Image: proposed new Museum of London in West Smithfield
Museums are obsessed with physicality. Not only the physicality of the objects in their care, but also the often impressive buildings they inhabit and the people who visit. That's not to say that there are not exemplary non-physical museums in the digital realm (there are) it's that in the most part, the museum sector is characterised by an interest in the three dimensional. Without access to objects, buildings and people what is the role of museums? Put another way, how are museums able to achieve their aims in lockdown?
Did you see that meme going around at the start of lockdown…"Who led the digital transformation of your company? (a) CEO (b) CTO (c) COVID-19"? This was certainly true of the Museum of London and I suspect many museums too. Thus, I hope our experience at the Museum of London serves as a useful case study for how museums are adapting to a world where objects, buildings and people are more or less off limits; yet museums can still achieve their aims or modified versions of them.
Our mission at the Museum of London is, in short, to enhance the understanding and appreciation of London and all its people - past, present, future. One of the ways we do this is to take good care of the stuff of London, by acting as proud custodians of the Capital's material culture. Even though that's not the only way we can be a shared place where London's stories cross and collide, if you look at our spectrum of activities over the years you would notice an emphasis on the physical punctuated with the occasional digital project (some of which have been wildly successful, others less so.)
Also intrinsic to our ethos is the idea of our doors staying open. And while there was much internal debate in 2018, when our new brand framework was developed with Londoners, about whether this concept should be literal or metaphorical we didn't really spend much time, if any, thinking about what it might mean for our doors to stay open if business continuity was ever disrupted.
And so, in mid-March 2020, as the doors to our buildings literally closed, ‘Project Doors Stay Open’ was born.
Project Doors Stay Open brings together 30 “content heroes” from across the organisation (roughly two representatives from each department) who swarm around a monthly theme to plan and deliver three streams of digital content: commissioned (i.e. new), classic (i.e. old) and current (i.e. partially finished before lockdown) - which is shared to audiences via our website, our social media channels and third party partners.
In just under a decade of my career at the Museum of London I have never experienced such successful cross-departmental collaboration and communication as I witness with Project Doors Stay Open. I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined that this could be achieved through virtual team working. Project Doors Stay Open's leadership plays no small part in its success. While the direction to redirect resources towards digital output came from senior management early on - if memory serves correctly this was discussed at a Leadership Team meeting of directors and heads of department before our offices even closed and when a UK lockdown was speculation - Project Doors Stay Open was conceived of jointly by Social Media Manager, Laura Muldoon, and PR Manager, Katie Balcombe. These individuals are not senior leaders within the organisation, but they are adept at bringing people together, a skill which has proved as essential in a virtual environment as it is in a physical.
There are three other elements to the success of Project Doors Stay Open.
The first is that it builds upon the consultancy of museum studies PhD student Lauren Vargas who developed a tailored digital content playbook during a placement at the Museum of London. Lauren's expert recommendations had started to be adopted here and there, but a question remained as to when we would fully realise the outcomes of this work. Project Doors Stay Open operates using a model designed for us by Lauren. Without this I suspect a typically bricks and mortar museum like ours, with predominantly project-based digital experience, may have found ourselves lacking direction and struggling to get going.
The second is the interplay with collecting - arguably the core function of a museum. Just because our curators can't access our collections right now, doesn't mean they aren't thinking about how to represent Londoners’ experience of Covid-19 in our collection for the benefit of future generations. The Museum of London has form with rapid response, contemporary collecting ranging from the Whitechapel fatberg to Londoners thoughts on Brexit and tweets about the London 2012 Olympics. Our Covid Collecting project is contingent on engagement with Londoners and therefore, Project Doors Stay Open has to act as a conduit to get this message out and create a dialogue. At the Museum of London, we’re preoccupied with our objective to open a new museum in West Smithfield, and it is highly likely that visitors will expect to find out about Londoners' experience of the pandemic creating an urgency for Covid Collecting.
Thirdly, the success of Project Doors Stay Open relies on good marketing and PR. Research consistently tells us that, in normal circumstances, the Museum of London's locations and brand awareness are the greatest barriers to visit (as Head of Communications this is genuinely what keeps me up at night). While the relocation to West Smithfield deals with the location issue for our primary site in the City at least, awareness raising is a long-term, cumulative goal. Lockdown should not be a reason for us to become complacent with our corporate aim just to become “better known”. On the one hand, potential news stories generated through Project Doors Stay Open receive the same PR efforts as our regular programme would in normal times. This means our Covid Collecting activity, new VE Day content and the digitisation of our 2019 Disease X exhibition (about the anniversary of the Spanish Flu which touched on cities and pandemics) have all featured in mainstream media outlets. On the other hand, Project Doors Stay Open content is supported by modest, but well targeted, paid promotion to help people looking online for the kind of content the Museum of London does best to find out it exists. And if this all sounds like what we might have done before lockdown, that's because it is. We're playing to our strengths of insightful and creative marketing and PR. It just so happens that what we are promoting right now exists entirely in the digital domain. For the Museum of London, this is a first.
It would of course be remiss of me not to mention the gargantuan effort of our IT department to enable an organisation with limited experience of remote working into a virtual organisation overnight, without which any digital activity would have fallen at the first hurdle. This of course could be an entire blog in itself!
I will freely admit that what I've painted is a reasonably rosy picture of how the Museum of London has adapted to our current context. And there are many other museums and cultural organisations doing wonderful work online.
There are, however, two questions yet to be answered. If other museum executive teams are anything like ours, these questions are the topics of virtual museum boardroom discussions across the country.
The first is perhaps more optimistic. What kind of legacy do we want from our current digital activity and how might we use it to achieve a positive digital transformation?
The second less optimistic. While museums' main sources of self-generated income (exhibition tickets, venue hire, merchandise, cafés etc) are unavailable, how might museums sustain themselves? Because so far, efforts to monetise digital museum content are yet to yield significant financial gains.
Many of us museum workers look forward to the day when, in the not too distant future, we can enter our much loved museum buildings, be close to the artefacts we value so dearly and welcome visitors once again eager for an enjoyable and stimulating day out, albeit with social distancing measures in place. And if we can learn from our current experience of operating as digital museums during lockdown, all the better. I suspect, though, that when the day comes when our doors really do open after lockdown, it will be a day of mixed emotions. Alongside the happiness I expect we will feel when we return to the physical museum environment, it will be hard not to remain concerned about the financial sustainability of our museums not to mention the wider arts and culture sector (let alone our public services). While financial uncertainty hangs over us, it will undoubtedly frame everything about the future context in which we operate.
Andrew Marcus, FRSA: Andrew is Head of Communications at the Museum of London and sits on the Executive Board. He is a member of the UK Creative and Cultural Sector Coronavirus Impact Study Advisory Committee. Beyond his marketing and communications responsibilities, Andrew is a Clore Leadership Fellow, has a central role in Culture Mile’s annual Smithfield Street Party festival and was part of the team which delivered the GLA’s Punk London celebrations in 2016. Andrew serves as a trustee of Theatre Centre, a touring theatre company for schools and young people. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Prior to the Museum of London, Andrew worked at the Science Museum and Habitat as well as two global communications consultancies. In 2012, Andrew was listed as one of PR Week magazine’s young industry leaders.