An Introduction to Digital Strategies for Museums

Jack Ludden, , USA

Creating an iterative work environment that focuses on the needs of its audience is an effective way for cultural organizations to become more efficient at what they do. Museum audiences are constantly changing how they locate and interact with cultural information. Creating and distributing digital resources should be a priority for the entire museum profession - and not just museum technologists. Museums must dedicate themselves to educating both visitors and staff through the use of technology. Clear digital objectives can help guide an impactful and sustainable strategy.



Creating a work environment that allows employees to focus on the needs of their audience enables cultural organizations to become more effectual. Museum audiences are constantly transforming how they locate and interact with cultural information. The growing Maker Culture movement is poised to alter how digital consumers use and distribute digital content. The Maker Culture is supporting an informal, peer-led, collaborative environment that is motivated by fun and self-fulfillment. As users are engaging in more learn-by-doing, museums have an extraordinary opportunity to nurture this growing movement. Museums must dedicate themselves to educating both visitors and staff through the use of technology.

Museums need to balance cultural preservation with the need to participate in a contemporary, fast-paced world. All museum professionals (not just museum technologists) need to build connections to all types of digital resources. Incorporating the fundamental aspects of iterative production models, such as Design Thinking, prepares a museum for future growth and success. Becoming more nimble allows museums to remain in closer contact with their audience and more responsive to their needs.

Ultimately, a museum’s goal with respect to technology is simple. The work that we do must be relevant to the public. At first glance, this seems as if it should be easy to do within the United States:

  • There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million in 2011).
  • Museums employ more than 400,000 Americans.
  • Museums receive approximately 55 million visits each year from students in school groups.
  • Museums are considered a more reliable source of historical information than books, teachers or even personal accounts by relatives.
  • Americans view museums as one of the most important resources for educating our children and as one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information

(American Alliance of Museums, 2014)

As museums seek to evaluate their current digital mandate, there are three critical components of which to be aware. Understanding these three areas of technological growth will help museums prepare for future innovation.

Collect and Manage data so that it is accessible and scalable. A museum’s big data has an enormous impact on society, whether it is used in research, education, conservation, or historical preservation. Interoperability is critical so that museums can exchange and share data.

Present information in creative and transformative ways. Museums must constantly respond to ever-changing presentation models and distribution channels. If our big data is managed well, our design systems can be more sophisticated and will be able to utilize new types of platforms.

Share content to inspire ongoing engagement. Museums must continue to empower museum professionals, scholars and general audiences to interact with all types of cultural data. Museums must commit to ongoing dialogues that champion cultural learning.

Collecting and Managing Data

Big data is a data set that is so large and complex that it becomes extremely difficult to manage. In 2020, it estimated that the digital world will have 40 ZB (zettabyte) of data. (The Guardian, 2012) That’s 42,949,672,960 TB. The museum community will most likely have one of the largest data sets of any industry. We have significant data about our cultural artifacts as well as extensive interpretative materials. Beyond that, there are huge amounts of relevant information that the museum industry does not manage, nor network into yet, that is very much connected to the cultural data sphere. Our big data needs to network with historical, economic, educational, and political data. We have a remarkable opportunity to improve how we manage information so that museums can interoperate with other large data sets. There is no simple way to accomplish this. We must begin by using robust, scalable technologies. We must categorize and rationalize our data so that it is easily accessible.

If big data is managed well, cultural scholarship will grow. It will also allow museums to collaborate in more substantive ways. As more data becomes available, more opportunities will arise for new research.

The Smithsonian Institution has an online search application that provides access to more than 8.8 million cultural data records. ( It is a wonderful resource and an excellent example of well-constructed and well-organized data. It is information repositories like this that help collaborative scholarship grow in our field. Currently, more and more cultural organizations are creating complex search tools to help users find information. Users are able to “drill down” with key words. Well-structured information allows for clear “pivot points” to be set. This empowers users to more easily find relevant, useful information.

Another good example of an open, accessible system is the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt online collection database ( Along with other rich metadata tags, the Cooper-Hewitt prepared their collection’s data with machine tags. Machine tags are a type of metadata that define semantic information and provide a unique syntax that helps machines better connect one piece of data to another. (e.g. Other museums, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flicker, etc.)

