Things we’re learning about Digital R&D in a museum context

Squander Bug (a cartoon character to persuade people to avoid waste) air rifle target, 1940s

Squander Bug (a cartoon character to persuade people to avoid waste) air rifle target, 1940s

Hasan Bakhshi  said earlier in the year that:

“Unlike science and technology, very little is known about how R&D is managed by cultural institutions, how it should be evaluated, and how well the knowledge created through R&D diffuses (or not) across organisations” 

With this in mind over the past year we have been muddling through on the Social Interpretation project (SI) at The Imperial War Museums with the overarching aim of finding out what R&D is in a museum context, what’s possible in the timeframe and within certain budget constraints.
So here’s a list of things we’re learning about R&D in a museum context:

It’s hard

Over the year SI has been utilising R&D and innovative practice to fundamentally challenge the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, audiences. We set ourselves a huge task: to rebalance the authority / audience divide; turning museums into social, participatory organisations –syncing up the online, mobile and in gallery experience.   Not only did we have an aspirational project to deliver but we were trying to do it in a fairly conservative museum, with a difficult subject matter, across three domains. It was a risk. A certain amount of risk is always associated with digital project because they are ‘new’, ‘innovative’ and ‘cool’ but how much is too much risk? How far can you push the boundaries with one project? How much tolerance does the museum have?   These are questions that all museums are now facing and questions which SI have been trying to tackle head on.  Do we have the answers? Not yet, but we can tell you a bit about the process. And to sum it up as succinctly as possible; it’s hard. Very hard.  Is it worth the investment? I think so, but still, it’s hard.

It’s fast

Agile project management principles, a user centred approach, and only a years worth of funding meant we had to do things fast. Really fast.   One of the problems with R&D digital lifecycles and museum exhibition lifecycles is that they are completely different. The pace of technology change is misaligned with the fiscal, creation, development and installation cycles of museums.  In a climate in which new technology platforms emerge on a weekly basis, there is a dramatic mismatch between the cycle of technology and the long planning cycles that exist for most museums exhibitions.  Social Interpretation is no exception.  By the time we had secured funding for the SI project, the exhibition which we wanted to be a part of, had already been signed off and was waiting to be installed. It is a gross understatement when I say we came in very late to the build of the Family in Wartime exhibition. It is fantastic that we could incorporate SI into the exhibition.  It looks really good with the time and resource we had available. But it does mean due to this lack of time and resources alongside agile sprints and iterations it meant that we didn’t have enough time to do a lot of robustness testing so we were snagging on the fly after installation.

Adapt or Die

The fast pace leads on nicely to the next point: Accepting change and adapting. Speed for the sake of speed in a project can be like a taking a spin in rollercoaster without an end.  We have tried to mitigate this by being really clear on what we want to achieve, and reflecting on the work we have previously done. But sometimes it all gets a bit muddled and bits and pieces get lost in translation.  Agile R&D can be bamboozling.   We have tried to be as collaborative, open and transparent as possible from the beginning, but it can be hard to work with when you have less time than you would like to, and a meeting is already half way over before the tea and biscuits have even arrived. You have to become very good at adapting to change and adjusting the process accordingly to match that change.  But it is challenging. You need to be prepared to compromise.  If you hit a brick wall, you need to find a way to circumnavigate it.  Digital R&D is like going on a bear hunt.

Be a Good Communicator

From the outset we wanted to be as open as possible; we stressed the necessity in including users, stakeholders and the project team into a systems design process. But the reality is very different. There is always the aspiration, and we tried so hard to uphold that.  But then the day to day running of the project takes over.  Once you hit delivery mode, the ability to communicate everything, to everyone, all the time, becomes increasingly hard to do. If you are going to take on any form of R&D ideally you need someone leading on internal coms, otherwise arguably the most important aspect of a R&D project gets left behind when the deadlines begin to loom.

Advocacy, Advocacy, Advocacy

This goes hand in hand with good, open, transparent communication, not only externally but internally. I cannot stress enough the importance of having an advocate for the project.  Someone who can do talk the talk, highlight the positives and believe that the challenges can be overcome.  If you don’t have an advocate, project teams become demotivated, the aspiration and the goals become obscured by every brick wall and every huddle appears twice the size.  Ensure you have a believer who has fairy dust and cake.

Manage expectations

Not only the expectations of your visitors but the museum expectations.  There is still an ingrained ideal that everything on gallery has to be perfect. So snagging on the gallery floor, is a big no no.  Can you stick a big ‘beta’ sticker on it and be done? Again this comes back to communication.  A lack of communication is usually at the root of most problems associated with different expectations. When communication is direct and transparent, trust forms and helps to creates a solid foundation all stakeholders. Normally you would agree on a strategy, the aims and objectives and the timescales for completion. But due to the agile nature of R&D the strategy, objectives and timeframes are in a constant state of flux. Leaving you always at risk of others not understanding what ‘success’ is and how it should be measured. Be prepared to manage relationships, with visitors and every single department in the museum.  Be open and understanding with people’s opinions and questions and try to answer them all.

There are no benchmarks

R&D is hard to evaluate.  For us digital engagement is actually quite subjective, one person’s positive is another’s negative.  Be prepared for confusion over expectations and difficult conversations on measurement.  Be clear about what the project team considers success and tell people, be prepared to compromise.

and finally


In order to finish an R&D project with an semblance of sanity, you need to have a fantastic team, which you trust, advisers who you listen to, and the ability to laugh at disasters as well as the successes. Every day might not be a good day, but if you can focus on the positives, or at least poke fun at the negatives you are on to a winner.

2 thoughts on “Things we’re learning about Digital R&D in a museum context

  1. Pingback: Revue de Presse Numérique Culturel / Septembre 2012

  2. Pingback: Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? - Open Objects

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