Nick Poole: Are Museums Doing IT Right?

Opinion - Nick Poole, Director, MDA | 05 December 2006
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Where it all began - A Netful of Jewels, 1999. © 24 Hour Museum

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Nick Poole, director of the MDA, made this speech to the Museums Computer Group recently, outlining his vision of the museum sector's web future.

Over the past 10 years, museums have spent a huge amount of money developing websites and online databases. I was recently invited by the Museum Computer Group to give a talk examining where this investment has got us and what lessons we should be learning in preparation for the next generation of digital services.

Our current approach to ICT was defined by the landmark publication A Netful of Jewels - New Museums in the Learning Age (National Museum Directors Conference, June 1999). Netful set out a vision of how museums could make the most of technology to deliver networked (online) services which supported learning, participation and engagement.

Since Netful, museums have seen at least four successive waves of development in IT policy and investment. From the New Opportunities Fund's Digitisation programme to, most recently, the DCMS Culture Online and Projects Etc. initiatives, much of this policy has drawn on the same principles of learning and access through technology.

But is this the right approach? The world of technology has changed at an exponential rate since 1999, and with the recent development in both Broadband connectivity and large-scale user participation our attitude towards the digital world is beginning to look decidedly tired.

The developments of the last seven years since Netful have been characterised by a strong focus on technology. We have digitised things, we have encoded them into web pages and we have built databases which simplify the process of finding them again.

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Allowing access to our riches? EnrichUK © 24 Hour Museum

Ever since the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) funded the IT Challenge Fund for Museums, our sector has effectively been undergoing a protracted period of technological research & development which is geared towards delivering access.

In fact access has become one of the defining principles towards which we have been working. The vision has been of a world in which we have created a critical mass of access so that the particular piece of information in which a person is interested is immediately available to them at the moment they happen to be looking for it. The difficulty with this is that access is an almost exclusively passive process.

In 1999, when there were only millions of websites, this was a tenable approach. In a world in which the amount of information has increased exponentially it becomes less reasonable simply to publish in the expectation that people will be able to find your resources.

Access in itself is not value, and simply making something available is not the way to develop the kind of qualitative and immersive user-experience which we now know is the basis of successful online services.

All of this investment in technology has brought us to a point at which we broadly understand what the technical options are. What we have failed so far to do, and what I would argue we now urgently need to address, is embed the value of this investment by creating sustainable business models which support market-competitive products and services and which are proportionate to the skills and capability of different kinds of museum.

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Getting culture online, for a short time - MadforArts. © 24 Hour Museum

In an environment that is characterised by short-term technology-led projects, it is all too easy to lose sight of the market need which they were originally intended to address.

The first market for museum websites is the direct user community. These are the people who regularly visit both museums and museum websites, and who make use of their online databases to carry out detailed research into the objects in their collections.

The second, much larger group, is the indirect community of millions upon millions of people for whom the Internet is both an information resource and a kind of hyper-connected valet, able to cater to their whims, needs and wishes 24 hours a day.

So far, the majority of our services have been targeted at the former. But who are these people? Do they really exist outside a small number of academic research institutions? Ask the majority of people about the information they want from a museum and they are likely to want to know things like where it is, when it's open, and whether there's somewhere for them to have a picnic with the kids. So why is it that we have spent so much time and effort delivering complex searchable databases of catalogue records?

The second group is where the real focus of our efforts should lie, but they are much more difficult to engage with. These are the people who would rarely visit a museum of their own volition, much less a museum's website. They do, however, regularly use and contribute to a wide range of services - from Google to Flickr - in which museums are almost completely invisible.

The basic difficulty is that we don't understand enough about what motivates a person to go to a museum website. We have limited knowledge about what they do while they are there, and we know nothing about the impact the experience has had on them afterwards.

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East Midlands museum hub community arts films inputted to YouTube.com by 24 Hour Museum © 24 Hour Museum

I would argue that this problem is equally true of our real-world services as it is of our digital ones. Although individual museums may have a deep insight into what motivates their visitors, across the sector as a whole there is no collectively-held picture of who our target markets are and what uniquely have to offer them.

Without this understanding, we end up doing two things. The first is to develop projects, pilots and demonstrators which are disconnected from existing stable services and which therefore do not survive into their second or third year. The second is to develop the kinds of services which we like - always forgetting that we are precisely not the audience we should be designing for - rather than services which speak to our audiences in language which appeals to them.

This latter problem is aggravated by the fact that there is no common understanding of 'quality' in electronic museum services. Our expectations, in terms of quality of service, production values, takeup and usage are set very low, with the result that, taken across our industry as a whole, our offer looks extremely patchy. Put simply, if many of our physical buildings were presented in the same way as our websites, they would have been recommended for de-Registration long ago.

What we do know, however, is that throwing more technology at the problem is not the answer. One of the most important lessons to learn from our previous experience is that we should leave the cutting-edge to other, better-funded industries that are better able to support fledgling solutions through to maturity.

