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Museums and Digital Strategy Today

Category: Technology
A person browsing from a large digital screen with images of objects
Museums have collectively invested millions in systems to digitize, organize, store and, in many cases share, their own collections. How might they use that infrastructure to support trusted, stable digital collectibles? Image: Cleveland Museum of Art. CC BY-SA 2.0 Flickr Credit Museums and the Web

Over the past decade, museums around the world have been adapting to the fast-pace of technical change and have debated a variety of approaches to digital strategy and whether to integrate (or not) digital approaches into the overarching strategies of their organizations. Recently, we’ve seen significant examples of digital strategy documents produced by the Tate , SFMOMA, NARA, and many others. As the whole museum becomes more digital, what approach – if any – should museums take regarding digital strategy?

At the 2017 Museums and the Web Conference in Cleveland, a professional forum titled “Strategy 3.0: What is Digital Strategy Now” was hosted by Rob Stein (American Alliance of Museums), Dana Allen-Greil (U.S. National Archives), Emily Lytle-Painter, Content and Experience Strategist, and chaired by Max Evjen of the Michigan State University Museum. The Museums and the Web annual conference is an important convening of technology and digital experts from around the museum field. The team discussed some background about digital strategy in museums and then hosted participants in four smaller groups to discuss several questions to probe the current state of digital strategy in museums.

A picture of the discussion groups during the session A picture of the discussion groups during the session

Digital Strategy Discussion Topics:

  1. Digital strategy is dead. There is no digital strategy, only museum strategy.
  2. Digital strategy is a useful subversive technique inside your organization.
  3. I’m one person/super small team…What does a strategy really do for me?
  4. IT strategy, media strategy, or digital strategy. One, the other, or all of the above?

In this article, the moderators share their key takeaways from the discussions and provide helpful reference materials for those of you who are wrestling with digital strategy inside your own museums.

Rob SteinRob Stein: Digital Strategy is dead. There is no digital strategy – only museum strategy.

This topic questions the need/wisdom of crafting a bespoke digital strategy at all. To be fair – this is a point of view that I’ve held personally for quite some time – so I’m certainly coming from a bit of a biased perspective. As such, I was looking for some balancing opinions from our group.

Let’s flesh out the idea a bit for you first.

The overarching thought behind claiming that “there is no digital strategy – only museum strategy” is that by defining a digital strategy as a document that is separate from your museum’s core strategic plan, you risk a misalignment of those two plans.

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Several of the participants in the group echoed this concern with a few people noting that among the risks of segregating a digital strategy separately from your museum’s strategy is the case where digital plans are segregated from more comprehensive thinking about the museum’s goals. One participant helpfully noted that by thinking of digital separately from the museums goals you create a digital silo and encourage a “someone else’s problem” way of thinking.

More concerning would be the case where digital goals become about the ends and not the means of achieving the museum’s real mission impacts (i.e. a digital strategy that proclaims the museum “should” have an app without understanding why or whom would use such a thing) About this perspective, one participant stated, “Digital is just one tool in the toolbox. It may be the right way to fix the problem, or it might not…” The important point is the understanding of the kinds of outcomes your museum and visitors need from digital – not the other way around.

Along these same lines, the group also discussed the fact that it can be exceedingly difficult to draw a line around where digital strategy leaves off and just plain vanilla museum strategy picks up. Does this include email marketing? Use of phones in the galleries? The kinds of language we use to describe digital technology in object labels? The slope gets slippery pretty quickly.

Organizational Maturity
With about 35 people in our group, there was a diversity of backgrounds and experiences to draw from. Those included some voices who brought up good ideas about the place that digital strategies hold for museums.

One common thread of the conversation is that a Digital Strategy document can often be a helpful tool for museums to raise awareness of what digital approaches might contribute to the advancement of the museum’s work. The group felt that approaches to digital and the need for a strategy was very dependent on the particular institution’s maturity in thinking about strategy for the whole organization. Organizations without a lot of experience in digital might benefit from a separate digital strategy that paints a picture of how those efforts might best move forward. A museum’s expertise in working with strategic documents with its staff will also impact whether it can effectively USE a digital strategy.

