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A Race to the Bottom: Why Museums Need a Digital Strategy

The disconnect of 2020 has proven that the arts and culture industry does not (yet) have a digital strategy.

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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Let’s be honest: Generally, the disconnect of 2020 has proven that the arts and culture industry does not (yet) have a digital strategy. Articles herald memes on TikTok from the Uffizi Gallery, Spotify playlists at the Tate or the art world’s virtual viewing rooms as bastions of digital pioneering. But how much of this innovation has been strategic? How much thinking is behind what is being built? Are these digital initiatives backed by the whole organization or were they the spontaneous brilliance of a specific team member or rogue technologist?

To be fair, the majesty of walking into a room with the Mona Lisa, a Frida Kahlo or Rembrandt self-portrait, or flowers by Claude Monet or Georgia O’Keeffe stops you in your tracks, as does the sensory experience of a Mark Rothko painting or a James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama or Nari Ward installation. The real-life museum experience was so good that museums and galleries had the luxury of hanging their hats on it. A museum’s website simply offered the directions to get to the real-life experience, not an experience itself.

A recent museum podcast speaker compared the harsh reality of museums accepting they must build online experiences to when newspapers previously accepted they must go online. The inky smell of a good broadsheet — similar in nature to the churchlike echo of a large exhibition hall — was lost to the speed and geographic spread of information today.

Compared to what happened to newspapers, museums’ gargantuan advantage, if they wish to explore it, is that they have not yet gone online properly. Museums’ free online experiences have not yet been discovered by the mass public. That’s good news. Given that one-third of such cultural institutions might close because of the current situation with Covid-19, the industry needs to come together and think about its survival.

Now is the time to strike. What if the newspaper industry could have coordinated its digitization efforts and agreed to not do so for free right off the bat? Appropriately remunerated journalism and industry standards might be possible. What if micropayments were embedded into the digitization of print?

For knowledge industries so far, digitization represents a race to the bottom. Can museums band together and manifest themselves online in a way that values their work and establishes standards of truth, fair value and trustworthiness where others have failed?

You may say that museums are different. They are funded differently. Newspapers aren’t nonprofit, but most museums are. Newspapers aren’t funded by governments, but most museums are. This is true. However, both cater to knowledge working toward a greater good. Furthermore, expecting the state to pay for culture as our countries work to recover from the massive economic impact of the coronavirus is unrealistic. All sectors, including museums, must fend for themselves and find ways to be sustainably valuable to survive.

At the moment, museums have opportunities that are ethical, in line with their mission and do not require state funding. The time that could be spent applying for grants for repetitive research projects can instead be invested in working together to value our cultural sector and remunerate it appropriately.

What are museums’ unique selling propositions? Two things: collections and expertise. These primarily made themselves useful through exhibitions, where experts assemble collections in such a way to tell stories, and the publications that surround those exhibitions.

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Storytelling in imposing buildings, within labeled rooms that guide a viewer from one collection item to the next, with dramatic lighting, surrounded in mystery, and sometimes accompanied by a human or audio guide is a 19th-century immersive experience. While some might think that museums’ buildings are core to the offering, I disagree. If you really distill it, audiences value the objects and those who know enough to tell the story about those objects.

Who cares about collections? Collections are important because we’re a very visual and tactile species, and these artifacts are visual and tactile proof of stories that we might not believe otherwise. We have to see it to believe it. Only by standing next to items found in King Tut’s tomb can we really feel the majesty of craftsmanship achieved 2,350 years ago and feel the humanity of our ancestors.

Why is expertise important to us? In an age of fake news and distrust, polarizing opinions and diminishing middle ground, true expertise carries even greater weight. Having nonpoliticized experts tell us what happened in the past, how artists expressed the invisible and what could happen in the future keeps us sane and at peace with others.

So, I go back to my original question. What can the museum industry do today, with the insights gained from other industries that digitized beforehand (particularly news, music and cinema) to save itself from the inevitable?

My answer? Value its most important assets.

If museums can value collections and expertise online through clear business models and understanding Web 3.0 technologies, micropayments, augmented reality and how to leverage them in the 21st century, there is hope for the sector.

Those in the museum industry, I implore you to stop thinking only about re-creating offline exhibitions online. As someone mentioned on the phone to me the other day, re-creating exhibitions in virtual rooms online is like having a news anchor read a book on television. Secondly, please stop giving away things for free. Your expertise and collections are your most valuable assets, and we know what happens when you give your best assets away at too cheap a price.

Think outside the box. Understand the medium, and explore the possibilities. If you don’t, arts and culture will also race to the bottom, and humanity can’t take that right now.

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