Museums care for collections of human history and knowledge. They produce awesome experiences. This post shares thoughts on how innovation and transformation has to be at the heart of the business, with strong support from management, and how this will future proof museums.

Implementation is the hardest thing

So I am finally getting around to write this post that has been nagging me for quite a while. About the threshold that prevents museums from being on the top of innovation and transformation in the digital era.

What sparked my writing this time is this urgent post by Mar Dixon: “An Open Letter to All Museum Directors, Trustees and Purse Holders”.

Having run workshops and seminars for the museum sector in Sweden, for almost two decades, I have grown more and more concerned by the low pace of transformation among museums, transformation to keep up with the fast changing society, with digital development, with changing needs and behaviors of audiences. This despite the endless stream of seminars, workshops and conferences available to the sector. This text could just as well have been written ten years ago and it isn’t very joyful to write in 2018.

Most of us know what we should do to perform better, to engage audiences, to produce better museum experiences and to deliver better digital products, etc. Then why don’t we? Why aren’t museums on the forefront of innovative engaging experiences? Because implementation is the hardest thing.

Single training events, seminars and workshops are important for the sector to move ahead at a time when rapid change and top digital skills are essential for museums to stay relevant. They rarely however make a significant impact in organizations. The transformation process needs to be strategically planned and implemented by change agents with a mission and mandate from the management. Change and transformation takes time. Years. This is a knowledge issue but also an organizational issue and a management issue.

All the challenges that Mar Dixon mentions, lack of money, lack of resources, lack of management support and low morale and lack of trust, make up a major part of the threshold. There are other issues as well as an inability to sustain innovation further than the occasional initiative, lack of key competencies in the sector, and rigid work practices that stand firm against the need for experimentation. And yes we still need to break internal silos.

Most workshops and seminars address digital products, strategies for digitization, new work methods like design thinking or management of digitized collections. And most organizations can acquire this knowledge, what to do and why. But actually implementing new work practices and to make new priorities is highly demanding and requires careful planning. It requires that the entire organization is moving in the same direction with a change agent to support the process. Unfortunately the occasions to discuss the impact digital has on museums on an organizational level are few. Management skills and digital skills need to merge.

Without addressing organizational issues implementation is impossible. There isn’t room for single Don Quixotes taking every opportunity to fight a freight train of change, moving ever so often two steps back in the development process.

From a management point of view, without a change agent in the organization with mission and mandate to lead the transformation process and to identify thresholds, issues and Don Quixotes, great ideas will get stuck and in reality nothing will change. There is a central need to identify what current work processes work against a transformation and adaptation to a digitized world. Without this all that is left is a frustrated staff that, as Mar Dixon mentions, will most likely not stay in the job or in the sector.

And then, it is up to the management, to stay in the comfort zone and go on business as usual, which will eventually move the organization forward though slowly and awkwardly. There is rarely incentives for a manager to report failure unless he or she is skilled at explaining why failure and experimentation are necessary steps.

Or they can actually deal with the situation, the staff and the board, and decide to make the changes necessary in order for the museum to take a leap forward and leave the museum not only future proof but on the forefront of innovation.

I would like to see in every museum, in order to develop the museum sector:

I absolutely love museums and I am very hopeful we will se a lot of development and change in the sector ahead. And with more managers challenging themselves with transformation and innovation a lot can happen.

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Kajsa Hartig

Head of Museum Experience and Collections at Västernorrlands museum.