Digital Impact in Museums and Galleries
A review of the barriers museums face in their digital work - from content production to building new websites, from setting up interactives to fundraising online. An Art Fund report with the Museums Association, One Further and Cultural Associates, Oxford.
In 2020, for the first time in living memory, cultural attractions across the world shut their doors. This called into question what a museum or gallery is to people, if it cannot be accessed in the physical space. For institutions predicated on their physical holdings, built up over centuries, this was not a straightforward question to answer. Cultural institutions were compelled to pivot their public engagement almost exclusively to digital.
When museums and galleries reopened, many faced the challenge of combining in-person experiences with new online systems. Thanks to advance ticket sales, many were collecting audience data they hadn’t before, increasing their capacity to understand and potentially broaden their audiences.
Now, 18 months on, the sector is beginning to reflect on the legacy of that extraordinary year. Art Fund and the Museums Association commissioned research to help museums better understand and assess the purpose and impact of digital work. We also wanted to build our understanding, and that of other funders, of how best to direct future investment in digital capacity building. This report briefly summarises the findings of the investigation we commissioned from One Further and Cultural Associates Oxford.
1. Lack of strategy is the biggest barrier to digital effectiveness
In many organisations, staff have low confidence in their organisation’s overall strategy as well as poor levels of confidence in how to develop digital strategies which support the organisation’s overall mission.
As a result, they lack a clear focus or a clear sense of prioritisation in their digital work, leading to feeling overworked and burnt out.
Insubstantial strategy also makes it difficult for museums to articulate why they do what they do digitally.
2. The sector contains a lot of digital knowledge, but often that knowledge isn’t shared – even within organisations
We found that, for most of the activity museums and galleries want to do digitally, the relevant knowledge exists in the sector or in other partner organisations, but that knowledge is often siloed. For example, digital teams in larger museums know how to follow digital best practices in user research; and learning and programming teams know how to deliver and evaluate community-based projects which aim to have an impact in the longer term. But those two areas of expertise often remain separate.
Digital activities will have greater impact, and museums and galleries will be able to measure that impact more effectively, when those two skill sets are brought together.
3. Museums appreciated the flexible funding approach adopted by Art Fund and the MA in 2020-1
Both Art Fund and the MA adopted a flexible and responsive approach to funding during the pandemic, allowing organisations to test approaches which they felt were best suited to their audiences’ needs. Study participants were overwhelmingly positive about this and contrasted it with their perceptions of other approaches to funding digital projects, which seemed to prioritise specific ‘in vogue’ outputs, such as VR, which might not be closely linked to audience need.