The British Museum and the Digital Museum of the Future

Tomb Raider - via Video Games Blogger
Lara Croft and Tomb Raider – via Video Games Blogger

We have all had those ‘Wow’ moments with technology, I remember seeing ‘Tomb Raider’ on the PlayStation One, it was amazing (bear with me). I am not even a gamer but the quality of the visuals and the engagement with the game was an eye opener. I was a generation that grew up with ‘Jet Set Willy‘, believe me it was a revelation. I remember watching a High Definition television for the first time and feeling like I could reach into the screen and become part of the drama. I remember when my mobile phone didn’t have a camera, now I currently have over 3,000 photos on it. Technology, digital, the pace of change, you can’t stop it. The irony is we don’t have a pause button.

Jet Set Willy - in all its glory via Wikipedia
Jet Set Willy – in all its glory via Wikipedia

We can ignore it, my Dad is the only person I know who doesn’t have a mobile phone. He gets by, no problem. I think it actually makes his life easier because most of the time we can’t get hold of him. But eventually, this thing we ignore, this digital world becomes so big it begins to push aside the non-digital world. It becomes harder to function without it.

I have seen my Dad on our iPad playing SpellTower, my Mum and Dad squabble over who gets to play, some days I am not sure the difference between them and the kids (I have now limited them all to half an hour each). The thing is, even if you are not a fan of technology, for whatever reason, whether it is the pace of change, the difficulty in knowing how to use it, or in simply understanding the point of it (Twitter a good example), it is never a complete either-or. You pick and choose what works for you and you leave the rest.

At the British Museum – ‘Museum of the Future’ debate on digital I left feeling rather flat and uninspired. The first debate on the physical building and public spaces had captivated me and given me new ideas and ways of looking at the museum. But this second debate on how the museum should use digital to change public dialogues with the collections didn’t fire my imagination in the same way. I was hoping for a ‘wow’ moment but it never came. It felt like there were two camps, one for the authentic ‘real’ experience of seeing an object with no ‘digital’ interference and the other, all guns blazing for the digital: apps; augmented reality; tracking beacons; the whole shebang. I felt this tension in the room, the either-or, like two tectonic places abutting each other, the friction between the two seem to rub away any excitement or optimism about the future use of digital in museums.

Part of the problem is talking digital is too big a term to use on its own without definition. I think Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, was pointing us in the right direction when he talked about digital doing different things for different audiences. Are we talking about enhancing the experience for users inside the museum? Or reaching users who will never visit the museum? Are we discussing how staff, curators and experts can harness digital to do their jobs and share their knowledge? Are we talking about digital interpretation, using phones and iPads to see objects come alive in front of us or digital platforms that allow us to navigate round the building? Or are we using digital to connect to the outside world who may never visit? Who would deny digital as a bridge to provide new experiences to this audience is anything but a good thing?

I think in the world around us today if we are going to look at digital in an over-arching way, we have to understand why we use digital. It is to connect, to share, to be social, to learn and have fun. That is also why we go to museums, to connect to objects and cultures, to share our visit and to share stories, to be social and visit with friends, to learn about the world around us. It sounds like a perfect fit. Museums need to look at how they can use digital to meet those requirements. The truth is digital is already happening, visitors are sharing photos on Instagram, they are tweeting about exhibitions, on a recent rip to the Natural History Museum, I took a picture of the map on the wall and used it to navigate round the building. This digital dialogue with collections has already begun, what museums need to do is work out how to help visitors connect even more, they need to work on ways to extend that conversation, to guide and steer it and sometimes just follow it. In a way that is the easy part, the hard part is to do all that, use all that digital opportunity with people who don’t feel engaged by technology, who don’t understand it, or want it. It is not about showing them a better world or a more efficient world, it is about making them feel a part of the conversation.

To be honest, the issue is that I really feel these two opposing forces in me. At home my kids are watching tv, they are on computers or consoles, they are playing the iPad (they are too young for mobile phones). If we come to the museum as a family I don’t want everyone to be looking at separate screens, headphones on, solitary interactions with an audio guide or a piece of tech grafted to the hands. I want us to enjoy the physical space, look at stuff, talk, laugh and share. A visit to the British Museum is as much about interaction with each other and the space as anything else. Because my daughter has autism, just getting her through the door can be particularly fraught. Busy places, the unknown, sensory sensitivities can make life exhausting and draining for her. I can see that technology and digital interaction can open up the museum for her, allow her to plan her visit, see the galleries and objects. It would be fantastic for her to prepare her own checklist of objects to see or take pictures of artefacts to create her own Minecraft version of the British Museum, her own self-curated version of the hallowed corridors and galleries.

