Much has been proven and documented about museums being trusted as brands and as sources of information; surpassing the media, governments, NGO’s, and other traditionally trusted institutions. It makes logical sense: museums, along with libraries, are the world’s leading record keepers. They track the history of human achievement through collection, curation, preservation, annotation, access to and protection of creative expression, which we all value as human beings.
And yet, some people working in the museum world, along with benefactors and collectors express self-doubt about cultural heritage institutions. Are we keeping up with technology? Are we adapting quickly enough? Are we doing enough to advance our record keeping? How do we strike the right balance between providing access to our collections and control of ownership rights, appropriate use, and proper attribution? Is our data as accurate as it should be? In some circles, even, this self-doubt leads to a lack of self-respect for museums themselves. This might be acceptable if you work at a museum, are on a museum board, volunteer or donate; you are already supporting the important mission of cultural heritage. But too much self-doubt and worse, self-recrimination, leads to a lack of trust—and this is a potential Achilles heel for the very institutions who are trust leaders.
A deeper look inside the emerging modern museum organization reveals a much brighter picture. Many museums around the country and the world are doing very innovative work with interoperability of image reproduction between museums, open data sets, significantly improved data collection and management. And their technology challenges, given collection volume and data required to manage, rivals the big data challenges of any Fortune 500 company with which I have worked. In addition, most major museums now have a Lead Digital Officer or CTO—many of whom we at CultureTech have met and spent time with. I would rate them head to head with any digital lead in a marketing or content creation group I have worked with at a company or an agency.
Recently, MuseWeb, a museum trade organization, held its 22nd annual conference in Boston. For 3 days, technology and collection management leaders along with technology suppliers conducted a myriad of seminars, panel discussions and demonstrations. Topics like the emerging Digital Museum, interoperable digital image delivery, application of AI in museum collections, becoming a data-driven organization were presented and debated. Speakers like Douglas Hegley, from the Minneapolis Institute of Art addressed how to use metrics like net promoter score, and techniques like data visualization to foster a workplace culture of greater accountability and transparency. Again, these talented people and the work they are doing would stack up against any industry sector grappling with some of the very same or related issues.
Museums, like many organizations, have doubts about managing the complexity of the internet age, and that doubt is driving many of them to strive for and achieve significant transformation. One such example is the best-in-class Open Access initiative at the Cleveland Museum of Art, led by Jane Alexander. This initiative means the public now has the ability to share, collaborate, remix/reuse images of as many as 30,000 important public-domain works of art—a remarkable shift on the part of museums to demonstrate their trust in their public. This is superb progress, aided by technology know-how, furthering the mission of that museum and others, like The Met, which launched Open Access over a year ago. Museums continue to earn our trust as users, visitors, and customers; we all should take notice, and support them in every way we can.