Museums and the digital revolution

The Art++ app uses image-recognition technology providing supplemental information about a work of art. Photo: Max Whittaker, The New York Times.

Steve Lohr, Digital Lessons From the Museum and Art World, The New York Times, 27 October 2014

Museums might seem odd places to see the unfolding digital revolution. They are, after all, quintessentially physical spaces and often temples of the past.

But leading museums are becoming surprisingly adept at adding a digital layer to their physical treasures, as I wrote about in an article for an arts special section. These institutions are using digital technology and data not just for marketing and social media, but also to enrich the museum experience for visitors, reach new audiences online and transform scholarly research. And there are also new kinds of art being made with digital tools and data.

For years, I’ve been writing about the impact of digital technology, mainly focusing on business and science. The interviews for the arts article with museum administrators, curators and artists were some of the more thoughtful and insightful conversations I’ve had about how to adapt to the digital challenge and opportunity.

Yes, museums are mostly nonprofits. But they are trying to solve the same problem as almost any business today that is not a born-on-the-web company like Google or Facebook: How do you intelligently use digital technology to enhance your business rather than being overrun by it? The physical and the digital sides of your business should work together, so that your investments in the physical world remain a powerful asset.

That fundamental challenge for museums is similar to the one facing retailers, manufacturers, consumer goods makers and perhaps traditional media companies. (More than one museum official I interviewed talked about the importance of being a “content manager.”) The museum curators and administrators seemed to have a clear notion of the need for balance — that just as we all increasingly live in a world that is a blend of the physical and digital, so too institutions of all kinds must learn to operate in a blended, hybrid environment.

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