Close this search box.
CTM conference

MONA, Hobart Tasmania.  Photo: Meredith Foley

Michael Cathcart & Anna Frey Taylor, Museums step into the future with digital presence, Radio National, 14 November 2014

Museums are confronting significant challenges in the face of increased competition and dwindling resources. Michael Cathcart and Anna Frey Taylor take a look at how the world’s leading museums are staying relevant in the digital age.

It’s no longer enough for museums to line the walls with old masters and wait for the people to come. Increased competition and dwindling resources are forcing today’s museums to work harder than ever in order to stay viable. Innovative exhibitions, exciting public programs and new technologies are now prerequisites.

The question of how museums stay relevant in the digital age was the focus of last week’s Communicating the Museum conference in Sydney. International delegates gathered to discuss the changing nature of the museum environment and the use of digital strategies to enhance the visitor experience.

‘A few years ago we might have been talking about [digital] as a threat, but now we’re talking about it as an opportunity,’ says Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘There’s a lot of research that shows … having a great digital presence actually drives visitors to your museum.’

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) staff use social media to encourage visitors to interact with the collection in novel ways. The museum, which has its own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, recently joined the online social media platform of Snapchat. Popular with teenagers, Snapchat allows users to send images and video messages that disappear immediately after viewing.

‘We were the first museum to use Snapchat, and we now have over 400,000 users,’ says Miranda Carroll of the LACMA. ‘It brings people to the museum, because they want to hang out and take photos there.’

Australia’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is also leading the field in developing new museum technologies. MONA has developed a portable device called ‘the O’, which provides information about the artworks on display without the need for wall text. Visitors can also save their electronic tours of the museum to the O in order to share them with friends on Facebook.

Adrian Franklin, the author of The Making of MONA, says the museum’s use of technology is part of its winning formula for engagement. Mona is making museum history, with visitors averaging tours that are over six times longer than the average,’ he says. ‘Thirty per cent don’t feel an entire day is enough, and come back the next day.’

While the use of new technology is important, innovative programming continues to play a role in attracting audiences. Gaining the public’s attention in a highly saturated market is a major challenge facing museums today.

‘In the past five years, we’ve seen a lot of changes in New York,’ says Kim Mitchell, chief of communications at the Museum of Modern Art. ‘The commercial galleries are doing very ambitious museum-level shows, and the art fairs are increasingly what an art-aficionado will do on the weekend—even things like the Highline [park] are seen as a cultural experience.’

Mitchell says retaining strong visitor attendance in the future will require a combination of technological adaptation and innovative programming.

‘It’s finding that balance between the very familiar, the somewhat familiar, and the brand-spanking new that people have never heard of.’