Empty museum hallway with a marble statue at the end

Please note that this is an archived event

Museums+Tech 2020: Museums in a crisis

Wednesday December 9 2020 to Thursday December 10 2020

Virtual conference

How can museums and other cultural organisations respond to crisis, both in terms of their collections, programmes, and internally? Do they have what it takes to survive when their doors can no longer open to the public? 

This year museums, galleries and other cultural organisations have faced challenges beyond what anyone could have imagined only a year ago. With the onset of COVID-19 and the world going into ‘lockdown’, institutions have been forced to make changes that have never been made before in peacetime. The world was then shaken by the death of George Floyd and the global response of the Black Lives Matter movement with greater calls for the decolonisation of cultural institutions. How museums respond to these crises will shape the future of our organisations.

This year, cultural organisations have been presented with critical turning points where important decisions will need to be made. Our 2020 virtual conference is asking what role digital can play for museums in a crisis.



Wednesday 9 December

12:30 Quick Introduction to Hopin

13:00 Introduction/welcome

13:10 Day 1 Keynote

forced reboot. Hello World.
Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah, Co-CEOs of Birmingham Museums Trust

13:45 Session 1: Audiences

Effects of shelter-in-place on museum website visitation
Martin Spellerberg & Grace Pool, Spellerberg Associates

In the spring of 2020, museums and cultural organisations moved quickly to cease public visitation. But even as institutions closed their physical doors, they opened digital windows. They adopted online tools to continue delivering on missions, serving communities, and engaging audiences. For many museums, website visitation traditionally supported on-site visitation. We set out to study how that changed. In this presentation, we will present cross-industry trends revealed by an analysis of twenty institutions across the US. Our analysis interprets quantitative data from Google Analytics through the lens of qualitative insights gleaned from oral interviews.

Entertaining audiences in a time of crisis
Alix Geddes, One Further

This is an ongoing study looking at types of content posted by museums online during the various crises of 2020, specifically humour, and how audiences interacted with it. The study consists of surveying digital communications staff at large and small museums across the UK and takes data directly from their website analytics and social media platforms.

With the sudden pandemic and subsequent lockdown, museums were forced to close their doors to the public and focused on using their digital channels to share the objects, themes, and stories within their collections, albeit with different perspectives. Digital content was transformed, with accessing collections from home and children’s activities at the forefront. We also saw attempts to reach online audiences with content that would amuse, entertain, and engage. Early on during the crisis, people participated in the Getty Museum Challenge (recreating artwork with objects from home), and hashtags such as #MuseumFromHome and #CuratorBattles gained traction. What was the impact of this? What types of content did audiences flock to, and in what numbers? What trends and insights can be pulled from the data available?

Reimagining a physical exhibition as a digital destination
Chris How, Clearleft

How do you turn the world’s most prestigious and longest-running wildlife photography competition into a compelling digital destination? Since 1965 the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has had a loyal following. Each year five million visitors make the pilgrimage to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington to view the latest collection of spectacular and thought-provoking photographs. The competition did have a microsite – a pale imitation of the physical space that failed to utilise the benefits of digital. The website was a second-rate clone rather than a unique companion to the exhibition. This presentation will tell the story of how the Museum’s digital team alongside Clearleft took the opportunity to think afresh how digital could be used to celebrate and connect a global audience to an evergreen and ever-growing collection of images. We will share lessons learned on how to help an organisation reevaluate and reinvent a well-loved exhibition. It will go behind the scenes and show the process used including conducting insightful audience research, creating a project strategy, running collaborative sketching sessions and showcasing work-in-progress as a way to design and deliver a distinctly digital exhibition.