Museums do not yet have an industry-wide approach to the management and dissemination of big data. Even if an industry-wide solution is unattainable, it is critical that each museum commit to best practices for data structuring within their institution. By standardizing data structure, we create opportunities both within an institution as well as across the entire cultural heritage community to improve information sharing.

By using more sophisticated information management systems, museums can create better systems for publishing and sharing data. Improving information management systems can also invigorate research because relevant data is easily accessed and shared by scholars. Other industries can be used as a model. In the science community, Mozilla launched ScienceLab. Greg Wilson, ScienceLab founder, wanted to change the scientific community.

“In scientific research, we’re dealing with special circumstances, trying to innovate upon hundreds of years of entrenched norms and practices, broken incentive structures and gaps in training that are dramatically slowing down the system, keeping us from making the steps forward needed to better society. The aim of the Science Lab is to foster an ongoing dialogue between the open web community and researchers to tackle this challenge. Together they’ll share ideas, tools and best practices for using next-generation web solutions to solve real problems in science, and explore ways to make research faster, more agile and collaborative.“ (ScienceLab, 2014)

Museums have a similar opportunity to disrupt the normal practices of collecting, managing and disseminating information. It is critical that museums think strategically about how they are structuring their data. In addition, they must clearly articulate both their long-term and short-term goals for information management. Some institutions may focus upon strategies that they believe will improve cultural scholarship and public programming. Others may choose to focus on strategies they hope will increase membership and physical visits to their space.

At the Getty, we created a Digital Object repository (DOR). This new system helps manage collection information as well as makes it easier to network related objects and information. This new system is a suite of services that extracts critical data from our CMS (content management system), and DAM (digital asset management). With this data now structured and formatted according to clearly thought out style guidelines, we can publish and share our collection information with ease.

Big data is collected by large industries such as science, healthcare and higher education. These industries not only gather a massive amount of data, but they are also able to interpret it in a variety of ways. In the healthcare industry, research shows that ‘cookbook medicine’ (the practice of applying the same battery of tests to all patients who come into the emergency room with similar symptoms) is not as effective as having access to actual patient data. This is because individualized data allows doctors to use an evidence-based approach when assessing medical attention. (CIO, 2013)

Similarly, each museum’s collection is unique. Museums do not want a “cookbook approach” to aggregating and disseminating information. When data is well managed, users can interact with it in open and collaborative ways. Too often, collection data and the variety of interpretive materials that accompany it seem segregated from one another. Rationalizing data sets will allow museums to improve the link between collection data and interpretative materials. This will create a richer user experience.

Many museums are still grappling with how to decide which resources should be allocated to harnessing cultural heritage data. Whether it is to improve things such as scholarship or community outreach, establishing a data management strategy can support the overall vision of any museum. There are three broad technical areas to evaluate in order to help set data management action items for your museum.

Collection Information Management – How is your collection information catalogued, managed and published? Regardless of its complexity, your museum should have a clearly documented data management process. It is now standard practice to consider using cloud computing as a secure, scalable way to store and distribute online content and services. If you are not yet using cloud computing, it is a technology worth researching. Cloud computing supports low-cost file storage and the sharing of data with ease. It is a very effective way to distributing your content. The Getty uses a cloud service to manage rich media (videos, audios and interactives) as well as large, high-resolution images.

Metadata and Analytics – Do you utilize clear standards and best practices when you create metadata? Do you evaluate how your online content is performing using your metadata? Generating accurate and meaningful metadata has been a standard practice for some time, but the ways in which museums can most efficiently use this metadata continues to evolve. In the 2014 Horizon Report, the use of learning analytics was identified as a growing trend within the museum world. It is defined as:

“…an educational application of web analytics, a science that is commonly used by businesses to analyze commercial activities, identify spending trends, and predict consumer behavior. Education is embarking on a similar pursuit into data science with the aim of learner profiling, a process of gathering and analyzing large amounts of detail about individual student interactions in online learning activities.” (NMC Horizon Report, 2014)

Employing the use of things such as learning analytics will help the museum community better engage visitors. It all starts, however, with how well we aggregate our data.

