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Digitalisation of Museums: Challenges, Achievements, and Prospects

A study of the digitalisation process of Russian museums has been conducted by the Laboratory for Management in Culture and Tourism at the HSE University–St. Petersburg, with the support of the Russian Committee of the International Union of Museums (ICOM Russia). The results of the study provide information on factors that contribute to failure or success in the museum digitalisation efforts and reveal its prospects, raise questions on tools that could be applied for attracting more visitors, as well as touch on possibilities for monetising museum online product range.

Digitalisation of Museums: Challenges, Achievements, and Prospects

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The study considers digitalisation as a means of implementing digital technologies and methods into museums' management practices, as well as into the development of their online products and services. The study is based on a survey which was conducted among museums' managers and employees who are involved in the process of creation, promotion and the usage of digital products. The study was aimed at determining the main formats for digitalising various areas of museum activity, identifying barriers to the introduction of digital technologies, as well as describing prospects for the development of museum digitalisation strategy and for the monetisation of its online products.

Irina Sizova, Associate Professor, Department of Management, HSE University–St. Petersburg, Head of Research

The survey gave us an insight into the digitalisation processes which are currently carried out in Russian museums, allowed to identify challenges and prospects. Apart from that, it helped us find out whether it was possible to monetise museums' digital products and whether their administration was ready for this.

The data obtained represent a number of scenarios for the development of digitalisation processes in museums and basic algorithms for the monetisation of digital products. We hope that members of the museum community—both those who are in charge of creating a strategy for the development of the museum digitalisation efforts, and those who are engaged in scientific activities or work with visitors—will find these results useful. The study results, conclusions, and recommendations provide museums' administration with a solid foundation for confirming one's point of view, helping to overcome internal barriers and fears that may appear when deciding to implement a new format of work with visitors.

One of the blocks of questions addressed to the museum staff was related to the factors that contribute to success or failure in the digitalisation efforts of the museum. The respondents identified only 15 'accelerating' factors, with four of them becoming the undisputed leaders. The first place in the poll was given to the presence of qualified personnel (56.8% of responders). The second crucial factor was the availability of the computer and other hardware in the workplace (51.9%). The third was the availability of an information system designed for prompt work with museum objects (42%). The fourth factor cited by the respondents was ‘the political will of the leadership (35.8%), which in different situations can become both a driving force and an obstacle.

As for the barriers that may slow down the digitalisation processes, in the first place the respondents put a lack of funding (74.1%). The researchers noted that such unanimity in answers—among the respondents were employees of both privately funded small museums and financially successful federally regulated museums—indicates the need for the museums' founders to pay more attention to financing their digitalisation processes, which becomes especially clear in the context of pandemic restrictions when stabilisation funds are directed primarily to social support for the staff. The second and the third place was shared by a lack of a modern technical base (60.5%) and a lack of qualified personnel (59.3%). And, ahead of others by a large margin, went the fourth factor, which was 'a lack of understanding of the problems on the part of the leadership' (28.4% of respondents).

Also, the study singled out a number of digital products and services that have been widely applied by museums in recent years, especially during the pandemic. Here is a quick rundown of them:

1. Digitisation of museum collections

As one of the first formats applied for creating digital representation of analogue objects, digitisation of museum collections has been mastered by most Russian museums and is recognised by them as a handy tool for every museum. In a poll conducted among the museums' workers, 91.4% of respondents placed the creation of an electronic database of the museum's objects as the most dynamic activity.

2. The use of digital databases

A high-quality digitisation of museum collections allows creating in-depth forms of their display, giving a zoom-in on details and features which used to be hidden from the eyes. It has been noted that digital images and 3D models of museum exhibits and spaces caused a growing interest in the so-called 'live tours' using augmented (AR) and virtual (VR) technologies.

Also, the study claims that the use of images of digitised museum objects makes it possible to intensify the interest towards excursion and exhibition activities, both in the use of special resources and in the creation of digital resources, which allows expanding the museum audience.

3. Creation of interactive digital museum products and services

Today museums are adopting a client-oriented approach, which is aimed at attracting visitors and providing them with a comfortable and engaging experience. This happens due to a number of factors: an increased competition for the visitor's attention in the experience industry, the need to create new formats for attracting the youth, the need to raise revenue from visiting a museum in the situation of the reduced level of state or municipal subsidies, and others.

4. Monetisation of digital museum products

In the face of the main income sources deprivation—decrease in cash flow from ticket sales, museum shops, cafes, high rental for events venues, unequal funding and the uncertainty of the future—museums are forced to search for additional sources of extra-budgetary income.