Digital Strategy as a Change Tactic
Throughout the conversation, the idea that digital strategy is sometimes used as a lever to drive change was frequently cited as a reason to have one. Several participants offered that the need to create a digital strategy was often driven be a desire to garner attention and priority from museum executives. Others said that digital strategy documents were sometimes a convenient way to secure funding resources from inside the museum’s ever-tight operating budgets. Most participants conceded that these were not really good reasons to have a digital strategy, but that they were expedient and sometimes necessary to move forward at all. The group offered that if funding resources were the necessary reason driving the creation of a digital strategy, perhaps it would be better to weave digital into the strategic plan in other fundamental areas of the museum’s mission like education, collections, or research.

Understanding the difference between strategy, tactics, goals, and outcomes
An interesting meta-conversation happened in the midst of our chat about digital strategy. Many participants noted that their museum staff lacked a nuanced understanding of the differences between strategies, tactics, goals, and outcomes. Many participants shared that what was sometimes called a digital strategy was really a tactical plan for how to get the museum’s digital resources in order. Most of the group felt that their museum’s strategic plans were somewhat weak on defining goals and metrics that might support the outcomes they were seeking. This translated into digital strategies that also lacked clear drivers and measurements to goal.

The discussion highlighted the fact that tactical plans should be open to change, especially as digital practice and technology continues to evolve quickly. They furthermore felt that strategies and outcomes were likely to change less frequently and therefore would benefit from a more in-depth document that could frame actions and tactics over several years.

There were some examples shared by the group that showed how a digital strategy might be specifically crafted to flow into a larger part of the museum’s strategic plan. This seems like a helpful hybrid to think more about. For instance, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has a digital strategy that flows out of the Museum’s over-arching strategy regarding universal design. In this case, universal design drives specific initiatives and priorities around digital accessibility – for instance – that are internally consistent and reinforcing to the museum’s overall direction.

At the end of the discussion, I polled the group informally about their confidence level and ability to communicate with their museum’s executive leadership about digital strategy in general. About 50% of the group felt that they could personally communicate to their leadership about the role digital strategy might play in their organizations. A different, but similar 50% of the group felt that those leaders would understand and be receptive to those ideas. That leaves some lack of confidence in a self-selected group of technology leaders who attended the Museums and the Web conference and furthermore selected to attend this session – that they have an appropriate amount of agency within their organizations and museum leaders who are open to listening to their perspectives. In my mind – this would be the first gap to address. Are there ways that digital specialists in museums could be more effective in sharing their points of view about how digital methods might advance overall museum strategy? Perhaps our past efforts to craft digital strategies have not been an effective means of doing so.

Max Evjen headshotMax Evjen: Digital strategy is a useful subversive technique inside your organization.

A screenshot of tweet by @AnaLuCBOur group chimed in immediately with a resounding “YES!” It is subversive because we are not at the point where “there is no digital strategy, there is only museum strategy,” (see Rob’s discussion above). Digital work is still an afterthought. Digital efforts are still seen as an object, not as a means, or as a tool that we use to achieve goals. So right now, institutional strategies necessarily need to have a separate section for digital. We still need to demonstrate the value of digital to our organizations (management, curators, marketing, and yes, even education). In fact, the injection of digital into the language of strategy is subversive because the word “strategy” is traditional museum language, whereas digital is not the traditional way of doing museum work. The main challenge that our group identified was that in order to achieve digital literacy across the organization, cultural change is required, and that culture is dictated by museum leadership.

A screenshot of a tweet by @_BlackMusesOne of the more controversial assertions heard from the group was that museum leadership needs to understand the need for digital throughout the organization – or they need to leave. This call to attention has been echoed in previous presentations across the #musetech community. At the Museum Computer Network (MCN) meeting in 2016, I presented in a session called “Digital Careers at a Crossroads: Next Steps and New Paths” wherein Chad Weinard asserted “Managers: Not understanding digital is like saying you don’t understand budgeting.  It’s not an option anymore.” This quote was captured on Twitter, but even with 128 Likes, and 69 retweets, was this message getting to Museum Directors?

