Mind the App: A Museum Funder Doubles Down on Digital Expertise

 photo: Elena Dijour/shutterstock

photo: Elena Dijour/shutterstock

The takeaway from a recent article in the New York Times by Steve Lohr may not surprise any worker who has tried to make sense of a new and confusing piece of software: While businesses are spending more on technology than ever before, productivity has not substantially increased.

A related concern arises in a museum space increasingly smitten with using technology to improve the visitor experience. What good are customized mobile apps, "friendly chatbots" and augmented reality experiences if museums lack the in-house expertise to manage these tools?

This challenge isn't lost on the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which last month awarded $970,000 to museums with the goal of "adding digital staff." The foundation addressed the underlying challenge accordingly:

Many art museums across the country lack internal digital expertise and capacity, hindering their ability to leverage technology to engage audiences, experiment and take risks. The eight new digital-focused positions supported by Knight Foundation aim to fill this gap. The staff will be chiefly responsible for helping their respective institutions conceive, plan and implement digital strategies that improve the visitor experience and expand audiences.

The news is the latest foray by Knight in the museum tech space, which, along with Bloomberg and its Bloomberg Connects program, has been backing some cutting-edge stuff as of late.

Last May, Knight awarded $1.87 million to 12 art museums as part of an initiative to help institutions experiment with "new ways of using digital tools to improve the visitor experience." And a few months later, I looked at Knight technology innovation team member Jayne Butler's blog post titled "Five Takeaways on How Museums are Adapting to Digital Age Demands."

The museum tech space is rapidly evolving, and Butler's analysis foreshadowed the main thrust of Knight's recent investment in digital expertise.

Museums, Butler wrote, should remember that technology requires the "necessary infrastructure," like extended Wi-Fi and upgraded management systems that "come with an expensive price tag." Throw in new "digital tools to improve the visitor experience" and things can get complicated—and potentially costly—rather quickly.

Ultimately, Knight's payout underscores the fact that it takes real, live human beings—at least for the time being—to manage museums' increasingly sophisticated technical infrastructure. 

"Our hope is that these dedicated digital staffers will help art institutions better reach and engage audiences by meeting them where they are: on the technological devices they use every day," said Victoria Rogers, Knight's vice president for the arts.

For instance, Knight money will fund a director for digital engagement strategies at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami and a director of technology innovation at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, NC.

The eight recipient institutions "have shown a commitment to impressive progress in harnessing the power of technology to engage audiences both in and outside museum doors,” said Chris Barr, Knight's director of arts. "With their continued appetite for innovation and new technological expertise available on staff, we anticipate these museums will achieve powerful results that could redefine their audience engagement strategies in the digital era."

By this point, purists can breathe a sigh of relief. Knight funding won't make a curator who's been on the job for 30 years sit through training seminars on mobile app design or SMS chatbot optimization.

At the end of the day, Knight's disruptive work in the area of museum tech space hinges on providing what Rogers calls "seed capital that encourages them to take risks." This allocation of capital has historically taken on many forms. The foundation's most recent round of funding suggests that in order to "take risks" to better engage visitors, museums must also have the requisite in-house digital expertise.