Based on the study, the authors developed recommendations for monetising museum online products, which are as follows:

  • create a range of different online products, from widespread online tours to highly specialised webinars, computer games and mobile applications;
  • pay special attention to the 'seriality' nature of museum online products, as it stimulates the acquisition and is especially effective within gaming and educational formats;
  • diversify the nature of the monetised online events that can take place systematically, periodically, or on a one-time basis. It is possible to apply monetisation to both ongoing (online work of groups, workshops, courses), and periodic events (virtual summer camps), as well as unique activities (museum festivals and holidays);
  • provide a hybrid format for the offering of museum products and services. Combining offline and online formats creates additional opportunities for monetisation, since it allows creating products that are in demand among various categories of the museum's visitors and users of online products (for example, mobile applications);
  • provide low-cost or free access to online products for certain categories of visitors. A differentiated payment approach allows establishing a variety of marketing relationships with consumers, resulting in an increased loyalty;
  • collaborate with organisations that have experience in creating online products. By making joint online products with universities, IT companies, and commercial organisations, museums' administration can leverage a number of benefits. Firstly, museums' administration can cut down the costs of various types of work related to the creation and promotion of online products. Secondly, such cooperation makes it possible to carry out co-branding with well-known manufacturers of hardware and software. Thirdly, it helps to expand the circle of visitors by getting more leads from the partner's loyal customers. Partners act as a co-developer and co-producer of digital products, among which are both products of the traditional format (online courses with group free access, mobile guides, photographic materials, electronic versions of publications, small online courses, podcasts), and state-of-the-art technological solutions (VR-videos, digital panoramas).

The authors of the study put forward the key recommendation in relation to the monetisation strategy, which is to develop a museum marketplace—a b2c-type Internet platform where sellers (museums) and buyers (museum audience) find each other and interact with each other. It is known that marketplaces are most effective for small companies and entrepreneurs who do not have the opportunity to promote their products. By placing offerings on large websites with constant traffic, sellers can easily find their customers, which is especially important for small and medium-sized museums.

Vladimir Opredelenov, member of the Presidium and Chairman of the Council for Digital Development of Museums under ICOM Russia. Head of the Department of Information Technologies in the Field of Culture at the Graduate School of Business at the Higher School of Economics

The study is based on a survey conducted among people who play a significant role in the development of museums. By narrowing the study object to this particular group of people, we got an understanding of the current situation in museums and what they lack. For some, the study results will serve as a trigger for generating new ideas; for others, this will be a way to make sure they are moving on the right track. This will be of great use in any case, even if there are no 'breakthrough insides'.

You know, there can be no unified algorithm when it comes to digitalisation, as each museum is different. Besides, the word 'digitalisation' itself, like an umbrella, encompasses a number of various concepts and processes. Does each museum need to digitise its collections? I think yes, since every museum should be committed to making their collection more accessible to the public. Does every museum need to create a broad online programme? Well, this depends a lot on the museum team's charisma and its resources, primarily the financial ones, as an online product must be of high quality. Does every museum need to implement multimedia? Actually, there is no real need for that. But this doesn't mean that there should be no mention of the museum on the Internet, or that there should be no information available online. Is there a need for purchasing an e-ticket? I would say yes. Apart from being useful for visitors and allowing the administration to stimulate purchases when browsing on the web, e-tickets help to regulate the flow of visitors to the museum making it convenient for both the visitor and the museum. Another crucial thing is a stable CRM system, as it allows communicating effectively with a permanent audience, helping to form a loyalty programme, etc. 

We also should not forget about the need to implement digitalisation in the museum's internal processes: electronic workflows, modern means of corporate communication and teamwork (messengers, calendars, joint editing of documents, videoconferencing, etc.), financial and economic activities, as well as security issues. And, of course, we should not leave aside the need to provide training on digital literacy for both employees and visitors.

I found the study results incredibly useful, as they allowed me to indirectly assess the level of digital competencies of museums' management board, single out some key topics for which there is a request, and determine the list of educational programmes that may be of interest for our students. It also allowed me to generate a list of events for the museum community, some of which will be held by the Council for Digital Development of Museums.

The research was carried out within the framework of the project of the Laboratory for Management in Culture and Tourism of the HSE – St. Petersburg 'A systematic approach towards the transformation of the digital environment of museums'. Detailed results of the study can be found on the laboratory's official webpage.