Takeaways from the digital festival for museums

We went to the Museum Association's recent ‘Museum Tech: A Digital Festival for Museums’ conference and we’re sharing our top insights from an interesting set of sessions.

Museums all use digital tools, from social media to AI, to share their work, reach new audiences and deliver new experiences that fulfil their missions to educate and engage.

With digital tools evolving faster than ever, the Museum Association’s recent event ‘Museum Tech: A Digital Festival for Museums’ provided a chance for the sector to get together and share the creative and innovative ways museums are using the latest digital innovations.

Given the buzz around AI, there was a focus on the potential of AI tools. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the sector can use AI, including sharing our prototypes and speaking at the Museum Computer Group’s annual Museum+Tech conference last year. It was great for us to switch from broadcast to receive mode to increase our understanding of what the sector is doing with AI and hear the concerns that some have about its use.

Alongside AI, the conference had great sessions on a whole range of important issues, from understanding your audiences to reducing the environmental impact of digital activity. We thought we’d share our key takeaways from the conference to give you useful insights into how to better apply the latest tech in a GLAM context.

Sustainability in heritage

Digital sustainability is getting more attention as organisations increasingly prioritise reducing their environmental impact, and kicking off the discussion of this important topic was Nicôle Meehan from the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews.

Not many organisations really understand or prioritise digital sustainability, but the impacts of digital technologies on the environment are all too real. She recommends focusing on more efficient digitisation, reusing older hardware where possible (80% of the carbon footprint of digital comes from hardware manufacture), sourcing a green hosting provider that runs on clean energy, and providing carbon literacy training to empower employees to make the right decisions.

If you’d like to know more about designing sustainable websites, read our article on sustainability in web design.

AI panel

Next up was a panel on AI use in the heritage sector, looking at the opportunities and the risks that this technology presents. The panel consisted of Trish Thomas from the Museum of London, Linda Spurdle from Birmingham Museum Trust, and Dr Mathilde Parvis– an AI ethics expert.

This was an interesting and wide-ranging discussion, with lots of useful takeaways.

The most important of all was their advice to ensure that using AI aligns with your objectives, and not to try to use it just for the sake of it. We said the same thing in our getting started with AI projects checklist. AI is a tool, and it depends on the tasks you need to solve whether it’s the best solution or not.

A great example of a narrow use case where AI is proving useful is alt-text generation, which the Museum of London is already doing. It allowed alt-text to be added to 150,000 images that had previously not had any. We’ve also created tools to enable automated alt-text generation in the Drupal CMS, so it’s clear to us this is a simple but effective application of AI that will become increasingly common.

The panel also discussed the risks of AI, such as infringement of copyright and incorrect ‘hallucinations’. Museums often want a project to be perfect to launch it, but the panel suggested a better approach is to make decisions in advance about acceptable levels of risk and to create protocols for dealing with issues that arise. That means you can launch to gain experience whilst being ready if something goes wrong.

For all the discussion of potential risks, the panel were clear that using AI is the way things are heading, so it’s best to stay informed, start building prototypes and generally better understand the technology so you can use it effectively rather than bury your head in the sand. They left us with the important note that when building AI-powered products, we should be mindful of building in inclusivity and accessibility from the start. It’s important that in the rush to use these new tools, we ensure that all audiences are equally able to benefit from them.

Virtual museum project

The special collections team from the University of Bristol and the Arts and Humanities Research Council have created a virtual Museum for the University of Bristol’s collections, which you can experience for yourself. This project is an interesting experiment in creating virtual spaces to widen access and present digital collections in more interesting and engaging ways.

The project created both a VR space and a browser-based version of their virtual museum, which they built collaboratively with a group of young people. Involving them in the project was a great way to get useful insights early on. They also mentioned that although testing online was useful for the project, they found meeting in person to be key to delivering it successfully. We also find in-person meetings are a great way to kick off new digital projects, so this resonated with us.

What stood out for us is how different exploring the collection is through this video-game-like interface than exploring most digital collections, which generally have more of a formal, catalogue-type approach. This approach feels much more like you are exploring the collection, increasing the sense of serendipity. It also feels more curated than searching through vast digital collections, which can be overwhelming. It’s an approach we hope gains traction and we’re interested to see how this evolves.

Cybersecurity for museums

Unfortunately, museums can be targets for cyber-attacks, and you need to ensure you’re ready. Jassim Happa from Royal Holloway, University of London spelled out the dangers with a sobering talk on the risks of cyber threats pose to museums. He looked at the other side of AI, which in the wrong hands can be used to facilitate disinformation and fabrication. The important lesson for us is to be prepared and ensure you’ve set up your systems and team to be resistant to these threats. The better you understand the threat landscape, the more prepared you can be, which is why talks like this are so valuable.

Understanding your audience

The team from Frankly Green and Webb and Sam Potts from Royal Museums Greenwich gave an interesting talk on using digital to better understand and connect with your audience. Sam laid out how museums should be designing content for their target audiences, and how to use data on what’s working and what’s not to successfully change stakeholders' attitudes and shift their focus. Sam hit on an interesting point when he spoke about how the museum had previously been making content for their own demographics, which perpetuated their own biases.

When you’re seeking to engage new communities, you’ll need a new strategy to reach them with different content than you’ve previously produced; doing more of the same won’t get you anywhere with them. It’s a tricky challenge that we find needs to be backed up with great user insights to work.

Digital coalface panel museum tech 2024 (1)

Digital coalface panel

To round off the day we heard from the Museum Computer Group committee about their lessons from working ‘at the coalface’ on digital projects for museums. The Museum Computer Group is a community of academics and digital practitioners in museums and from around the world. They run an annual conference on technology for museums, and between conferences, they discuss the use of digital for museums on their Jisc mailing list, which connects thousands of members working in museums at all levels. Email may be an old-school way of connecting a community, but it works.

We’re members of the MCG’s Jisc email list so we know just how interesting, insightful, and wide-ranging the discussion there can be. The panel spoke about how useful this community can be, especially for those early in their careers to hear from senior people in the sector. If you work in a digital role in a museum or gallery, we strongly recommend joining the group.

The Digital Festival for Museums event was a great way to connect with people in the sector. If technology for museums is your area, you’ll also want to attend the MCG’s next Museum+Tech conference at the end of this year. The Numiko team will be there, so hopefully we’ll see you there.