My first foray into digital

This is a reflection (and a bit of self-therapy) about my recent experience developing digital content at NHM. Like many museums, we’ve been slowly trying to catch up with the digital age…edging our way into the 21st century. We’re acutely aware that most visitors expect some kind of digital offer these days, before, during, after and sometimes instead of their visits. Walking around the galleries, it feels as if most people spend the majority of their times swiping around on their phones. With something already so engaging, it would be foolish of us not to capitalise on it for delivering more content.

First off – I’m no an expert on this. However, I am fresh from developing an audio commentary designed for people to access on their smartphones or tablets. While the digital side of it was handled by the professionals (rightly so!) I did come away with a new appreciation of what we realistically can and can’t do on such a platform.

I (naively) assumed it would be pretty simple. Develop the content (stories and scripts for the audio), record it, and hand it over to the designers and developers. Hey presto! There’d be a beautiful audio commentary I could show my friends with pride.

For starters, writing scripts for audio, deciding on the format, recording non-voice actors, editing and mastering clips is a huge amount of work. But that’s material for another post. Here are some of the lessons specifically about the digital aspect that I took away from the experience.

  • It takes much, much longer than you think. This is probably true for everything developed in museums, but really, you need time for digital stuff. Between deciding what the digital element will be, how visitors will access it (web, mobile, touchscreen), how to design it, what kind of functionality you want, the user experience, how it will fit in the physical space… There’re so many considerations and different expertise that need to be involved. It’s exhausting and definitely not a quick-fix solution.
  • Developers are invaluable – be nice to them. The developers build the actual thing you’re offering. Yes I worked on the content, but without my wonderful developer there’d be nothing to show people apart from a bunch of audio clips sitting on my desktop.
  • On that note- It really helps to learn a little bit about the digital field. I decided quite early on, after a meeting with the developers where I felt completely lost, that I should familiarise myself with their world. I read a bunch of UX blogs, and learnt a bit of code (thanks to the wonderful codebar). It made such a difference being able to speak to the developers in their language.
  • Design is so important. There’s a reason there’s an entire field devoted to digital design and user experiences. There are certain things people now expect when they access anything on their phones and you need someone who knows what they’re doing with this. They were able to anticipate how visitors will behave, what kind of prompts they’ll need and how to make sure the whole thing is easy to use.
  • We had to match the digital to the physical space. I didn’t want visitors just looking at their phones the entire time. We developed an entire exhibition and this was supposed to be a free extra! The offer was a commentary to an art exhibition, adding another layer of content and perspective to the images, without overshadowing them. We had several conversation about how to make it as intuitive as possible, help people find the clips and match them to the images, and the appropriate length and tone of the clips (short and informal!).
  • Communicate it to your visitors! It’s all very well developing an audio commentary but we almost ran out of time and money to tell people it was available and how to access it. The format we chose requires a bit of time and effort from the visitor – bring phone and headphones (or we are selling headphones), type/ clink on a URL and match clip to image. All instructions had to be crystal clear and ubiquitous. Printing graphics, putting messages online, creating instructional animations, all cost time and money and need to work with the space and design.

Visitors expect digital now. Museums are and have been changing in response to this – some much faster than others. The Metropolitan museum of art in new York holds hackathons, you can roam around the British Museum using Google, NHM has VR experiences and more and more are putting their collections online. It’s an exciting time to be working in public engagement as we strive to keep up with the new technologies.



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