by • 25 Jan, 2018 • Technology, Thoughts about museumsComments (2)15021

Futureproofing the digital museum

The museum of the future is an organisation influenced by social and technological change. Recently, on this blog, I’ve been focusing on social over technological change. This post is different.

Technology is changing the world, and it is doing so rapidly. Advances in technology are also directly affecting museums and other cultural institutions, and the role they play (or do not play).

  • Blockchains and similar technologies are redefining trust. Cryptocurrencies may be a fad, but for institutions proud of and relying on being trusted sources of information, the underlying technology is not.
  • Artificial Intelligence will replace curators, more or less. Plus deep learning algorithms may use online museum collections to perfect their skills.
  • Robots, so far, have only been spotted in staff roles at museums. Give it a few years, and robots will be a museum audience.
  • Games. Somewhere between PlayStation 2 – the last console I owned – and PS4 something massive happened, and not just in graphics. Where game reviews used to focus on the hard side of things (glitches, gibs, guns), the ones I watch now on YouTube judge a game by the empathy players develop for the characters and the depth of the story. Wow.
  • Privacy.
  • Security.
  • And good old social media, which is unrecognisable compared to ten years ago when it started to dominate museum debates. (How long has it been since you left a comment on a blog? Scroll down and win a prize!)

None of these and other trends are likely to reverse and time soon. Many of these trends are overwhelming for those of us who are not in the driver’s seat of technological innovation. Most museums are not in said driver’s seat. They’re not even riding on the same bus.

To consider what this means for museums, let’s take a step back and look at why we are (or were) so enthusiastic about technology:

  • Technology promised to get rid of the middleman. The internet promised to get all content directly to the people who wanted it, cheaply, effortless. The long tail promised us that all content would be available, uncensored, anytime. It turns out we desperately need a middleman. Amidst all the digital content, who can spot what’s true? The other way around, exhibitions and stories curated by the masses are not necessarily good.
  • Technology enabled new communities. I still believe this is among the most powerful assets of the digital era, however… On most social media community is now a curse, an echo chamber of acceptable ideas. We need someone to bust the filter bubbles.
  • Organisations (and society) would transform from vertically organised to horizontal. In his latest book, Neill Ferguson proves that this is always the promise of new technologies, but that there is always a tension that creates new monopolies. Everyone can be famous on Instagram tomorrow, especially if you are famous (or rich) today.
  • Technology promised equality. Alas, as Ramesh Srinivasan writes, inequality is a major part of the story of today’s internet, and on a whole globalisation has reinforced inequality through the way new technologies have been deployed. “The unchecked diffusion of technologies tends to reify rather than diminish inequality.”

Overall, technology has not liberated us. There are still gatekeepers; there is still censorship. I do not believe technology or digital media are broken, perse, but like our societies, we need a new approach to fix what is wrong with them.

There is a risk that we built digital museums that are like our physical ones: important, beautiful, meaningful, but largely irrelevant to the (digital) society they are part of. Our online collections are full of stunning artworks and unconnected to the polarised debate on Facebook.

There is another way.

I proudly do all my banking business with Triodos, which is a joy. Over the past years, they have initiated a couple of projects that get it right. First, there is Buy The Change, which shows consumers where they can spend their money on fair and sustainable products and services. Their mobile banking app has a map on the home screen that shows where and why Triodos invests the money you trust it. Recently, their campaign to promote their various investment products focused on ‘investing for humans’ (as opposed to robots), and they encourage long-term commitments to make a change where it matters rather than short-term trades that are only focused on making money.

Triodos uses the possibilities of a digital, globalised world to make a difference on a human scale.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands, others are doing the same in other industries. I can rent sustainable jeans online, get high-quality care from independently organised health care professionals, and can be certain that the chocolate and coffee I consume do not harm anyone. These initiatives do not replicate an old model online, but smartly use digital to make the world a better place.

So what about the digital museum?

There is no shortage of ways in which the digital museum can make the world a better place. We need skilled facilitators of digital conversations, for instance, we need trustworthy sources of ‘truth’, and tools and support to teach us civility and how to interact with strangers in a digital world. Moreover, we need people who can help us explore new ideas and adapt to the ideas of others. Digital museums can be these facilitators, places, people.

The Rijksmuseum’s Rijkstudio (Award) is a good example, of course, but so is something as simple as the ‘how to spot fake news’ infographic IFLA released last year. Projects like It gets better, and A mile in my shoes may or may not be museum projects, but they are museum-y. There are no reasons why the experiences with hashtags like #MuseumWorkersSpeak and initiatives like Museum Hue cannot be museums, instead of fixing museums.

While many museums are still taking digital baby steps, it is encouraging to see that more museums are asking tough questions about their use of technology. Last year’s Sharing is Caring conference focused on questions about digitisation and social impact, a topic dear to me. In the workshops and consulting work I do, forward-looking organisations are combining digitization with doing good, often with inspiring results.

The digital museum is not broken. Not yet. We are smart enough to prevent this, and we can make the digital museum matter. To futureproof the digital museum, however, requires us to think differently about the non-digital museum as well. We need to be smart.

Technology is not an extension of traditional museum services. Technology is our chance to make the world a better place.

What are your favourite examples of getting digital right? To ‘fix’ the debate on this blog, I have a copy of Neill Ferguson’s new book to give away to an especially nice comment here or on social media. Thanks!

Header photo: Juan Aunion /

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