Museums and making the ‘digital shift’

I’m mid-way through writing a number of articles that explore the challenges for museums in pulling ‘digital’ into their core operations. As a result I’ve started to formulate this idea –

museums will not be able to properly understand and integrate ‘digital’ into their organisational DNA until they have substantial born-digital collections.

Libraries have had a significant head start, I’m beginning to think, because of their ever increasing digital holdings. Not to mention the acceleration of their shift to being ‘service-oriented’ which had its seeds in the 1980s.


(Regular readers will know that I’ve discussed digital experiences, augmenting physical objects, visitor engagement etc, as well as the organisational change aspects at length before. This idea is additive to those pre-existing conversations. If you are new to this then have a read of my summative post from Web Directions a few months ago).

28 replies on “Museums and making the ‘digital shift’”

Hey Seb
I’m less convinced by the need to have substantial born-digital collections as I am about the need to actually look at the how, why, when and to what end of communicating those collections.
I do see your point about Libraries and their digital holdings. They had to come to terms with it much sooner because of the born-digital collections they were carrying.
Even so, libraries, wth their service-oriented approach, (which I’d suggest might preceed the 80), have been at the forefront of making digital core and doing something valuable with these collections at the same time. Look at Picture Australia and Trove & dare I say, Opac 2. These were all born of non-digital collections and yet their impact and ability to drive new agendas has been incredibly powerful. I’d suggest that it is because of the clarity with which they focus on the communicaiton and promotion of the collection rather than it’s capture.

Nice to hear that you’re writing. So are Lynda and I. Taking the communications approach for ours! Would love your thoughts on it too.
Good luck!

My feeling is that when there are born-digital collections (which, for a lot of museums means actively scaling up their contemporary collecting) then it forces a reconciling of what I’ve previously called the ‘buildings & exhibitions vs platforms & media’ continuum. (Each, of course, having their own specific affordances).

Born-digital no longer requires ‘buildings’ and that’s when things becomes interesting.

 The interesting thing for me (just talking with museum folks recently) is the passion that some hold for the experiential service offering tangible objects afford visitors. I’m pondering what happens to libraries / museums in an entirely mobile world right now so this thread is of great interest to me.

Seb – I think this is a fascinating way of thinking, but I wonder if in practice it will almost happen in reverse, i.e. whether most institutions themselves won’t really start collecting born digital artefacts as core museum artefacts *until* the digital has become part of the institutional DNA. Until institutions value the digital as being as significant as the physical, then the collecting of born-digital artefacts too is likely to take a lower priority than collecting tangible things.

A piece from second half of last year with my two cents:

Digital interpretation (of physical objects) and digital to augment engagement are not really the issue – these are simply incremental adjustments. 

We’ve discussed those incremental adjustments and examples here and on many other blogs for years. 

Yes, they change the visitor experience but they don’t deeply change the institutional DNA – and they still are completely compatible with the idea of the museum as a ‘building that is full of things’.I guess what I’m poking at here is – what happens when the ‘things in the building’ are no longer physical. And digital is the ‘only’ way they can be experienced/understood etc.

I’m not sure I’d say it came down to having born-digital collections as much as it would to having a critical mass of born-digital expressions of the museum’s work. Of course, it’s easy to say that, coming from the science and technology end of the museum spectrum, where collections don’t loom as large. I agree that the dialectical tension between the bricks-and-mortar/exhibitions and platform/media is real, but I don’t know that born-digital collections will necessarily resolve that tension.  I see it more and more as a generational issue. 

“Libraries have had a significant head start…” to some degree. They typically have digitised collections – not necessarily large collections of born-digital holding s that they are actively managing. I can only speak about Australian libraries, however I would argue that no organisation in this country is completely managing their born-digital resources in ways that these digital collections require. There is also a difference between the library/archive sector and the museum/gallery sector. Far more complex objects are found in the museum/gallery sector that require, to some degree, different preservation and active management approaches to dealing with these born-digital (or hybrid digital/physical) objects to the approach that the library world might take.

