Small Museum, Big Digitial Projects: Our Perspective

29 Nov

Last week, we were featured in a post on Edgital called How a small museum can create BIG digital projects: A Case Study at the Museum of Inuit Art and have been fairly overwhelmed by the response. Thanks to Twitter, everyone here has been able to follow the public discussion and I think I can speak for everyone here when I say that we have been really happy and humbled that everyone has been so excited by the article. In all of the sharing of the article, a few threads of conversation appear to keep popping up and I want to use the blog as a space for furthering the conversation.

Brittany and I bumping phones while using SCVNGR – just a taste of the fun we have exploring digital technologies.

But first, why do we bother with digital?

Mairin lists a number of projects in her article that we have created, both on-site and off, which you can read more about on our blog. But the real question is why do we bother making any of these? Ultimately, we create projects that help us better achieve our mission – if it doesn’t help us do that, there’s no point in investing time and energy into something.

The main reason we find digital platforms effective is because our audiences break down into two broad categories:

  1. Approximately 75,000 annual on-site visitors, who generally have little incoming knowledge about art made by Inuit; and
  2. Approximately 100,000 annual off-site visitors, who have visited before, are interested in the subject matter, or who are Inuit themselves.

The needs of these groups are very different (and of course, not consistent across these categories). We are a small museum and don’t have enough physical space to put every interpretive panel I’d like into exhibitions – on-site digital augmentation helps us make this material available for visitors who are interested, based on their particular needs. Off-site visitors, particularly Inuit living outside Toronto, also need access to our exhibitions and other materials. Digital distribution is the easiest and most consistent way we can do that.

So, now that the rationale is out of the way, the most consistent sources of comment on the post seem to be our funding situation, the way we manage projects and the simple fact that we are creating these projects.

What are our funding sources?

This is one that keeps coming up, whether on this post, at conference talks or at the museum – where do we get the money for all of these initiatives? Many people assume that all of our tech projects are funded from grants or a special endowment of some kind, but they aren’t; as I explained to Mairin, the money comes straight out of our operational budgets.

This is shocking to a number of people, since many museums’ budgeting does not earmark funds specifically for these outreach activities. The way we see it is this: digital (and other) outreach activities are a core component of the services we provide to increase access to the museum’s collections and resources. As such, it is part of our operations and needs to be accounted for. Much like we would not rely on grants to determine when we could manage our collections database or staff our front desk, we don’t rely on grants for these initiatives. Plus, technology moves quickly and our visitors expect us to be responsive to their needs; the long processing times for grants normally doesn’t match up with their needs.

Also, most of what we do is very low-cost. We do the vast majority of the work in-house so we don’t pay a premium for outside contractors (and get to make sure our content and delivery methods are exactly what we want), and you might be surprised by how inexpensive certain tools are (especially thanks to non-profit rates).

How do we manage staff time and resources effectively?

Normally, when I tell museum professionals that the vast majority of what we create is done in-house, and what isn’t is done with the help of the museum’s volunteer corps, the response is some variation of, “How do you have time for that?” Many people think that digital projects are time-consuming – and they can be. Everyone on staff is expected to contribute to our digital initiatives – whether that means creating AR experiences or contributing to our social media streams. That means that the work gets distributed across staff workloads and that our platforms reflect the diverse, unique perspectives of our staff members. Even still, it can be difficult to effectively manage resources. But that’s why we use Agile methodology for project management.

I also want to be clear about this: it may seem counter intuitive, but we don’t just use our admittedly adapted Agile methodology for our tech projects – we expand that ethos into all of our operations. We are not directly employing any of the various varieties of Agile methodologies that exist for software development because they are not really appropriate across the board in our operations. For our digital projects, it’s much more straightforward and much more recognizable as Agile methodology; when it comes to planning an exhibition, the adaptation is a little looser but the same ethos guides the process.

This has helped us set clear priorities, work together more effectively and get a lot more done across departments. It has also made the less efficient parts of our practices very apparent, so we have been able to address them. It has also made us more comfortable releasing projects in stages of completion, rather than waiting until the entire project is “finished” and “perfect”. Each “chunk” of a project goes live as quickly as we can get it out there – this means that users test projects quickly, both online and on the floor. This is why one of the pieces of advice I had for Mairin was “be comfortable with failure” – when you release projects in stages, they exist in a kind of perpetual beta for us much in the way Nina Simon has discussed. Visitors can have their input early on in the process and consistently, so that what isn’t working is obvious and can be fixed before we get too far along. This kind of iterative design framework informs how we approach everything – which means that we recognize and embrace the possibility for all of our work to get better with use indefinitely.

I can’t believe they’re doing this!

This is something that I have been genuinely surprised by – the sense that what we are doing is unique because it’s outside the realm of what is normally deemed possible for small (or any) institutions. The reaction of our staff to our digital initiatives is a bit different – we normally think we’re not doing enough! We continue to raise the bar for ourselves in terms of best practices but also in terms of platforms for outreach engagement. We’ve recently partnered with art.sy to make objects in our collection available on their platform (you can learn more about their platform and partnerships in this interview with Christine Kuan on the Centre for the Future of Museums blog) and we have some other partnerships in the works.

The takeaway I hope everyone takes from the article, though, is that this kind of output and project development is absolutely possible for any institution, no matter what the size. Coding expertise is not a requirement, at least for us. It does take a substantial commitment, both of time and of financial resources, but also to trust in your process and that continuous user feedback is fundamental to success. Our projects may not fit another museum’s needs and may not continue to fit our needs in the future, but by being responsive we get to best utilize tools that help us achieve our mission and serve our visitors.

Questions?

As Mairin notes, we are here to help so please let us know if you have questions about our digital initiatives and processes or need help implementing your own digital projects. We are also very open to your feedback, so leave it in the comments or send me an email at aprocida [at] miamuseum [dot] ca!

-Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Associate Curator and Director of Education

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