Getting started with Digital Transformation in Museums: a checklist for Museum Leaders




Museums tell the story of how the world has grown – stories of it’s people, culture, customs; the natural world, and help us establish meaningful connections between the present and past. With the emergence of digital technology over the past decades, there is a promise for better access to these stories; new spaces for dialogue and knowledge-exchange; and finally, hope for museums without borders. 

What is Digital Transformation?

Digital has disrupted the way any industry works : from waiting for the weekly episodes of TV shows, to a culture of binge-watching; from chequebooks to digital payments; from physical shopping to AI-powered E-retail. The museum industry might have been slow to feel the impact, but the pressure is mounting : it is no longer about if or when digital will impact museums. Many would now agree that the future of museums is digital. It is now about how the digital change will happen and the approaches museums can take. A crucial takeaway here is to understand is that Digital Transformationfacilitates museum objectives – not the other way round!

Beyond the Buzz-word

Perhaps it is the “digital” part of transformation that emphasises technological change and thereby assumes the form of a “big challenge” to cultural institutions. But it is the second word that we must pay attention to : “Transformation”. It suggests a fundamental rethink of a museum; put together with digital, it presents the question of how digital can be a catalyst to museums reinventing themselves – from collection management to audience engagement and essentially, how people work at museums / experience them.

The Benefits of Digital Transformation for Museums

Digital presents us with so many opportunities, the number one being the opportunity to reinvent and re-envison the museum from scratch! This is a chance to create not just a new way of working, but a new way of delivering better experiences to visitors; the power to reimagine / reshape organisational culture. Digital change also means a more empowered workforce, increased internal collaboration and improved efficiency.

“Digitisation not only changes the way collections are organized but also the research process, as it enables scientists to co-operate without the constraints of time and location, to generate and analyse large amounts of data that can be exchanged and reused internationally in a wide range of new contexts”

Open for Nature’ by Museum für Naturekunde Berlin [Page 11]

A Checklist for Museums to start the digital transformation process

For Digital Transformation to be successful at a museum 3 main ingredients are necessary :

  1. A strong buy-in / support from the Leadership (or Board)
  2. Digital optimization of the visitor experience
  3. A team that adapts to, and promotes change

Examples of museums that have made optimum use of the power of digital technology to rethink every single aspect of their work are few and rare. But I came across numerous museums, and initiatives – making remarkable progress, indicating the direction others could take! I will elaborate on those in subsequent posts but for now, here’s a checklist on getting started (again, based on the Museums I have interacted with).

Download a PDF version here.

1. Achieving a digital “state of mind”

  • Keep an eye out for disruptions in the industry and document learnings from them. To document, it will be important to categorize learnings into different heads. For example “website content” / ” ticketing” etc. These criteria can also help compare different museums and their offerings to inform your Digital Transformation priorities.
  • Raise your museum’s collective digital IQ: set up trainings for museum leadership about relevant digital trends and provide a forum where leaders can ask Qs / talk with their peers.
  • Be ready to reboot
  • Draft the updated vision statement and supporting narrative. 
  • Prepare to raise funding!

* The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation organises Digitaler Donnerstag days [Digital Thursdays] as a forum to exchange best practices and documenting learnings from museum leaders (and teams) pertaining to digital projects / experiments and encourage  a Q & A session with peers from the industry *

* A simple example shared by the Jewish Museum Berlin *

2. When it comes to visitors, avoid Guesswork! 

  • Understand visitors’ digital needs
  • Map visitor journeys and experiences (including digital visitors). To get started, I found this Persona-Making poster very helpful. Additionally, here’s an example of investigating museum website-navigation !
  • Build proof points or Performance Indicators. A well-articulated view of outcomes means you can track whether your strategy is working! [For example, did x% of visitors subscribe to your newsletter after their first visit / via the website / via a QR code at the reception ?]
  • Use data to drive decisions! For example, the StadtMuseum Berlin employs A/B Testing methods to get the most out of their newsletters!

Some helpful pointers to understand your visitors’ journey :
a) questions related to how they prepared for the visit
b) questions to understand the local visitor Vs. the tourist (expectations, journeys, etc.)
c) questions about the visit : rating questions related to ease of buying tickets / locating on GMaps / were expectations met / use of digital / need for wifi etc.
d) post-visit : are they aware of your review-pages / newsletter signups / what mediums do they prefer to receive information on? 

*Museum4punkt0 is a project developing outreach (digital) formats for 7 different cultural institutions in Germany. All of these are based on visitor-journey mapping / user-research through quantitative and qualitative surveys*

3. Build the dream team

  • talk to every single employee at the museum and understand their views / expectations / fears / suggestions / enthusiasm / capabilities regarding digital. This will help assess the organizational readiness to handle any transformation process. Identify candidates to lead the Digital Transformation team.
  • create a cross-functional team to lead the Digital Transformation process.
    This job-posting by San Jose Museum for a Digital Manager clearly states the responsibilities. However, before hiring, it will be important to map organizational needs alongside the different criteria / heads / priority areas [refer to Checklist 1 above]
  • identify technology partners : seek help from outside if needed [agency support is a popular option]. For example, the Pinakotheken Museum in Munich, worked with an agency very closely while embarking on their digital transformation journey!
  • build a strategic alliance with the IT department
  • document progress and measure the impact of transformation

To “embrace Digital” might seem tougher than any other transformation process – but it is potentially more rewarding and well worth the reforms required to survive, and thrive. 

The good news is that the digital era – for all it’s dizzying pace of change –  also enables more connectivity amidst the museum industry than yesterday. There is more opportunity to learn – every single day, from so many different countries.  So we can all learn from each other. To share learnings from your museum’s digital processes or for suggestions / feedback, please write to me at [email protected]

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Medhavi Gandhi
Medhavi Gandhi
Passionate about public access and engagement with cultural heritage. Always looking to learn and collaborate; firm believer in the power of the internet. Digging stories rooted in culture.

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