14:30 Break

15:00 Welcome back

15:10 AGM/networking

15:45 Session 2: Lightning talks

Digital champions: a lockdown silver lining?
Sian Shaw, Westminster Abbey

During lockdown and as we enter the new normal, it’s been overwhelming to see how traditionally ‘non-digital’ colleagues enthusiastically took up the challenge of using digital as a tool to work with their audiences. These colleagues have not only experienced the power of digital, but are now advocates of this approach – they are newly acquired digital champions. We should ask ourselves, has the pandemic fast tracked the appreciation and respect that digital deserves within cultural settings amongst staff? Or are we just experiencing a honeymoon period?

Telling the story using well-known phrases on Zoom, this presentation will consider how to support and develop wannabe digital champions through the experiences of Westminster Abbey’s Learning Team during the crisis and beyond. I’ll explore how the bottom-up sign up to digital can be as crucial as senior management support, the importance of ‘tech to non-tech’ relationship management and how to hold on to this momentum for ‘business as usual’.

Transcribing together
Carlyn Osborn & Lauren Algee, Library of Congress

By the People is a volunteer engagement and collection enhancement program at the Library of Congress that invites the public to transcribe documents on the Library’s website. Launched in 2018, over 350,000 documents have been released by the program for transcription and 200,000 completed as of September 2020. When transcriptions are completed, they can be integrated back into the Library’s online catalog, where they become word-searchable and readable by accessibility technologies.

During the COVID-19 crisis, By the People experienced an unprecedented uptick in volunteer engagement. The number of completed transcriptions doubled, our user base jumped by a third, and we expanded the breadth and depth of our offerings. This boost in user participation illustrates just how vital digital programming is to cultural organisations in situations of crisis; By the People was able to meet the needs of our users because we were already engaged with them online. Our talk will discuss the ways in which we bring outreach and engagement into our users’ homes, how we responded to the Library of Congress closing its doors and how By the People provided an outlet for volunteers during a time of crisis.

User research at a time of uncertainty
Jo Morrison, Calvium

Everything was settled:

  • The research design to inform the new exhibition content and usability of 28 digital interactives? Yes.
  • The team training to undertake and finesse the research and testing activities? Yup.
  • Identification and liaison with participant groups? You betcha.

In fact, user research and testing with key audience groups was underway and our excitement and motivation were sky high. Then, suddenly, we were in ‘Lockdown’. Everything was uncertain, except for the fact that Bristol’s We The Curious science centre was still launching its major new exhibition in November 2020 – Project What If. This lightening talk draws on our collective experience of conducting user research in a museum context before and during lockdown. By reflecting upon this extraordinary period of time, we have created a practical framework for planning, conducting and reflecting upon user research for new digital exhibits at times of uncertainty.

While this resource was developed as a response to a global crisis, our goal is for it to help the museum community undertake user research during any period of uncertainty.

SDDC virtual visits pre and post COVID-19: what’s changed?
Emilie Carruthers, British Museum

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre offers free live workshops to schools delivered through video conferencing technology, and has done for many years. This puts us in a unique position to compare how the programme and its audience has evolved since COVID-19: how have student and teacher’s expectations changed, are teachers now more comfortable booking virtual experiences for their classes and how has the programme evolved to align with audience expectations? We’ll use the most recent data from the schools Autumn term 2020 to explore these questions and think about how the demand for online live experiences in classrooms might evolve in future.

Museums in an Earth crisis – and how digital can help
Bridget McKenzie, Climate Museum

The multiple crises facing museums and society are all part of the Earth crisis, caused by an extractive and exploitative system. COVID-19 is an outcome of the ecological emergency, and climate breakdown threatens further blows to the relative stability of past decades in which museums have flourished. The Activist Museum Award has allowed us in Climate Museum UK to enquire into the possibilities of non-extractive digital collecting. As part of this, we are exploring extractivism, taking an environmental approach to the challenge of decolonising museums. A new mobile museum, we are reimagining museums for an age of crisis.

This lightning talk will summarise our findings of how digital collections might power activism to tackle the big challenges of social and environmental justice. What are the possibilities for museums to collaborate to create an accessible UK-wide digital collection that gives a climate and ecology lens to cultural artefacts? What is the appetite for a commons-based resource that opens up to democratic interpretation, and that enables its users to learn about the Earth crisis, to express views, to design solutions and to take action?

