So. Here we are. There’s a lot going on and we’re all just trying to roll with the punches.
Amongst ‘all this’, one of the many things that might be happening is that your manager, who perhaps previously wasn’t that interested in digital innovation, is suddenly demanding to know where and when you will be putting every digital image of your collections that you can lay a glove on online. And could ‘when’ be now, today, immediately?
This is entirely understandable. But in a rush to digital, important things sometimes get forgotten. Why you’re doing what you’re doing. The needs of your audience. Who precisely you’re aiming to reach. You need to take some time to think about these things.
You will be under pressure not to do this. And there’s absolutely nothing stopping you shoving some nice scans on Instagram to buy some time (…or would Pinterest be better?). But having bought that time, take a breath and have a think.
There are tools to help you structure those thoughts. I’m quite fond of this project canvas from Clearleft, even though it’s a bit old now. Its first question is ‘what audience needs are we satisfying?’. Think about what people need right now – it’s not the same for everyone. Some people are looking for distractions, resources, teaching material, ways of contributing. Other people…not so much.
In order to move activity online, first think about the digital assets you might already have published. Does your institution have content on Art UK or Watercolour World? Have you added content to Wikimedia Commons (or has a helpful Wikipedian done it for you)? What microsites have you produced over the years? What educational resources do you have?
If you have a blog, it might be time to mine some of your favourite or most successful posts – if you don’t know what those are it’s time to revisit stats you might not have examined for a while.
Now is the time for this content to repay your investment in it and really sing for its supper. We often invest more in doing digital projects than talking about them. Now is the time to adopt the opposite approach. Your existing catalogue or collections you have in or can add to Discovery, even without scans being available, can start a conversation, whether it’s a manuscript warning about Welsh giants, astrologers predicting air raids or pirate treasure.
What sessions that you used to run on site, could you realistically run on a platform such as Gotomeeting, Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate? If you are used to using social media to regularly post some interesting image from your collection, now may be the time to step things up a bit, have more of two-way conversation with your audience and ask them what they want from you at this time. Are there transcription, tagging or creative activities they could join in with?
But if your organisation has persistently underinvested in digital for years it may be that, having looked at what you have, you feel the cupboard is comparatively bare. Now then is the time for some thoughtful experimentation.
Let’s take a platform like TED Education. Now’s there’s a brand. It’s very easy to pop in and build a resource around a YouTube video – it could be a TED talk or it could be something else. Here’s a lesson (in the language of the platform) on the Great Library of Alexandria with over a million views. The considerations here are around the constraints of the platform. Lessons consist of a video, some text, multiple choice questions and a space for discussion. And that’s it. Does that meet the need you had in mind? If it doesn’t, this isn’t the platform for you.
The same applies everywhere. Google Arts and Culture, a platform run by the not-for-profit Google Cultural Institute, offers increasingly sophisticated tools for institutions prepared to use them creatively. You can initiate the process of sign up right here. But how familiar are you with this platform? Would you, have you, used it yourself? What would your existing users make of it? Some of the content is pretty much a slide show. Does it meet your and their needs?
There are many interesting Google tools that don’t require partnering with the GCI – from maps to their virtual tour creator. If you’re looking for an open source alternative for sharing collections, then Omeka (also available as a hosted service) remains an interesting place to start. Or maybe it’s time to get your hands dirty with WordPress or Github Pages.
Of course, you already have a website. Why can’t you put content there? If you struggle with this it is perhaps because IT colleagues have not made this easy. Now is the time to send your (possibly too) enthusiastic manager off to try to resolve this. The opportunity to gain greater control over your web presence may not recur for some time. Don’t waste it.
Tools are not in short supply. You like maps? Try Historypin or Layers of London (it works north of Watford). Esri let you make storymaps (as my colleague Caroline Catchpole has described) but so does the Knight Foundation. In fact, journalists are excellent at digital storytelling and many interesting and powerful tools covering a wide range of use cases and functions can be found via Hackastory.
Above all, make sure you are writing for the platform you are working on. If we just cut and paste exhibition text on to a website, we will end up with a very strange website. We have to produce content that reflects the functions and norms of the sites we are using. Take the time to learn what these are or your approach is unlikely to succeed. More in depth consideration of access and engagement can be found in Tate’s Access Toolkit, or in our Plugged in, Powered Up strategy document.
Old fashioned Reithian principles of inform, educate and entertain can still serve us – just think, how can your collection help today? How can it put what is happening into some context? How can it make things better? And – here’s a final hint – the answer is probably not this.
Stay safe, good luck and take it slow.