A screenshot of a tweet by @MSanderhoff

A quick request for a show of hands for museum leadership in the group netted no hands. One comment by an attendee in this part of the discussion stunned the group: “Wow, I never even thought to ask my Director to come to this [conference].” The group was reasonably sure that there were few, if any, museum leaders in the whole session, or even at the whole conference. If this kind of change is to occur, perhaps we should be asking our museum leadership to attend #musetech conferences with us. If that is not possible for them to attend, it was mentioned that making our cases to leadership with data and numbers is necessary to convince them of the need for digital literacy in the organization, whatever that may look like. We must be the ones to make the case for how digital can add value to the organization and to its visitors. More than anyone, we need to describe how the work of digital in the museum points back to the institution’s core mission. Despite the fact that our positions may not be on the leadership team, we must be the ones to bring change.

We heard in the keynote presentation of the conference, by Tim Phillips of Beyond Conflict, that change brings discomfort. Our group responded to that assertion claiming that digital strategy is inherently subversive because it commands change and therefore causes discomfort. How do we make that less uncomfortable? What if we had digital principles, instead of digital strategy? Those might be easier to share with staff and visitors. It might make it easier to start at zero and ask the questions that are needed like, “What if we just did not have a website? Why do we need one in the first place?”.

Finally, the group suggested that perhaps #musetech people should be looking at education departments in museums as a means of studying how an effort—that at one time might have been considered subversive—became central to the mission of museums. Perhaps educators might show us where the horizon lies after which we can graduate to no longer needing a separate digital strategy, when we can just have a strategy in which digital is fully integrated. Because only then, when digital is fully integrated into strategy, will it cease to be subversive. Our group was convinced that, despite Group 1’s assertion that digital should be integrated into overall strategy, we are just not there yet.

dana allen-greilDana Allen-Greil: I’m a one person/super-small team. What does “strategy” really do for me?

Creating a strategy—particularly if it involves co-creation with other stakeholders—can be a lot of work. For many people who are working solo or in a very small team, the first reaction to being tasked with “writing a strategy” is to push back and ask: “Why? What will the benefit be?”

In order to answer this question, it is helpful to understand exactly what we mean by “digital strategy”? We can unpack its meaning by looking at our assumptions about both format and function of a strategy:

  • Format: We agreed that a strategy “looks official” and therefore carries weight. It is documented in some format and is easily referred to and shareable. File formats vary and can range from written documents, PowerPoint slides, to dynamic GitHub pages. They may be laid out in calendar year format, a checklist, or an impact/effort matrix. We discussed parallels in other parts of a museum—for example, is a digital strategy the equivalent of “brand guidelines” for a communications office? Ultimately, the format of your digital strategy will be highly influenced by the context, preferences, and needs of your particular organization.
  • Function: To define scope, set goals, or communicate with others. For some, a written strategy may be the only time that unspoken values and ideals are made concrete and transparent across an organization. For others, a written digital strategy can help serve as a filter—a way to demonstrate good reasons for saying “no” or to prioritize among the many opportunities that come our way. And for others, a strategy may be necessary to explain or even justify (eek!) their role in an organization. In many ways, the function of strategy is to define the context in which decisions are made about resources and to what end.

Some of the challenges surrounding digital strategy include:

  • Lack of clarity about its purpose. “We should have one” is not a good enough reason to spend precious time on this effort. (See list of benefits below and try to get clarity from the person requesting it about their intentions.)
  • Knowing what to include. How far out should the vision go? (We suggest no more than 3 years!) How specific should it be? (e.g., Metrics for success? Specific tools or tactics? Target dates?) There is no one right way to build a strategy so it is important to understand expectations (from your leadership, co-creators, etc.) as you begin work on one.
  • Follow-through. If you spend a lot of energy creating a strategy, (particularly when the process involves other people) it can be really deflating when the plan of action isn’t fully realized. It can even be a challenge to remember to refer to it, let alone keep it updated as things shift and change over time.

So, what are the benefits of a digital strategy?

  • Define scope and swim-lanes. What is digital? What is its role in our institution? Whose job is it?
  • Serve as a primer for collaboration with others. A clearly crafted strategy can be a great introduction for new partner. The process of developing a strategy can also be useful for building support from the ground-level and setting a direction that is reflective of the goals and skillsets of the larger staff of an organization.

Provide a framework. A great strategy can serve as a reminder for you and your team about the bigger picture and what you are trying to achieve. It can also serve as a reference for leadership and a filter for decision-making.

