The Museum Experience as Digital First — Strategic approaches to content, conversation and audience engagement

This is a modified script from presentation at symposium Rising to the Challenge – Digital Innovation in Museums, Lausanne, April 28, 2018. The presentation slides can be found here>>

This talk is about identifying specific challenges that come with a Digital First perspective on museum experiences, and I will, through three short cases try to illustrate how the Nordiska museet/The Nordic Museum, with its most recent digital strategy, has started to address some of the challenges that come with shifting focus.

This photo is one example of how we use mobile phones today. These are tourists taking selfies in front of the Cathedral in Milan, though the cathedral is actually in front of them and not even in the photo.

We spend, according to both American and Swedish studies, an average of 3 hours per day* using our smartphones. We consume content, we interact, share and communicate with our smartphones. We express ourselves personally, often through photography.

According to a Swedish study the mobile phone is, in Sweden, the most common way of accessing the internet. These statistics should therefore be the starting point of every planning for museum experiences. This is also a reason why museums already years ago started to adapt their websites to a responsive format, adapting text and images to all kinds of devices including mobile phones. But we can, and need to do, so much more in order to create real value and relevant experiences to mobile phone users, not just adapt formats. And we need to connect the experiences delivered through mobile phones with physical experiences, in fact with the entire museum ecosystem, online and onsite.

Digital first

Digital first is a communication theory about publishing, that publishers should release content into new media channels first, rather than in so called old media, like print publishing. And that printed newspapers will become less important. This perception originates from audiences increasingly being connected to internet while “on the go” with their mobile devices, and as a consequence also increasingly consuming content online.

If you translate this to museums, of course this theory is not completely applicable as the physical museum experience is not per se possible to replace with an online experience. The point is instead to shift focus from the exhibition first to the online experience first, as this is where the audiences most likely first will encounter the museum and the topics you wish to talk about. And in order to connect online and onsite we need to look at experiences that are seamlessly delivered across the entire museum ecosystem.

With the ecosystem in mind I also suggest combining the term digital first with terms like multichannel and transmedia.

One reason for making this shift is because as long as the museum is not considering online as important as the exhibition, there will never be enough resources allocated for content, conversation and audience engagement delivered as online experiences. There will not be an incentive to build capacity for more than the marketing of exhibitions.

The first step in the museum experience is most likely, and definitely will be in the future, digital first. The first touch point, the first connection with the experience, is online. Besides traditional marketing of an exhibition, this could mean a number of things. There are examples already in the sector where museums for example are inviting audiences to co-create content of exhibitions or collections, delivering educational experiences online or engaging audiences in learning, sharing and conversation.


And to take these thoughts one step further: I was very happy to see this article online recently, claiming that:

Most people’s experience of World Heritage is now a digital one… this shift in ‘visitation’ means many people who engage with World Heritage will never physically travel to the actual site.

Quote from researcher Cristina Garduño Freeman at the University of Melbourne.

So we are in fact not just talking about Digital First but also the museum experience that for many people will be only digital. The question is:

How can museums respond to this change in audience’s behaviors?

What are museums for?

When trying to frame the Digital First perspective I keep coming back to the question, what are museums for? Of course there are several official explanations, like the 2015 global guidelines on the roles of museums, the UNESCO Recommendation on the Protection and Promotion of Museums and Collections, their Diversity and their Role in Society, stating that

…museums should be encouraged to use all means of communication to play an active part in society by, for example, organizing public events, taking part in relevant cultural activities and other interactions with the public in both physical and digital forms.

Museums are supposed to play an active part in society, using digital channels and forms. In combination with new audience behaviors this has led to museums starting to shift from one way communication to becoming facilitators of conversation, as Morris, Hargreaves & McIntyre describe (p.19).

I recently posted a tweet myself asking the question: What are museums for? It is the most liked tweet I have ever posted and it sparked at least a few responses. The definition I suggested, as a conversation starter, was:

  1. Inclusive and participatory arenas providing new perspectives
  2. Facilitators of conversation
  3. Sources of knowledge based on research and collections
  4. Immersive and emotional experiences of learning and discovery

From the responses on Twitter I can also add this:

  1. Connectors between people, time and worlds, by @johanlindblom
  2. Spaces for conversation and discussion, by @DariusAryaDigs
  3. A place for social action to be initiated, by @mpathyDesigns

Conversation that starts online

Through all these definitions we come back to engaging audiences, to participation, co-creation and conversation. And to build on this and further develop the definition of Digital First in a museum perspective I would like to use this description of if not what museums are, but what they should do, which is to create:

Value-added content and sustainable conversation with the purpose of audience engagement, as part of the museum experience starting online and delivered across the museum ecosystem.

