Digital skills and staff development

Making a museum from scratch: Part Seven
After my long Australian interlude, I bet you thought I’d given up on my little thought experiment. But, no! For better or worse, it still resonates with me, and I keep encountering people and examples and issues that bear on it. So, without further ado…

Making a “born digital” organization now
The posts on making our imaginary museum thus far have focused on the organization, but as Mary Case pointed out in Part Six, a “born digital” museum (one that is organized from the ground up to take advantage of digital technologies and the Internet to carry out its mission) will need a staff that is able to come to work every day and live out the mission of a radically transparent organization, with all the uncertainty that any new workflow embodies. These people will also have to incorporate engagement and outreach activities that are now usually relegated to specialists. The who and the how of hiring and growing a staff who are able to work with these technologies, engage with the audience, and keep their skill sets fresh in the face of the day-to-day realities of getting work done is an issue that the field as a whole hasn’t made much headway in tackling. Oonagh Murphy tweeted as much not too long ago that the biggest issue in our field is a digital skills shortage in the cultural sector. This theme is amplified by survey data, too. In the New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”, which will be released next week, two of their top three challenges for STEM+ education (and museums by extension) are:

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.

Both of these I see being among the biggest challenges in the museum sector as a whole right now.  Not only is digital literacy becoming ever more important, but the capacity for museum professionals to adequately increase their literacy is woefully inadequate.

Gretchen Jennings has started a series of posts on the challenges facing museum educators in the 21st century, particularly in regards to our relationship with formal education. You’ll recognize many of the challenges she lays out,

“In order to integrate into exhibitions and other museum offerings the kind of intrinsic, joyful, and self-motivated engagement that Garcia extols, educators are going to have to create interpretive plans, become experts in current learning theory as it relates to participatory experiences, understand and use social media effectively, and gain expertise in communicating effectively the links between design and interpretation.  Educators need to devote at least as much time to honing these skills as they do on activities that support the schools.  And, as Garcia states, all of us need to become much more articulate in communicating what makes our museums unique and important in their own right in the spectrum of experiences we call education.”

Spend as much time in professional development and outreach as in supporting  formal Ed.? That’s a tall order, but it’s one I completely agree with.

One common solution I hear to the skills gap is that this is a generational problem and once the “digital natives” come into their own throughout the workplace, most of our problems will cease to exist because they “get” digital media, having grown up with it. The trouble with that narrative, of course, is it’s overly simplistic, and it serves to turn what I see as an attitudinal issue into a generational one. Even the bright young things who get all of 2012’s technology don’t necessarily have the skills for 2015’s technologies or 2020’s. Without reshaping the workplace to account for that ongoing professional development need, hiring the rising generation is just kicking the can down the road a few years.

And it fails to account for innovations currently underway. MONA is groundbreaking on several levels. The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz? They’re trying very different models and they’re doing it now, not someday in the future. I am reminded of Serge Bramly’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, where he imagines the artist telling us, “Open your eyes. You have only to see things clearly to understand.” One thing this experiment has shown me is that the digital literacy issue not an insurmountable problem. It’s just a hard one.

So what are some ways our museum might differ from current ones?

Engagement is important enough to be everybody’s job
The first thing that popped into my head as I was considering how our museum might differ from traditional museums were the outreach activities that such a museum would conduct in a more evenly distributed way than we currently do. Jasper Visser wrote a brilliant post a few months back that unpacks ideas of engagement and outreach that rally speak to me. I’ll paraphrase him and recommend you read the whole post yourselves.

“There’s a subtle but important different between providing good engaging online content and actually reaching people with it.

Engagement is about designing projects that turn occasional passers-by into enthusiasts willing to go that extra mile for you. Engagement is done, usually, within the safety of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Outreach is about designing strategies that reach people wholly unknown to you and connect them with your institution. Outreach increases the number of people you can later engage. Outreach is done, usually, outside of the comfort zone of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Every successful digital strategy combines engagement and outreach activities. Outreach connects with people and invites them to come by, and engagement turns them into enthusiasts. Both require different methodologies, different tools and especially a different mindset, though.”

“If you build, they will come.” is not a successful engagement strategy, though it does seem to motivate a lot of museum online efforts. That audience focus is the crucial ingredient that takes our scholarship and authority and unites them with people. Nina Simon‘s comment on the post is illustrative, and provides field data as well.

“When my museum started creating unusual events–new forms of engagement–we knew that we were woefully lacking in the ability to do effective outreach around these projects… So for the first year, we had a rule: every new program had to have a partner organization that was strictly about outreach. We would partner with media outlets, social groups, and advocacy groups to ensure that while we were busy developing terrific programming, they were busy reaching out to their people to get them to come… It’s a good model for us as a small institution with no marketing budget to speak of.”

There’s a pretty easy way to overcome the first hurdle in doing anything new; we can build it, but will anybody come? For an institution committed to radical transparency, finding the right outreach partners should be a byproduct of just doing the day’s work, right? If you’re out there in the digital weeds, you’re much more likely to bump into opportunities.

