Museums in times of social and technological change

by • 18 Apr, 2014 • innovation, Thoughts about museumsComments (11)72043

Museums in times of social and technological change

At the end of the first season of Downton Abbey in a scene that is exemplary of the serie’s greatness, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) exclaims that “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an HG Wells novel.” The Countess is responding to the unsettling arrival of the telephone, only months after her life was turned upside down by that other great invention: electricity. Born somewhere in the 19th century, this is too much change for the deeply conservative matriarch.

Four seasons and many spoiled Christmases later, fans of the show know that the telephone was by no means the greatest threat to the existence of the British aristocracy. The scene above happens on the eve of World War One. Four years of bloodshed later the incredible social impact of new technologies threatens the existence of any conservative 19th century institution. And we’re just the beginning of the century that will bring us television, H-bombs, the internet and Beyonce.

One hundred years later you carry in your pocket something we still call a phone but which in fact is an accumulation – and combination – of many of the last century’s inventions. It’s so powerful, at least until the battery runs out, that you would need a staff of thousands to replace its core-functionality in a non-digital world.

One hundred years later, in the first decades of the 21st century, those institutions that survived the 20th century are facing a whole new set of challenges. Technological changes like smartphones, robotics, big data and all the other buzzwords, combined with the social changes that go along with them – changing educational needs, careers paths, social structures – threaten the existence of those institutions that are overly conservative, don’t adapt, think this century will be like the last. Museums – and other institutions that represent our culture, heritage and art – are not excluded from this trend. They may in fact be at the very heart of it.

I believe museums (and also archives, galleries, libraries, theatres, art centres, …) have a place in the 21st century. I also believe this place might be very different from the place they occupied until now. I believe it’s not easy to be a museum nowadays – I’ve seen enough organisations struggle to keep their doors open and their audiences coming – but I know there is a way forward. I believe the way forward is to become more social institutions, but before we go there, let’s look at the changed world.

Distracted people in a high-speed world

So what has changed? And what is changing?

Since the turn of the century, the average attention span of people has dropped four seconds, to eight seconds. Eight seconds is just enough to read and retweet the latest Buzzfeed headline. ’14 Cats Who Think They’re Sushi.’ CLICK.

And there’s always something new to click off to. 90% of all data ever produced is produced in the last two years (PDF, p.25). Most of this is real data: raw, inaccessible, closed data useful and meaningful only to its owner. Lots of it, however, is also processed into status updates, blogposts and videos. Everything in the largest library you have ever seen pales in comparison to the number of tweets and photos send today across social media. We’re exposed to so much information it leads to infobesity and infotoxication. 

As a result, we’ve become easily distracted people in a super high-speed world. 

A large percentage of our media consumption is now done via smartphones and tablets; media that are often combined with another activity (unlike, for instance, reading a book or going to the cinema). We’re obsessed with new input. The average worker checks his email 30 times per hour, which means twice since you started reading this article. At the same time the new is quickly old. The lifecycle of breaking news on social media is an hour of coverage, an hour of jokes and rapidly produced cartoons and three days of commentary on how social media blew everything out of proportion. Six months later there will be a documentary on TV, making lots of people wonder what the original fuzz was about.

So much is written and said about the social and technological changes that are occurring, that rather than repeating what’s been said before, I recommend you read and watch smart thinkers about our time. Dave Egger’s The Circle may not be a good book, but it’s a good commentary of our time. World 3.0 by Pankaj Gemawat puts everything is a sensible broader context. And I like the observations Ramesh Srinivasan makes in many of his talks.

Some of the social and technological changes are local. The closing of a home for the elderly, the energy of a new incubator. For many museums it’s more important to stay on top of local trends than to try to be at the forefront of the global ones. Not many of us can compete with Facebook for eyeballs, but all of us can play an important role in our communities.

Local connections, real value

Maybe the best museum success story of recent years comes from the small Italian Palazzo Madama in Turin. When confronted with an opportunity to buy an iconic collection of porcelain they put some of the main trends in technology and society to their advantage and managed to successfully crowdfund the acquisition.

What is great about this project is not that a small team at a small institution managed to raise 100,000 euros (twenty thousand more than their goal) through the smart use of social media. What is great is that in the process they managed to connect with 1,500 people. Imagine the potential of having 1,500 people willing to draw their wallet when you’re in trouble (and probably: show up when you need feet through the door, vote when you need opinions, help when you need volunteers).

What Palazzo Madama understood well is that the key to success in the 21st century is to make connections first, then involve them in value creating processes. In doing so, they highlight the four key concepts that I believe should define the museum AD 2014: value, community, engagement and co-creation.

Visitors of Palazzo Madama
Photo by Sabina Arena, Fondazione Torino Musei

A broader concept of value

Many organisations – including museums – have a narrow concept of value: money (or profit). If there’s one thing the rise of social media has shown us, it’s that this concept is insufficient in today’s world. Fast and friendly customer service, for instance, may come at a significant financial costs, but when done correctly greatly increases brand value and customer loyalty. We know this (Zappos, Royal Dutch Airlines) but we – museums and other institutions – hardly do anything about it.

Value has many faces: financial, social, political, emotional, educational, creative… Realising these values form a closed system and can be transformed from one into the other with some creativity helps us to be meaningful, pay our bills and add to society.

In this respect I like the cooperation the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has started with DIY platform Etsy. After putting their collection online in high-quality and inviting the audience to work with it, the Rijksmuseum now encourages creatives and moms and everyone else to use their collection as a starting point for their own craft, and sell their creations through Etsy. From a money-perspective this hardly makes sense: why allow people to use your stuff to make money? From a value-perspective however, it’s brilliant: the Rijksmuseum adds tons of value to the lives of creatives, who themselves add value to the collection. This will get them more (virtual) visitors, more reach, more impact, more of anything. Well done!

