Before working for Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Carolyn Royston was the Director of Digital at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Here, she led the launch of an award-winning website and initiatives to improve the visitor experience.
In 2017, she participated as a Fellow in the Getty Leadership Institute (GLI). She was also President of MCN (Museum Computer Network), a not for profit organization representing a wide range of information professionals from cultural sector institutions around the world.
As Head of Digital at Imperial War Museums (UK) from 2009-2014, Carolyn Royston was responsible for all public-facing digital outputs across five museum sites. Before that, she was Project Director of the National Museums Online Learning Project, a flagship UK project led by the V&A.
Blooloop caught up with her to hear about her background and her insights, as well as the innovative thought she is bringing to Cooper Hewitt as Chief Experience Officer. This is a bespoke role that fuses the digital and physical to create an integrated museum visitor experience.
Carolyn Royston’s early career
Carolyn Royston’s route into the digital space was unorthodox. She tells Blooloop:
“I used to be a primary school teacher. I was living in the UK and had a friend who was working in a digital agency. One of their clients was Cadbury’s Chocolate, in the early 2000s. Cadbury’s were interested in getting into schools and providing curriculum-based resources. My friend asked if I could help with the content, which I did.”
“The agency then won a contract to do something similar for British Bakeries, and I helped them with that. Then they said, ‘why don’t you just come and work for us?’ I decided that it would be interesting. I’ve always been interested in computers. Not only from a technology perspective, but just watching kids in the classroom, and how they react.
“These were the days where it was one computer in the corner of the classroom. I had really become interested in this new form of content delivery. As well as the different ways that it could be adapted for different kinds of learning styles. I was definitely coming at it from an education perspective.”
Carolyn Royston joined the agency and then shortly moved to another.
“At the same time, there was also a big drive in the UK to do digitization projects in the cultural sector. This was the NOF-Digi Project,” she says
“In this new role, we did around seven of these projects. I became interested in the opportunities around digital collections, which was still a very new idea, and the ways that they could be used. Particularly in education.”
As a result, she moved across to the museum sector, leading a flagship project, the National Museums Online Learning Project. This was funded by the Treasury’s Invest to Save initiative.
“It was led by the V&A. I moved over to be based there. The project involved working with nine national museums in the UK. It was the first time, unbelievably, that they had worked on a public-facing project together.”
Creating learning resources
“We did a three-year project, about creating learning resources for schools, searching across the nine museum collections,” says Royston. “This was in the very early days of Google.”
“In addition, the other part of the project was to try to create a social media platform that enabled people who were inspired by the collections to have a profile, share what they were doing, and connect with likeminded people.”
“For instance, a jewellery maker whose work has been inspired by butterflies that they’d seen in the Natural History Museum could upload information about that, and about their own designs. In hindsight, creating a social media platform as a museum was ambitious. Although we all learned a lot in the process, we were not really successful. However, we did create curriculum-based learning resources.”
Carolyn Royston and the Imperial War Museum
When that three-year funded project ended, Carolyn Royston moved on to the Imperial War Museum as their first digital director. She worked there for five and a half years, during which time she built up a team.
“We had a major role in the First World War centenary and built up a digital program. This included putting the collections online, as well as creating a new website, new interactive experiences in the galleries and a presence on social media.
“We were starting to see how museums were transforming their digital presence. It was moving from something on the periphery to something much more core to museum operations. Both front and back of house.”
As a result, she became interested in the skills that museum staff were going to need going forward:
“These were in terms of confidence around using digital in their work, building their digital skills, and understanding what skills needed to come into the museum, and what kinds of new professional development were going to be required.
“This came from my learning background, but I could see that it was going to become an increasingly important area. We did some things at IWM, like starting an informal computer club for staff to come and learn some digital skills in a fun way. They would get a sticker every time they came to a session. It became a bit of a talking point in the museum and in the sector.”
Digital transformation and the museum sector
Carolyn Royston began to see that her experience at the IWM of having to meet this challenge was being replicated almost universally across the museum sector.
“I left the IWM and did some consulting for about eight months,” she says. “People wanted help around what I did at IWM, and how it could also be applied to other organisations. This involved starting to think about strategy and what digital transformation means when you talk about it in a museum context.”
She had been developing a network in the US and was also regularly invited to conferences and as a speaker at events. Through those connections, she was contacted by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They asked if she would be interested in coming over to be their first director of digital.