Sailing the digital seas on the Cutty Sark
Sailing the digital seas on the Cutty Sark

We recently took a trip on the Cutty Sark to try out a new augmented reality app from Gamar. It was the first time we had been on the ship, I tried to prepare my daughter with pictures and YouTube clips of the ship, she was anxious and worried. Within 30 seconds of having the iPad in her hands she was away, she went off with a helper and throughly enjoyed finding different things on the ship and making them come alive in front of her. Normally I can’t get her to leave my side. What really surprised me was how much my Mum who came with us also enjoyed the experience too. She went round with my daughter and completed the tasks on the iPad, she also thoroughly enjoyed it. A gap of 60 years melted away, they were both engaged and have a great time. As much as I want her to experience the authentic and the real, if digital and technology allows her to engage with learning, with new spaces and new experiences I would be a fool to push it to one side.

Gamar's new app Captain Woodget on the Cutty Sark
Gamar’s new app ‘Captain Woodget’s Apprentice’ on the Cutty Sark

2014-10-27 11.20.51

The truth is, it is never an either-or situation, digital can be all things to all people, it is just a question of allowing people to access the amount they want and need. A sliding scale, take what you want and need and leave the rest. There if you want it, but if you don’t, that is fine too. I could see after our morning trip with the iPads that the game added to the experience. It wasn’t the whole thing. Afterwards we sat and had coffee under the hull, we clambered over the lower decks, we interacted with the traditional museum displays, the kids touched and sniffed and pushed buttons. We took part in craft activities, with scissors and glue. The digital interaction was just another layer of the experience.

2014-10-27 11.48.20
Underneath the hull of the Cutty Sark, a quick pitstop for a cup of tea, naturally.
Making Sea Horses, mine is called Eric
Making Sea Horses, mine is called Eric

The British Museum needs to continually strive to be better at teaching, sharing, learning, interacting and reaching out at all levels by whatever means possible. That is not a digital strategy it is just the strategy, the integrated strategy. It is about a museum doing its job with all the tools available whatever they may be. What my daughter has taught me is too many take the museum and its treasures for granted. Digital is about reaching, touching, connecting, inside and outside the museum. Staff and visitors and just as important are all those who will never cross the threshold.

Cutty Sark
Cutty Sark
British Museum
British Museum

Digital is not the answer, it is not the only future of the museum, it is just one of the many pathways. My view has changed, I had an idea of what I thought our visit should be about and digital did not play a big part in that. But watching my children and my parents interact and use technology in the museum space has made me rethink my position. Perhaps the most important thing is to keep an open mind, too often we get stuck in a vision of the museum that we think is the best. Looking back to ‘Jet Set Willy’ and phones with no cameras seems like a lifetime ago. We can’t stop this development and integration of technology into our lives. But we should be able to make informed decisions about what works for us as individuals and not be told the best route. Equally we have to be open to having ‘wow’ moments with technology and with digital. Unless we open our eyes to the possibilities and give it a try ourselves it won’t be the museum of the future it will be the museum of the past.


You can read another view on the second debate from Joe Wilson here – Of people, for people, by people

The British Museum second debate was on – Changing public dialogues with museum collections in the digital age

You can listen to the debate on SoundCloud I talked about how I think digital can help my daughter in the debate, you can hear me at 1hr 17 mins into the recording.

The final debate is Tuesday 18th November – Bloomsbury and the world: the new Knowledge Quarter in Camden, you can book tickets here 




  1. Really good read this one. I echo your thoughts on the debate being a little flat and possibly this time too argumentative. With the utmost respect to David Chipperfield, he tended to swing the debate more towards the pros and cons of “digital” as a concept, whereas it should have been centred around the acceptance that digital is the future, and that how it is to be exploited is the important issue.

    I feel the first debate functioned better because the panel were all sympathetic to the subject at hand. They all understood the need for change to the building despite having different views on what they should be. This made for a far more productive discussion, progressed by disagreement rather than curtailed by naysaying.

    For example he completely dismissed the Minecraft project outright, saying “Smirke would be spinning in his grave.” I actually agreed somewhat and am not a particular fan of it, but I looked for ways to improve it, because I felt it could be a good idea if some changes were made to how it functions. His “wet towel act” (in his own words), didn’t ultimately dampen the discussion, but it did divert it from the debate we should have been having.

    Are you going to the next one?

  2. I think you are right about the panel make-up and intentions it certainly seemed to set the tone for both evenings. I don’t understand the lure of Minecraft either but I see my children love it. If it is about inspiring a new generation, giving them a different pathway to the museum then that is a good thing. My only concern is things like Minecraft are a phase with my kids, in 6 months they will be on to the next thing.

    It is keeping up with the pace of change which is incredibly hard! I think what ever digital/tech is used it has to have an interaction with visitors and audiences. Not just this is what we have done there you go, but using more this idea of co-curation that you talked about in your blog.

    I am not planning on going to the next one. It has been interesting going to the debates, I just wonder what will actually come from them.

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