I do agree that until there is a shift in collection policies, whereby the entire “memory” sector realises that if they don’t start collecting digital sooner, this content – because it is stored on unable carriers or has too many “access dependencies” on equipment that won’t be available 10 years down the track, might disappear entirely or be completely inaccessible. Traditional collection policies have focussed on acquiring collections later in a creator’s life. This – i personally believe – will not be an affective approach for born-digital materials. Born digital suffers from both impermanence and the ability to be everywhere all at once. Either there is only one copy (which is lost easily) or millions that are everywhere and likely to turn up in collections multiple times (not a good approach of every organisation is spending their resources preserving the same thing).

Until there is a basic shift in fully embracing digital collecting plus preservation, management and provision of access – through policies and strategic directions of these organisations – digital will slip to the side of other more traditional collecting workflows.

In my opinion, those who have created the digital contents, also are those that best understand what to collect and the complexities of what and how to preserve it.

These are my personal opinions and do not reflect those of any of the organisations that I currently or previously have worked for.

We’ve fast-tracked this at Eastman House by trading digital surrogates as collection items themselves, assigning them derivative surrogate identifiers which we track in our DAM tools.  While I don’t think it’s a complete replacement for born-digital collections, it’s certainly helped move us towards that end.

How did exhibitions of those ‘born digital’ collection happen the House itself? How did the House cope with the different exhibiting requirements? How did visitors respond/react?

All good questions – we haven’t actually exhibited born-digital yet (aside from 1 new media install), but we’ve spent lots of time exhibiting surrogates, and affording them the same respect and reverence we show objects with.  Handy with photos, as they are often too fragile / light sensitive to exhibit for very long!

“museums will not be able to properly understand and integrate ‘digital’ into their organisational DNA until they have substantial born-digital collections.”

I wouldn’t overlook the importance of the will of museums in their ability to accomplish this. I’ve been working for a library association for almost 8 years (and I’m looking to move to museums). There are still very strong currents of resentment towards digital things in the library realm. They aren’t universal, and attitudes are changing somewhat, but some variation of “The printed book will always be here” remains one of the surest applause lines at our conferences.

Viewing digital things as things that should be (carefully) used rather than threats that should be fought will go a long way toward integrating digital into organizational DNA.

One of the significant paradigm shifts for libraries has been the realisation that many visitors (in fact for some academic libraries the majority) will only use the library in its digital form and may never set foot inside the physical space.  This has implications for designing website UX; marketing services via social networking and other ‘online’ channels;  changes in the metrics that are used to demonstrate use and value of the service; new skill sets for library staff; increasing the proportion of collections that are ‘born digital’ and perhaps most challenging of all – allowing for collaborative interactions with clients online.

So the question seems to be: what is a museum when the majority of visitors choose to visit online rather than in person?

Housekeeping: First, is there any way to get Disqus to thread these comments with most-recent at the top? It reads in reverse-chronological order for me right now. Maybe that’s intentional, but it throws me off.  Second, my aging eyes find the comment font suuuuper tiny. Just me?

I should then try to add some content to the conversation and mention the Walker Art Center launched an all-digital collection in 1998 called Gallery 9 (the physical galleries went up to Gallery 8, so… 9), and it’s still living here: (it unfortunately reflects that era in its awesome iframes)

Anyway, the artist projects in that gallery are bona-fide “objects” in our collection, with the disclaimer that they don’t have accession numbers like our physical objects. It’s complicated.

I would call this a very 1.0 attempt at born-digital collections, and maybe due to that I don’t think it got into the institutional DNA in the way Seb is describing. (It’s also different because a lot of the commissions don’t have a physical counterpart. They can only be experienced digitally.) Anyway, the New Media curatorial position was cut in 2003 and while G9 hasn’t been swept under the rug it hasn’t really been championed in any meaningful way since.

My point, if there is one, is that G9 was too much, too soon: audiences weren’t ready, the web wasn’t ready, the idea did not sink into the institution despite having significant buy-in at the time. Now… I think it could work, but there’s sort of a hazy “we tried that” malaise around the idea. Or we’re all just too busy and broke. One of those. :)

Disclaimer: Having worked in a number of sectors (think digital marketing agencies, small start ups, digital media companies, traditional libraries, museums and galleries etc) I tend to come at things from a more product/experience perspective. Forgive me for the language I’m about to use ;)

Sure, creating understanding of digital and integrating it into any organisations DNA is greatly helped by having objects (products/services/people) that lend themselves to digital experiences. That said, I believe a significant chunk of your staff are digital producers. We really are what we do so. Museum staff might not know it or have the training/opportunity to produce digital content (yet). But working with staff at the coal face goes a long way toward generating groundswell. As your staff become digital producers they push themselves for more and more transformative digital experiences. It is something I’ve seen time and time again.

