss of control than ever before. Either way, in a hyper connected, transparent world we can’t afford to take a broadcast approach where the urge is to control the message. We need to embrace the multiplicity of voices that we as organisations can offer. We need to be more conversational. We need to collaborate with our online audiences, generating ideas and content together, ensuring a virtual visit is just as inspiring as coming to our buildings. The challenge is to listen, to develop shared values and long-term relationships.

  1. What future (or present) technology innovations could help to solve them?

I think it’s dangerous to assume the best starting point is technology. It’s people: some of the most enduring, compelling innovations come from looking at what people want, and at their latent needs. Of course there are exceptions to the rule (the folks at Apple and Ikea, for example, don’t waste their time on user-centric design) but museums, as social institutions, really need to think about people first. Too often we end up with solutions looking for problems.

It’s also about getting the basics right. On the museum conference circuit I hear from peers about exciting new apps and gallery interactives, yet often they don’t have responsive websites. It’s easy to get distracted by the latest technologies, while neglecting the fundamentals, like making it easy for visitors to find your opening times while they’re on the move.

  1. What are some of the ways the Victoria and Albert Museum uses technology to innovate the visitor experience, manage exhibitions and attract visitors?

For our blockbuster exhibition David Bowie is we collaborated with Sennheiser to deliver audio seamlessly and intuitively, from immersive 3D sound simulations to proximity triggered audio. We’re now looking at how we might use iBeacons to deliver multi-media content in our exhibitions, or provide tours for visually impaired visitors or exploration trails and games for kids, for example. We’re also exploring how wearables, like Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift might introduce new layers of content and even more immersive experiences in our buildings or remotely.

We’ve also put a considerable amount of work into translating the V&A’s core managed data resources into web-portable digital assets via APIs. Freeing up collections, shop and event datasets has allowed us to rapidly develop services like our award winning digital Explorer Map as well as in-gallery digital labels. It’s also meant we’ve created a number of automated widgets on the V&A site and – most excitingly – this enables artists and developers outside the organisation to mash up the data and create their own artworks and visualisations.

But innovating our visitor experience doesn’t necessarily mean embracing the newest technologies. It’s about doing more, better, with ubiquitous channels like Twitter and Instagram, for example, by encouraging people to contribute their ideas on what we should be collecting in our Rapid Response collection.

  1. What do you think museums of the future will be like?

There’s so much interesting research in this area in this area and reports like TrendsWatch do a far better job than me of summarising key trends for museums. But we’re all thinking about the Internet of Things (IoT) and how that might open up new possibilities in museums.

The IoT caricature is of your fridge telling you when it’s out of milk but there are very real applications for a connected world within and beyond the museum. After all, museum environments already chock full of sensors, the things that will power the IoT. At the most functional level, imagine how the IoT will change areas like conservation and security. But the recent folding of digital agency Berg, whose Little Printer really captured the world’s imagination, shows that the world of connected products is still very much in its infancy and even for those with Berg’s incredible creativity, expertise and imagination, the market isn’t necessarily there yet.

Museums of the future will also be social institutions (if they’re not already), more collaborative, more focused on engagement than presentation, and developing online (as well as physical) experiences. To do that well, we’ll need to have got our head around big data but perhaps we should focus more on small data or just using data better, to create truly personalised experiences for our visitors.

  1. Any tips for entrepreneurs who want to disrupt the museums world?

Is disruption the end goal? I’m not sure it is. After all, some are questioning whether disruption is a myth. Earlier this year, historian Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker that innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in business but have now been applied to arenas with very different values and goals than those of business:

“People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or dry goods are industries.”

That said, I think it’s hugely important that museums collaborate with technologists and creatives if not to disrupt, at least to drive innovation within our sector. Here are four things you might want to consider:

  • Find the problems – don’t start with the technological solutions and retrofit a problem around them. Instead, take a user-centred design approach. Put people – visitors – first.
  • Look for the sweet spot – identify the sweet spot between business goals, user goals, content and interaction and start there. For more on this take a look at Corey Stern’s recent piece for UX Mag.
  • Borrow from other sectors – this is an oft-used strategy within innovation: see what’s working in one sector and translate it to a new environment. And this is particularly good strategy to use in organisations with a risk averse culture such as museums.
  • Develop a business model – it’s important to really interrogate your idea and ask yourself, does it have legs? It does if you can develop a proper business model around the core idea. One of my favourite tools to do this is the Business Model Canvas.


The CUBI User Experience Model Image © Corey Stern
The CUBI User Experience Model
Image © Corey Stern


Good luck to all the teams at Startup Weekend Art – I look forward to the judging session on Sunday.

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