What digital futures mean for galleries and museums

Digital shouldn’t be temporary pandemic measures but instead aim to future-proof the cultural sector with a change of vision, according to Keir Winesmith. And it's not just about NFTs.

‘I think things like the metaverse, VR or NFTs, for the most part, are distractions from the core business of what museums and galleries should be focused on, which is making their collections and the local and touring exhibition programs useful and relevant in the lives of Australians,’ said Keir Winesmith, Head of Digital at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

He continued: ‘There is a really complicated balancing act that institutions need to make between wanting to keep up with the trends of today and also to stay true to their mission, vision and the kind of value proposition to our audiences. For me, that’s the most interesting tension in the museum space at the moment.’

Ahead of his keynote at the 2022 Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) Victorian Forum called FUTURE FOCUS, ArtsHub spoke with Winesmith on how cultural institutions can harness this digital landscape.

Winesmith told ArtsHub: ‘So many institutions, small to medium but even hundred-staff institutions, have very poor digital capabilities which makes them almost fragile in an environment where digital is the heart of almost all of our actions and behaviours. Most cultural institutions in Australian have a digital presentation that is somewhere between three and 10 times the size of their physical visitation.’

If cultural institutions aren’t prioritising digital strategies and practices, they risk becoming irrelevant to today’s audiences and the audiences of tomorrow.

Keir Winesmith, Head of Digital NGA

Prioritising digital first

So in a field of limited resources and high ambitions, how can institutions weigh up the odds for digital transformations?

‘The first thing is priorities,’ advised Winesmith. ‘Digital is not free, it’s often more investment than its physical corollary. So if it’s more investment and you don’t necessarily have the staff, it’s about interrogating your priorities and aligning them with your vision.

Read: 4 ways to drive institutional change

‘Right now, if digital transformation isn’t a high priority or on your agenda for the next 10 years, then that’s 10 years you’ve lost where you could be turning your institution into one that fits in this reformed society, in this remade environment.’

Winesmith continued: ‘I actually feel like it’s a very hopeful mindset for institutions who embrace the change that’s necessary, but do it by coming back to their mission, their values, their audience, and only doing the things that they can prioritise. [It boils down to] doing fewer things and doing those things better.’

Allow for experimenting

If the institution is committed to driving its digital components, the next step is to experiment. The period of lockdowns was a perfect testbed for experimenting with the potential of digital platforms, and a missed learning opportunity for those who only opted for temporary measures.

Winesmith wants to make the changes of the pandemic more permanent. ‘There’s a lot of this metaphor of getting back to normal after the “COVID pivot”. However I would argue that very few institutions actually did pivot during COVID – at best they shifted the trajectory they’re on by a few degrees. The institutions that did really well during COVID, in terms of maintaining meaning and relevance to the audiences, were ones that had already invested digitally, and in their staff, their systems and their audiences. So it was about an acceleration of a trend that already existed,’ said Winesmith.

‘Experimentation should lead to better infrastructure, better tools, more skilled staff and better audience experience. It shouldn’t be one-off experiments but those which lead to better practices,’ he added. ‘And then, overall, all that experimentation and output should be supported by great governance. Governance that protects you from wandering off in the wrong direction.’

Putting the audience first

All these internal evaluations and change have to be in-sync with your audiences, taking into consideration accessibility, First Nations perspectives and other relevant components of our present day society.

‘We have the trust of our public, which many sectors don’t. Turning that trust into relevant, impactful experiences and stories and programs is really key.’

Keir Winesmith

However, trust is a two-way street. Cultural institutions also need to place trust in their audiences and the issues that they find important, and use that to direct the changes necessary, both external and internal.

Winesmith highlighted: ‘It should always come back to the mission and values of the organisation. We should, as practitioners, be open to the idea that by trusting our audiences and believing in our mission could mean that we need to do things differently.

‘It looks on the face value as revolutionary, but I hope that it’s evolutionary. My hope is that it’s lots of positive incremental change and not seismic damaging shifts,’ Winesmith concluded.

Alongside these insights, Winesmith’s keynote on 17 May will also draw upon the NGA’s Online Strategy Research Report, a roadmap of the NGA’s digital journey and guides on how an institution’s website can implement these strategies.

2022 AMaGA Victorian Forum FUTURE FOCUS will be held in person from 17-18 May.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne.