Broadly Applicable Lessons from Museums and the Web 2017

I’ve been in the “museums” business for almost a year now. Attending and presenting at Museums and the Web, a conference dedicated to discussing, exploring and geeking out over all things digital at museums, was just what I needed to feel more a part of this world and create a new network of amazing people. Here, I want to share some of the big lessons I learned and things I’m going to be applying to my own work, many of which are broadly applicable to anyone working in a non-profit or academic sector.

Some inspiration from Cleveland Museum of Art

My Big Takeaways from Museums and the Web

Community building is a slow, uncomfortable, but important and worthwhile process

We all want to be relevant to our community, whether we’re trying to get more memberships, create engaging exhibitions, or just be seen as a welcoming space. To do this, we need to do more than make assumptions about what we think our community, whether online or in-person, and instead make an effort to find out what they actually think about us and what would get them to walk through the door.

Top Advice from MW17:

  • No ‘helicoptering’ in and out: you can’t pop in and out when you need the community’s input, you have to be present all the time. They are a precious resource, not a Wikipedia page you visit for quick information. (Gamynne Guilotte, Baltimore Museum of Art)
  • Building trust takes time: the community won’t instantly open up to you, you need to spend time with them, LISTEN, and give them time to come around to you. (Seema Rao, Brilliant Idea Studio, USA)
  • Need to be ok with being uncomfortable: this process can be highly uncomfortable, especially if you’re reaching out to audiences who don’t see themselves as being welcome in the institution. Get beyond the discomfort and have an honest and open conversation.
  • Museums need to be narrators of inclusion, visitors should be comfortable and see people like themselves at every level: museums are pretty white, and the higher levels of power are often still filled by men. We need to address this.
  • Work with community members throughout the brainstorming, design, and implementation stages: if you want the community involved in an exhibition or event, they need to be involved from the beginning- we can’t just ask for an opinion at the end. (Peter Samis, SFMOMA, USA)
  • Consider working with user-experts: find community members to help throughout the process who can beta-test and share a different perspective. (Desi Gonzalez, The Andy Warhol Museum, USA)

We Are Never Done

We need an institutional mind shift regarding digital assets- they are not static projects that are built and then can be considered ‘done’, they are often dynamic, consistently in need of updates, and can be easily updated and tweaked to work better for our audience. The website shouldn’t just change content, it should change its organization to fit the user experience, it should reflect new updates and conventions, it should be updated with user comments and analytics. We also need to be more aware of the role of digital in everything- it isn’t just one person’s job, it is in everyone’s! Similarly, digital needs to be considered from the beginning of projects- we can do powerful and amazing things, but only if we’re part of the broader discussion.

An important part of this is that we, as the digital people, need to be evangelists of our field and our work. We need to teach people why it is important, and make sure they understand what goes into the work. Technology can seem like a black box to many, but if we truly know our work, we should be able to describe it in simple terms that don’t down play what we do. We’re not just “doing Facebook” or “monkeying around with code”, and our colleagues need to be aware of that.

Top Advice from MW17:

  • Process of building and designing digital applications, web and mobile, is never done, should be consistently re-assessing and using analytics and feedback to improve it. This requires a shift in institutional thinking (Natalia Hudelson + Casey Scott-Songin, The British Museum, UK)
  • Digital is an aspect of everything we do, and needs to be considered in every project- it cannot be an afterthought.
  • There is no digital strategy, there is just a museum strategy. (Professional Forum 9)
  • Content creators need to be involved in process to understand importance and why we are doing it. If they understand the power of social media, they will be more likely to help with creating content. (Jennifer Talbott + Ryan Waggoner, Spencer Museum of Art, USA)

Digital is Social

Mar Dixon recently said that she wanted to put the social back in social media, and this desire was reflected in the discussions going on at the conference. We have to consider the user first, and how they as social beings are going to want to interact with our digital projects. This is true for accessibility, inclusion, and just plain good practice if we want the dang things to work. We need to be storytellers that are engaging people in narratives, rather than just marketing to them.

Top Advice from MW17: (From Storytelling Community of Practice)

  • Need to design things with social in mind, people don’t want to do something in a silo or vacuum
  • Tell more stories
  • Create a content strategy to be able to reach people in a meaningful way

Let’s Go Analog (Gasp!)

At the closing plenary, after four days of amazing tech and digital conversations, Peter Samis argued that we “need to face our larger issues, not use technology to sidestep it”. I think all of us cringed a little at the truth behind this statement. As my advisor, Ethan Watrall, used to say that adding digital elements, like games or interesting interfaces, to projects that aren’t well-developed, aren’t engaging, and are well designed is like chocolate covered broccoli. Even with the chocolate coating, its still broccoli inside. We need to fix the problems we have before just adding shiny digital elements, and may mean saying no to digital- the better solution may be something simple and analog.

Top Advice from MW17:

  • “Need to face our larger issues, not use technology to sidestep it”
  • Consider analog options (Merilee Mostov, Columbus Museum of Art)

Buzzwords and Processes to Look Into

Throughout the conference, there were some terms and approaches that seemed to be in nearly every single presentation I attended. These are concepts that I’m going to look into over the next year, and see how I can apply them to my own work to improve it.

  • Iterative design, Design Thinking and Agile Methodology: all of these are methods for brainstorming, prototyping, and testing ideas and projects in a manner where you are going through a flexible, rapid and cyclical process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining the work you’re doing.
  • Institutional mindshift: this came up so much… institutions need a better grasp on what digital is, how it is within everything in the museum, how much time and money it takes, how to approach it, how it should be built into the broader strategy… it was on everyone’s lips throughout the entire conference, and is probably the hardest thing to impact.
    e. User experience and visitor-centered: we need to put our visitors and users first, not the needs of the institution. If visitors primarily visit the website for hours and admission, we need that to be the easiest page to find. If visitors only use the mobile app offsite, we need to adapt that experience.
    f. Fail faster, forward, more: this goes along with institutional mind shift. Failing is a big part of digital, but it isn’t a negative. Maybe a better term is prototyping. In the digital world, failure is a fabulous teacher. We try something, break it, and then try again.

There were so many other wonderful talks throughout the conference, and many of these materials are available online. I strongly suggest checking them out. Also check out this summary post from Conxa Rodà, and some top website re-design takeaways from Mike Tedeschi.

Here’s also a list of the presentations that I found available online:

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