If it isn't already clear, Undercurrent loves museums. We love visiting them, we love exhibit-hopping and we love comparing favorite pieces and artists. We especially love nerding out over that cool installation everyone is talking about. One thing we don't love, though, is seeing museums struggle to embrace digital. Like most large institutions (and despite their best intentions), many museums have found themselves unable to adapt their value propositions, experiences and business models to address the complexity and constant change they face. Some appear frozen in time, while others try to change, only to be held back by old paradigms that constrain how they understand and deliver value.
Of course, not all museums are struggling. Many are experimenting with great success - be it in social, online video, mobile experiences or even virtual spaces. We love seeing the brazen tinkerers thrive. Unfortunately, they seem to be the exception, and may only be skimming the surface of opportunity when what they need is real digital transformation.
Museums should start by challenging head-on the assumptions they're making that may limit their evolution. Some of the more problematic ones include:
- That museums are buildings
- That their role is to curate
- That the core experience they offer is passive
- That they must be constrained by geography
Regardless of what museum leaders think, each of these assumptions is being challenged on a daily basis by the digital behaviors of their most passionate patrons. The idea of a digital commons for museums has emerged, casual experts are bubbling up across the globe and, despite being urged to “not touch the art,” visitors can no longer suppress their desire to get in on the action.
With these assumptions in check, here are four provocations for our favorite museums to ponder:
- Stop thinking of yourself as a building. The meaning you create extends far beyond the walls of your physical space. Start to think of yourself as a service - an enabler of connections between the patron and your area of cultural expertise. While your value proposition broadens slightly, the ways you deliver it expand enormously. Think online courses, interactive learning guides, content production, expert networks, wikis, and global partnerships with other institutions and experts in your cultural ecosystem.
- Think outside of the visit. Museums spend plenty of time trying to build engagement, and not nearly enough to sustain it. The most critical moment in a visitor’s experience is in the hours after they leave. Think of every visit as a missed opportunity to create the foundation for a broader set of interconnected behaviors. Museums must re-orient as ubiquitous learners, and leverage momentum from peak experiences to establish direct, personal relationships that are continued after people leave. This means capturing permission to communicate, individual preference data and investing in event systems and CRM. (Check out Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry SciPass for inspiration.)
- Evolve from curation to co-curation (and connection). While curators (like film critics) can be forgiven for feeling threatened by digital, they're missing an opportunity. The smart ones realize they belong to a broader network of people with expertise, and that they can play a crucial role in facilitating conversation and connection among that network. The museum’s credibility will help them attract and lead these communities of interest, resulting in more advocates.
- Tone inside the museum = tone outside the museum. If you don't cultivate interaction inside the museum, how can you expect it outside the museum? You're great at inspiring visitors to think and feel - now it's time to implicate them in the action. Traditionalists will argue this, but the truth is that expectations about museum experiences will continue to shift. This doesn't mean you should let people rub their faces on a $100 million painting, but it does mean you should find ways for people to go home feeling like they were participants in something.
While digital can't solve every challenge faced by museums, there isn't one typical hurdle (e.g. funding, relevance, loyalty or advocacy) that can't be met more meaningfully with a clear digital strategy. If museums can challenge their underlying assumptions about their role and embrace the emerging behaviors of their fans, they’re already half-way there.