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Digitalization in Museums: A Modern Renaissance or Yet Another Rococo

We cannot argue against the fact that the digital age (also known as the Information age: an era dominated by ease of information transfer and new economy models, dating back to the 1970s introduction of machine computing power in the spheres of science, business and eventually personal use) has dramatically reshaped how the world perceives, accesses, and interacts with information.  A fundamental shift took place over the last half a century, which has transformed how we approach filtering, perception, authentication, dissemination, promotion, and manipulation of digitally available data and define our attitudes towards presented, shared and regurgitated information. Much has become reliant on digital information streams and much has become relativized by them. We now daily experience Virillio’s disorientation with novelty and internalize Baudrillard’s travel, distance and speed in the new Carthesian conditioning of this metaphorical world of our existence.

Museums, age-old repositories of history and culture, are not immune to this environmental shift and must develop tactics to keep up pace. Introducing change into organizations designed in their core mission to protect the old ways seems a particularly daunting challenge. But is it really? And do museums as such truly need all this digitalization or are we just adding layers of contemporary tech stucco on top of our facades?

This overview article delves into the realm of digitalization within museums, understanding its core principles and its impact on both internal museum operations as well as the change in presentation approaches and  the overall external visitor experiences.

1. Digitalization vs. Digitization

Before delving deeper, it’s essential to clarify the difference between two terms that are often used interchangeably but have distinct meanings, causing confusion and misunderstandings between coworkers as well as in communication of expectations between cultural organizations and stakeholders.

  • Digitization refers to the process of converting analog information into digital formats. In the museum context, this might mean scanning physical photographs or paintings, converting old video footage, or recording analog audio tracks into digital files.
  • Digitalization, on the other hand, means leveraging digital technologies and the data they produce to enhance processes, improve experiences, and introduce new digital business models. For museums, this can translate into introducing interactive exhibits, utilizing augmented reality (AR) for tours, or enhancing visitor engagement through mobile apps.

Over the past decades many European initiatives have stimulated digitization of our shared cultural heritage, producing projects which have significantly influenced remote availability of cultural experiences during the very trying times of the Covid-19 pandemic. However powerful this fundamental shift in availability of digitized content for educational, research or even pure cultural enjoyance purposes was, it has repeatedly ignored the larger discussion around digitalization. It has in many times even stimulated a false sense of security within organizations, prioritizing digitization heavily but at the same time thinking they have addressed the question of digitalization. 

Digitization projects tended to depend extremely heavily on external prepacked solution providers executing the digital transition without passing on knowledge, expertise or understanding of processes, data or potential onto the museum staff.  The core discussion of raising digital awareness and understanding the true reasons for digitalization, had no ground to stand on. 

2. Why Now? Digitalization in 2023

The necessary technology to digitize and digitalize has been around for decades and has sprouted many individual isolated and often still experimental attempts at going digital in the cultural sector. So, why are we placing renewed emphasis on museum digitalization in 2023? Several factors play into this:

  • Rapid Technological Advancements: Technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and machine learning have finally matured out of their prototype youth into general availability adulthood, offering museums unprecedented tools for smi-frictionless visitor engagement.
  • Changing Visitor Expectations: With the ubiquity of smartphones and on-demand information, visitors are now beginning to expect enriched, interactive, and personalized museum experiences but they are also more and more prone to substituting physical experiences for their digital equivalents (if not twins).
  • Post-Pandemic Paradigms: The COVID-19 pandemic saw a surge in online museum experiences. As institutions realized the potential of digital offerings, the momentum towards comprehensive digitalization increased. 

But also the general tolerance (if we dare call it that) for digital inputs has increased within organizations and amongst individuals. The world is better equipped at understanding the limits as well as the potential of digital interaction. We have learned how to use second screens to interact with the physical world around us and we have grown accustomed to remote availability of personal and professional experiences previously limited to physical space. We have learned how to tolerate asynchronicity and how to empathize with personal circumstances driving us into the comfort of the online interactions. We have also learned how to manage our expectations, paving a path for successful digitalization.

