Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Digital is more than a department

Loic Tallon, Digital Is More Than a Department, It Is a Collective Responsibility, Medium,

As the digital demands of both external users and internal colleagues continue to grow, digital departments are trapped in an institutional tension: should institutions scale their departments to meet that ever-growing need, or should digital responsibilities be cultivated and distributed across the organization?

This question has been a key topic in my first year as chief digital officer at The Met. The Met is already (partly) on the path of integrating digital practices across the organization: we’re not proactively talking about it though, nor are we discussing the opportunities, needs, and impacts of walking that path.

My aim in writing this piece is to contribute to a common understanding of digital practices in cultural institutions today, and to help frame discussions about a more sustainable, scalable and mission-serving direction for digital practices at The Met.

Itis telling that little is shared across digital departments in cultural institutions; their scope, organizational design, job titling, reporting structure, and even their name vary greatly (see Table 1). This variance is the result of a myriad of converging factors present in institutions when their digital departments were formed, or later (perhaps repeatedly) re-structured. These factors include strategic vision, funding, Human Resources issues, middle-management tensions, leadership preferences, or the recommendations of an external consultant. This variance continues today; there is no standard or set of best practices for digital departments within cultural institutions.

 Table 1: Department name, department head, and reporting structure for digital departments across 12 large art museums in the United States*

What these digital departments do share is that they were established in response to a new external factor: the digital age. At various points over the last 20 years, cultural institutions recognized that digital was having a transformative effect on the delivery of their mission. Forming a digital department — and centralizing expertise and accountability for the digital-related functions of an organization — was the common strategic response.

Digital departments became centralized teams responsible for developing and delivering digital practices and functions within a sector and workplace culture that was overwhelmingly not digital. Whether it was formally acknowledged or not, from the outset, these departments were agents of change; they were leading the digital transformation of their non-digital institutions.

This was true at The Met, where the then–Digital Media Department was established in November 2009. The new department brought together existing staff for whom digital was deemed the distinguishing factor in their role, and who, up until then, had been part of Education, Web Group, Information Systems and Technology, and Collections Management. At the new department’s launch the Director announced:

By bringing you all together under the roof of one department and by linking your complimentary skills and professional and technological expertise, we intend to streamline workflow, create new synergies, and open the Museum to new digital opportunities.
In many ways, this approach worked — both at The Met and at other cultural institutions. Websites were built, collections were digitized, apps were launched, digital content was produced, social media accounts multiplied, and Webby Awards were won. But today, as new technologies, opportunities, and challenges emerge at an accelerating pace, and in an age where digital is critical to how cultural institutions build relevance and participate in society, the strategy of centralizing responsibility for digital transformation within a single, distinct department is reaching its limits. Now a broader institutional approach is needed.

Digital as a Horizontal across the Organization (and Not a Vertical)
Centralized digital departments place inherent operational, organizational, and cultural limits on their institutions. These include not having the bandwidth to respond to their audience’s and institution’s growing range of digital-related needs, or that the knowledge and expertise to best respond to these needs lives elsewhere in the organization. Additionally, with digital technologies impacting a growing range of verticals within the organization, departments across the organization are required to adapt to digital, and not just a single department. The end goal is not to have a digital department, but for an institution to use digital effectively to achieve its mission.

Today’s digital departments house a number of different digital-related functions (see Table 2). These range from product management to digital imaging, and from management of the collections database to email. Some institutions have centralized many functions in larger digital departments, while other institutions have created smaller, single-function departments. No matter which digital-related functions have been centralized in a department, though, the other functions still exist in the organization. Already, digital is not limited to those functions housed in a digital department.

Table 2: Functions within the digital department across 12 large art museums in the United States*

A reasonable argument could be made that those institutions that have centralized many functions within their digital departments — and hence were able to prioritize a specific initiative across those functions — have delivered more significant digital projects than those with a smaller, more focused digital department. Less evident is whether those same institutions have been more successful at delivering sustainable digital transformation across the organization. The opposite may even be true: the highly centralized Digital Department at The Met created a tension where digital was often perceived as the role of that “well-resourced” department, and not a shared responsibility.

At The Met, the Digital Department is composed of three teams:

  • Collections Information: Stewards of the Museum’s collections data and digital assets, continuing a 120-year-old discipline that existed well before digital or the Digital Department. The team’s functions are: managing the collections information system, managing of digital assets, and rights and permissions for digital content.
  • Content: Digital storytellers and editors skilled at telling The Met’s stories online and through time-based media — audio, video, 360-degree videos, etc. The team’s functions are: production of multimedia content, management of website content, and editorial services for online and in-gallery digital content.
  • Product Development: Product managers, UX designers, and developers who design, develop, and maintain The Met’s portfolio of digital products created to meet the institution’s needs. Product development is a relatively new discipline, and at cultural institutions is the digital twin of a buildings department. The team’s function is: product management — the design, development, and management — of all public facing digital platforms.

Although the three teams reside within a single department and are stakeholders in one another’s work, the workflow, cadence, and skill set of each team — those characteristics one expects to be similar within a department — are very different. The only thing they share is a recognition that the institution’s success in a digital age is contingent on changes to existing practices and workflows.

Across all three teams, their responsibilities are two-fold:

  1. collaborate with stakeholders across the Museum to identify and advocate for changes that that would better enable the Museum to harness the opportunities of digital; and
  2. deliver activities, projects, and programing specific to their team’s functions.

We have also learned that the institution benefits by recognizing these three teams as distinct, with each fulfilling a specific function, as opposed to referring to them as one amorphous Digital Department. This distinction makes life easier for our colleagues, too: “Spotted a bug on the website? Talk to Product Development.” “Want to explore web features for an upcoming temporary exhibition? Your partner is the Content team.” “Interested in how best to catalogue the collection? That is one for Collections Information.”

To emphasize the longer-term value of this approach, it is worth highlighting that whether a digital department exists or not, the functions that these teams fulfil will continue to be needed — the teams will outlive the department. In some ways, these teams are the departments: the term “digital” in our department name is already relatively meaningless.

Calling Out Something We Are Already Doing
While the three teams in The Met’s Digital Department are stakeholders in one another’s work, they are not the only stakeholders; there are other departments across the Museum that are equally invested, whose success is tied to the successful use of digital technologies. This is apparent at The Met, where digital-related activities are already wider-spread than just the Digital Department. Examples include:

  • Imaging Department, and the development of a new program for advanced imagery of The Met collection, including three-dimensional scanning and photogrammetry
  • Merchandising, and their re-think of The Met Store online, its integration with the institutional website, and shift towards a product-management mentality
  • Department of Greek and Roman Art, and their dedication to digitizing and cataloguing the 13,000-plus fragments of the Dietrich von Bothmer Collection
  • Department of European Paintings, and their commitment to developing content-rich records for the objects in the online collection
  • Education Department, and the livestreaming, recording, and online presentation of their public-facing events
  • Marketing and External Relations, and the integration of digital channels — social media and email — with traditional media channels to promote The Met.

Each of these departments is involved in transforming their existing practices in response to the opportunities presented by digital technologies, and each is completing work that is better housed within their functional teams than within a centralized Digital Department. Even now, to focus only on the work of the Digital Department ignores the full story of digital at The Met. Digital is not a department of 50 staff members — it is a collective of 200 colleagues and growing. We would be well served to formally recognize, support, and develop this reality. Digital at The Met was never just about one department or the functions therein.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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