5 Technology Mistakes Museums Often Make

I’ve spent the last decade working with tech. From exhibit interactives to online advertising, I’ve developed strategies and led teams to make these projects happen. And along the way there have been a handful of common mistakes that I’ve encountered again and again. Here’s  the list in the hopes that it helps you avoid them!

1. Museums add “digital strategy” to their strategic plan.

Digital has become a ubiquitous part of the museum vocabulary. Leadership teams are grappling with the very real challenges of making the museum a more digitally-savvy place, so it seems to make sense to adopt a digital strategy. However, this often has some unintended consequences. When digital is sequestered into its own goal in your strategic plan, the tactical plans often end up being siloed and unproductive.

What to do instead: In order for digital to work best for your museum, weave it into your strategic plan’s objectives and tactics. An example might be:

GOAL: Improve visitor satisfaction scores.
Objective: Remove barriers for online ticket purchasers.
Tactic: Conduct usability testing to identify barriers and make revisions to online ticketing process.

2. Marketing content and exhibit content are developed in silos.

This is definitely related to #1. When your museum has a stand-alone digital strategy, it often includes things like website content and social media planning while exhibit development happens on a completely separate track. Visitors don’t draw these distinctions. Visitors think about your social media content, exhibit labels, wayfinding signage and gallery interactives as equal parts of the whole museum experience. But, we don’t often curate them this way.

What to do instead: Reach across the aisle and initiate collaboration with your colleagues. If your reaction to that sentence is to feel that you have tried many times without success, I would challenge you to come up with a foolproof way to meet the other person where they are. How can you demonstrate that you understand and respect their perspective? What are the unique problems you both have to solve and which ones overlap? Start with empathy and a small, defined project that can result in an easy win. Buy-in is the hardest part, but once you have it, new projects and more integrated strategies will be possible. Trust takes time to build, but it’s worth it.

3. Exhibits include technology for technology’s sake.

How many times have you tried an exhibit interactive or downloaded an app that added no value to your experience as a visitor? Have you ever been a part of creating one of those? (Because, I have.) Sometimes museums add technology to exhibits because they seem to be lacking a “cool factor” or because there is a perception that visitors like tech. But, the reality is that visitors are bombarded with tech and they sometimes feel annoyed that a museum spends its resources creating computer games instead of focusing on objects and stories. If you are using a computer kiosk to lead visitors through a decision tree, that’s likely not the best use of your resources. Let’s work together to abolish decision-tree interactives in favor of tech that aids exploration, promotes curiosity and leaves visitors feeling inspired.

What to do instead: Make sure that your technology is delivered in a smart, innovative way that offers an experience a visitor can not have in any other way. As you are developing your exhibit plan, always ask the question: “Is there any other way to tell this story/answer this question/teach this concept?” If the answer is yes, re-evaluate why you chose tech. If the answer isn’t compelling, it’s time to reconsider your concept or the delivery mechanism.

4. The novelty of a device is used to compensate for lacking content or functionality.

This one is an oldie. As long as we’ve been putting computers in galleries, we’ve been under the misguided illusion that they are a draw in and of themselves. This gets less true every day. The devices that our visitors have access to make them increasingly jaded. Sure, kids like iPads, but when they realize your gallery game doesn’t have 50 levels and randomized gameplay, they’ll lose interest unless you’ve managed to find a way to make it stand out in another way.

What to do instead: Invest in kick-ass technology. And, I don’t mean the latest, greatest cutting edge thing. I mean, contract with a tech partner that can help you develop something that is hyper-relevant, easy to update and works seamlessly. These three components are the most important ingredients for tech success.

5. Museums don’t budget for proper life cycle replacements.

This is a biggie – and the most manageable. Even preventable. When exhibit budgets get created, they are focused on getting us to the all-important opening day. And, that makes sense, after all, this is 90% of the effort. Sometimes we even get budgets for exhibit maintenance, but rarely do we get budgets for new tech every 2-3 years. The result is permanent or traveling exhibits that end up looking grossly out of date after even a couple of years because of the tremendous pace of tech changes.

What to do instead: Work with your IT department (or contract help if you don’t have internal support) to create a life cycle replacement plan for all of your exhibit hardware. Don’t wait for it to break or wear out, be proactive and keep it up-to-date. AND, budget to update and replace the interactive software. Digital design trends change fast, so you should plan to make updates to your interactives and apps at least every two years to keep them in good working order, prevent any security vulnerabilities and make sure they look good. As tech becomes a larger part of our daily lives (and the museum experience) your future self will thank you for creating a solid plan today.

Need help with tech at your museum? Museum Playbook would love to help.