There is no doubt that the current bubble of interest around Web 2.0 will eventually dissipate, and when it does it will leave behind some new principles such as participative marketing which will help to create a better Web and from which we can learn. The important thing is not to be seduced by the opportunities presented by these new developments..

Instead, we should be taking a step back from new technologies and looking instead to stable, cost-effective technologies which are a few years old, which are familiar and which enjoy a large installed user-base. It is only by doing this that we will be able to move away from our current focus on the technical and towards a more sophisticated understanding of what makes a successful digital project.

Because what makes a really successful digital project is a fine balance between people, skills, time, money, project management, purpose, audience and content. Technology should only ever be a dumb mechanism for delivering this balance, but in our world it has come to dominate it.

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Steve.museum a web 2.0 exemplar - but is it a step too far? © 24 Hour Museum

Recognising this, it is high time to draw back from short-term innovations such as Web 2.0 and focus much more clearly on the things which will deliver real long-term benefit, such as building editorial skills and developing sustainable business models which drive genuine benefit to the museum.

It is time, too, to reconsider the economics of our use of new technologies. Digital projects are expensive, and they very rarely deliver direct economic benefit to the museum that runs them. Even where funding bodies such as the Big Lottery Fund have invested in digital programmes, the majority of the value of this investment ends up with commercial partners and software suppliers rather than the institutions themselves.

Building large-scale, successful digital services costs far more than our sector is ever likely to be able to pay for them using public funds. The failure of Culture Online to deliver long-term change in the way the sector deals with technology, for example, is indicative of the problems faced by even well-resourced initiatives. Each time one of these initiatives recedes, it becomes a little more difficult to convince funding agencies to continue to invest in ICT. For this reason, we must become entrepreneurial in our approach, actively seeking out and exploiting new opportunities and partnerships and engaging with new business models.

We have equally to recognise that we occupy a niche, and that within this limited market, the cost-per-user of delivering digital services is far higher than in other industries. Unless we are able successfully to differentiate our offer on the basis of quality and depth of service, we are always going to struggle to be competitive in a world dominated by the aggregation of lots of bits of information into single services.

This raises a fundamental problem for museums in creating commercial digital services. On the one hand, we have access to a tremendous amount of rich and unique content. On the other - whether because of lapses in documentation or prohibitive licensing arrangements - we are actually unable to use a significant proportion of it.

Licensing arrangements with bodies such as the Design and Artists Copyright Society (who have a perfectly legitimate obligation to protect the interests of their artists and estates) mean that it is almost impossible to develop a commercially viable business based solely on the online publication of museum resources.

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Torbytes - caught in the web of the past? © 24 Hour Museum

Museums have either inherited or created a market failure between the demand for electronic source material and their ability to supply it in a cost-effective way. Digitisation on a small or ad-hoc scale will never be economically sustainable because it is so dependent on economies of scale across large numbers of items. Balanced against this is the fact that there is no mechanism by which the cost of digitising individual objects can be weighed against what real people are willing to pay for the pictures.

So what's the answer? Well actually, the answers are pretty straightforward, but they require a shift in our collective thinking before they can be achieved. I put the following list to the Museums Computer Group. There will be some here that you agree with and others less so. The important thing is that we urgently need to learn the lessons of the past 10 years before we move into the next era of our online development.

Museums and Technology - the Way Ahead?

1. There is an urgent need for a National Marketing Strategy for museums to identify our collective target markets and to state what it is that we are uniquely able to offer them

2. Drawn from an understanding of our (shared) user needs, we should define an e-Content Strategy which says how we are going to organise our resources into products and services which meet them

3. We should place a 2-year moratorium on new projects, programmes and initiatives and focus public funds instead on sustained investment in core capacity building and skills development

4. Significant investment should be made in 3-4 high-value, high-density destination sites such as the 24 Hour Museum which act as 'ambassadors' for our sector in the online environment

5. We need to develop industry standards for benchmarking quality in our websites, and ensure that these are sufficiently sophisticated to take account of the different scales of museum organisation

6. Quality in electronic service provision should be incorporated into the Museum Accreditation Scheme, particularly in relation to the Continuous Performance Assessment (CPA) framework

7. We need to build standard 'boilerplate' processes for licensing and procurement which are cost-effective for both the museums and the providers

8. We need to work with funding agencies to ensure that future programmes place equal, if not greater, emphasis on workflow, editorial and sustainability over technology and infrastructure

9. If we are going to play with 'cutting edge' technologies, we should develop a 'sandbox' model in which they can be incubated until they are ready to be launched to the public

10. We need a sustained programme of skills development throughout the sector, at both management and implementation levels, which focus on Project Management, procurement and service delivery over technology

Museums, the Web, and Sustainability

We're pleased to publish on the web this version of Nick's passionate speech to the autumn meeting of the Museums Computer Group. While we broadly agree with Nick's points, they are his views and we'd like to encourage museum sector readers to respond with feedback on Nick's ideas on the MCG newslist.

Jon Pratty, Editor, 24 Hour Museum.