“I had grown up in the New York area, living there from the age of 11, and then I went to college. I left the US at 22 and then this opportunity arose to come back.”
It was, she says, an interesting opportunity to experience working in a museum in another country, but a country that was already familiar:
“I had a lot of connections. I was also President of the Museum Computer Network (MCN).”
Moving to the US
In 2017, the same year she was President of MCN, Royston attended the Getty Leadership Institute as a fellow.
The programme, now called Museums Leadership Institute is the premier learning and thought leadership network for museum leaders. It is designed to help experienced senior museum executives to become better leaders to strengthen their institutions’ capabilities and advance the field.
Excited at the opportunity to explore possibilities in the US, she accepted the job at the Isabella Gardner Museum.
“I was there for just over two years, then this opportunity at Cooper Hewitt came up. Over the course of my career I had realised that, because of the route that had brought me into it, I have never come at it from a technology perspective.
“I was interested in thinking beyond digital, and also increasingly about how digital fits into an organisation. Both in terms of the entire visitor experience and also from an organizational structure perspective.”
A new role at Cooper Hewitt
Carolyn Royston realised that to be in a digital department was to be pigeonholed, almost by default:
“But working in digital in museums, you’re involved in every single aspect of museum activity, every area. It is very challenging when you’re in a department that’s at the side, or is just one department of many, when actually you’re one of the few people in a museum who is looking across the whole experience.”
This led her to make changes. She says:
“I wanted to expand my mission, my role at Cooper Hewitt. This meant actively removing ‘digital’ from my title, to make it Chief Experience Officer.”
“It is concerned with thinking about the experience across both the physical and digital spaces. And also the human interaction space. It is about looking at how those areas work across an entire visitor journey. Looking at the touchpoints, and at the responses or interventions as a museum that we need to make across those touchpoints, to make it a more holistic and seamless experience. That was my thinking.”
She pitched this idea:
“They were looking for another Director of Digital. I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to do that. I want this other role.’ They agreed. And that is how I’ve ended up where I am.”
Carolyn Royston on digital literacy
The digital literacy question has been one of the constants throughout Carolyn Royston’s career.
“And it still is,” she says. “When I left the Imperial War Museum after having that experience of thinking around how we increase digital literacy for our staff, how we make them feel more confident, how we get to a place where they’re embedding digital in their work naturally rather than it being an add-on, I realised it cannot be the responsibility of a digital team to educate the entire museum staff.
“I was a teacher. So I had a sense of how people learn, but no one else on my team came from that background.”
There is an expectation that suddenly a whole area of critical professional development should fall on a group of technologists
“Yet there is an expectation that suddenly a whole area of critical professional development should fall on a group of technologists. People who are not trained to teach. They have not signed up to be trainers. That realisation made me curious about what we need to do to address this issue. It is a universal museum challenge.”
She went to see a friend, Dr Ross Parry, who runs the Museum Studies department at the University of Leicester.
“We met for coffee in a Starbucks opposite the British Museum. “I said, ‘Look, based on my experience both at IWM and in consulting, where I have seen the same issues over and over again, I’m having these thoughts about technology, about human beings, and about what I want to do about that.’
“He is a brilliant person with an incredibly imaginative mind. He saw it straight away, and three hours later we had sketched out a research project.”
Starting a new research project
It is not, Carolyn Royston says, simply a question of skills:
“It is about leadership understanding and leadership change around key strategic areas of museum development.
“If, as a museum director, you don’t really understand or know how to ask questions about technology, then you’re unlikely to make informed decisions about what technology directions you should be taking as an institution.”
“This concerns anything from investment in IT infrastructure to the gallery visitor experience, to the website. The irony, bringing it right back to today, is that the pandemic is highlighting exactly why it’s important. Because we’ve all had to pivot to this digital environment.
“The museums that are better equipped, that have a strategy, that have the right resourcing, are the ones that are being more successful in the digital realm right now. The others are suddenly having to invent a whole online presence. This means expecting staff who normally don’t work in the sphere to be on a steep learning curve.”
Again, she points out, the pressure is on the digital teams to support the organisation in this environment. While also carrying out their own work.
“It was clear that there was a really interesting research project. Ross and I worked on this idea. I left to come to the States, and he continued and got funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to do a project called One by One.”
One by One
One by One was a 30-month national digital literacy building project for UK museums of all sizes.
It aimed to help institutions better define, improve, measure and embed the digital literacy of their staff and volunteers across all roles and levels, building their practical skills with digital learning initiatives, and enabling them to embed digital skills and knowledge in their work.