The digital result: COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter Movement and Antisemitism
Shereen Hunte, Jewish Museum London

What is our responsibility as a museum in the face of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter Movement and rising Antisemitism? How can our audiences and those beyond feel seen, connected and heard during lockdown? For five years, the Jewish Museum London has been running Black History Tours, celebrating Black History Month. These tours grew into an entire programme, consisting of tours, an exhibition and specially curated school workshops to celebrate Black Jews and the relationship between the Jewish and Black British Community. Limited time and resources restricted most of this programme to the month of October.

Following the start of lockdown and the murder of George Floyd, the museum’s intention became clear. We had a responsibility to share this knowledge, not only in October, but throughout the year and issues of time, resources and space could no longer be an excuse. The online space has power in transcending resources, time and space in a way that supported this transition seamlessly. We hosted our first virtual Black History Tour on 27 July. This ended up being the Monday after grime artist Wiley’s series of antisemitic tweets. Consequently, the tour attracted many people and media outlets, instantly breaking our usual audience numbers.

16:30 Close

Thursday 10 December

09:30 Introduction/welcome

09:40 Day 2 Keynote

Brave new world – thinking about the future of museums
Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association

10:15 Session 3: Inclusion and education

COVID-19 pandemic: threat or opportunity for blind and partially sighted visitors?
Rafie R Cecilia, University College London

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a severe impact on museums and the cultural sector in the UK and all over the world. The current crisis has opened up conversations about access to museums collections both physically and digitally. New social distancing rules, one-way navigation systems, and hand sanitising regulations are affecting the embodied practice of visitors inside the museum. These changes are potentially a threat to the experience of disabled people, in particular blind and partially sighted visitors, as they create a new layer of barriers to access the environment and the collection. On the other hand, the development of accessible digital content and access to online collections offered a positive experience during the lockdown, due to the increasing possibility to socialise and to participate in cultural opportunities from home.

Museums are now called to identify the long-term positive and negative effects of the pandemic on the physical and digital museum experience of disabled visitors. Museum professionals need to work around the clock to ensure that new embodied and digital practices become long-term opportunities to enhance accessibility and inclusion, rather than another insurmountable barrier for disabled people.

With a houseboat and an iPhone (how IWM supported home learning during lock down)
John Glancy, Imperial War Museum

When the UK’s schools closed in March 2020 the needs of the nation’s learners changed. Education was moved to a different type of classroom one that often involved a kitchen table for a desk and a digital device instead of an exercise book. Learning outputs in the heritage sector had to change too. School audiences couldn’t visit our galleries and objects, so the galleries and objects had to visit them… With a Houseboat and an iPhone will explore how Imperial War Museums conceived and developed its 16-part web series Adventures in History and brought a national collection into people’s homes. It will also explore how the work done on this project is inspiring Imperial War Museums to evolve its ongoing digital learning offer by tackling some of the most difficult stories in its collections such as Empire history. We will also explore the ways we are proposing to use  eyewitness testimony to support a recovery curriculum by aiding health and well being outcomes.

Inclusive digital practice in post-lockdown society
Becki Morris & Sarah Simcoe, Disability Collaborative Network and EMBED

As we navigate out of crisis during unprecedented times, the pandemic has highlighted that the time is right to reflect on the key role that digital is playing in reaching diverse communities as we create the ‘new normal’. While the heritage sector has traditionally taken a piecemeal approach to delivering digital services, these challenging times have necessitated the sector need for embracing digital inclusive practice. This ensures the continued delivery of services, attracts new audiences, including those who may have previously faced barriers to the physical environment and includes those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.

