The British Museum, housing what is arguably the world’s finest and most important collection of artefacts, first opened in 1759 with the purpose of giving the whole world access to the whole world.
Two hundred and fifty years later, the institution’s Head of Digital & Publishing, Chris Michaels, has been tasked with finally making that founding dream come true.
It is a monumental objective but Michaels firmly believes that with the internet and digital coming of age, it is now possible to ‘take the history of mankind to all of mankind’ and share the museum’s treasures with the world’s 7 billion people.
He spoke to Blooloop about his strategy for leading the digital transformation of this historic museum.
A mix of experience
Michaels describes his professional background, which encompasses mobile, digital, television and book publishing, as “very mixed and unpredictable.”
With a PhD in English Literature, coming back to academia is, Michaels says, “a nice way to square the circle … being amongst hundreds of academics without having to write the three hundred thousand word thesis.”
Before joining the British Museum in 2014, he was joint founder and CEO of Mindshapes, a publisher of educational apps for children. After selling the company Michael’s found that his particular mix of experience was exactly what the Museum was looking for at that time:
“By pure happenstance, the things that they needed somebody to do were the things I knew how to do. It just seemed like an amazing opportunity that kind of fell out of the sky at an interesting moment.”
Creating the vision
The task ahead seems hugely ambitious. The British Museum is home to a staggering 8 million objects, just 1% of which are on display at any one time. With many objects unable to be on permanent display because of light sensitivity, the option of exhibiting them digitally seems an ideal fit. How did Michaels create the vision to connect this wealth of artefacts with a global audience?
“Setting the vision was the really simple bit in a way. The first time I came [to the museum] for an interview I walked around and thought, why does this matter for the internet? You could see that we were reaching a moment in time where the things that matter in digital now will matter for a museum.
“Mobile will matter for a museum – you can see people using social media here all the time. Museums publish books – books are changing hugely because of digital and what ebooks mean. We work on TV programmes and radio programmes and that’s all being changed because of digital. The time has come where a great historic museum and digital feel right together.
“The Museum’s Director (Neil MacGregor) asked the question, what’s the museum for? It’s a place where the whole world could get access to the whole world.
“Well, that’s a brilliant 18th century enlightenment dream but it has never been possible because you need something that gives you access to the whole world to make that dream happen. Now, you combine that enlightenment dream with what the internet can do and actually, sometime in the next 20 years, the reason that the British Museum was founded becomes possible for the first time. So, that’s what we should do – we should fulfil that 250 year-old dream and take the history of mankind to all of mankind.”
Connecting with a global audience
What Michaels describes as ‘a very simple idea’ is not quite so simple in practice.
“That was a Day 1 moment of clarity, ” he says, “Then you just say, what does it take to do that?”
So, what does it take?
“Well, we’ve got to get mobile right because that’s what brings and connects the audience outside to the audience inside the museum. Half of our audience now looks at our website on their mobile phones. They’re all carrying mobile phones as they walk through the door. And, what connects that experience together? Social media – every day thousands and thousands of pictures get taken here and put onto facebook, instagram, twitter, so it’s a part of the life of the place.
“So, mobile’s one theme. Social media is another. And then, all that stuff is generating data so we have to really understand the museum and what big data means for it. What is all this information about? How is it all connected together?
“Those were our themes and now we’re doing a 5 year process of investigating those themes to try to do three things:
“One is to increase our reach, we want to get to 7 billion people with our message. In the next 5 years let’s get to hundreds and hundreds of millions of people. We get about 45 to 55 million people a year to our website, the people who come here and the TV and radio – let’s work out how to get that to hundreds of millions.
“And, then, we look at engagement. Let’s get social media followers, our databases, to tens of millions of people.
“And, besides that, let’s figure out how to make more money because hard times are coming, a government spending review comes in the autumn and all that stuff. The museum needs to be more self-sufficient and the kind of things that digital can bring in different ways will bring more money into the museum. So we need to figure out how to do that.”
