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Digital Awakening: Essential technologies for pandemic survival and future success.

Category: Museum Magazine
The San Diego Natural History Museum produces a "Career Spotlight" video series, for which Education Specialist Rosie Bell interviewed Botany Collections Manager Layla Aerne Hains. Photo credit: Christine Griffith, courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

“When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.”

— George Westerman, research scientist, MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy

This article which appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership, is adapted from the 2021 edition of the Alliance’s annual forecasting report. Download your free copy of TrendsWatch: Navigating the Disrupted Future for extended content, including a framework for museum action on this important issue.

When museums across the country began shutting their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, it quickly became clear that those that had invested in digital platforms and content were pre-adapted to engage with the public and with staff under the circumstances.

In some cases, such digital engagement was essential to fulfilling their core responsibilities—for example, supporting college instruction or providing access for researchers. But other initiatives, although welcomed by a public desperate for distraction, did not have a clear place in museum strategy in the long term. Furthermore, even though museums were starved for income, there were few examples of how digital engagement could be used to replace or supplement revenue tied to physically interacting with the museum—admissions, space rentals, events, and on-site sales.

The field faces a long, hard slog before the pandemic fades and attendance income rebounds. Smart investments in digital practice may help sustain museums during the hard times to come and position them to rebound as the pandemic passes. But even before the COVID crisis, museums struggled with how and when to integrate digital technologies into their work. Now they have less capital to invest, a smaller margin for error, and a lower tolerance for risk. How can museums make wise choices about adopting or maintaining digital technology that will help them survive in the short term and thrive in the coming decade?

The Challenge

As science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Digital technology creates whole worlds from the ones and zeros of code, and in the past half-century we’ve lived through continuous cycles of digital, going from magic to mundane, before leaping ahead again into semi-miraculous territory.

In addition to the speed with which it is displacing older technologies, digital technology is also remarkable for the breadth of its applications. Previous technological disruptions often reshaped the world around one area of practice: steam-powered factories displacing handcrafting or vaccines conquering fatal disease. Digital technology, however, is transforming every area of practice: making, teaching, seeing, sharing, thinking. It’s difficult to even talk about “digital” as a coherent issue when it spans everything from sending an email to creating an artificial intelligence-powered interactive simulacrum of Salvador Dali.

Confronted by the rapid pace and enormous breadth of digital evolution, museums have struggled with when to supplement or replace older technologies with their digital kin. Most museums have taken a conservative approach, waiting to see which applications (e.g., websites) turn out to be a necessary part of doing business. This patience has often paid off, as late adopters could take advantage of turnkey applications accessible to museums that lack in-house digital expertise. This is a totally valid approach in normal times—especially because most museums don’t have the resources, or the risk tolerance, to be digital innovators.

But the financial crisis sparked by the pandemic may not allow museums the luxury of time. The razor-thin financial margins of the coming year will make decisions about digital adoption both more urgent and more fraught. Some digital processes could be crucial to a museum’s survival—for example, online reservation software that helps limit attendance to safety-compliant levels. Other initiatives, such as launching a content channel, may seem successful in the short term but lack clear payback. The public has a seemingly boundless appetite for videos, online courses, and online games, but museums can’t continue to feed that desire without a corresponding financial plan.

How Museums Are Responding

When the pandemic struck, museums around the globe quickly began pumping out vast amounts of digital content: social media challenges, virtual tours, programs, school curricula, dance parties, cocktail hours, and more. This was awesome in many ways: it provided much-needed relief to people trapped at home and in need of human connection (or a way to distract the kids for a few minutes). Digital engagement was a way for museum staff to help in the crisis, to apply their skills as a cadre of cultural first responders. And digital projects provided meaningful work for some frontline staff who might have otherwise been at risk of being furloughed or laid off.

Given the collapse of most forms of earned income (admissions, rentals, programs, and events), museums began experimenting with digital substitutes: virtual galas, paid online programming, online stores. Some zoos offered paid Zoom appearances by charismatic animals. (You can book Fiona the Hippo, star of the Cincinnati Zoo, at the rate of $750 for 15 minutes.) In some cases, museums have sustained revenue by tying free content to membership, pitches for contributions, or underwriting by funders.