Well before any programming can happen in the space, our engagement and outreach efforts should be an integral part of the daily workflow.  Last year, I asked a question about dealing with cognitive loads, and got four posts worth of fascinating responses from the field. In the fourth part, people I think very highly of shared their strategies for keeping abreast of developments in the field. All of them involved making learning part of the day, not a “when you have free time” activity, but a required part of the workday. And these people aren’t exactly slackers.

Keeping up to date
It seems vital that everybody be hired with the clear expectation that they are going to have to put themselves “out there” as part of working at this museum. It’s not an “additional duty”, engagement and outreach are core competencies. I see a triangle of dimensions of people’s work at our museum, there is their functional dimension (collections, web development, educator, office mgr…), their communication dimension (how are they communicating their work to the audiences) and their professional dimension (how is what they’re doing being communicated to the profession and how are they demonstrating their understanding of the current state of the art in their work). It’s a very different kind of job; one third doing, one third interacting with our communities, and one third learning/teaching. I think it could work, though. It’s not hard, it just takes commitment.

Staff would have to get used to thinking about openness, transparency and engaging with our audience right from Day One. Since this is such a radically different model than most institutions have, it would take repetition to inculcate people with these new ways of working. New staff could be introduced as they’re hired, and even provide their own short bios, as a way of personalizing the institution and preparing them for the joys of audience engagement, both physical and digital. This is not to say that every person on staff has to be an überblogger, but in the interest of radical transparency, we would subvert the current paradigm and make the default expectation be that you engage with the public unless there’s some reason for you not to. It would be nice to follow the lead of the Medical Museion in Denmark, where all staff are encouraged to contribute to the blog, and the main website is actually set up as a conversation. Their basic idea is that all staff have something of interest to someone.

Some possible examples of what this engagement might look like, courtesy of Suse Cairns:

  • A weekly blog post/video, talking about has happened/been discussed through the week? Met with the architects? Great – here are some of the issues we’re trying to grapple with when dealing with our old building. We have a space that isn’t very wifi friendly, so here are some of the solutions we’re investigating.
  • Capture the transformation of the space, and the process. Let people see the museum being built from the inside out, even as it happens.
  • Introduce people to key objects in the collection well before they can see them in the flesh, and discuss their significance, by bringing them into the colelction and by bringing the collection out in to the world.
  • Document (and make available those docs where appropriate) issues around preserving the collection as it is moved from its former home. Have you ever seen those shows about moving old houses from one side of the country to another? They are pretty interesting. No reason why moving a museum collection filled with potentially damageable stuff shouldn’t also be compelling for people to learn about/watch if the way it’s packaged is managed well.

Being transparent also becomes then an ongoing “pitch” for the institution. Its core beliefs, and the place it will fill within its communities (academic, local, professional) become evident by the actions of the staff, not just by a mission statement.

What successful engagement strategies have you encountered in your travels, or longed to see someone try?


Related Links:

Thinking About Museums: Making a Museum from Scratch: Part Six

The New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”

Museum Commons: Museum Educators-What Next?

The Museum of Old & New Art

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

The Museum of the Future: Engagement and outreach

Thinking About Museums: Dealing with your cognitive load

Medical Museion


  1. In response to the generational shift as solution to tech capable staff, my experience does not hold that to be true. They may be more adept at texting, and to some extent use social media on a daily basis, but if you go beyond the superficial, the skill set of a liberal arts graduate today is no different from a liberal arts graduate of 30 years ago. Some people pick it up, some don’t, regardless of age. What I do find to be a hindrance to the organization as a whole, is the attitude that tech is not integral to every job in a museum. It is still okay to cubbyhole technology use as “extra” not embedded in what we do every day.


    1. Nicely put, Jenn. I’d sketched out a post some time ago, trying to find an analogy that would highlight how untenable this idea is that digital tech is still “extra”. But a few hundred words into describing a museum Telephone dept. and it’s efforts to highlight the utility of telephones and their potential, I had to put it down. Trying too hard to be clever gets in the way of just saying what you mean to say.


  2. It really seems to me like the second two-thirds, communicating with our audience and teaching/learning, could be combined in some way. I’m not suggesting we reduce their total to one-half or something, just that there is some overlap in those activities that would probably be useful to harness productively.

    What I think is lost here though is keeping the born-digital staff members (like web developer, for instance) up to date on museums. We talk a lot about bringing museumers up to date on tech, but doing so really kind of requires hiring some staffers who are already up to date on tech, but who probably aren’t very knowledgeable about museums. Who is teaching them? Where do they go to fill in their knowledge gaps?

    It seems to me (admittedly, as an outsider to this field) that museum-specific knowledge is so dependent on formal education that it’s very difficult to learn about it without pursuing some kind of degree. Whereas technical knowledge is free and scattered all over the place by people who happily write tutorials, create support forums and contribute to other community resources.

    It seems like one half of this problem is harder to address than the other, and it’s not the half that people usually talk about.

    Also, a small aside about “digital natives”:

    I do tend to believe that a generational shift will occur, but not in any time frame that is useful to organizations now. I think of it more like the generational shift in reading literacy that occurred over the course of centuries as the printing press became widespread in Europe. Literacy became more common as reading material became more common but it took a great many generations for literacy to become the expected (really, the required) norm in all levels of Western society.