I recall doing a digital strategy that really helped one organisation embed digital into their thinking and execution of products and services, particularly as they moved into ebooks loans. But it was the Librarians who started blogging about their areas of experience and passion that ultimately lead to the embrace of digital as core to ongoing success. They developed communities and experiences that reached new audiences. So Seb that ‘reconciling’ aspect you are trying to engineer becomes more empowering then necessarily threatening to those of the older guard. Staff become the champions of change as they push into new, exciting and more relevant digital worlds.

I agree with a lot of what’s being said here.

It seems to me that museums need to think of digital collections as extensions of the related physical works (I’m talking about online versions of collections).  In other words, each physical piece can have digital “meta-attributes”.

In terms of “born-digital”, the interesting thing to me is that these works, because they are digital, don’t need to be experienced at the museum venue itself.  Like digital music, they can be distributed/shared throughout the world and passed along from person to person.  That cuts into the role of museums-as-curators of content (“Mona-Lisa-to-go”).  It’s a paradigm shift and it will be interesting to watch it unfold.

@portlandhead:disqus I agree – digital collections should be thought of as extensions of the related physical works.
Undoubtedly, Seb, I think libraries rightly have and head start because their product becomes more effective once it goes digital. For museums, the benefits of digitizing collections are numerous, but they’re not always that tangible or obvious. It’s education about making these benefits tangible that might see museums adopt digital with a more positive attitude.

Seb, it’s the context too.  It’s not just the digital collections, or digital imitations of the physical collections, it  is the idea of expanding the concept of digital collections to encompass what the museum and “curated”  others have to say about the collections, the relationship of the collections to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the subject they are researching, presenting, and discussing.  Products, like this blog, images, text, video, film, catalogues, and audio are context and, at the very same time, digital collectables.   And in my usual neo-Scott manner, I have to say that I am not so sure that libraries provide a useful comparison.  When you look up a book, article, image or topic in the library catalogue does the catalogue also provide reviews, author bios, links to wikipedia citations, related books, recommended reading, the ability to create your own collection with your comments or purchase music to read by?  I like nickelass’s comment about digital as being part of the organization’s DNA.  It may well be that it’s the integrated museum/library/archive (including film, video, and sound)/wikipedia and e-commerce store that is our collection resource tool for the future. 

I guess as Mylee Joseph puts puts it in one of the earlier comments, “One of the significant paradigm shifts for libraries has been the realisation that many visitors (in fact for some academic libraries the majority) will only use the library in its digital form and may never set foot inside the physical space.”

That’s (probably) fine for a library. They can adapt and adjust – and are much free-er with the idea of deaccessioning collections. But for a museum, this is enormously challenging. Add to that the growing realisation that our buildings may no longer best and most effective way to deliver our missions.

However, the unexplored upside is, as you point out, museums can far more actively ‘collect the present’ now if they collect born-digital objects. In fact it might be interesting to see if there was anyone else considering ‘acquiring the Twitter archive’ in the way that Library of Congress did – and if any museums had even thought to do so at the time.

I agree with you Seb. 

My perspective: When you say “Museums acquire” and “Museums collect” in reference to digital born artefacts, is it curators collecting these objects? (I believe in the distant future it won’t just be curators.. but bear with me).

I really do think a large barrier at the moment to collecting digital born stuff is that perhaps a majority of curators just either don’t recognise the value in it, or see the value but have no idea how to approach it.

I’ve faced this when I was at the PHM. Wanting to collect a digital object but senior staff not understanding what it was, or why it was important to collect. 

I know I harp on about it but this barrier must be tackled. New generation curators need to come into the job having basic skills such as web editing, knowing how to write for the web, use social media, be well connected online, know their way around a CMS etc.

I know a lot of museum studies courses that spend a lot of time studying the history of museums, but maybe its time the study the ‘future of museums’.

Anyway that is just one way if thinking: get  curators who collect digital born objects, collect a mass of them, the museums will be pushed to properly understand and integrate ‘digital’ into their organisational DNA.

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