How can museums avoid unsustainable, unmaintainable digital projects and reduce the ‘digital hangover’?

The Museums Computer conference convened in York in early May to find out how museums can reduce the digital hangover, learning about the digital lifecycle, the benefits of in-house training and also saying no

At the Museums Computer Group’s ‘Life with Digital Projects’ (or #MCGprojects) conference Charlotte Sexton’s keynote was a masterclass in understanding the impact of decisions about technology, staffing and funding over the lifecycle of a digital project. Her talk emphasised the importance of planning and of considering what’s needed for the surprisingly long ‘bit after the end’ of a project. Later, Ivan Teage (Natural History Museum) reiterated the importance of skills and knowledge transfer in the sustainability of digital projects. Documenting projects well – so that information can be found and understood when it’s needed – takes time, and we often rely on colleagues for answers. However, as Charlotte said, project teams often move onto the next project just when we should be reflecting on and documenting lessons learnt from the project just completed. Mark Pajak (Bristol Museums) looked back at five years of digital work at MShed, pointing out that the quality of new content may vary as people return to their ‘day jobs’ after launch. As he said in the closing debate, ‘nothing you build is ever going to be finished’, and the need to revisit failing systems also provides opportunities to update the interface.

Other talks emphasised the importance of taking time to explain the digital lifecycle so that people in other departments knew when to give and request input. Anjanesh Babu (Oxford University Museums) encouraged us to involve IT teams – the cornerstone of digital projects – early, while Jennifer Townshend and Dan Q (Bodleian Libraries) explained how they work closely with exhibition teams and help them assess when a digital display isn’t the right choice for an exhibition. Similarly, Gareth Beale (University of York) looked to museums’ experience with exhibitions as a source of skills for storytelling with virtual and augmented reality. He echoed other speakers in calling for digital projects that meet real audience needs over those based primarily on the choice of technology. Graham Davies (National Museum Wales) got a knowing laugh when he asked ‘Who buys a display case then works out what goes in it? Why would you do that with an app?’

Other speakers, including Martin Fell (York Museums Trust), described how decisions to train in-house staff in digital tools and processes (through formal training or working with external and internal experts) led to creative uses for tools. Increased knowledge improved their ability to choose technologies best-suited for the problem at hand. Graham carved out time for analytical and research tasks by showing content providers in other departments how and why to make their content work online rather than editing it for them each time. Other speakers discussed the value of saying ‘no’ and allowing teams to prioritise their own work. Letting expert but less senior staff influence decisions that affect the long-term sustainability of a project requires trust and judgement.

The value of teamwork and mutual respect for diverse expertise in letting others do their best work inspired presentations from Andrew Larking and Simon Wakeman (Deeson) and Nick Clarey (Airsource). Nick felt that common technologies (like websites) should be in-sourced, but non-core competencies like mobile development should be out-sourced. Returning to earlier discussions about issues with procurement and finding good external suppliers, Andrew and Simon asked museums to use the tender process to describe their context and the problem to be solved, rather than assuming they already knew what the solution should be. Their plea for museums to state their budgets upfront brought to mind similar requests on the MCG’s lively discussion list.

Lucy Yates and Chris King (National Maritime Museum) pointed out the incredible diversity of ‘audiences’ made design more complex. Their comments on visitors being self-conscious about the large waving motions required to trigger an in-gallery interactive were a reminder of the need to test digital (or novel) projects with real visitors, in real contexts, as early as possible.

The final session debated the idea that ‘outsourcing digital heritage projects is more harm than help’. Both sides made a strong case, leading me to conclude that making sustainable digital projects depends on good communication, mutual respect, and understanding the context and long-term goals of an organisation before making realistic decisions about budgets, technology and team structure.

Since its founding in 1982, the Museums Computer Group’s events have made an important contribution to the UK’s digital heritage sector. The next MCG event, ‘UKMW16: Stories for the public; stories for the sector‘, will be held at the Wellcome Collection in London on October 19 2016.