Illustration by Kajsa Hartig, CC-BY.

The museum ecosystem

The current version of the Nordiska museet/The Nordic Museum digital strategy is emphasizing the need to extend the description of the museum experience outside the physical building. We use this example of a museum ecosystem also to emphasize the importance of online being connected with physical and vice versa. The illustration visualizes some examples of touch points where audiences, or users, can potentially encounter the museum. If you are in marketing this is nothing new, but for most other colleagues this is new. My point is that this map is equally important regardless of where you work in the museum.

As content, conversation and audience engagement is central for museums today, by illustrating where the conversation can start and where it can take place, we can start discussions internally about how we can deliver value to our audiences, what content we should produce, for which channels and when. Building capacity for a digital first museum experience, that delivers value, means as a first step understanding the audience’s behaviors online and where they could possibly encounter the museum. It also means understanding that taking the step online, delivering real value we are suddenly not just competing with other local museums for attention, but more or less the entire world.

Digital first: what are the consequences?

I am sure all of you already agree with me on the importance of meeting audiences’ needs, being online and engaging audiences in conversation. But what are the consequences for museums with a digital first, and digital only perspective? I don’t think we can fully overlook the implications yet, but we can definitely see some challenges primarily regarding value creation and allocating resources. How do we create value that is relevant for the entire museum experience? How can we build capacity for delivering this value across the museum ecosystem?

When delivering content online we do need strategies for also delivering value to the specific audiences. Using Snapchat to create memes building on museum objects is a light and fun way of connecting with especially new and younger audiences. But what does it mean to create content that is adding real sustainable value to our audiences? And what kind of resources do we need to create this content?

Another easy way forward is to think of our collections as content. However I would suggest we don’t. (The idea of re-thinking content was recently discussed by Johan Belin, founder of/creative director at Dinahmoe, which inspired me to include this in my presentation.) A digitized museum object is valuable if mediated by creative people who in turn add value, and collections should of course be online, easy to access and to re-use. But for the large audiences museums need to add sustainable value, through contextualizing, through storytelling and through immersive and emotional experiences.


Another way of adding value is through conversation. To initiate and take part in sustainable online conversation museum staff need to be very comfortable with social media. They need to understand audiences’ behaviors and they need to genuinely wish to engage with audiences around topics they care about. The communications department can set the frames for conversation so that it is in line with the museum brand, and they can support the experts in online conversation. Through conversation we can give context needed to museum objects and we can frame the museum experience.

Audience engagement

Relevant and value-added content as well as sustainable conversation are the prerequisites of audience engagement. With this we can empower audiences and we can facilitate co-creation and collaboration around museum collections. With a Digital First perspective this must be delivered to the online audience. From my experience this is a lot easier said than done as it challenges many current museum work practices around museum experiences. A step forward is to start experimenting and performing pilot projects.

The tangible building

In my conclusions here I draw from experiences as a senior advisor for digital interaction at the Nordiska museet/The Nordic Museum in Stockholm. The Nordic Museum is situated at a beautiful island in the city, with nearby parks and waterfront. The building opened in 1907. It was built for the museum, and is an amazing and unique landmark in Stockholm. It sparks the imagination of visitors and it can by itself also attract visitors. It is of course also often depicted by through images shared in social media. Inside it is just as impressive, and it was for a very long time the largest profane building in Sweden.

Museums need to reach out through the white noise online, not just with marketing of exhibitions, but to build new collections and create sustainable relationshops with audiences.

Creating a voice online

Online the museum does not have the solid magnificent building to rely on. In order to reach through the white noise online, it needs to build on the brand, the perception of the museum that many carry with them. But online there are also large new audiences that don’t know about the museum and that would in most cases rather listen to other voices than the museum’s. So as a way to start shaping the museum’s voice and footprint online, that extends beyond marketing, one solution is to perform pilot projects for example around experimental collecting initiatives.

Three cases

I will now share some insights that I gained through three short initiatives around online audience engagement, with flexible planning involving cross departmental teams. The cases are not about exhibitions, they are about a stand alone pilot project and about two experimental collecting initiatives. The benefits from taking a step back from exhibitions and work with collections to practice online audience engagement are among other things that there is usually less pressure from the organisation, and above all it is an opportunity to gain better understanding of the museum experience as digital first.

Cosplay ❤ supernatural beings

In 2016 the Nordic museum decided to make an effort in engaging a younger audience to discover our folklore archive. This initiative was a part of a training program, SWEDIP by IdeK, and it was performed by a cross departmental team. We chose to turn to the cosplay community as it is a creative community with considerable audiences. Our idea was to create a cosplay competition to build conversation around. The bold step was to introduce a new theme to the community, as cosplayers usually create costumes from Japanese anime, manga and computer games. We wanted them to create costumes based on supernatural beings as described in the folklore archives.