The pandemic has provided the sector with a unique opportunity to build positive intersectional inclusion through digital practices. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the issue of colonisation and the importance of greater access to related collections. During this presentation, DCN and EMBED, a cross-sector partnership, will share experiences and key learnings from the lockdown period, what we have done to support the sector and how digital inclusion is core to the sector in creating better, more resilient service, support and participation for audiences and the workforce.

11:00 Break

11:30 Welcome back

11:40 Session 4: Themed breakout groups

Objects, institutions, nations and tales: towards shared stories (image sharing with IIIF)
Richard Palmer, Victoria and Albert Museum & Joseph Padfield, National Gallery

One of the many consequences of the global pandemic has been for more people to look to museum websites as a way to explore museum collections than in person visits. Building on this unexpected new audience, how can institutions of all sizes work together to tell shared stories about the interconnecting items in their collections, as an alternative when it is not possible for visitors to travel to and between institutions.

In this breakout session, we will talk about the challenges and benefits of institutional collaboration, and how the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) can be used to share images across institutions and help make projects like this easier to achieve. The National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum will present a demonstration using the works of John Constable as an example of what innovative web features can be built when images can be directly shared between institutions. We will then break out into groups to identify possible collaboration opportunities, wishlists of IIIF enabled website features, and any practical problems and potential solutions in setting up projects of this kind.

The value of Wikimedia platforms in times of crisis
Gavin Willshaw, University of Edinburgh & Sarah Thomas, Wikimedia UK

This session will give an overview of the National Library of Scotland’s Wikisource project, which ran throughout lockdown and involved 70+ staff working together to collaboratively improve the OCR quality of 1,000 books from the Library’s Scottish chapbooks collection. It will focus on how cultural heritage organisations can engage with Wikimedia platforms at times of crisis, discussing some of the tangible benefits, such as improved OCR quality, but also assessing the impact this work has had on staff by enhancing digital skills, improving morale and opening up new opportunities for professional growth.

Following this, the session will open out into a themed breakout group for attendees to discuss their experience of using open knowledge platforms such as Wikipedia and Wikisource during lockdown, and to consider how such tools might be used to prepare for future crises.

Videogames and museums: fields in convergence
Amy Hondsmerk, Nottingham Trent University

As museums and heritage sites consider the ways in which they can engage visitors in the digital age, a trend expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector has progressively looked to the videogame industry. Tapping into the ‘experience economy’ (Park and Gilmore 1999), this intersection has allowed museums to explore the role of play in understanding the past. This has taken various forms including collaborations with game companies, utilising existing games to reach gaming communities and broaden audiences, and developing new museum-based games. Yet, while many of these game-related initiatives have been successful, thus far the museum sector has mainly employed video games in a manner that has been limited, with museum games remaining primarily focused on educational or entertainment goals.

In the context of changing understanding about interpretation in museums and, specifically, of the recognition of the role of visitors as participants in the interpretative process (Hooper-Greenhill 2000, Staiff 2014), the convergence of museums and videogames is rich area to explore and consider how the sector could realise the full potential of museum video games.

How ready are you? COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter Movement and Antisemitism
Shereen Hunte, Jewish Museum London

Following her presentation, Shereen Hunte will be sharing the lessons learnt on the Jewish Museum London’s first virtual Black History Tour. She will share tips and reflections on how to authentically stay ready in the face of a crisis. This breakout room will explore themes of diversity, digital awareness and delivery.

Culture Sprint: findings from design thinking workshops for the arts
Kate Rolfe, The Revels Office & Marco Savo, Audiovisual City

Culture Sprint is a workshop series run by The Revels Office designed to give current and future arts leaders tools for solving critical business challenges. This session will provide a quick introduction to the concept of Design Thinking, an approach used by designers to create innovative solutions to problems, and how to apply this to the cultural sector. The break-out group will then discuss together a key issue for the arts – how to identify and implement new ways of working with our teams to achieve innovation and efficiency, considering: untapped value and skills; transforming hierarchies and process; and both internal and external collaboration. Come with ideas to share and an open mind ready to test your assumptions!