The big dig – installing public access wifi
A fundamental requirement of “getting mobile right” is high-speed connectivity throughout the museum. No small task in itself.
“Our first core project was to deliver public access wifi for the whole museum. That’s a very big painful infrastructure project – 9 months of digging cable, 13.5 miles of cable throughout the walls of the British Museum. There are 91 public galleries here and each of those has access to incredibly fast wifi that’s like a baseline for everything that were going to do. It gives us the potential to do individual apps for each gallery, for having a general visitor app, for having real time mapping.”
At The British Museum, Mobile matters
“Mobile has changed so much about how we operate in the digital space and in the publishing space more broadly. You know exactly how people use an app from the moment they first turn it on to the moment that they don’t come back ever again and that picture of what a member of the audience does is impossible in most types of media. It gives you so much more control over what you do.”
The museum is launching its first batch of apps, starting with visitor apps and individual gallery apps.
“We then have options for different types of audio guides. We understand now that if we say ‘mobile’s the priority’, then, if we build a new website, the mobile version of it should be the most important thing. Equally, if we think about ecommerce then we need to make our mobile basket work brilliantly well. All the rules about how you run box offices get broken by mobile so you’ve just got to think from that perspective first.”
Apps – a value transaction with the audience
So, will the apps feed into Michaels’ ideas around data gathering?
“Yes. We are in a value transaction with the audience. By understanding what the audience is doing we can then make better products and better experiences for that audience.
“It’s a trade-off between the two, ” he says. “We are super-concerned about data privacy, of course we are, but for us to make the best stuff for people we have to understand what people are actually doing.”
And, does he believe that users understand that now?
“I think they do. There’s an ongoing example in one of the American museums where they figured out where the museum was data-tracking people from and did a lovely map of it on the internet and that’s all part of the cultural exchange in a museum.”
It’s true to say, however, that while museums in general were rushing to build apps a few years ago, many are now taking a step back to re-evaluate.
“We probably won’t ever do apps that we get people to pay for, ” says Michaels. “It doesn’t seem to me to be the most obvious thing to buy, but think of guidebooks. Very simply you could make those into a beautiful tablet-based app. The boundaries between these things get very slippery, very fast.”
Making social media meaningful
Social media is another vibrant and crowded marketplace requiring quality content which Michaels insists needs to be “genuinely meaningful and engaging”.
“In the last three months we’ve been doing a lot of stuff with Periscope, a brilliant ‘straight from mobile to twitter’ piece of technology and we’ve made three shows so far: two from inside exhibitions and one a ‘behind the scenes’ feature from one of our shows launched last week and just an amazingly intimate relationship between our curators and the global digital audience. It doesn’t cost anything and gets you huge impact very fast and we need to do more of that because that’s what gets you scale on your audience.
“When we did our first Periscope show, we went from our normal reach of about 2 million people a day on twitter to 6 million. Our Google search volume went up by 250%. Huge numbers come back from it because you’re making interesting content for an audience that wants to hear about it.”
A slightly less welcome by-product of opening up so many direct channels of communication with the museum’s audience is that it works both ways. Much of the feedback is welcome, but some inevitably less so. How does the museum deal with online complaints?
“You have to build in customer services because where people used to ring up to complain they’re actually now tweeting from outside the door of your exhibition. Museums are probably lucky in terms of not being like airlines or banks in that the voracity of the complaint is lower. As a service provider the complaint is taking place in public and you have to respond properly and you’re not set up to do that, so it’s very different culturally.
“We have our controversies like anyone and you have to work out how to deal with that and still say interesting things without being bland. That’s the challenge with social media – that direct contact with the audience can be tough.”
The Museum’s social media team is still very small and is concentrating its efforts on strategy:
“We have big research projects to understand what the best looks like in this space because I don’t think any competitor organisations are really pushing the boat very far. We have to look outside the sector because the numbers are going up anyway whatever you do so, if you want to really superstar up, you have to think about it carefully.”
