As the mother of a 10-year-old in 2022, I witness some fascinating scenes. Increasingly, my daughter prefers to spend much of her free time in intricate virtual worlds she’s created for herself, usually games like Minecraft and Animal Crossing. Though the depth and imagination of these worlds can be impressive, I’m sometimes bewildered by her devotion to them. Wouldn’t she rather be playing real tennis with her friends who live only miles away rather than meeting them in a video game for virtual tennis?
In a way, museums have been in the same position for the past few decades as they’ve watched their audience’s digital appetites grow. More of our personal and professional lives have begun to take place online, a trend that for-profit industries are betting on will only accelerate in the future. Yet most museums have been slow to embrace this new world, due to a combination of capacity issues and concern that doing so would undercut their value as in-person, physical experiences.
That was the case until the pandemic arrived, when suddenly the value of digital investment became a lot starker, even to traditionalists. Most museums hastened to create virtual programming to replace in-person engagements, and while many successes resulted, the rapid push also revealed gaps in the field’s infrastructure to create the illuminating, inclusive digital experiences it aimed for.
As the fervor of early pandemic pivoting reduces to a slower, more thoughtful turn, museums are considering how to invest in this capability in the long term. More in our field understand that virtual access is enhancing their missions rather than muddling them, particularly as it engages audiences who are unable or hesitant to visit in person. We are beginning to see that the audience that can benefit from our work is much broader than the one that can come through our doors.
This potential for greater accessibility and inclusion is compelling but complicated by issues like the gap in access to technology and inconsistent practices for visual and auditory accessibility. Museums also need to consider the economics of investing in digital experiences, which can be expensive to produce and difficult on which to yield a financial return. Not every museum can or must approach the digital realm in the same way, going feet-first into whatever new technology emerges. Instead, they should pick and choose the things that make the most sense for their communities, business needs, values, and priorities.
At AAM, our own digital journey has accelerated as much as our members. Since the start of the pandemic, we have increased our output of digital content and resources and conducted many of our long-running programs remotely, such as the Annual Meeting, Accreditation, the Museum Assessment Program, and Museums Advocacy Day, which returns in person in February.
As a result of all this adaptation, we’ve committed to refining our long-term digital strategy with the goal of reaching you with the information and inspiration you need to do your best work, wherever and whenever you may need it most. Gone are the days when technology was a minor function relegated to just a few departments of an organization. It now penetrates into all of our work and likely will be at the center of some of our greatest potential going forward.