MoDA – A Museum of the Digital Age

MoDA's Collections Manager, Sian Woodward, looks at how digital tools and ways of working are helping MoDA to achieve strategic goals

Digital is a hot topic in the cultural sector these days. Last year, the DCMS published a report called ‘Culture Is Digital’ looking at using technology to drive audience engagement, boosting the digital capability of cultural organisations and unleashing the creative potential of technology. For some time in fact, Ross Parry has argued that museums are actually ‘postdigital’ that they have moved beyond new media and the digital being part of a separate specialist strategy and approach, and into an era where digital had become a blended part of normal working and thinking.

Certainly, some larger National museums have entered this era, but it can be a struggle for other museums small and large to keep up with the pace of change. It was for this reason that The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) and Reading Museum embarked on #DigiRDG: Town and Country. This Arts Council England funded Resilience project aimed to address the problem:“Our audiences are not as diverse as we’d like and our digital behaviour is not as effective as we’d like, which could lead to irrelevance, being left behind and, ultimately, not being sustainable.”

What is MoDA doing to improve digital behaviour and sustainability?

As a small University museum without exhibition space, the team at the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MoDA) has been working out the role of digital technologies in shaping a twenty-first century museum. While preserving and holding our collections is still our mission, our vision talks about the interesting things that happen at the intersection of collections, audiences and staff.

We want to ensure that being away from our main office doesn’t mean missing crucial information, or a delay in the progress of work tasks.
Our team has been using digital technology to develop a collaborative and open approach, and in the first instance, this has been with each other. Adopting digital tools has been a way of overcoming the challenges of being a small team with limited space. Some of us regularly work away from the main office, so we use tools such as Slack to ensure that everyone knows where everyone is working each day, and working practices don’t become disjointed or siloed. Equally, while particular tasks and responsibilities fall to particular job roles, it is important to have the ability to assign tasks to others in the event of unplanned absences or the need to reassign workloads when priorities change.

This can be particularly critical when dealing with time-sensitive processes, like lending items from MoDA’s collections to external institutions. In the past, we would outline procedures in a Word Document containing all collections management procedures – a reference document to guide you step-by-step. We now use a digital online tool called Trello to manage such processes in a way that allows us to not only outline each step, but also assign responsibility for each step to particular team members. Trello allows each team member to attach notes, emails, checklists, documents and due dates to each step in the process, and chart how far through the process they are. Anyone with access to the Loans Out Trello board can check the progress of a loan and understand if there are any holdups.

Sharing Best Practice in Digital Working

Our open and collaborative approach extends to the wider museum sector: we recognise how much we have to learn from others, and the value of sharing our own experiences. Our Collections Manager, Sian Woodward, recently visited UCL Culture to show the Collections Management team there how MoDA uses Trello. UCL Culture are particularly interested in how we manage procedures like Loans Out, Acquisition, Enquiries, and Cataloguing as they look at how best to manage these areas across the museums at UCL. Digital tools can be a useful way of centralising processes even when teams are not physically united.

Digital tools are only useful, however, if everyone in the team is able to use them well, and this is where digital capability is key. This is not just about being able to use a computer, or a particular piece of software.  It is about developing the ability to work in a different way, to be adaptable, to be doing things more than just talking about things.

Digital Capability and Digital Confidence

There is currently a general lack of digital confidence within the museum sector which is being addressed by ‘One by One’, a thirty month national digital literacy project for UK museums of all sizes and types funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and led by the University of Leicester in partnership with Culture24. Findings from Phase One included that digital is increasingly seen as part of everyone’s skill set and all roles have some kind of digital element. As a result, Phase Two has been looking at the digital skills and literacies that people who work and volunteer in museums need.

MoDA recognises this shift, and we want digital tools to enable our work practices, not get in their way. Some of the ways we support current and new team members adopt and adapt digital capabilities include:

  • a questionnaire for those applying for team roles to assess their familiarity and confidence with digital tools, so that we are aware of staff development needs for whoever gets the job. [Please feel free to complete the questionnaire and let us know if you have any comments:]
  • a Trello induction board for new starters that lists all the usual things you need to know when you start a new role, but also includes different levels of digital competencies. Some of these are role-specific, so the board can be adapted to particular roles – not everyone needs to know how to use every digital tool to the same level.

Thinking and Working Digitally

Embracing and embedding digital tools and thinking is not an abstract exercise or a trend-chasing approach.

Our aim is to change the way we work to enable exploration, inspiration and critical reflection and engagement around MoDA’s collections, for both Middlesex University students and wider audiences.
We are continuing to look at ways that digital tools like APIs (Application Programming Interface) might allow us to use our collections content more widely, like the one that allows us to show information from our collections database on this website. Currently, we’re talking to colleagues from the Middlesex University Library team about this in relation to the Library search system.  We’re developing our website to highlight collaborative collections projects with University colleagues and students as well as others through our Co-Creation pages. Our aim is to continue to find digital tools that create communities of interest and continue conversations that enrich the collections.

We consider MoDA to be a digital museum (not a ‘virtual’ museum) in that we engage with our audiences using digital tools, but there’s still an assumption of engagement with the real stuff. Our aim is not to replace the physical with the digital, but open up, enhance, and share our collections as widely as possible.

The museum sector as a whole seems to be on something of a digital journey, and everyone is progressing at different rates. This is just a snapshot of what we’re trying to do and where we’ve got to, so we’d be interested in questions and comments from others working through this. We will continue to document our progress, as we feel it is useful to learn from each other.

[image credit: Photo by Mimi Garcia on Unsplash].

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