How Historic Museums Are Focusing on Technology

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

The Met

A visit to the Metropolitan Museum is a non-negotiable for any trip to New York City. The museum is known for its wide ranging collections that run the gamut from art to world-class historical artifacts. Every component of a visit there evokes elegance, history, and stately overtones. A recent profile on how they approach the very modern challenge of integrating technology into their guest experience caught our attention.

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in how museums engage with the public, build curated exhibits, and invest in the visitor experience. For many museums, there’s an underlying challenge: as a “legacy” organization with a clearly established value proposition and focus, how does technology become a meaningful part of guest offerings? Without a clear strategy to tackle this question head-on, museums run the risk of creating a situation where technology feels forced or like there’s been a layer of technological development superimposed over the rest of the museum experience.

Metropolitan Museum Interior

The 145 year-old museum set out to achieve two things in their efforts, the organization’s Chief Technology Officer noted in an interview with CIO magazine. One stream of focus is logistical. How could wait times be reduced? How could the ticketing process speed up? The other focus was on how and when technology could best be used to enhance the guest experience.

One big area of investment was the installation of a more consolidated IT system. The museum has pared down its information storage from six systems to the goal of reaching a single, integrated system by next year. In the meantime, this step allowed the museum to install ticketing kiosks and arm museum workers with iPads to speed up both the ticketing process and selling memberships.

The museum’s long-range plans include building on their mobile app and mobile site in an effort to expand on the digital in-museum experience. The Chief Digital Officer noted in the same interview that their goal was to reach a seamless experience for guests throughout the pre-visit and in museum and post-visit phases. While there’s a significant amount of work to be done, the goal is clear: to make the museum experience something that can compete with the myriad of other entertainment options available, especially to younger urban audiences.

The British Museum

The Met’s challenges with technology integration aren’t unusual. The British Museum, for example, recently announced that their websites receive more than 34 million visitors. Meanwhile, the museum itself receives about 6.7 million visits annually by comparison. The museum has rolled out Wi-Fi and recently published a report that highlights their ongoing focus on digital initiatives. The report stated in part that “By 2020, the British Museum will have gone from reaching tens of millions of people via its digital products and services to hundreds of millions. The BM’s new digital strategy aims not just to widen that horizon, but to plan for its implications, from how online users understand the BM to the commercial implications of digital platforms.”

There are numerous discussions underway about how museums can increase their relevancy through technology – and whether specific technologies, such as branded apps, are more hype than true value. While innovation is clearly happening at the world’s leading museums (the Smithsonian being one example that comes to mind), there’s an underlying point that’s important to remember. It’s possible to innovate on a small scale by experimenting with technologically driven exhibits or by releasing apps. But the challenges that established museums face are actually much larger. In order to move beyond one-off experiments and fragmented investments, museums have to build the right foundation. Investing in the underlying systems of the museum and shifting the overall mindset of how to operate a museum in a digital world have to occur first. With these two things in place, individual experiments in improving the guest experience and pushing the boundaries of technology will yield a much higher return.

Images sourced courtesy of The Met, Wikipedia, YouTube

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