Virtual tours and monetisation 
Paul Fabel, Guided & Nathan Wilson, YourTour

This session will explore how virtual tours can be monetised for museums whilst expanding vital access to culture for everyone. Join Nathan from YourTour and Paul from Guided as they lead a discussion on how virtual tours can work, and why they are so important in a COVID-19 world.

Museums in an Earth crisis – and how digital can help
Bridget McKenzie, Climate Museum UK

This session offers a chance to discuss the issues raised in Bridget’s lightning talk. The pandemic arises from the Earth crisis, and multiple crises now threaten the relative stability in which museums have flourished. How can digital work help museums and their communities cope with and actively tackle this interconnected emergency?

12:15 Session 5: Transformations

COVID, content strategy & organisational change
Georgina Brooke, National Museums Scotland

In January 2020 I moved out of my home in Oxford, north of the border to Scotland, to start a new role as Digital Media Content Manager at National Museums Scotland. I’d done Hogmanay and Burns Night, I’d written a new content strategy, which was about to be rolled out across the organisation. I was beginning to feel like I’d got my foot under the door.

By 19 March my mood had changed. The museum was closed, all exhibitions indefinitely postponed, my team was going to reduce by 50%, and all my lovely online audiences were very online, very stressed and very vocal.
This paper will look at how the Digital Team at National Museums Scotland developed and adapted an effective content strategy through the lockdown period, including:

  • The content formats and storytelling themes that most successfully connected online audiences with our collections and staff
  • Black Lives Matter – convincing Senior Management to react quickly and commit to a step change in our policies on race and representation within the museums
  • What we learnt and how these lessons are now changing our approach to audience engagement as the museum reopen

Bristol Culture: fast tracking our digital engagement strategy during lockdown
Mark Pajak, Bristol Culture

On a single day there were over 30,000 visits to our websites featuring the history of Black people in Bristol following the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston. During lockdown we reorganised ourselves and created a cross-disciplinary digital working group to create a digital museum offer, working across the service and with external partners to create participatory experiences for our audiences. Collaboration between Bristol Culture teams was vital – staff were flexible with their roles and learnt new digital skills. We experimented with using different forms on the various digital platforms eg live dance classes on Facebook and 360 virtual tours. bristolmuseums.org.uk has now been adapted to highlight our stories, exhibitions and collections – responding to the user needs of our online audiences. When we reopen we will need a hybrid approach for both onsite and online digital activity. Now we are faced with the dilemma of legacy websites remaining popular but the content in need of a revamp, non-digital staff returning to what they left behind, implementing an untested ticketing solution to limit numbers to our free venues, and converting all our touchscreen kiosks to mobile web apps triggered by QR codes – what could possibly go wrong?

How might we acknowledge, respect and use emotion within the digital work of museums?
Sophie Frost & Lauren Vargas, University of Leicester

The ‘One by One’ project helps museums use, manage, create and understand digital technology in a holistic, contextual and purposeful way. In this presentation, Dr Sophie Frost and Dr Lauren Vargas from the One by One project will share findings from their work with digital leaders at the Smithsonian Institution (US). Begun just prior to lockdown, this multi-partner transatlantic research project pivoted to online, requiring its collaborators to acclimatise themselves efficiently and at speed with a new set of tools, ways of working and approaches to doing research. As the magnitude of the global crisis emerged – joined by other intersecting crises, notably racial injustice and spiralling economic inequality – we were reminded that embracing complexity was the only way to understand the relationship between technology and museums. Frost and Vargas will describe how those individuals pioneering digital change are practicing a very emotive kind of work; the sort of work that involves a high degree of coaxing, coaching, convincing and corralling in order to ‘get digital done.’ They will show how empathetic and equitable methods – drawn through a combination of disciplines including Organisational Behavioural Management and Affect Theory – can futureproof museums for their employees and communities post-pandemic.

13:00 Close

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