It’s strange to think of an Egyptian statue of Rameses from 1250BC, Ice Age sculptures, or the Rosetta stone and their place in a digital world. The awe-inspiring physicality of the things feel so at odds with The Cloud, or an app, or words like “omnichannel” that are bandied around so readily and confusingly. As head of digital at the British Museum, Chris Michaels’ job is to examine these conundrums, moving the organisation and its BC-dated objects firmly into the 21st Century. This week he’ll be discussing the future of multiplatform media at the Remix creative summit, so we picked his brains about the role of new technologies in promoting very, very old objects.
How important is digital to museums, galleries and other cultural sites?
Mobile, social, big data, the internet of things – those big thematic areas are bringing together what the museum has always done, which is attract millions of people a year into a single space to encounter objects, with a digital conversation about our collections and their stories through digital channels. The outcome of that encounter will reaffirm the incredible value museums have in a very potent new way.
“Be robust, be ambitious and be creative with what you can do with digital.”
How do you align working with pieces that are often so old or so iconic, and bringing them to a digital audience?
Start by being 1000% respectful, but also recognise that if something’s survived 50,000, 5,000 or 500 years, it can probably hold on to its meaning as people like me start messing about with it on the interweb. So be robust, be ambitious and be creative with what you can do with it.
Which institutions do you think use digital well, or in innovative ways?
There’s a lot of great stuff out there at the Met, or the Rijksmuseum. SF Moma does phenomenal stuff. Some of the smaller museums do amazing things despite incredible resource constraints. But no-one’s yet created a truly complete “digital” museum experience where internet-based content, products and services touch and positively elevate every one of a museum’s contact points with its audiences. That’s the challenge for the next five years.
How can online platforms drive physical footfall to spaces? Is that as important today?
We can see the part web, mobile and social play in the visit planning process already, but this can grow. The most interesting answer to that question might be in how we get people around the building once they’re here – the distribution of people through our space is inevitably very uneven, and we can do a huge amount more with mobile in particular to get people to every nook and cranny of our 90+ galleries.
How important is it to turn online visitors to those that visit the actual museum? How do the two audiences work in terms of financial value to the organisation?
Museums don’t value their audiences based on their commercial value alone. The distinction between two audience types is a little binary. A large part of our commercial income comes from exhibition ticket sales, the majority of which are sold online. Same story with annual membership sales. Online transactional behaviour and physical visits to the Museum are deeply interconnected. Mobile is collapsing the distinction between our physical and virtual audiences. Within two years, a majority of our audience will be accessing our digital products and services via mobile devices, and millions of our visitors already use mobiles as part of their visit to us now. If we can correctly leverage mobile, it won’t matter whether a visitor is in London or Timbuktu – we’ll understand the value we can add to their British Museum experience, and be adding it, in real-time.
How do you feel museums and cultural institutions can best engage their audience through digital?
Museums are highly diverse ecosystems of marketing, commerce, content and services. We have to learn to think of ourselves as offering an omnichannel experience where we are connected to, understanding of, and providing deep value to our audiences in all the ways they interact with us. Building out that experience is a big project, but a genuinely transformative one.
What do you think the future of multi-platform media is? What platforms will become more or less important?
If multi-platform as a concept is to be genuinely meaningful – and it’s still comparatively early in that journey – then all media has to become more important not less. We like to think of digital as being a fragmented, atomised market, but I think it’s becoming clearer every day to me that it was the old 20th Century model which was deeply problematic. Simply put, it was organised to keep different forms of storytelling apart, in nice, neat, rights-controlled packages. Digital, seemingly organically, refuses that neatness, and multi-platform media, which to me is what happens when all media can be accessed via digital channels, can and should refuse that old world separatism. Bringing all your storytelling capability together, putting it in one big creative pot, and seeing what magic comes out is a great opportunity, and anyone connected with media should relish taking it.
Finally, what’s your favourite piece in the British Museum collection and why?
How do you pick a favourite out of eight million things? I find an incredible power in those parts of the collection that show human beings doing things for the first time – the hand axes, sculpture from the ice age, ancient Babylonian clay tablets, or bits of Egyptian papyrus where fundamental activities like maths or art or writing emerged for the very very first time. They are deeply moving in showing us what it means to be human.
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