Carolyn Royston explains:
“It was important that the project wasn’t just a research project for academics. It was rooted in the real-life challenges and problems of museums, aiming for an output would be useful for museums.
“They invited six museums to be part of this; national museums, and smaller, regional ones. The project ran for two and a half years, and suddenly everything that I’d been talking about became part of a national agenda. An understanding that improving digital skills was critical to the long-term ambitions of the cultural sector.”
Understanding digital projects
The interesting point about the One by One project, Carolyn Royston says, is that it focuses on skills that are less about learning to use Photoshop, and more about understanding agile project management, using collaborative tools in different ways, and understanding what goes into making a digital project:
“What are the skills across each of the different functions that the staff need to have? What does it mean if you’re working in marketing? Or what does it mean if you’re working in education, what does it mean if you’re working in fundraising? How do all these fit together?”
What do leaders in the cultural sector need to know and understand, and how does that get translated into actionable insight
“At the leadership level, what do leaders in the cultural sector need to know and understand, and how does that get translated into actionable insight? Is it about coaching at the leadership level in digital?
“Is it about moving the digital leader in your organization into a more strategic position, where they have more influence and can advocate at a higher level, or is it a different model altogether? If you’re a smaller museum, you may not have a digital leader, so where is that leadership? Where is that decision making? How is that going to happen?
“I’m trying to open up conversations around the very issues and challenges that we’re seeing right now.”
Digital at the Smithsonian
Carolyn Royston stayed involved in the One by One project at a distance:
“Ross and I continue to talk. I also wanted to see whether it was possible to bring this project over to the US in some form. Because the issues are exactly the same. It’s an international issue.
“I saw a huge opportunity to work within the Smithsonian on this project because within the Smithsonian there are 19 different units. They’re a microcosm of a bigger museum landscape.
“Could we also do some form of the One by One project in the US, and how could that potentially impact the challenges we have at the Smithsonian, which are about having to raise digital literacy across the organization?”
One of the strategic goals of the Smithsonian, she says, is to reach 1 billion people:
“It is an ambition that will require enormous digital reach and engagement. How could we position the Smithsonian to be able to do that? We brought the project over with Ross, and got some funding, again, from AHRC.
“So we are in the middle of One by One UK/US 2020, which is the second part of the research project. I’m very happy to be saying that I’m continuing the whole digital literacy and raising digital confidence idea here in the US, as well, on top of my day job.”
Fusing digital and physical spaces at Cooper Hewitt
Her day job concerns what she is doing with Cooper Hewitt in terms of a fusion of digital and physical spaces.
“This is very much a work in progress, and it’s also an unusual position to have. Essentially, I manage a series of teams under ranging from IT, digital and AV in the galleries to customer relationship management (CRM), accessibility, and visitor experience, so the building as well.”
“Cooper Hewitt has a staff of about a hundred. It is possible to do this role in that way because of its size. It wouldn’t be possible to do this role at the V&A, or the Met, or the Tate, because of the number of people you would have to manage. That would make no sense.
“My role at Cooper Hewitt is a role that I have crafted. But I recognise that it’s quite specific to where I am now.”
Reimagining the visitor experience
On her arrival at Cooper Hewitt, Carolyn Royston had to build a new digital team. Plus, she had to consider how to bring these areas together.
“One of the challenges for the museum is that it is quite technology-driven,” she says. “It has some specific technology given out to visitors which drives the visitor experience. But that is coming to the end of its life.”
We are a design museum, so let’s define our visitor experience in view as if we’re trying to solve our own design challenge
“The challenge and the opportunity that I saw here was what the evolution of the visitor experience might be.”
The tech that launched whenCooper Hewitt reopened in 2014 got lots of publicity. It put the museum on the map in terms of technology. Royston says:
“I was interested in how that could be followed. I had this idea that I wanted to think about a new, re-imagined visitor experience in a way that was public, and that involved different types of people. We are a design museum, so let’s define our visitor experience in view as if we’re trying to solve our own design challenge.”
The Interaction Lab at Cooper Hewitt
“I came up with this idea of creating an R&D space specifically tasked with looking at visitor experience issues across the museum, and visitor experience in the broader sense, digital, physical, and human.
“You see R&D labs in museums, but they tend to be innovation labs, driven by technology, doing interesting work. They are often at the side, not integrated into the museum. They are hard to sustain as a model because at crunch times, like now, you would say, ‘Is this really critical to the mission and the priorities for the museum?’”
