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Museum, Library Investments in Digital are Paying Off

April 13, 2015 ET

By Sarah Lutman
Lutman & Associates

During 2014, I spent time with museums, libraries, symphony orchestras, ballet companies, and other legacy cultural institutions to learn about their investments in digital media and to understand the impact these investments are having on programming, audience engagement, operational efficiency, and revenue sources.

Visitor engages with interpretive content on an iPad in The Essential Robert Indiana. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The result is a report and web gallery titled “Like, Link, Share: How cultural institutions are embracing digital technology.” The Wyncote Foundation-sponsored research project details five key themes from across the organizations visited and studied. The web gallery provides information, work samples, and links to 40 leading organizations and their media work. Notably, many institutions are finding significantly larger audiences via media than for their physical productions, performances, and exhibitions, and are experimenting with new revenue models enabled by their digital reach.

Here are the report’s five key themes—or "takeaways"—drawn from findings common to the organizations studied:

Strategy: Know the Game Plan: Leading organizations are aligning digital strategy with overall organizational strategy. They have clear intentions about their media and technology investments and the metrics that will demonstrate their progress. Strategies for organizations will differ; one size does not fit all.

Build Capabilities Not Projects: Organizations realize that they are building long-term capabilities, not short-term “cool projects.” While the majority of funding is awarded on a project basis, a much longer-term organizational view is needed so that projects can be sequenced for structured trials and learning.

Shake Up the Org Chart: Job responsibilities and organizational charts are in flux as organizations prioritize serving the digital audience. The immediacy required for social media and for sharing work in progress with the curious audience is a challenge for organizations whose experts are highly trained and schooled, and who are accustomed to painstaking curation of their final products.

Audiences First: Digital audiences search for information and programming using tools that result in non-linear, on-demand content, while most cultural institutions carefully script a linear in-person experience. Learning to put the habits and interests of digital audiences first within the digital environment is challenging the ways organizations think about presenting programming.

Toward New Business Models: Organizations are actively experimenting with new business models that will bring new revenue to support digital “channels.” Common investigations include loyalty programs based around membership and subscription to digital content, syndication of content to third parties, fees-for-service for online educational projects, and crowd funding.

Visitors can learn more about the bird specimens in The Field Museum's Ronald and Christina Gidwitz Hall of Birds using iPad technology. Videos, photographs, maps, and interactive activities geared toward young children are loaded onto iPads located throughout the exhibition.
© The Field Museum

Across the arts disciplines, museums and libraries are in some ways further along the path to digital innovation and engagement than their performing arts peers. The nature of museum and library collections means that content can be more easily catalogued and shared digitally than it can be in the performing arts, where, even when video or audio documentation exists, union contracts often prohibit the same ease in public sharing of these assets. On the other hand, performing arts institutions are pursuing highly creative and innovative audience engagement strategies that are helping build ticket-buying and online audiences through social media, and giving patrons creative opportunities to connect behind the scenes.

IMLS staff helped identify the museums and libraries that are making significant digital investments and achieving noteworthy results. Their recommendations, along with those from other grantmakers, journalists, peers, and thought leaders, helped shape our group of leading institutions. IMLS has been a key supporter of many of the organizations profiled, providing important support for media in an environment where fewer grantmakers are interested than might be expected (or hoped for). Also key to our discovery process was the 2013 report that museum and library staff should peruse. Growth in Foundation Funding for Media in the United States also includes a companion website with an interactive map of top funders and recipients.

Using mobile technology and QR codes, visitors to the Exploratorium are able to translate select exhibit labels into multiple languages. Gayle Laird, (c) Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu

The next step in our research is to seek out and listen to responses to our research from field-wide practitioners, and to attend and present at meetings and conferences to amplify our findings. We’ll be at the AAM Annual Meeting in Atlanta, in a session about R&D in the cultural sector, and will be participating in other national arts and grantmaking meetings this year. Please read the report and share your thoughts. And thank you!