Apr 9, 2020|Research|4 minutes

The problem with R&D “Innovation Labs” in museums

How to embed digital transformation into working culture

Following the trend of big corporates like Unilever, Cisco and Huawei, it has become fashionable for museums to create “Innovation Labs” with the ambition to drive digital transformation and explore what the future museum could look like. It started with the New Inc at the New Museum; then there is Cooper Hewitt Interaction Lab; National Gallery X; MoMA Lab ACMI Labs and many more.

Innovation is one of those terms we have all become a bit weary of, but what actually is it? In the context of museums, Haitham Eid has helpfully defined innovation as “the new or enhanced processes, products or business models by which museums can effectively achieve their social and cultural missions.”

So are museum Innovation Labs delivering on this promise?

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Museum project diagram

The Myth of the Lab

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no easy solution to embed an R&D (research and development) culture within any organisation - especially museums. While there are many brilliant projects embracing user-centred design to rebuild websites, rethink ticket pricing or develop immersive experiences; this work has not fundamentally transformed a museums’ relationship with its visitors or its business models.

The challenge with R&D is that the ‘Innovation Lab’ only gets us so far, so fast.

Why? Let’s start with the separation of the Lab from the rest of the organisation. This is a false partition because we cannot disentangle transformation from the broader challenges of the organisation (lack of funding; staff time; wifi connectivity; historic IT infrastructure); and many of our problems are baked in through hysteresis - things in motion that cannot easily be undone. This challenge causes frustration among people who work inside innovation labs. They may succeed in creating great services with good business models. However, when they are ready to take these products to scale they face resistance.

Workshop session
Workshop session © Marilia Castelli

There is a reason why companies like Google, PayPal and even Apple spend billions on startups. Innovation is hard to recreate in house. There is no exact science and it usually involves a determined individual or team who are willing to fail over and over again just to finally solve a problem. No museum is able to justify this financially risky R&D.

Then there is the problem that the idea of an ‘Innovation Lab’ just gets people’s backs up. Giving some people canvases, sticky notes, white boards and bean bags promotes a ‘theatre of innovation’ and can exacerbate divides between museum teams. The reality is that ‘innovation’ is the job of everyone, not a chosen few.

Museums in a pickle

Museums are complex organisations with often competing social and business priorities. With such varied ideas of what ‘success’ looks like for a museum, there is a tendency for leadership to champion an outward digital strategy – what to put on their website or use in marketing campaigns - while failing to communicate clear goals for innovation.

So is there a better way to think about museum R&D without getting too excited?

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Smartify app tour page and artwork stop © Smartify

Bean bags aside, a better way to approach innovation is integrated, in a manner that truly feels complimentary to the operating environment - this is almost impossible to do through technology alone! Objectives should be aligned around those of the organisation and have deliver on measurable, well-defined goals.

For example, when we at Smartify work with organisations to transform a membership strategy, we look not only at member customer data but at overall financial reporting - income generated, operating costs, profits – and the interconnected IT infrastructure of software and databases used to capture this data. Or when designing a tour feature to allow the visitor to more fully enjoy the exhibits, we explore how it connects to less visible technology: self-service kiosks, digital tickets etc. and the need to invest in great people who assist visitors at the front desk.

As highlighted in the research conducted by the Kati Price and Dafydd James ‘Structuring for Digital Success’, digital maturity comes from a holistic model where digital activity is distributed organisation wide. “A digital leader should have a cross-departmental view of digital activity and a means for coordinating and delivering across a number of departments.”

Objectives should be aligned around those of the organisation and have deliver on measurable, well-defined goals.

As modern technology projects create impact across the overall visitor journey the complexity (and cost to build and maintain) increases commensurately with the potential to create positive change. I’m hopeful that we as a sector will find ways to maximise efforts by working across organisations, across institutional silos, and by using technology to amplify existing museum efforts instead of building standalone products.

written by

Anna Lowe

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