“I wanted to create an ‘interaction lab’: purposely not ‘innovation’, but ‘interaction’. The idea was to ask, how do we engage our visitors across these touchpoints? What are those interactions that we want to try to encourage? At what points do we want to do that?
“It is about considering visitor experience from a holistic view, rather than simply putting some more tech in the galleries. I decided that I really didn’t want to go that route. So, at the beginning of 2019, I created the Interaction Lab.”
Collaborations and partnerships
“Rachel Ginsberg helps me to run it and she comes from the experience design perspective. We spent most of last year working up a strategy for this lab, around partnerships.”
It is a lab without walls, says Carolyn Royston:
“It’s not a physical space in the museum. We purposely did that, so that we could foster collaborations outside of the museum, and opportunities to work with anybody from a single designer to a big tech firm.
“Part of the project is about developing partnerships that will help us to experiment and prototype in R&D in ways that wouldn’t be possible on our own. Either from a skillset perspective or in terms of access to emerging technology or expertise.”
Another area is the Creative Commissioning Program:
“This is so that we could have small scale commissions that we can send out to different kinds of parties depending on what the project might be, whether that’s a designer, a tech firm or a digital agency, to experiment with different kinds of visitor experience ideas that may not all be digitally based.
“The idea of the commissions is to create a series of R&D experiences. Prototypes that we may then spin up into something on a larger scale for the museum, and that we would test with visitors. We would learn and iterate and, where we are successful, work further.”
Involving the public
The project also involves a public programme, which has been running at Cooper Hewitt since last September:
“It is around what we are doing. It also speaks to the big, universal questions and challenges for museums. What are museums grappling with right now? What are we grappling with at Cooper Hewitt that we know other museums are as well?
“We designed the program to be how we want to run the lab, which is to make sure that the public programs weren’t just speakers on a stage presenting projects, and then people doing a Q and A. What we really wanted was to create sessions, programs that were genuinely participatory and collaborative.
“We not only tried to pick interesting topics and bring in people that aren’t necessarily from the museum sector, but to design the sessions to encourage people to go into the museum as part of the session, do some active exploration around the topics, and then come back together and share what they’ve learned.
“The sessions range from one on AI, one on interaction and storytelling, one on body storming and access. For this session, we invited three disabled dancers to come in and to talk about their relationship to and experience of museums. They took the audience into the galleries and led activities in the museum.
“For that one, we kept the audience to 50; for the others, our capacity in the museum is just over a hundred. They were all sold out. One session was on information design and storytelling; another linked to architecture.”
“How do you link together your stories and your collections to be able to present in interesting and new ways?” asks Royston.
“Each time, we had the people that were presenting do an introduction to the subject, and then take groups into the galleries to run activities with them. The response to it was unexpected. The people that were signing up to the event were museum professionals, designers, technologists, funding bodies.”
“It was extraordinary. The museum people were across a whole span of functions. From technologists to exhibition designers, to interpretation people, to marketing people.”
Carolyn Royston realised that these sessions were conversations that people across the board wanted to have and that they weren’t happening anywhere else:
“The cross-section and the cross-function was really interesting. I think we have had representation from every single museum across the New York area.”
And then the pandemic hit.
Pandemic as Portal
“We wanted to keep running our programs, but in the spirit of our in-person ones: how could we do the collaboration? How could we do the participation? How could we keep the spirit of the interaction lab? We were starting to get a little fan club. There were people who were coming to each one, wanting to know when the next would be.
“And there were people outside New York who were saying, ‘Oh, I wish you were streaming these.’ We hadn’t really got to that place, but suddenly we were in this online situation and we thought we should have a go at running one online, and see what happened.”
The result was an event at the beginning of May called ‘Pandemic as Portal: Exploring the in-between’.
Carolyn Royston says:
“It was based on an article that we had seen in the Financial Times. This was around the idea that we’re going to be leaving things behind and moving into this new normal, this new future. What are we going to take with us? And where are we going, what is going to look different for us, and as museum professionals, what does that look like?
“We had also been playing with Miro, an online collaborative tool that enables you to use it like a whiteboard. We decided to use that as our tool so that people could collaborate and participate. The museum had registrations from 21 different countries, and 40 museums in the US.”
Designing the visitor experience
On the day, nearly 200 people participated:
“We ran this session where we had breakout groups, we asked some questions and we invited people to contribute through the board, which is now an artefact of the event. We got great feedback.