Active, participating communities

The second element of success is what Kevin Allocca calls active, participating communities. Note the words active and participating: Your Facebook page probably is not such a community!

Active, participating communities are groups of people that regularly come together and create together (online or elsewhere) around their shared interest, objective or values. Communities exist and it’s often easier to tap into existing ones than to try to build new ones from scratch. Almost every institution I go to is home to one or more communities, sometimes without their knowing.

At last year’s NCK Spring Conference in snowy Östersünd, Sweden, I had the pleasure to hear how Veera Jalava connected one of her interests with one of her museum’s communities and created a project that is memorable already for its name alone: the Graffiti Grannies. Veera tapped into an existing group’s energy and potential by combining their interests and those of the museum into a project that had elderly ladies discover about contemporary street art, make it themselves and learn, grow and be happy at the same time. With their K65 crew, the grannies were not just a passive community, but actively participating in the project. 

Most communities aren’t large, but their potential energy is. Technology is not an ingredient of any community, but technology – when used smartly – is can give scale to community efforts.

Small aside: As communities are about people, a community manager should primarily be a people-person, not ‘knowledgeable about different CMS systems’. Know when you’re looking for a webmaster (computers, internet) or community manager (people, connections).

Engagement: Artefacts, audience and action

After maybe two generations of couch potatoes, passive consumption of mass media is again a thing for those on the fringes of society – and has been for ten to fifteen years already. The 21st century as most of history before it and most of the future still to come is a century of activity, albeit through digital tools.

We watch television interacting through second screens and apps, read books we later chat about on GoodReads, read and create our own newspapers on social media. Volunteering, at least in Holland, is getting more popular: active contributions as opposed to passive donations.

Engagement, digitally or otherwise, is the pinnacle step in the development of a relation between people and institutions. If museums don’t activate their audience once every while, they will lose them to competitors who provide the opportunity to participate (most likely: a SnapChat conversation in gallery or – with grown-ups – Tinder, the current-day alternatives for blowing bubblegum bubbles).

The ABBA museum in Stockholm is my favourite recent example of engagement done well in gallery. I’m not an ABBA fan, or wasn’t when I went to visit the museum ‘for professional reasons’. A carefully curated exhibition full of appropriate opportunities to engage (dance, do quizes, sing, explore) later I can say I’ve become an ABBA fan. Not because of the interactives, but because of the combination of artefacts, audience engagement and action. And the music, of course. The ABBA museum claims you will walk in and dance out, and they’re right

Abba The Museum
Photo by Lin Judy.


An activated, participating community creates a lot of energy, especially when this energy serves a higher goal. Not post-its on a wall (‘Leave your thoughts!”) but a contribution to something bigger. A cleaner city, more social cohesion, a successful creative industry…

Co-creation is a process in which an institution and its audience work together to create value. The institution does what it does best, the audience does what it does best, and together they achieve something that is better than the best of either of them. One plus one equals three.

The Digital Engagement Framework is an excellent example of co-creation. When Jim Richardson and I were asked the same questions over and over again, we decided to structure them in a framework. Together with a small group of early adopters from around the world we tested our first framework and used their feedback, case studies and input to improve and strengthen the framework. It’s not just the summary of the experience of Jim and myself, but combines the experience from lots of people from around the world (some of which you can find in the book.)

In the equation, Jim and myself contributed our ability to bring people and ideas together with the ability of people from around the world to do exciting projects and experiments into a Framework, book and set of workshops and masterclasses that are bigger than any one of us would have been able to create on our own.

Of course, many of the examples in this article ultimately are examples of co-creation as well. Palazzo Madama co-created an acquisition with their local community. The Rijksmuseum co-creates a lively creative industry with DIYers from around the world. Veera Jalava co-created social cohesion and street art with her grannies.

Note that co-creation is not a new thing. It’s the basis of any business model. What makes it special is the broader understanding of value museums can have, and the active, participating communities that are the basis of the 21st century.

Social institutions

A social institution is an institution that structurally engages its stakeholder to co-create value. I believe museums (and others) will increasingly become social institutions as the years progress. Or they will become extinct.

A common misconception is that social media is an ingredient or even objective of a social institution. It is not. Social media are a good way to talk about the transformation from traditional to social institutions, but in themselves only distract from the transformation. Using Twitter is not the solution, but understanding Twitter is (to some extend).

Another common misconception is that to succeed, museums have to change completely and do everything differently. They don’t. When co-creating value with your stakeholders, remember that it is as much about what you can add as what they can contribute. Museums have some very unique capabilities and characteristics (the collection, curators, buildings, etc. etc.) that are the basis for their contribution, and are valuable and valued by the stakeholder.

In Downton Abbey’s later seasons, when the estate is struggling to make ends meet, the family tries all sorts of things to move forward. They invite pigs on their land, welcome commoners in their midst, break with conservative traditions and desperately look for ways to stay valuable in the 20th century. Their best successes come when they work with others (the pigs, restructuring their finances) and have a broad view at how they can be valuable. I think they will succeed (or, as a fan, should I say I hope?) and I think they will succeed because some members of the family continuously push for a more social aristocracy. 

Parts of the British aristocracy somehow made it through the 20th century. Parts of our cultural institutions will somehow make it through the 21st. The key to face these times of social and technological change is to become more social institutions, co-creating value together with our communities.

This is an edited transcript of my opening keynote lecture at the Canadian Museum Association Conference in Toronto, April 2014. I’ve omitted some of the examples, juicy quotes and ‘eh’ sounds of the original presentation.

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