My Precious: Digital Protectionism within Large Museums

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.

Poll of Where Digital Positions Sit in Museums at Museums and the Web Conference. Personal photo by Mairin Kerr.

Poll of Where Digital Positions Sit in Museums at Museums and the Web Conference. Personal photo by Mairin Kerr.

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?

3 thoughts on “My Precious: Digital Protectionism within Large Museums

  1. Suse Cairns says:

    Why are there gatekeepers? This is an incredibly powerful question, Mairin, and one that is worth asking beyond just museums and their digital efforts. There are many reasons to have gatekeepers, particularly when it comes to creating and maintaining a consistent message across an institution. One of the dangers, I suppose, about having many voices is the possible dilution of message *if not everyone knows what the message is, and believes in it*. And I think this starts to get to a key and critical part of this problem: museums and their missions, their values, and their visions.

    If an institution’s vision/values isn’t well articulated, if the staff internally don’t understand where the ship is steering (and agree with that destination), then there probably is a perceivable risk in letting multiple people speak, because there is a greater chance that someone will say the “wrong” thing, and undermine an aspect of the institution’s greater strategy. And this is a bigger problem than just a digital one, although it is made more present by the presence of digital, and by the expectation that people could or should be able to create content under the name and institution of the brand.

    I guess that the creation of public-facing content on a website also raises questions about institutional voice, and individual voice. I don’t know if you saw Matt Popke’s excellent comments on one of my recent posts (, but I think there are some really strong reasons not to speak with an individual voice, and to speak with an institutional one. But this almost requires gatekeepers (or does it?). If we still have an institutional voice, I think we need gatekeepers. So maybe the question we should be asking is what are the circumstances for an individual voice, and what ones for an institutional one, and how that should play out and impact the organisational approach to digital. What do you think?


    • Mairin says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful response Suse. You bring up a valid point – that there are, in some cases, a need for gatekeepers. This is why I understand, for example, that Social Media is often found within the Marketing Department because they are experts on how to cultivate the brand of a museum. I just wish the gates weren’t so tightly shut on this. I wish that we had more ability to collaborate and better communication about what each area is doing. Right now it feels as if much of this is shrouded in mystery rather than it being an open process. Maybe if there were better avenues to submit ideas to these gatekeepers who could then decide if they feel the idea supports the museum’s message and voice.

      Thank you for directing me to your post about the politics of museums and Matt’s comment/example of the Walker publicly supporting gay marriage and your response pointing out a possible tension between the museum and its workers values/beliefs. This does illustrate why there are gatekeepers – because a museum’s beliefs may differ from the individuals that work there. So yes we do need gatekeepers but I think the attitude of gatekeepers needs to change (as I say above – more willingness to collaborate across departments).

      Then again do we really need an institutional voice? Or is this us holding onto the past – the single authoritative voice and idea that an institution must stand united for something. Why not show that there are divisions? Why do we need a strong message? Why can’t the message be diversity? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging multiple voices and perspectives in the new age of museums? And is digital not a great tool to try and do this? It will be interesting to see how the democratization of the ROM and RBCM’s websites work out in practice. I’ll be keeping an eye on that.

      I suppose I’m still unconvinced either way but I strongly believe that we need to communicate better across our departments and be open to outside ideas.


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