As museums reopened, many implemented online ticketing systems to help limit attendance and reduce staff interactions at the point of entry. Beyond this, companies are offering all kinds of digital services to help implement pandemic precautions, from retrofitting digital interactives for touch-free operation to providing digital membership cards.

We don’t know yet whether the current demand for digital content will persist once the pandemic wanes. A year or more of digital immersion for work, play, and school may create a pan-digital version of “Zoom fatigue,” resulting in a sharp drop in the demand for digital content and experiences when people feel safe to venture out again. Likewise, a long-term trend toward remote work, online shopping, and virtual instruction may, in time, leave people hungry for in-person, place-based social experiences, fueling the rebound of traditional museum income streams. Museums should factor these possibilities into their planning for online content production.

In any case, as with retail, business, and education, the pandemic will have a permanent effect on the digital behavior of museums. Projections of the proportion of US museums that may close permanently due to the pandemic range from 7 percent to over 30 percent. Many of those that survive may do so through their savvy use of digital technologies to sustain their audiences, members, and income.

Find Out More

In the coming year, museums are going to have to make critical decisions about digital “investment”—what, how, and how much—with little room for error. These calculations will be complicated by the fact that the payback from investments in productivity and efficiency (e.g., reducing the number of steps to complete a website transaction) may be more subtle than, but just as important as, direct earned revenue (such as paid subscriptions). To support this assessment, this year’s TrendsWatch ( reviews emerging best practices for museum adoption of digital technologies and provides a framework for successfully integrating digital into museum decision-making.

A Digital MiNdset

By Nik Honeysett, CEO, Balboa Park Online Collaborative

Prior to the arrival of electricity as industrial power, mechanical power came from a steam engine that turned a drive shaft down the center of a factory. Belts and gears transferred the power to looms, drills, presses, and hammer stations throughout a building. A steam engine had to run 24/7, because even if only one station required power, the coal fires had to keep burning. The layout of the factory was determined by the transfer of mechanical energy from the main drive shaft.

Initially, factory bosses simply replaced their giant steam engine with a giant electric motor, and power was distributed in the same way. Like the steam engine, the electric motor had to run constantly because power continued to be derived from a single source. This was an incredibly inefficient, skeuomorphic tactic, so bosses hired chief electricity officers to determine how to most effectively use electricity. Their solution was to look at the true power (pun intended) and opportunity of electricity, so that it could be delivered individually to every station through simple and efficient wiring. Factories could be redesigned and operations reinvented without the driveshaft constraint. In time, chief electricity officers became obsolete, their work of invisibly embedding electricity into factory operations complete.

Figuring out how to use electricity sounds absurd; for us now, it is just “there.” But getting to that point wasn’t about how to use electricity in and of itself, it was about creating efficiency, increasing productivity, and scaling up on widget production. Factories needed chief electricity officers to complete this transformation.

Museums are at a similar inflection point with their digital strategy. At this moment, we need chief digital officers (CDOs) to embed digital-first practices and a digital mindset within our organizations. Digital mindset is code for culture change to look past “digital” and focus on the mission and goals that digital can help achieve. We don’t need CDOs to create a “digital plan,” we need them to determine how to create efficiency, productivity, and compelling engagement and how to scale audiences. This is a highly strategic pursuit that should be deeply embedded into institutional goals and deeply embedded into operations.

The pandemic has constrained us physically but freed us to evolve a digital mindset. A digital mindset is the pursuit of capacity, capability, and resiliency. For our staff, it’s about clarifying their roles and responsibilities, enabling them with relevant and sustainable tools, and embedding knowledge and literacy to pursue their departmental, cross-departmental, and institutional goals. For our institutions, it’s about creating efficiency and productivity and nurturing an opportunistic, innovative, data-driven, and entrepreneurial approach to our work. And ultimately, we hope to create audience loyalty through compelling engagement, contextual and relevant experiences, and community and personal enrichment.

This digital-first world is easily quantified but less easily achieved. We can only achieve it with an investment philosophy and a strategy drafted on the factory boss’s desk, not the factory floor, and, yes, electricity will be used, albeit invisibly.


Playbook: Re-opening Museums & Cultural Attractions: Succeeding in the Post-COVID Era with Thoughtful Digital Tools, Cuseum, 2020

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