Emily Lytle-PainterEmily Lytle-Painter: IT strategy, media strategy, or digital strategy. One, the other, or all of the above?

Our group started the discussion by taking on the meaning of digital as it relates to strategy. As we know from previous discussions (one facilitated by Jennifer Foley, Jeffrey Inscho, and Ed Rodley at MCN 2015 in Minneapolis comes to mind) digital can be a hard word to parse as its meaning can be wide-ranging and depend on context. Together, we unpacked the term “digital strategy” and decided that it was often an attempt to connect strategic objectives (your direction) with digital action plans (how you’re going to get there.)

As Andrea sums up below, we liked thinking about a “Digital Strategy” more like an  implementation strategy, but couldn’t settle on the perfect word.

A screenshot of a tweet by @am_ledesma

Next, we talked about the institutional layers between leadership and staff, and the silos between departments. These silos can often prevent the institutional strategy from being implemented effectively. We liked the idea of translating an overarching strategic plan for the museum into team plans, where smaller units of staff understand their role in furthering the institutions goals, and their place within the system of the museum.

By tying the “how” of specific departmental initiatives firmly to the “why” of a mission-centered strategic plan, we felt that the staff would more closely tie their day-to-day work to the long-term vision of the institution.

Finally, the group felt that the two proposed alternate ideas of an IT or media strategy were more closely tied to specific initiatives like exhibitions and annual budget constraints. These are very important, obviously, as we need to keep the servers running, but they seem more tactical and less strategic than staking out the digital components of an institutional or departmental plan.


Thanks to each of the authors for putting pen to paper and writing up what they heard from their groups during the discussions. I’ll reiterate that these groups of participants contained many of the best and brightest from among the museum technology community, so I feel good that this document reflects a lot of the best thinking on the topic.

I know that the four of us authors hope that this article can be both a reference document for you and also perhaps a way of bringing more voices into the discussion about strategy in your museums. Having a healthy debate on these topics about what the unique and best approach for your museum might be – is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right. I hope you will take a chance to share with us some of your own insights in the comments below.

Background Resources and Additional Readings

For those of you interested in doing more background reading and research on digital strategy, we recommend the following resources as good primers and examples on the topic.

Chen, King, Parkinson, and Greil. (2016) Rebooting the Social Media Strategy for the National Archives.

C. Coerver, On Digital Content Strategy.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A., and Honeysett, N., (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Balboa Park. Centennial Special Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

J. Ludden, An Introduction to Digital Strategies for Museums. In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published October 1, 2014. Consulted September 13, 2016.

J. Stack, Tate Digital Strategy 2013-15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything.

R. Stein, Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology. In Museums and the Web 2012, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published March 10, 2012.

C. Royston & C. Sexton, Navigating The Bumpy Road: A Tactical Approach To Delivering A Digital Strategy. In Museums and the Web 2012, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published April 7, 2012.

B. Wyman, The Future of Interactivity. In Museums and the Web 2012, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published October 1, 2011.

J. Visser & J. Richardson, (2013) Digital Engagement in Culture Heritage and the Arts. Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike License.

E. Rodley, (2015) Recap: What does digital mean to you,


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  1. Perhaps soliciting attendance or input could prove more helpful if you invited or promoted the conference outside of the “brightest from among the museum technology community?” Ex: development, education, marketing,…

  2. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to attend this forum in person (it sounds great — what an all-star cast!), but thanks to the authors for capturing its essence in this article — it is an important discussion to be having at all levels / disciplines within museums, and even outside of our field, with partners in other industries (entertainment, higher ed, hospitality, to name a few).

    It echoes a statement I came across (and love to quote) in an eponymous 2015 TechCrunch article: “You don’t need a digital strategy, you need a digitally transformed company.” This message is often difficult to convey to museum leadership, but I am heartened to hear that others are also fighting the good fight!

    For better or for worse, a lot of us doing this work don’t have “technology” in our titles… we’ve taken it upon ourselves to be advocates for the appropriate use of technology and change agents for advancing digital literacy. Is it easier to combat silos from within or from without? I’ve been in organizations that have tried both… would LOVE to hear others’ success stories!

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