Apr 19, 2021|Tips|3 minutes

5 Lessons from Lockdown

What Museums Learnt by Going Digital

When museums closed their doors due to the pandemic, they had to find new ways to engage with their audiences. Here are five lessons learnt by museums going digital.


1. What high quality content is.

At the beginning of the pandemic museums created virtual gallery rooms; re-released archive footage from their YouTube channels; and hosted live streams. While that was OK for the first month of lockdown, many of us quickly reached or exceeded the point of saturation for consuming ‘content’. A year on, what audiences really value is not more content, but high quality content that is easy to access and search. This takes time, skill and the right tools and platforms.

2. That digital content can make money!

For years museums made their online activities available for free. The argument went that access to knowledge should be open to all. In practise, simply putting objects online does not create engaging experiences that truly connect with audiences. Fast-forward to 2020 and we see London Transport Museum selling out their £20 hidden London tours and The Barnes Foundation making over $650,000 in one year from online learning. Audiences are willing to pay for things they a) have time for and b) find relevant and valuable. The next step is bundling this up into digital membership which - Museum of Art and Photography Bangalore and Birmingham Museums Trust are already experimenting with.

3. How to do transmedia storytelling.

Transmedia storytelling is a technique for telling a single story across multiple platforms. This does not mean re-using the same video on Instagram, YouTube etc. but instead identifying the formats that already work on each platform (YouTube formats are video essays; reaction videos; tutorials) and then creating content that is a complete experience for the channel. Each piece of content should all fit into your overall storytelling goals and should be satisfying in and of itself. Think about how Star Wars can be translated into movies, mini-series or even colouring books. Good examples include the Black Country Museum, who successfully translated their mission statement to TikTok or the Adler Space Centre and their comedy sketch show ‘Wow! Signal’ for YouTube. This content stands alone, reaches a very specific audience (not all audiences!) and use the formats already popular on each platform.

4. What design thinking is.

Design thinking has enabled museums to follow simple steps to ensure new content, services and products meet the needs of audiences. The process starts with field research - talking to audiences; refining a problem statement; rapidly prototyping and testing solutions; and finally developing the new content, services or products once it has been endorsed through user testing. Design thinking gives the museum sector a framework not only to make changes but also to sense how well they are working and iterate on them. It also encourages working in cross-functional teams from across museum departments.

5. That digital is not the only way to reach people remotely.

Museums reached many new audiences during lockdown. But there are groups that cannot access online programmes - for example people without laptops, tablets and reliable WiFI; older audiences or those not confident with technology. Throughout the pandemic museum teams practised empathetic audience engagement - working to upskill and include people. Examples include making phone calls to let groups know about new programmes; education teams encouraging participation through opportunities like writing letters, sharing recipes or photographs; and even delivering creative kits at home. Not all remote programmes require a social media plan!

Tell us more about how your museum went digital and the interesting things learnt from this experience. Sign up to Museum Reset to receive more news, tools and tips straight to your inbox each month.

written by

Anna Lowe

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