Transforming into a digital organisation: from zero tech to high tech

Transforming into a digital organisation: from zero tech to high tech

By Seb Chan
Julie Aldridge


Seb Chan shares his thoughts on Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's shift from a zero tech to a high tech organisation and the impact it had on the organisation.

Can you introduce the museum for us?  How would you describe it to someone who has never been?

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, and is dedicated both to historic and contemporary design. Its collections date from the late 19th Century, and are a mix of everything from decorative arts, textiles, and wallpapers to contemporary product design.

The museum is well-connected to the design community, but being called the ‘National Design Museum’ we want to continue to open up the organisation to a much broader range of people.

Your role within the organisation has been introduced relatively recently. Tell us about the role and what you and your team have been brought in to achieve.

I’ve been given a huge task of taking the organisation from zero tech to one of the highest-tech museums.  When I arrived there was no dedicated digital team - there was a contractor and two AV people in the education team, but that was it.

The museum is being renovated and redesigned at the moment. What key changes are being made?

We’re a year away from reopening (although we’re not completely closed – just the main physical site). The whole top floor of the Carnegie Mansion is being renovated to create a more traditional art museum open exhibition space.  Being in a historic house provides a wealth of opportunities, but also means that space is very limited, so this renovation will provide us with 60% more exhibition space.

But the redesign is about much more than just the building. We’re changing the whole brand experience, even through to how it impacts on curatorial practices.

In seeking to open up the museum to a much wider audience, we are becoming more future-focused.  A museum naturally feels comfortable collects things that are at least 20 years old. With the distance of time, we ‘know’ that these designs are proven and successful – it’s not risky to present them within the museum. But this is not OK with design. Any ‘national design museum’ has to also be about what’s happening in design now, and has to make judgements and have public opinions about what it feels will be successful in the future..

The challenge is therefore to create a museum that feels dynamic and contemporary, without losing the unique benefits of being based within an historic house – and, in so doing, find coherence between cutting-edge digital content, a high-impact education programme, and some of the more traditional museum activities with older visitors. How can we fold all of this into the museum brand experience?

In my mind any ‘design museum’ is uniquely placed to be both an ‘art’ and a ‘science museum’.

Is the redesign and the introduction of the ‘labs’ enabling new opportunities for you to rethink or reinvent the relationship the museum has with the public?

Digital is no longer just an add-on for the organisation. It’s not just part of marketing or how we communicate.  It’s at the core of almost everything we do.

The shift to having a digitised collection presents challenges – not just for how we present the collection online, on the web, on mobile and via publishing: it also changes what we collect as a museum. We’re now starting to collect software, data and digital products as part of the museum collection. What if we collected all the CAD files from an architectural work in our collection? What if we collected Photoshop files and present all the layers that go into the design of a work of graphic design in our collection?

Process is key within design. Our redesign is considering this in more depth – what does this mean for what we collect as the National Design Museum, and how we show this to the public?

To this end, we’ve been working with Local Projects, a company which focuses on participation and playfulness, who are designing the interactive gallery experiences. As part of their engagement they’ve also run design workshops with high school students to design and prototype an interactive exhibit around objects in the museum’s collection.

How are you presenting this and enabling visitors to engage with these new collections?

This is one of the key challenges. We want to show how design has been developed and changed, and let them interact with that. This is happening at a time where 3D printing in the mainstream is providing opportunities for people to design and create for themselves, and for them have a much bigger involvement in the decision making process. We’re therefore thinking about how to simulate what would have happened within a design process if the designer had made series of different decisions.

It’s been a challenging and stressful process implementing this level of change, but there is a rare opportunity now while the organisation is closed.

What’s the biggest challenge that the renovation is causing for you and your team?

Even now, two years after I joined, only 10% of the collection had been photographed, and all of the interesting narrative knowledge about the collection remained in curators’ heads or exhibition catalogs. These narratives had not been systematically recorded in a database in any depth, so it virtually disappeared at the end of each exhibition. Then there is also the huge challenge in trying to open up the collection online in a meaningful way that isn’t just a database of dimensions and dates.

We can’t possibly photograph and document everything quickly – and the photography is the easy part! Especially during the renovation when everything is in storage, just the physicality of the challenge is taking a lot of time.

The response has been to build new systems and processes for future exhibitions to prevent this happening again, and to reconsider how we create object labels and how we store information, so that every exhibition henceforth lays down structured information for the future.

Thinking about the future vision, what will success look like for you when you reopen?