“It was a little bit chaotic, having 200 people use a collaborative tool. We learned how to better manage things. And also that onboarding people with a new piece of software is not simple. We’re planning to run another session as a partner to this one. Now we’re in this online environment, we want to build a program so that we’re having more regular sessions.”
Carolyn Royston’s team also received funding from a US foundation. This is to support the running of some public program events specifically around reimagining Cooper Hewitt’s visitor experience.
“We will be working with a much smaller group, probably the same people, over three workshops. We will be taking the program and adapting it for a more specific purpose. It’s still public, but it’s not insane. We will be writing about it and sharing. Part of this is about wanting to design it out in the open.”
Carolyn Royston on COVID-19
The pandemic, Carolyn Royston feels, will also accelerate trends that were already beginning to be perceptible for some time.
“Having more of a diversified revenue stream is one consideration,” she says. “Besides just the café and shop, what other opportunities are out there, in the digital space, to think about in terms of content or experiences or an offer that could be chargeable? What would that look like?”
“Is there an opportunity to develop digital membership, and more of these subscription models that we’re seeing with industries like Netflix? How can museums adapt to more of a digital-first environment? Although we’re opening again, we’re opening to much smaller numbers. We need to consider what the experience looks like in a museum in a physical space now, and how we adapt.”
Examples from the UK
Citing an example being trialled in London, she says:
“I saw an interesting video Will Gompertz [the BBC’s arts editor] did about the National Gallery, which has moved from people being able to wander around to a model where they follow one of three curation routes through the museum.”
Gompertz found that being led through the museum was an unexpectedly interesting experience.
“What are the new visitor experience opportunities?” says Royston. “We are in this very challenging environment in terms of physical space. But what are the digital opportunities, and what does this mean in terms of how we resource things going forward? Coming back to this digital skills question, do our staff have the skills to be able to operate and maximise the opportunity in an online environment?”
The Pandemic as Portal session at Cooper Hewitt is an example of how digital can draw an audience of 200 people from across the world together to share their ideas.
“There are 6,000 employees at the Smithsonian,” says Carolyn Royston. “In our public program, when we came back together from our breakout groups, one person spoke up and said, ‘I work at the Smithsonian in Washington. I’ve just been in a breakout group with another person from the Smithsonian who I’d never met before and had an opportunity to talk to.’”
Even within our own organization, the digital environment affords new ways of communicating
“Even within our own organization, the digital environment affords new ways of communicating, different ways of interacting, and new opportunities.
“They’re not better than in-person; they’re just different. So how do we take the normal models of programming, where you have speakers who come in, and people come and listen to them.
“What can we do that might be different? Or what can we do if people can’t visit? What does being a virtual tourist look like? How would we want a virtual tourist to experience Cooper Hewitt? What does a virtual school trip look like? We need to establish the ways in which we can bring Cooper Hewitt to life in a virtual space. One that isn’t trying to replace a physical visit, but is using the digital environment to enhance the experience.”
Adjusting to the new normal
Without question, Carolyn Royston says, the situation is opening up interesting possibilities. However:
“It’s all still so new. Even though it feels like it’s been forever, it has really been hardly any time at all. What happens when we reopen to the public? What might it look like six months, a year, or two years from now?
“I think we’ll continue to evolve and look different. As museums, we just can’t carry on in the way that we have. There is a new normal. Each institution needs to figure out what that new normal looks like. Both in terms of the logistics and the operational side.”
“On the visitor experience side, and also organisationally, where do we need to make changes? Where do we need to be thinking in different ways? Where do we need to be supporting staff, in terms of having the skills to be able to work in these new ways?
“Everybody has had to adapt to working in this online environment, using Zoom, using Skype, using Microsoft Teams. What does that mean when we translate it into the visitor experience? And what are the things that we should be not just offering, but now building into our programmatic work?
“We will have some people on site. But there needs to be a recognition that visitation is likely to be small for a long time. Particularly in cities where tourism is huge. How do we build and develop an online program in a strategic way?”
One interesting development has been a big increase in Cooper Hewitt’s international reach.
Carolyn Royston says:
“Again, just like the Pandemic is Portal event, suddenly Cooper Hewitt also has an opportunity to reach a much wider audience. Essentially, what we have to understand is: what is our value, and what are our values? We need to establish how we position ourselves to focus on the things that matter.”