Yes the title of this post is a reference to Lord of the Rings and yes I suppose I’m revealing some more of my geekiness (but if you got that reference so are you!). Watching Gollum’s obsession with “his precious” and seeing his desire to possess and protect the ring is the same type of thing I see with the desire to possess, protect, and control the digital elements of a museum by each of the respective areas that house them.
An earlier post I wrote looked at how a small museum accomplishes large digital projects (How a small museum can create BIG digital projects). This got me thinking about how large museums manage their digital work.
This question took me back to the Museums and the Web Conference in San Diego last year (a constant source of inspiration. If you are able to attend the conference in Portland this April I highly recommend it). There was an impromptu poll where conference attendees were asked to mark down where their digital position sits within their museum and where they think they should be. The poll revealed that digital is found in many different areas of the museum. Not really a surprise.
As digital media becomes more popular it has proliferated and has spread out across different departments. I’m not sure if this is good or bad. Maybe you can help me decide.
Digital Breakup and Breakdown
It used to be that a museum’s digital presence was solely its website but it has expanded much further than this and beyond the walls of the web team. There is Social Media, mobile applications, games, in-gallery interactives….Maybe a definition of digital media would be helpful. Florida’s digital media industry association, Digital Media Alliance Florida, defines digital media as “the creative convergence of digital arts, science, technology and business for human expression, communication, social interaction and education” (this definition is taken from Wikipedia – the source of all knowledge).
I tried to research museums organizational structures and how digital fits in but found that digital is not often listed. I imagine this will change as it becomes a larger component for what we do. So please forgive me as I am using my own personal experience interning and working for a few large museums to make these claims. Please let me know if the structure is different in your museum or these generalizations are not correct. I’d love to create some material for future research so please tell me in which departments your museum’s digital media can be found.
What is out there is Suse Cairns, the instigator of the impromptu poll at the Museums and the Web Conference last year, post about it on her blog Museum Geek. Suse has posted photos of the charts created in a session she ran which led to the conference-wide poll that I show above. Suse lists IT, Marketing/Communications, Education, Publications, Curatorial, Own Department and Distributed as the places IT can be found. I believe most are distributed in large museums now.
From my personal experience it seems that Social Media is often handled by Marketing/Communications, web tech support and content creation is usually run by a Web Team, Exhibition Development often outsources to external companies to create in-gallery digital media, Publishing creates apps and e-books that can be sold, and sometimes Education has a digital component which can be things like apps, games or blogs to reach their audiences.
Structure = Function: The Good
The location of each type of digital media is no coincidence. The function of a particular type of digital media often relates to the place it has been put within the structure of the museum. Marketing and Communications departments use Social Media to promote the museum, carefully cultivating a brand through the museum’s voice. The Web Team uses their understanding of technology to organize the content effectively and create content that is needed. Exhibition teams have a vision for what an exhibition should look like and get experts in to help create cutting edge digital to complement other elements of the exhibit. Publishing creates things that can generate revenue for the museum. Education uses digital tools to reach their audiences and help them engage with the collection.
Where digital sits within the organization seems to relate to the function of that particular digital piece. So it makes sense.
Digital Protectionism: The Bad
Here is where it doesn’t. With digital spread out across many different areas it can be hard to know who is creating what and it doesn’t seem as if efforts are being coordinated. Digital should be deconstructing organizational silos (like this article suggests Digital Demands Destruction of Organizational Silos). Instead, in museums, it is building the silos up. The problem with silos is that nobody knows what others are doing and it’s hard to work together. It stops the flow of creative content for digital media which is a missed opportunity.
Maybe it’s because of the downturn in the economy and the many cuts happening in museums so we are all trying to keep our jobs but I find that when digital is spread across the museum like this it’s really hard to get involved in something that “belongs” to another department. We’re all trying to protect our precious piece of the digital media pie. It’s a shame because what drew me to museums in the first place is how collaborative people are. And the digital/tech world is the very definition of collaborative with things like open source software. Beth Harris’ post Museums and Open Education at e-Literate shows just how collaborative museums and technology can be when given the chance.
I am coming from an education perspective. I currently sit on a digital programmes team which is housed in the learning department. I am able to work with all the audiences in the learning department (school & teacher, young people, higher education, adults etc). So why can’t it be the same for digital media? Why are there gatekeepers?
Moving Forward – Open Access?
At MCN’s Directors Roundtable, chaired by Ed Rodley, Janet Carding revealed that the ROM is working on a redesign of their website that allows open access to the public facing web by all the internal staff at the ROM. Ed describes it in his post reflecting on the roundtable (worth a read!):
Janet’s example involved launching ROM’s latest website and how it is being built to democratize staff access. Everyone will be able to blog or tweet, without moderation or asking someone in IT to post something for them.
The Royal BC Museum is working on a similar thing. Eric Espig, RBCM’s Web Specialist and Content Developer, will be leading a session on this at the Museums and the Web Conference in April. Eric will talks about how he and his team have rebuilt RBCM’s webpage allowing open access to the website and social media for the museum’s curators.
How much longer until the rest of us follow suit and democratize access to digital within our museums?