To do this we established a collaboration with the cosplay community, hiring a young person experienced in organizing cosplay competitions. This was necessary for us in order to create a competition that the community would feel comfortable with. Out of 33 applicants we chose three contestants to develop costumes for five months.

During these months we organized behind the scenes events, an open seminar with a folklore expert and several blog posts by the museum experts. At the same time we invited the participants to write guest posts on our museum blog and to do Instagram takeovers with live streaming.

Three talented cosplayers that took part of the competition: Rickard Nilsson, Elin Jacobsson and Kelly Colbell Heyl. Photo: Kajsa Hartig, CC-BY-NC.

The result was fantastic. Three amazing contestants and three amazing costumes. The result was also, and perhaps above all, a great opportunity for the museum to learn how to start a conversation online with a completely new audience and to engage them in a collaboration creating value for the contestants, for the wider audience and for the museum. As this was a pilot project we also took time to evaluate both the entire process of developing content for the initiative and the result of the audience engagement. For many colleagues learning about social media statistics and Google Analytics was new.


The second case is an experimental collecting initiative performed as a part of an ongoing research project. The project Collecting Social Photo is a Nordic collaboration between the Nordic Museum in Sweden, the Stockholm County Museum, The Finnish Museum of Photography and the Aalborg City Archives in Denmark. The purpose of the project is to establish new recommendations for museums and archives, collecting social media photography.

As one important aspect of online collecting and participatory efforts around archives is how we perform outreach and how we engage audiences, this was a perfect occasion for us to see how we could encourage people to contribute social media photography from a specific sudden traumatic event.

On April 7 2017 a terrorist attack took place in Stockholm. As we have seen in many other cases, for example the Boston Marathon Bombings and the Las Vegas shootings in the US, people tend to take to social media participating in online communication through hashtags. And in this dialogue photographs seem to play an important role.

In this initiative we launched the online collecting initiative, we sponsored posts in social media. We started a dialogue with informants and we performed interviews as well as a follow up survey one year later.

The outreach was simple, through a sponsored post in social media. But it sparked a lot of questions as we suddenly reached a completely new audience, not familiar with museums, asking why a museum would want to collect social media photographs. This highlighted the need for internal discussions about immediate online conversation with audiences, not by the communications department but by the caretakers of the collections as this involves building our photographic heritage through co-creation.


The third case is a collecting initiative that took place in October 2017. The Nordiska museet has by now an established website for collecting — that is still work in progress,, and now there is a need to create awareness among the public that this is a sustainable platform, just as reliable as the museum building. With the confidence from collecting #openstockholm we quickly decided to collect stories from the viral #metoo campaign which had a huge impact in Sweden.

This time we did once again set up an online collecting initiative and produced sponsored posts for social media. We participated in dialogue with informants and performed interviews with organizers of physical Metoo-events. We also let a researcher, a social anthropologist, analyze the stories as a part of the research project Collecting Social Photo.

Success factors

With these three cases my point is to show that museums can start online conversations that can grow into just about anything, collecting initiatives, program activities, sustainable collaboration with communities or even exhibitions. We just need to learn how. By this I also want to remind that content, conversation and online audience engagement is not all about marketing a physical exhibition, but instead something that will have impact on the overall museum experience, especially the future of collections.

To build capacity for museum experiences that connect online and physical experiences you need to be able to create great content that catches the attention of audiences, and to be able to initiate as well as take part in ongoing online conversations, in a personal way, responsive and with emotions.

In order to succeed the conversation has to be sustainable and therefore also deeply rooted in the knowledge bank of the museum, this means it requires inhouse capacity. We need to learn how to deliver high quality content of real value to the audiences. For museums there is also a strong need for time and space for experimenting, working with cross departmental teams combining competencies.

My last conclusions are that I believe that the museum experience definitely is in most cases digital first. And that we need to reallocate resources, take a step back from the exhibition first perspective. The Museum experience does not equal exhibition only. And the museum experience is therefore to be delivered both in a physical space and online, in several channels and formats which makes the mapping of the museum ecosystem an important first step to take.

And this is my bet:

Success comes when we dare combine awe with conversation and lifelong learning — in the entire museum ecosystem.

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* Some links to studies about mobile phone use in US and Sweden

Head of Museum Exeprience and Collections at Västernorrlands museum. Proj. Manager at #collectingsocialphoto and chairman at