Museums delivering value online — some thoughts during the Covid-19 crisis

In February 2020 I started a series of interviews with colleagues around the world about how museums can create value online, as this is one central question the museum sector is facing right now. The questions were drafted before the Covid-19 virus started to spread. The responses have been posted on the website of the non profit organisation

I started to post the responses in March 2020 from the first three people being interviewed Douglas Hegley, Chief Digital Officer at Minneapolis Institute of Art in the USA, Risto Sarvas, Professor of Practice, Aalto University in Finland and Paula Bray, DX Lab Leader, State Library of New South Wales in Australia. Since the first post museums have increasingly turned to online settings to push content, while the physical museum is closed or about to close due to the spreading of the Covid-19 virus. A somewhat surprising and of course very sad coincidence.

My first reflection about this surge of online content and formats is however a surprised feeling of positiveness. Wow, there is great awareness, endless ideas and quick response to a difficult situation, from all over the organisations!

At the same time tweets from the already digital part of the museum sector (ambassadors, early adopters, pioneers etc.), show that there seems to be frustration about the sudden interest from the rest of the organisation, high and sometimes unrealistic expectations and maybe also to some extent a sudden invasion into a sphere previously almost only occupied by professionals in the area of museums and digital.

We are still at a very early stage of this rise in online presence of museums, so there will be plenty of occasions to return to the topic. However as the evolution of online offerings coincides with my series of long term and sustainable creation of value online, I will take the opportunity to briefly reflect on the blog posts so far, which all address the long-term perspective of delivering value online.

Risto Sarvas starts at the very basic of understanding value:

”…before having a good answer to the original question [of understanding online value] the museum should have its strategic objectives clear enough, and also a good grasp of what different audiences are relevant for its mission and purpose. Only then these two can be combined into an offering and value.

Douglas Hegley lists factors that affect delivering value online such as.

  • Usability (good interface design)
  • Continuous innovation (being proactive in the digital space)
  • Audience needs (basing decisions on what works for the audience, using feedback to drive change)
  • Accessibility (creating experiences that are open and available to audiences with a broad array of accessibility challenges)
  • Being aware that online is being global (attending to various needs of individuals from a broad variety of spoken languages and cultural/socio-economic backgrounds).

Paula Bray reminds us that museums need to stay on top of trends and audiences’ needs and behaviours, and that agile work methods with prototyping, testing and iterating are necessary:

For us in the DX Lab we can test and try things out with our audience in fast and very public ways to get feedback quickly. As the Library’s research and innovation team we get to build experiences that test and try ideas out before they become large-scale and more expensive digital offerings.

Paula Bray again shares her profound experiences of agile work practices, multidisciplinary teams and how this is fundamental:

Having a multi-disciplinary team that can respond quickly can be very useful. Ideas come from a range of different people and if that can be harnessed and used effectively then it creates opportunities for staff to engage with audiences to understand them better. Online teams need to be diverse and not just be based on technical skills alone. Ideally mixing with the rest of the organisation, everyone works in digital now.

This is also confirmed by Risto Sarvas:

You can call it “digitalization” if you want, but at the end of the day it is about capabilities, skills, and ways of working, which means rethinking organizational structures and leadership. The current approach (the medication typically subscribed, if you will) to all this seems to be to build a nimble, reflective and independently working organization. The fashionable terms are “agility” and “responsiveness”. “Design thinking” is often thrown around as well.

Behind all these “medications” are the assumptions that to tackle uncertainty the organization has to be able to respond and change course fast when needed. This underlines the need for independent teams and autonomous individuals who can make decisions without consulting a rigid and slow chain of command. ”

Douglas Hegley in turn summarises that:

… the modern-day workforce is very different than preceding generations. We are knowledge workers, not drones doing repetitive tasks. And knowledge workers expect to have a say in what they focus on (initiatives) and how they do their work (methods). That requires a flatter, non-siloed org structure and cross-functional collaboration the likes of which museums have never really seen before.

Paula Bray delivers a very concrete and relevant hands on piece of advice, the web as a prototyping platform:

Thinking of the web as a prototyping platform can be very useful. Telling audiences that you are trying something and calling it an experiment allows them to understand that potentially the experience isn’t quite as polished or as finished as it could be. This in turn allows for modification for constant improvement.

Risto Sarvas returns to organisational needs and changes:

… the key to the change is to have smart, multi-talented, happy people in an organization that values diversity, creativity, and has a clear mission (typically a societal mission)….

However he reminds also that autonomous teams need to be managed by strategic leadership:

…The one thing I would keep an eye on … is the well-being and long-term happiness of the personnel. Autonomy, independence, creativity, and uncertainty are all paths to exhaustion and burnout if not kept under control… To make the whole organization sustainable in the long-term, the leadership and organization structures must actively curate and manage the personnel’s well-being. Otherwise the whole autonomous, responsive and creative organization simply falls apart, and that is bad for business.

Douglas Hegley ends by addressing the constant evolution of digital online offerings:

Doing digital well includes being prepared for ongoing, iterative work to keep the experience fresh, up-to-date, and evolving with the innovations that take place in the digital realm that is all around us.

The discussions in all three blog posts address the need for strategic leadership, adapted organisational structures, agile and autonomous teams with multiple competences practicing iterative work methods, prototyping, responsiveness and a high level of knowledge about audiences needs and behaviours.

This is all about long-term and sustainable development towards creating value online.

So, reflecting in turn on the sudden surge of content online in response to closure of museums: There is certianly room for discussions on how museums can embrace the sudden interest by entire organisations in delivering content online.

From a management perspective (in a small to medium sized museum) my first lesson has been to embrace and support ideas, but at the same time set up a rapid response team that filter ideas and that assembles a to-do-list relevant to the core work of the museum.

A second lesson is to support digital staff to in turn support colleagues wishing to provide content. And at the same time make sure they aren’t overloaded with work, as they have to train the entire staff to shift to online meetings and using Office 360 for working from home.

In this situation I embrace and welcome simple first steps like assembling resources online, however small they are, and delimited initiatives bringing the different parts of the museum online (guided tours, ask the curator, photographs from the collections, etc.). In reality one could say: What every museum should be doing as core efforts online — beyond marketing.

However, I am at the same time aware that we risk going back to business as usual after this first peak of interest, unless we also change the way we work with core businesses like exhibitions and programming. Addressing the issues pointed out by Douglas, Risto and Paula.

So, as an effort starting in 2019, we are bringing in new work methods and processes into these areas. The goal is to allow the organisation to work towards the magic story universe of the museum, that bridges in-gallery and onsite with online.

And to take advantage of the current initiatives in times of Covid-19, my goal is now to make sure these initiatives also become supportive of our long-term goals:

  1. Raising awareness of our core mission in relation to online initiatives
  2. Raising awareness of the public ecosystem of touch points that museums occupy (the magic story universe)
  3. Building responsiveness into the organisation
  4. Understanding diverse audiences
  5. Developing skills for storytelling
  6. Understanding different formats for delivering value online.

Please take time to read the excellent posts on delivering long-term value online by:

Douglas Hegley, Chief Digital Officer at Minneapolis Institute of Art in the USA

Risto Sarvas, Professor of Practice, Aalro University in Finland

Paula Bray, DX Lab Leader, State Library of New South Wales in Australia

These are the experiences from a small/midsized regional museum. I am looking forward to hear more about thoughts and developments in other parts of the museum sector.



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Kajsa Hartig

Head of Museum Experience and Collections at Västernorrlands museum.