Information Sharing – Can you easily publish data from your CMS (content management system) and share it both internally and externally? Ideally, you have a system in place that enables your museum to share collection-related information. In some cases, it may require staff time. In other cases, you may have an automated process that allows anyone at any time to extract data. Future innovations, such as The Internet of Things, are going to make sharing and disseminating information more complex because there will be much more data. The Internet of Things means that people, places, and objects would each have a unique identifier and each would provide information to a networked environment. This “network of things” would create a huge amount of data that, once analyzed, could provide relevant, real-time experiences to users.

Presenting Information in Creative Ways

Responsive design is becoming common practice with respect to effectively presenting web content. It allows us to create optimized web experiences that function across a host of devices – everything from the desktop computer to the smart phone. Responsive design allows online visitors to consume digital experiences without being concerned about which device they are using. Elegant presentation models such as this can be utilized even more efficiently when a museum’s data information is architected and managed well.

With the proliferation of devices and platforms, museums are becoming better at identifying how to distribute their content across the web. Because online access is ubiquitous, people expect content to always be available to them.

Updating antiquated web code, however, is not simple. At the Getty, we have hundreds of thousands of web pages. We need to evaluate those pages and carefully plan an upgrade process that does not abruptly alter our existing production systems. The entire web production team took time to evaluate and best understand the implications of moving to a more complex, dynamic code base. Our designers, writers, and engineers evaluated the needs of our audience in order to select the best responsive design frameworks. While the new sections of work well on many different types of devices, our code base is quite a complex system. We were motivated to move to responsive design because mobile devices are becoming more central in people’s lives.

“Two-thirds of cell-phone owning Americans use their phones to surf the Web and check e-mail, according to the latest study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That’s double the amount from 2009…phones aren’t just a secondary way to check the news or send off a quick e-mail… phone owners use their devices as their primary way of accessing the Internet, more than PCs and tablets.” (Pew Research, 2014)

Updating to a responsive design presentation model helps provide a more engaging experience for the museum visitor, whether the visitor is physically at the museum or is surfing the web at home.

As responsive design gains momentum, it will become more important for museums to include user testing. This leads museums to ask several questions. Who is the audience for this site? How and where might the visitors use the site? Once these types of questions are answered, museums are better equipped to build effective, satisfying online experiences. At the Getty, mobile web development has reinvigorated good business practices. We are taking the time to understand and meet the needs of our audience. As we use responsive design to guide our production process, it has also had a remarkable impact on our content strategy. Responsive design facilitates good business practices by helping staff think about how a website is going to be used. Content that may work on a large desktop may not work on a small screen mobile device.

As geo-location and smart objects (like QR codes) continue to create a path to targeted information, it is critical that museums pursue creative ways of delivering content. At the Getty, we are committed to creating presentations that are built “on top” of big data. It is good business practice to separate the presentation layer from the data layer so that each can be modified independently. In 2013, the Getty launched a new Visit section on In late 2014, we plan to launch a new set of exhibition pages as well as a set of newly designed collection pages. When all three of these projects are complete, there will be well over 100,000 pages on that are using responsive design. As we continue to transform to an audience friendly model, we will continually evaluate its impact on the user’s experience as well as its effects on our best business practices.

By using elegant, responsive solutions, a museum’s digital experience becomes more relevant to its constituents. We know that distribution channels will continue to grow and change. Just as museums must define strategies regarding data management, museums must also decide how to present that information. Along with responsive design, there are four emerging technologies that are altering how museums can best present online information.

Location-Based Services – Does your museum capture data that identifies the location of those visitors using handheld devices? A growing trend within the museum field is location-based technology. A few museums offer collection tours using location-based services that provide a context-specific experience to their onsite visitors. The Art Institute of Chicago ( uses the museum’s existing Wi-Fi network and indoor positioning system to enhance the on-site digital experience. Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania ( is another example of an institution that uses Bluetooth beacons to track visitor locations and push content based upon their specific location.

Augmented Reality – How does your museum provide a multi-layered experience to your visitors? How does your museum empower a visitor to have a more meaningful experience? Augmented reality seems to encapsulate the concept of “layering content.” As BYOD (bring your own device) increases, so will the number of people being able to use in-phone cameras. Thanks to image recognition, augmented reality allows visitors to access additional information about an object such as interpretative material (video, audio, interactive etc.). Empowering a visitor to find data that speaks to their interests is one of the most impactful goals that a museum can have. The Museum of London ( created an effective augmented reality App called Street Museum that allows you to hold your camera up to see present day and then it layers a historical image of the same location from years past.