I, personally, have six key measures for success:

  1. Increased diversity of visitors – the rapidly changing demographics of the US and New York City really necessitates this.
  2. Increased dwell time – people currently take about 40 minutes to see the full museum.  Being based in a historic house, the physical design of a domestic building limits the amount of time visitors can spend so the new architecture and top floor space will have a huge impact on this. There is a fantastic shop already (online and offline), and we want to continue to expand the use of that, as well as of the café, to keep visitors on our campus and engaged for longer.
  3. Repeat visitation – this is critical to sustaining the institution, and we are designing a series of systems to encourage and acknowledge repeat visitors.
  4. Visitor satisfaction – there is a sensitive balancing act between dwell time, number of visits, and satisfaction. If too many people are in the place at once, satisfaction plummets; yet, if we have people on site for longer periods of time, it limits our throughput. A mentor of mine once described the need for a museum to plan for three modes of operation – very crowded, not crowded, and somewhere in between.   So part of the development will be training to enable staff to respond to these three different modes to achieve this delicate balancing act.
  5. Internal innovation – all the above metrics require us to have the internal capacity to research, develop and iterate solutions. Not just technical solutions but procedural and systemic solutions – so an internal innovation metric is key to driving continued investment in internal experimentation.
  6. Expanded collection capacity – being a design museum at the start of the 21st century is an amazing opportunity. Design is now systems, software, and bio-engineering – and the museum needs to be able reflect that shift. Our success as a 21st century design museum means having the ability to collect these important designs, and figuring out how to preserve and exhibit them effectively.

Tell us more about the changes that you’re making to encourage a culture open to innovation.

I was surprised at the scale of outsourcing that goes on in arts organisations in the US when I moved here from Australia. There’s a big outsourcing culture, which reduces museum staff to project administrators. This is a real challenge that we’re addressing right now. We need to be able to create a step change in order to fully address the challenges of the present.

So part of my role is to help introduce capacity for internal innovation, under the guise of digital transformation.  I called the digital team the ‘Labs’ early on, to help encourage innovation, give our work a playful identity and focus, and allow people space and give them permission to experiment. In the Labs there have been lots of incremental improvements, but also lots of little failures. It’s important to allow for that.

I coined a term, ‘institutional wabi sabi’. This is a challenging concept – one which gives a useful way of accepting and understanding impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness.

The museum has a high level of philanthropic funding.  How is this being affected by the renovation period?

About 80% of our funding comes from self-raised income, and, with the ticket income disappearing while we’re closed, maintaining funding has been really important. Fundraising is continuing to happen throughout the renovation period and has been hugely successful. The process of rebranding as a high-tech museum has also opened doors to some fantastic new board members and donors.

The incremental changes that we’re making have been key to the success of this. Funders need to see the vision for what you want to achieve, and they then need to be given the confidence that you’re going to get there. Making the changes incrementally really help develops this confidence and gather support for what you’re doing.

What advice would you give someone else shifting from being a zero tech organisation to placing digital at the core?

I’d suggest that you start by thinking about what your unique value proposition is and considering what opportunities digital (or technology more broadly) has to support and develop that. For us, our collection is our unique value proposition. We’re doing a lot on that in the redesign of our galleries and online, but it’s a multi-year programme of change.

But there are often quick wins that start on the periphery and need to happen first to build confidence. I started small by changing from a really poor ticketing system to a temporary solution using Eventbrite to enable online bookings.  This small change saw a huge impact with advance bookings going from very few to over 90%. This let us have conversations across departments about the importance of ‘ease of use’ for visitors – rather than an emphasis on ‘compatibility with the accounting system’. It helped staff see the benefit of becoming more visitor-focused. They could see that we know have contact details that we can follow up with direct communication about what’s coming next. Not rocket science, but an easy win which helps other staff think about systems that can deliver more value to the end user.

Another key take-away for me would be to consider what you can do in-house that can add value and is realistic without bringing a lot of extra overhead.  By enabling step-change innovation internally, we’re able to respond much more effectively to opportunities and challenges, and to demonstrate this response to potential funders to gain their confidence and support for our future direction.

At Cooper-Hewitt, we want to enable deeper, more enjoyable museum experiences for the public, and we’re therefore considering not just what this means now, but building in elements with the process to open up new possibilities in the future.

Find out more and follow Seb’s journey at
@cooperhewitt / @sebchan

Resource type: Case studies | Published: 2013