    So yeah, some day kids will just have these skills as a result of their upbringing in a society where these skills are commonplace and necessary (implying that the previous generation somehow acquired these skills themselves), but that day is still so far off as to be completely irrelevant to us right now. I think talking about that generation can be useful as a thought experiment, because it gives us a starting point to visualize what that future might look like and how to move toward it. But it’s still just a thought experiment, and not an immediate call to action.


    1. Great comment, Matt! I appreciate your points. I agree that the communication and learning dimensions probably have some overlap. It felt important to call them out as separate expectations.

      Your point about training tech staff in museums is fascinating, and totally right. I hadn’t thought about the equation the other way round. Another blind spot located. So how would one address it? Museum 101 classes? “what is a collection and why is it important?” “educational theory for dummies.” I don’t know, but it opens up a whole different set of concerns. very interesting….


      1. Honestly, tech-centric folks tend to be self-starters on a lot of things (see: the tons and tons of tutorials and online resources we use to learn our own fields). The problem I’ve found is that I have no idea where to look or even what I should be looking for. I just wish there were resources available outside of a college degree program to get a sort of “crash course” in museum studies. It doesn’t seem like museum studies educators are too interested in producing those though (or making them easy to find if they do exist). I think, to certain extent, much of the museum field is still invested in the publishing model of information distribution. I also think, based on my own encounters with some museum staffers, that some people feel threatened by making that information too available. They’re afraid we’ll use it to marginalize them or replace them (like I don’t have enough to do already).

        But I think that getting museumers to talke amongst themselves more openly, that teaching/learning component, could be opened up so easily to public eyes. And I think doing so would benefit our institutions in so many different ways once we get past the fear of exposing our processes. Maybe that’s a good place for the tech crowd to start helping the museum crowd develop new skills. Start a virtuous cycle in our own backyards.


        1. Hi Matt,
          You’ve made so many great points off of Ed’s equally amazing and important post here. Some colleagues and I have recently started a blog designed specifically to think about the museum staff needs to learn tech, tech staff needs to learn museums back and forth. Weirdly, your issue with museum studies crash courses not being available makes me think of a teen program I run which is designed to introduce teens to museum careers, and issues in museum studies. It happens over 12 2-hour meetings and I think it’s exactly the sort of thing you’re talking about (with a few adaptations!) I happen to be very lucky to work with a tech staff that is very museum-literate, especially in terms of what I think of as education’s balliwick – engagement and learning – but I imagine we’re the exception on that rather than the rule.

          Meanwhile, I’m obsessed with the issue of training museum staff to be digi-literate and to use digital tools for both public-facing and back-end tasks. It’s a struggle. Many of my colleagues either state plainly that they simply don’t want to learn this stuff, or they argue over whether or not it’s really necessary. After I’ve picked my jaw up off the ground, I try to explain why it really is necessary – but then there’s the institutional resistance to the kind of daily staff engagement with community that Ed talks about. And this isn’t just my current museum – during my graduate work I approached 3 museums for an engagement project, one a small university museum, one a medium-sized contemporary art museum and one a large encyclopedic museum and all 3 were very cautious, even suspicious of the ideas I was floating (which was simply a of art lovers for a discussion group to be recorded and podcast).

          I love the idea of radical transparency, and I’d be happy with just a few steps towards regular staff engagment with community, but I feel like the field is barely inching in that direction…


        2. Wow, there’s a lot to think about in there, Matt. Transparency does need to work both ways, and you’re spot on about the audience overlap between the museum tech community and the general public who both could benefit from more insight into what we all do. Your virtuous cycle is a great metaphor. If you want the field to be more transparent, then start with yourself, then get your friends and colleagues…

          MCN has been wrestling with getting digital technology professional development experiences out to our members, and we’ll be announcing some cool stuff soon. But your suggestion about the need to offer the corresponding museology experiences is fascinating! Gonna have to ponder that one in a new post.


        3. That’s the logic behind the joint Museums Computer Group/Digital Learning Network event held in Manchester recently. There’s more about the event at and I’ll see if I can dig out the evaluation we did asking if people had made new connections between learning and tech people.

          And what Aron said about expecting *everyone* to be a communicator.

          Cheers, Mia


  3. Excellent post! Yes, a generation of purely “digital natives” is still far off – and it will take a while for them to become a majority in museum boards…

    Another aspect of this is perhaps introverts/extroverts. Our profession has traditionally been dominated by the introverts. Will this change? How will the existing museum staff cope with the demands for communication skills?

    Basically, I think it’s quite hard to “re-train” into communicative beings a profession recruited for totally different purposes. Most museums have a “communications department” of some kind – implying (well, a tiny bit at least) that the rest of the organization doesn’t really need to communicate!


    1. Thanks, Aron,

      I think one of advantages of starting from scratch would be just that kind of expectation setting. Those of us at existing museums were, by and large, hired to do what was listed on our job descriptions, and not more. Retraining people is probably a harder thing to do than hiring people from the get-go who are expected to work in new ways.


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