Electronic Publishing – Is there a distinction between online and offline publishing at your museum? Electronic publishing is, in many ways, enhancing how users consume “published” material. For example, a text-based article can be embedded with things such as images, videos, and interactives. Electronic publishing is also causing the alteration of certain production models as well. The Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative ( is an ongoing commitment by the Getty to foster new ways of producing and publishing collection information. At the Getty, digital publishing has increased our need for a more comprehensive digital content strategy. Digital content strategists help a production team identify all the various types of media available (text, video, audio, etc.) and construct an overall experience that reflects the publications main intent.

Open Content – Does your museum have policies that hinder the sharing of digital content? There is a growing trend within the museum world encouraging organizations to allow data and images to be easily accessible for public use. This trend is altering digital copyright policies as well as altering how museums publish their data. With more museum data available, search applications and UX (user experience) are adapting in order to help people find such open content. The Smithsonian’s Search application not only provides access to 8.8 million records, but has a UX that is mobile friendly.

Engaging your audience

As our content becomes more ubiquitous, we must champion digital experiences that aren’t simply amorphous but instead, allow users to forge a personal connection to our cultural data. Museums must move away from only having one-way conversations with its audience. We must transform ourselves into an industry that continuously listens to and engages with its users.

Gaming and gamification are two growing trends in the museum community. Over the past decade, there has been significant growth in the number of games created by museums. Since 2004, the Getty has been building games for all types of audiences. In 2007, AAM’s MUSE Awards began giving out Gaming Awards.

More and more museums are acquiring “gaming expertise.” This is a positive trend and one that can help encourage visitors to approach the museum experience differently. It is worth acknowledging the massive socio-economic impact gaming has on the US market. Here are a few facts about the US entertainment-related gaming industry that are applicable to the museum community:

  • 58% of Americans play video games
  • Consumers spent $21 billion on video games, hardware, and accessories in 2012
  • The average game player is 30 years old and has been playing games for 13 years
  • The average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 35 years old
  • 36% of gamers play games on their smartphone, and 25% play games on their wireless device
  • We spend 3 billion hours a week as a planet playing videogames
  • The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21

(Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry, 2013)

“DMA Friends” from the Dallas Museum of Art is an excellent example of digital content with game-like elements. While not a traditional game engine, DMA Friends is a section of their website that uses incentives (badges) and other elements to entice new and recurring visitors. DMA Friends is an excellent example of how a museum prioritized around visitor engagement.

Museums need to continually scan the digital universe and devise ways to keep connected with their audience. Technologies will continue to shift and change. Examining visitor behavior is the best to way to understand which technologies to pursue. There are audience-centric models that help frame strategies. John Falk’s audience model is simple and yet effective. At the Getty, we use these broad definitions to categorize our four audience types:

  • Visitors – People using the website to plan or follow up a visit
  • Searchers – People using the website to locate subject-based information
  • Browsers – People using the website as part of online browsing activities
  • Transactors – People using the website to interact or transact

One goal is for our online audiences to move from one audience type to another. This crossover can provide a creative, transformative experience that enriches the user’s experience. Ultimately, the goal is to present the vast amount of Getty content in a way that is meaningful and useful to our virtual visitors.

Social media and digital publishing are excellent ways to reach online constituents, but gaming actively increases audience participation and knowledge retention. Moreover, gaming has already proven itself to be both popular and profitable. TextFish from the Exploratorium in San Francisco ( is an example of an extremely engaging, thought-provoking game. The game play is basic. Users text the word “FISH” to an application system that, in turn, displays the last four digits of their number on a boat. When users send subsequent texts, they hook a fish. Then, users catch fish in competition with others who are playing the game. Quickly, visitors become aware of overfishing and the impact to the ecosystem.

Games can create a user experience that supports a dialogue between visitors and a museum’s experts. With this interactivity, visitors can have a richer connection to an institution. Gaming creates an environment that:

  • Embraces challenges and difficulties
  • Accepts failure and criticism
  • Solves problems
  • Builds trust among other players (Jane McGonigal, 2012)

Imagine creating a digital cultural gaming experience that encourages the things mentioned above. Combining even a portion of these components within a museum would lead to a remarkable interaction with its visitors.