Michaels is clear that editorial content is king. He explains, “Story is the thing that most interests people and that’s where the British Museum should be strongest. We are this amazing repository of millions and millions of stories and that’s what people want to hear about and that can then support your exhibition marketing. Ultimately, facebook and twitter are storytelling platforms and that’s what people want.”
A 4-stage digital strategy
A self-confessed fan of balanced scorecards, how does he define his KPIs?
“I’m a strategy person at heart, ” he says. “I think that’s what the museum wanted from me – to run it as a strategy. I’m not using a scorecard here, actually, but what I wanted us to be very clear on was being goal-led and be demonstrable on the KPIs that support that and then to have a process that is structured.
“So the digital strategy has 4 stages. First context – financing vision and goals and understanding what the media wanted from us and that took a year to do. This year is about making it real – doing a lot of projects very fast – some of which will go brilliantly but some of which will go terribly but just keeping it moving quickly to validate to stakeholders that things are starting to change. Next year is scalability and sustainability – how you make enduring business models that are meaningful. Once that’s all worked we take the benefits in the last few years and scale it up again.
“I just want it to be clear and structured because digital can be very fluid – you’re changing things all the time and, for anyone not connected with it moment on moment, it’s very easy to lose sight of what the group is doing and to understand it.”
Understanding the audience
The museum already has a well-developed website, with 2 million objects from the collection currently accessible to the public online. So, how does Michaels envisage taking the leap from reach to engagement and enlightenment?
“I think that’s where you have to understand the audience, ” he says.
The Museum’s audience can be thought of in discrete segments and each needs to be addressed.
“Visitors need to come here and have an amazing time afterwards and we have to engage with that. Academics have very specific needs from us. The museum’s collection is at the heart of almost any archaeological, historic or anthropological study around the world so you have to service that audience in a very different way to visitors. Then 300, 000 school children come here every year and their needs are different again.”
However, Michaels says that “in some ways, the most interesting segment is the audience that never comes to the museum. It’s that media audience that we want to tell stories to all over the world. We need the best relationships with film and TV companies to get our stuff out there; telling the story about the collection in public.”
Michaels has a complementary role as a director on the commercial side of the British Museum. With his digital background, how does Michaels plan to generate revenue streams from his digital audience?
“The strength of the museum and gallery sector is that we’re tripartite in the way were funded – public sector, philanthropic and commercial revenues. ecommerce is about optimisation. Understanding the most efficient way to help someone buy a ticket online will probably be better for us than trying to think of an amazing app. We know there’s a demand for exhibitions and we’re brilliant at doing them, so let’s make it the best possible experience to buy those tickets.”
Tapping into technology
And is there anything around developing technology that excites him?
“There’s lots of interesting R&D around audio guides or Ask Google to tell you where things are in a museum. I can ask in English but I can’t ask in Mandarin and all our visitor services guys can’t speak Mandarin. How do you use the internet to make our visitor experience better? There’s so much untapped potential and we’re not going to build AI ourselves – let Google and Apple take care of that – but we can utterly be side beneficiaries of that.
“Things like Virtual Reality are all good for museums. We ran a test running an SEN class for a group in the US with telepresence robots. It’s a brilliant thing and people loved seeing the robots in the gallery. All those things have some value – none of them will probably transform the museums but we welcome them in and from my point of view if people give us the technology for free I’m happy.
“I think that what’s exciting for museums – a lot of the trends for the next 5 years are super-applicable to us and we can be side beneficiaries.”
New director – new direction?
The British Museum has recently appointed a new Director, Dr Hartwig Fischer, who will take up the post in Spring 2016. Does Michaels foresee any change of course for the institution’s far reaching digital strategy?
“It is impossible to think that any great director wouldn’t see the potential of digital, ” he says.
Images kind courtesy of The British Museum