Disruption 101: An Influential Funder Sizes Up the State of Museum Tech

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

While Bloomberg Philanthropies remains the biggest funder of tech innovation by museums, the Knight Foundation is another key player in this niche. Last spring, we wrote about Knight's $1.87 million initiative to help 12 museums better use technology to "meaningfully engage visitors in art." Knight has been backing new thinking and ideas in the arts broadly since 2008, when it began its Knight Arts Challenge. 

Together, Bloomberg and Knight, along with other grantmakers, are funding some exciting, cutting-edge stuff around museums and technology. But to quote Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation's vice president for the arts, what about museums that have yet to receive a check that provides the "seed capital that encourages them to take risks?" How should late adopters approach the brave new world of museum tech?

For guidance, we turn again to Knight and a blog post by Technology Innovation team member Jayne Butler. She spent her summer researching ways to "scale new tools and approaches in support of museum tech." Her findings, "Five Takeaways on How Museums are Adapting to Digital Age Demands," serves as a handy cheat sheet for museums looking to attract support in this increasingly hot funding area. Here's a summary.

First off, Butler says that museums can learn from technology disruption in other sectors. From an operational standpoint, this disruption manifests itself as "new avenues to share their collections" and "fresh ways for museums to understand the visitor experience." Social media and other technologies can "help museums get more data on what's working, what isn’t and what people want out of their experience."

We can all agree on this. And few funders have focused more on adapting key institutions in U.S. society to disruption. "Disruption rules," Knight CEO and president Alberto Ibargüen once said.

Butler's next takeaway plays off of the first. Inside Philanthropy coverage has often explored the changing role of museums over the past 24 months and where grantmaking may be heading in this area. We've reported that many funders want the visitor experience to be immersive, socially conscious and geared toward diverse audiences. We've recounted how museums are "loosening their grip on the traditional structure of a museum visit and embracing new forms of communication, storytelling and engagement."

Yet, Butler also cautions museums against adopting technology strictly for technology's sake. "Museums don’t need to invest in the most flashy or sexy technology on the market." Rather, the goal should be using their platform to "engage in fresh and contemporary ways." 

Butler's advice reminds me of the incredibly simple yet impactful Send Me SFMOMA, a text messaging service that sends images of artworks in response to personal interests. Museums can technologically adapt without, say, investing in augmented reality.

Similarly, museums should remember that technology requires infrastructure. We see this reality play out in the private sector all the time. Businesses invest in "game-changing" technology only to discover they lack the staff or funding to properly maintain it.

"I heard from many of the people I interviewed this summer that small to mid-sized museums have little capacity to take on technology projects," Butler said. In addition, "Necessary infrastructure, including extended Wi-Fi and upgraded management systems, come with an expensive price tag."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? We frequently see this phenomenon play out in the museum world regarding costly capital expenses. Donors cut checks to build that new wing, but once the wing is up—assuming it's not delayed—its day-to-day operating budget can soar, creating an endless fundraising vortex. 

This brings us to Butler's fourth takeaway. Museums that take the plunge should lean heavily on best practices from successful practitioners. "Sharing your failures with the museum community is just as important as sharing your successes," she said.

Funders obviously have a role to play, here. Whether it's the Wallace Foundation's $52 million Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative or a $6 million program launched by the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to better engage diverse communities, funders plan to identify and share best engagement practices. It's safe to say that in the museum space, these will include some element of technology.

Findings will confirm what we already know: "Technology" is a relative term. Some museums are perfectly content rolling out a simple Bloomberg-inspired app to "allow visitors to build their own personalized museum tours and share their favorite exhibits on social media." Others will embrace SMS chatbots and 3-D modeling.

These varied approaches underscore a technology skills gap within museums. Some are more advanced than others. And so Butler's final takeaway encourages museums to tap a frequently underutilized reservoir of technological expertise—the artist herself. "Thinking about technology as an artist-first or artist-driven space will allow for the transformative art experiences that museums are positioned to provide," she said.

Taken as a whole, Butler's piece is more of a conceptual framework for museums considering a next tech investment as means to boost engagement. With more funders active in this space, more operational guidance will become available over time. Given its own recent grantmaking here, Knight itself is sure to have more insights to share as time goes on. 

Until then, museums should remember the idea of scale. There's no "one-size-fits-all" approach here. "Each institution," Butler said, "approaches them from a different angle and has its own interpretation of technology’s place in a museum."

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