The digital age has developed at significant speed and across all disciplines. There are very few areas of life that have not been affected by technological progress and the reliance on digital applications increases with each new widely available development. In many ways, life has become easier with digital growth and communication can now be almost instantaneous, with virtual, mobile and interactive applications. The speed of creation and implementation of digital developments can often be seen as ‘moving too fast’ or additional ‘things’ which may not be needed. The context and environment in which new advances are used often highlights and emphasises these opinions, as well as creating fresh and new understanding and re-contextualising information by making it more accessible. Museum organisations are one of the oldest in the world and have long been a setting for these discussions and use of digital media.

Museums have developed over centuries from cabinets of curiosities to the extensive types of organisation that are known today. From independent museums to huge national and local authority institutions, ‘museum’ is a broad term that encompasses this wide range of bodies. With this variety there is of course the great disparity in the use and acceptance of areas such as digital. One of the ways in which museums work on reaching out to wider and increased audiences is to redevelop their buildings and physical spaces significantly, for which a more business and commercial approach is a necessary part. Museums are non-profit, but are at great risk of running at a significant loss if they are not managed properly. Keeping the core values and funding the key aspects of the museum requires a different approach to management and leadership, focussed on collections and with a great understanding of business and commercial strategies.

The economic downturns in the recent decades have had a great impact on how museums are funded, how they are run as a result and their approach to engaging new visitors. Museums were often seen as places that were potentially stagnant and not an environment for innovative and business-like individuals. Recruitment of positions in the 1990s often focussed on curatorial and collection care roles. With the loss of a substantial amount of the public funding from museums since then, these organisations had to face their biggest stimulate for change over the last 400 years. The focus increased in engaging and bringing in visitors and the commercial aspects of museums, but still keeping the curatorial and collections expertise.

At the same time, the development of digital continues and its use and relevance in museums is often questioned, debated, researched and implemented. Digital media can often be seen as a separate piece of the puzzle. To what extent are digital applications included as a ‘standard’ and normative way in a museum develops or is it seen as an ‘extra’ and an ‘add-on’?

Digital applications are used in many areas of research and work in a naturally interdisciplinary way. Since the 1970s, Oxford University has played a major national and international role in the development and use of digital tools and resources for research in the humanities and the University has received more grants than any other university from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for projects with digital research outputs.

Martin Roth, Director of the V&A (Stuart Bebb Photography)

Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, gave the TORCH Digital Humanities lecture on ‘Museums in the Digital Age’ and reflected on how digital developments have influenced, led and been a key component in widening the accessibility of the museum’s collections. What new ethical questions does the presence of digital within museums bring? Digital media can almost break down the hierarchy and reach wider and new audiences, as well as creating new sensory experiences. There are many people that will never have the opportunity to visit the V&A and other museums, however, with digital applications enabling people to access collections digitally, there is often a chance to be an ‘online’ visitor. Digital tools, media and resources can greatly increase accessibility to collections, but how do we, and should we, deal with reinterpretation of them in new contexts? Museums must look to create new ways of engaging audiences through telling the stories of their collections and the way in which they curate content, asking the key questions ‘who is the audience?’ and even ‘who is the curator?’

One of the future opportunities with Museums in the digital age is to enable visitors to have a more personalised experience, rather than a ‘fits all’ approach to displays. As wider society has an almost unlimited access to information, the expectation of the visitor can often require more from museum displays. Digital applications can create a wider experience and immerse the visitor further with social media, interactive displays and mobile phone applications etc. Digital applications seem to be more standard and expected, and even a methodology in creating museums displays. With museum objects and collections still at the core of what they fundamentally stand for, the digital age will continue and museums will both embrace and also wait and watch developments. In the next ten years, museums will see significant change as they are greatly affected by external influences including society culture, funding. They need to be relevant and attract new audiences, while facing the economic realities. But we may not be discussing how museums should or could include new technologies; they may be an accepted basic standard and core part of what museums do with their displays.


Oxford University:

– TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

– Digital Humanities Summer School

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