Advocating for digital and the finite bowl problem

Reflecting on watching the MuseumNext conference. How different a conference looks when followed on twitter from another hemisphere!

As always, this post is a half-formed thought; I write to clear my head and see what others have to say. Critique nicely 😉

I see a great deal of powerful advocacy for more/better digital work in museums. But I’m uneasy about its impact. I’m not critiquing the vision; rather critiquing an underlying assumption in the method: that better advocacy will lead to more/better digital.

Anyone remember being a student at the Pizza Hut salad bar? You have a bowl, you can fill it up as full as you can, get your money’s worth (so you’re fed with cash to spare for beer text books). Using onion rings to hold another tomato worked well.

The current digi advocacy seems to be ‘we need more…’ – similar to ‘squeeze more into the salad bowl’. We’ve just been through annual budget planning. There’s not a single department in the museum who can’t make a case for needing more – to fulfill statutory and moral needs, to serve our audiences better, to generate revenue… But no-one is advocating for less money in their field. No-one is saying ‘yes, you’re right, you need it more than I do’.

Museum’s generally agree we need more digital stuff – we all want more salad in the bowl. The problem is, if you want more peppers, you have to leave out some tomatoes. Who decides, in what framework, with what benchmarks? Someone has to lose, and Museums are generally made up of nice people.

The argument I often see is looking at superfans setting up communities with youtube channels and saying ‘why can’t we do that, it’s free?’ What this misses is that management attention is also a finite bowl. The senior team’s heads only have enough space for a certain amount of salad. What should they stop focusing on?

I would love to hear thoughts on what Museums should stop doing in order to do more digital. Fewer exhibitions, less scholarship, less outreach, less conservation…? Because until that’s the discussion we are having, i think a lot of advocacy for digital activity will remain a face/off between a preacher and a wall, in which the choir is passionately singing the same chorus, but hears only echoes.



One thought on “Advocating for digital and the finite bowl problem”

  1. It is my view that museums need to be more cognisant on effectiveness and where possible should use cost:benefit or ROI as a decision making tool, where appropriate. In austere times is it not better to invest in making more advocates to act as your marketing mouthpiece than spending excessive funds to get ‘hard to reach’ audiences through the door when they may be hard to reach for a reason. Not every decision can be based on cold data but I do feel museums could stretch their money a little more if they gave some consideration to maximising their own audience first then expand into attracting further audience.

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