What You Talk About When You Talk About ‘Digital’

This blog is written for Museum Freelance by Rob Sherman who runs Bonfire Dog, a consultancy which provides interpretation and narrative design to clients in the cultural sector and beyond.

I seem to have missed the broadcast from the prime minister, insisting that every blog post, tweet or email has to include the phrase strange times’. However, the heritage sector (like every other) is weathering something unprecedented. It is unsettling, and rather sad, to think of every museum in the world empty at the moment, with only the buzz of climate control to break the silence: all those exhibits, with nobody to exhibit to. In response almost every institution is having to grapple with digital tools, to varying degrees of comfort. Twitter and TikTok, games and apps, online databases, podcasts and many other platforms are being co-opted to reach the curious and quarantined across the globe.

If the circumstances were not so grim, I would be tempted to view the current situation as the shot in the arm that the sector sorely needed; a hardscrabble blossoming of technological creativity and literacy in a field that (both fairly and unfairly) has been maligned as stubborn, even hidebound. There has never been a greater need for freelancers to help institutions navigate the options available to them. Even those of you who don’t see yourselves as ‘digital specialists’ have had, in your own small way, to become so.

However, it is an opportunity not without risks. The enthusiasm and energy around digital has many pitfalls; frustrations and misunderstandings that I see again and again in my dealings with clients. With that in mind, I wanted to offer a few suggestions, from my own experience and the experiences of colleagues, of how best to approach digital in your own work. It’s something that can be useful from the very earliest conversations with clients, ideally before you have even fully decided what it is you are going to make together.

The thinking behind this article was prompted by the TCCE’s excellent ‘Digital Creativity Forum’ last month. I want to thank my fellow panel members (Dan Shorten, Irini Papadimitriou and Nick Lambert), as well as all the attendees, for their insights. 


Understand What They Mean By ‘Digital’

As you can probably tell by the inverted commas, I am rather cautious of the word ‘digital’. It is a word that is easy to say, but difficult to define: and once it has been used, it has the tendency to shoot like a taproot to the core of a project before anybody can stop it.

The unfortunate truth is that ‘digital’ means, practically, almost nothing. If we are being precise, the English alphabet is a ‘digital’ technology. The term has been effectively hijacked in modern times to apply to anything vaguely ‘computerish’. This allows it to furtively find its way into any conversation, where its meaning is assumed. This is a dangerous and often unspoken assumption. Different team members will have different assumptions, biases and ignorances: I have worked with clients who believe that ‘digital’ projects have to be screen-based, and others who stick with old stereotypes about the Luddism of older visitors. That particular curator has clearly never met my grandmother, who I am sure has written her iPad into her will - as a beneficiary.

Have a frank and introspective conversation with clients about what ‘digital’ is, what it can be, and what it will be in their particular context – and then find another, more precise term to use, as quickly as possible.

Help Them To See Digital As Part Of A Wider Toolkit

When I go to conferences or networking events, I very quickly find myself in what Eli Pariser calls a filter bubble: a self-congratulatory choir of digital evangelists, preaching to each other about the transformative power of digital tools. More and more, I’m trying to move myself out of these bubbles (most often towards the buffet table), as they tend to not only obscure the problems of the form, but also the benefits of other, more mundane media.

Digital technologies are, like the written word or music, just another set of technologies: a human tool for creating or permitting certain types of experiences. They are still novel enough to warrant special treatment, and so people tend towards the utopian when they discuss them, seeing them as the solution to all of humanity’s creative and logistical problems. This is a common hurdle in many of my projects: a client team clinging to a vogueish technology, while beset with creative challenges that are much more fundamental. Sometimes, insisting on the use of such technologies can actively harm a visitor’s impressions. I often see videogames being used uncritically as an interpretation device in museums, without any consideration of how the challenges of that form – questions of agency, complicity, choice and over-simplicity – affect the project as a whole.

Try to steer a client away from beginning their project with an approach already in mind. Rather than ‘what are we making?’, the first question on any project should be ‘what kind of experience do we want the audience to have’? The many answers to this question will lead clients to the right combination of tools – both old and new – for the job.


Start Early, & Involve Everyone

Here, I want to defend ‘digital’ from its detractors. Sometimes, when a digital solution doesn’t work, it is a problem of implementation rather than anything intrinsic. ‘Digital’ is still often seen as an addendum to a larger project: a fun, inconsequential bolt-on that ticks certain checkboxes for funders and the marketing team, but has little bearing on the project’s wider significance. A vicious circle emerges where these under-considered ‘digital’ elements disappoint, and so ‘digital’ is given even less agency in the next project; where it disappoints yet again, ad infinitum.

Start conversations about the digital elements of a project as early as possible. Great digital approaches are interdisciplinary affairs: they need be threaded into every other element of the project, supporting them and being supported by them.

Further, these conversations should involve everybody, not just digital ‘specialists’ on the team. Recently, I worked on a project at a site mostly run by a fiercely loyal, and deeply suspicious, cadre of volunteers. They fought our proposed digital interpretation every step of the way (seemingly buoyed by their own misunderstandings of the term) until we sat down in a room with them and discussed what we were planning to do. We had conversations that were free of jargon and technical terms. We drew diagrams on paper. We built scrappy, barely-functional prototypes so that they could see, and touch, what we were proposing. We asked their opinions on what we should do. We asked how they could use our interpretation in their own dealings with visitors. Over the course of the morning, the mood in the room changed: we had won our biggest advocates.

Should They Be Doing ‘Digital’ At All?

Asking this question will certainly not make you any friends amongst the ‘disruptors’ in the room, but I have never worked on a project where it should not have been asked, honestly and openly. Beyond the modern necessities of a social media presence and a well-designed website (and beyond our current circumstances) it is always worth considering whether digital technology is needed to achieve the client’s goals. Sometimes, the desired audience experience – that agnostic question that you began with – can be delivered with cheaper, more traditional tools.

There is also the even-more-controversial question of whether visitors actually even want the current avalanche of digital experiences available in cultural institutions. I have conducted audience research where the overriding impression is one of fatigue: families who are exhausted with ‘the digital’, its ubiquity in their lives, the endless parade of screen-based distractions. Studies have shown that even young people, the sacred cow of many institution’s digital strategies, are slightly incredulous at the lengths to which museums will go to become ‘digitally relevant’: preferring, instead, to ‘stick with the books’.

Sometimes, and perhaps increasingly in lives where the divide between ‘real’ and ‘digital’ is functionally non-existent, what these audiences crave is the unique alchemy that museums know best how to brew: a potion of architecture, light, touch and movement that can be supported by modern technology, but is never secondary to it.

Rob Sherman runs Bonfire Dog, a consultancy which provides interpretation and narrative design to clients in the cultural sector and beyond. He is a Digital Research Fellow at the British Library, a Visiting Lecturer in Digital Narrative at the Royal College of Art, and a member of the South West Creative Technology Network.

Marge Ainsley