A clear strategy guided by an inspired vision will empower an entire museum community. Audience needs and expectations must be completely understood. To meet audience expectations, museums must embrace change. Sustaining those business activities is hard work. Technology will continue to transform how museums connect and collaborate with all their various constituents. Along with gaming, there are six other factors that can help your museum set meaningful priorities with respect to audience engagement.

Physical vs. Virtual Engagement – How is our onsite visitor services team involved with online engagement? Museums are very good at incorporating experts into a visitor’s physical visit. How do museums translate that experience into a meaningful online experience? The Metropolitan Museums of Art’s 82nd & 5th online video collection ( is a wonderful online transformation of an off-line experience. The MET provides a quick, insightful perspective from one of its employees. The interviews and topics are very accessible. Ultimately, this is making the MET and its collection available to a wider audience.

Digital Acknowledgement – How do your online visitors get acknowledged for their inquisitive behavior? As more visitors consume learning materials on websites and digital interactives, organizations want to acknowledge a visitor’s achievements. Open Badges are a growing trend that digitally award users. Users can display these badges and proclaim their learned skill(s). DMA Friends ( is a wonderful example of how museums can encourage repeat visits as well as share success via social media.

Online Education Materials – How easy can teachers use and/or share educational materials on your website? E-learning is altering how teachers teach and how students learn. Some museums, like The Museum of Modern Art in New York, publish their own materials as MOOCs. MOMA Learn ( is a wonderful repository of educational lesson plans. Other museums publish their content to well-known education aggregators like Kahn Academy. ( In both cases, online destinations help teachers, museum staff, and visitors create and share custom lessons.
Virtual Experiences – How comfortable is your museum with providing a totally immersive digital experience? As bandwidth continues to increase, virtual experiences will become more prevalent. These virtual worlds simulate an environment and enable users to interact with one another in that environment. Hardware like Oculus Rift (Oculus VR, 2014) can provide immersive, interactive experiences that utilize big data sets and elegant presentations already established by a museum. Europeana is creating a prototype with the Rijksmusuem to introduce this type of immersive museum experience. Without ever taking a step, a user could virtually walk through a museum space.

Collaborative Environments – How do your curators work with other experts outside your museum? As online education changes, web “professional working spaces” also transform. Collaboration among museum professionals and cultural scholars is dramatically increasing. The Getty is currently working on the Scholars Workspace. ( A place where experts can “virtually” come together to discuss, refine, and then publish their research.

Social Networking – Is social media centralized within a department or do you have multiple people participating in it across the organization? Museums use social media and social networking in many different ways. In many cases, social media is associated with marketing. This model is breaking down because good content is good marketing. Connecting with your audience outside the museum’s walls is everyone’s responsibilities. Social media channels will continue to change, but a museum must remain committed to these virtual conversations. Online social interactions have a social currency that museums want and need. At the MET, social media is used to help connect to people who may never be able to visit the museum. Conversely, at the Brooklyn Museum, social media targets their local community. In both cases, their social media is guided by a clear communications strategy. (New York Times, 2014)


Museums must be relentless in their pursuit of innovation. A museum’s strategy must embrace collaboration, iteration, and a commitment to audience engagement. Three important things will strengthen a museum’s digital presence: managing data well, creating elegant responsive designs, and engaging in online conversations. Museums are host to an enormous amount of information. The key to success is making this information available and consumable to their audience.


American Alliance of Museums, Museum Facts, 2014

Collection Search Center, 2014

Cooper-Hewitt Museum. 2014

Eastwook, Brian. CIO, 2013, 6 Big Data Analytics Use Cases for Healthcare IT

Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry, 2013

Giridharadas, Anand. New York Times, Museums See Different Virtues in Virtual Worlds, 2014.

The Guardian, Study: less than 1% of the world’s data is analysed, over 80% is unprotected, 2012

NMC Horizon Report 2014 K-12 Edition, 2014

McGonigal, Jane. Games can make a better world, 2010

Oculus VR, Museum of the future, 2014

Pew Research, Mobile Technology Fact Sheet, 2014

ScienceLab, 2014

Cite as:
J. Ludden, An Introduction to Digital Strategies for Museums. In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published October 1, 2014. Consulted .