National Museum of Wales tackles digital technology

The National Museum of Wales is digitising and using modern technology in its seven exhibition campuses

The National Museum of Wales is mid-way through a three-year strategy of digitising and using modern technology in its seven campuses.

The organisation’s sites include Cardiff’s National Museum (pictured), St Fagans Natural History Museum and the National Slate Museum in North Wales.

The museum's governing body has been trying to bring its sites into the 21st century through a number of digital means, from implementing beacon technology to encouraging digital culture change internally.

Data challenge

Head of digital media, Dafydd James, says that, while museums traditionally hold objects, they also store a vast amount of information and metadata associated with those objects which engages the public.

“It’s a continuous battle to make sense of this information,” says James. “And we’re always considering how to publish it.”

At the moment, the organisation has four million objects, but has only managed to electronically document 1.4 million.

James told the Digital Strategy Innovation Summit in London on Thursday 16 October 2014 that the National Museum of Wales is trying to open up more of its data, but faces a variety of challenges.

“There are different database standards, not only different types of software, but types of data as well,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s not classed as ready because of ethical, personal information or due to language.”

Being a governing body, the National Museum Wales publishes everything in both Welsh and English, which presents a challenge in publishing the data.

James says the amount of information generated today makes it difficult to curate for the future. “What do you pick out from all the tweets sent daily, that represents today’s culture? How do we capture this data and what do we capture it?” he asks.

Infrastructure

The organisation is facing a challenge updating its infrastructure, which will need a lot of money spent to upgrade in the near future. Big data systems, networks, information standards policies – all need attention.

For example, the National Museum Wales has a sound archive at the St Fagans site near Cardiff, which has field recordings and BBC recordings in more formats than James had previously heard of.

“The scale of what we have to pick from is huge,” he says.

The museum is trying to tidy up its legacy data systems, where historically collection managers would choose their own ways to manage their data. This archived data is now stored in disparate data systems based on taxonomy, so data on different types of objects sits in silos across the organisation. 

The organisation has recently put out a tender for a piece of middleware software to aggregate the data into one place.

Another infrastructure upgrade is Wi-Fi. James says that, if the organisation wants visitors to interact and participate with exhibits, it needs to provide the infrastructure. Particularly St Fagans – an open air museum over a large area – is looking into putting Wi-Fi in key points. And, in some cases – for instance in the Slate Museum – the organisation has worked with a content delivery network to cache website data, so not everything depends on Wi-Fi.

Beacon technology

James says all museums struggle to stay relevant to users, and they have to constantly question what digital media they should be collecting and what ways it should be presented to visitors.

The Slate Museum in Llanberis, North Wales is currently hosting a trial of beacon technology, which comes with an accompanying application to allow visitors to explore and interact with information including archived images. The site has 25 beacons which provide multiple views and narratives which can be displayed alongside more traditional exhibits in the museum.

The beacons also allows the museum to learn more about its visitors. “The more we get to know about our users the more we can provide customer information in their language preference,” explains James.

Pop-ups

Meanwhile, digital also provides the ability for museums to become more agile. Traditionally, exhibits take months to plan, build and then remove, but with the help of digital means, the National Museum Wales has experimented with pop-up exhibits to prove that they don’t need to take that long.

The organisation uses traditional media, social, beacons, the website and workshops to build an exhibition in a few hours, asking people to participate.

“Museums can be agile, relevant, democratic and easy to engage,” says James. “And we’re starting to role this out to permanent galleries, by using the web to influence the design of the galleries.”

Internal culture change

But all of this digital innovation has to come from inside the organisation, and gearing up National Museum of Wales employees is a task in itself.

“We’re less than one year in, and we’ve still got a long way to go, writing blogs, tweets and articles they still think as an additional task to their current day job,” says James. “We have fewer people and more to do, and the challenge is to change these perceptions, and get everyone - creator, marketer and accountant - to feel it’s an important part of their role.”

James says the organisation needs to encourage staff to take ownership of digital, and one way to do so has been training staff in Google Analytics, so they can see the impact of what they’ve produced. In addition, it produces policies and other training and tool kits which can be accessed online, so it doesn’t have to travel the length of the country to teach about social media.

“We have keen advocates in departments to champion our course,” explains James. “But the responsibility of digital will lie across all staff roles.”

James sees technology as an enabler and, if the National Museum of Wales is properly equipped, the business can become more reactive and more agile. James is part of the digital team of seven people – soon to be nine – which he says has grown organically, to include both content creators and developers. It works closely with the internal IT teams, but reports to the public engagement division, rather than corporate services like IT.

“The strategy is the first stage of embedding digital thinking in everything we do,” he adds.

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