3. The Role of Digital in Primary and Secondary Museum Procedures

Primary museum procedures include collection management, conservation, and research, while secondary procedures revolve around administrative tasks such as ticketing, marketing, and membership management.

  • Primary Procedures: Digital technologies can aid in:
    • Preservation: Digitized items suffer no wear and tear, ensuring longevity.
    • Research: Digital databases allow for more accessible and extensive research capabilities.
    • Cataloging: Digital catalogs offer improved organization, searchability, and access.
  • Secondary Procedures: Here, digitalization assists in:
    • Efficiency: Automated ticketing systems, for instance, speed up entry processes.
    • Engagement: Digital marketing campaigns can engage wider audiences.
    • Data Analysis: Understanding visitor demographics, preferences, and behavior can lead to improved services and experiences.

Using phrasing like this, makes any digitization effort sound utilitarian. Which is ok, as long as we try to go a step further along the path of investigating this utility. Perhaps discovering novel connections between our workflows and the layers of our work efforts. If we fall into the Hows without questioning the core reason for why we are going digital with a procedure, we will undoubtedly miss opportunities to think about who can benefit and how we can benefit them by implementing digital procedures. A tool used bluntly is a wasted opportunity.


4. The Purpose of Digital in Museum Presentation and Interaction with Audiences

Digitalization has a transformative effect on how museums present their collections and engage with their visitors:

  • Interactive Exhibits: Touch screens, AR, and VR can bring exhibits to life, making them more engaging and memorable.
  • Personalized Experiences: Using apps or wearable devices, museums can offer personalized tours based on visitors’ interests.
  • Accessibility: Digital formats can be tailored for differently-abled visitors, providing inclusive experiences for everyone.
  • Extended Reach: Digital platforms allow museums to reach global audiences. Virtual tours, webinars, and online workshops make museum experiences accessible from the comfort of one’s home.

But even more than this, putting digital at the core of our conceptualization, gives us an opportunity to to revamp, to improve, to innovate content, purpose, reach and profiling not just introduce a new medium for the medium’s sake. We should collaborate with experts who help us understand how to bring audiences in on the discussion and not build things, for they will come. Because digital presentation are not an end in themselves, but a means for enhancing certain aspects of our experiences. 

5. Importance of a Holistic Digital Approach

For digitalization to be effective, it’s crucial that the entire organization is on board. This holistic approach ensures:

  • Consistency: A unified digital strategy ensures that all museum departments work towards the same objectives.
  • Resource Allocation: A collective approach ensures the optimal allocation of resources for various digital initiatives.
  • Skill Development: With the entire organization focused on digital objectives, staff can receive appropriate training, ensuring everyone is equipped to handle new technologies.
  • Cultural Shift: Embracing digitalization institution-wide encourages a mindset shift, fostering innovation and openness to change.

In conclusion, as we navigate the third decade of the 21st century, the emphasis on digitalization in museums has never been more prominent or more needed. Digital technologies offer museums unparalleled tools to enhance internal procedures, present collections in innovative ways, and engage with audiences like never before. Embracing these technologies holistically can position museums as forward-thinking institutions, ensuring their relevance and appeal in an increasingly digital world. Yet it feel like digital is a subchapter rather than a level playing field in our organizational thoughts and will keep on playing second fiddle to the physical museum space unless there are limiting events, which restrict physical functionality. 

Nonetheless, there is transformative potential for an entire organization in embracing the exploration of the digital  in its fundamentals. Questioning the Whys and the Hows along our Whos to rediscover our own purposes as institutions for the 21st century missions and audiences. But are we ready to call out all of our presupposed 20th century notions of how things ought to be or will we keep on adding the elaborate ornamentation layer onto the already bloated efforts to patch things up without  using the power of reason to guide us?