Making a Business Case for Emerging Technology

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The challenge of keeping up with advances in technology is a struggle for most organizations. Many have neither the resources to investigate emerging technology, nor the expertise to disseminate the flood of information that comes their way. Much of what can be found is in the realm of research projects and dissertations that would be impractical for many museums to attempt to duplicate. This is complicated by a void of solution providers that can offer a roadmap for museums, to bridge the gap between legacy practices and emerging technology. All of these factors create an off-putting environment for decision makers who are under the pressures of the current economy to make prudent use of funding.

When making an argument to fund new technology, it is important to focus on the goals of the decision makers as well as the visitor experience. Can the technology you are proposing reduce current expenditures? Does it prolong the life of some of your legacy technology investments? Will it put your museum in a better position for fundraising? Is there revenue generating potential? Will your museum attract a broader base of visitors as a result? And, finally, how does the technology you are proposing fit into the long range plan for your museum?

Making a case for Technology Updates

What follows are 10 business-case arguments that can be used for evaluating the suitability of technology updates. However, keep in mind that there is no “One Size Fits All” when it comes to museums or technology. For the purposes of this paper we will be using 3D digital assets, simulations/serious games, interactive books, and virtual museums as examples of emerging technology.

  1. Reduction of Expenditures
    One of the fundamental advantages of online and virtual exhibits is the low cost of exhibitions using this technology. Physical build-out and shipping of exhibition pieces is not only costly, but places delicate items at risk for damage. Virtual displays are not new; the technology has just changed. The Thorne Rooms on display at the Art Institute of Chicago have been a favorite of museum visitors for nearly 50 years. This permanent exhibit was a gift to the museum from Mrs. James Thorne. She created these 68 rooms based on 1600s–early 1900s home architecture and décor, knowing it would be far too expensive for a museum to build something equivalent in full scale. The Fairy Castle rooms at the Museum of Science and Industry have delighted visitors as a permanent exhibit since 1949. The rooms are the culmination of the works of 700 contributors in a miniature scale. These exhibits, the Thorne Rooms in particular, were inspired by the Making A Business Case for Emerging Technology  “dollhouses” once used to catalog the belongings of Royal families in the 16th century. Dollhouse replicas were again made famous by Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, which was the combined work of over 1,500 contributors. The benefit of emerging technology is that we can create “mobile” dollhouses in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the expense. The Fairy Castle had an appraised value of $500,000 in 1935 when it began its funding raising career to feed children during America’s Great Depression.
  2. Recycle and Reuse
    Popular virtual exhibits can be archived and retrieved easily. This means that archival exhibitions, and holiday, special or traveling exhibits can be repeated as appropriate. Annual exhibits can be built upon each year, creating a series of exhibits with no down time of the physical museum. Favorites can be re-used and promoted with “Ten new exhibits have been added to our famous ethnic collection,” for example. Digital assets can be simultaneously shared
    with, or by, other museums to create traveling exhibits from different regions or parts of the world without diminishing the collections that are on display at the originating museum. Using this paradigm, regardless of size, museums are able to participate in external exhibits and gain recognition for their collections.
  3. Breathing Life into Your Warehouse
    A large percentage of museum collections are in storage rather than on display. Featuring warehoused pieces in rotating online exhibits gives visitors something interesting and new to see on a regular basis. It gives the museum the appearance of being far more comprehensive than physical buildings can allow. Invoking the use of periodic newsletters with the current online collections keeps the museum in front of visitors and serves as a reminder to visit the physical location. However, it is important not to spam members or visitors with too frequent emails that become a nuisance.
  4. Conservation and Preservation of Collections
    Museums are in a constant struggle to conserve and preserve pieces that are sensitive to public traffic. Preservation becomes increasingly difficult as the popularity of your museum or site increases. Large sites such as Chichen Itza have restricted access, in order to curb damage from visitor traffic. The curators at the tomb of King Tutankhamun are facing a decision to close the tomb site off from visitors, as even the humidity from the breath of the 1,000 visitors a day damages the painted wall surfaces. Virtual museums and digital assets allow visitors an immersive experience while protecting delicate artifacts for research and study.
  5. A Broader Audience
    Virtual exhibits may be the only option for physically challenged individuals or geographically inaccessible locations. It is unfortunate, but there are many museum treasures located in politically unstable areas that are inaccessible for travel. Often travel to sites of interest is financially prohibitive for families. A museum’s virtual exhibits can bring culture and heritage to generations separated from their ethnic homeland. Portions of the general public that may have never visited a museum can share their heritage in this way
  6. Embracing the Future
    Members of the current generation explore their world using smart phones and tablets. If your museum hopes to attract their attention, it must also embrace this technology. Education on all levels assumes competency with the Internet, and exposure to serious games/simulations. PCs and tablets are being introduced to at the preschool level with great success. To cater to this new market, museums need to embrace this paradigm. Museums must be able to create an immersive experience that is accessible to all ages, or they will fade away. If museums can produce apps for mobile devices that are “teasers” to bring visitors in the door, they will be very successful. In many ways, emerging technology is a marketing tool that should not be ignored.
  7. Boosting Your Current Investment
    Museums that are using standard museum databases, such as Adlib, for their collections have the ability to connect with “the cloud”. This connection provides researchers, learning institutions, and other museums the ability to share information over the Internet. A museum of any size can become a research hub. The connected museum becomes a destination for the public and members, for research and information stretching far beyond their resident collections. As museums are seen more as an information hub, much like a library, they will become a regular destination in the community’s daily life rather than a special outing
  8. Putting Some “WOW” in your Museum
    Interactive physical displays using technology such as the Microsoft Kinect (an interactive device that uses physical motion to interact with a computer game) and the Occulus Rift (3D goggles with head-tracking that create an environment that the user becomes a part of) can add excitement to your traditional exhibits. Visitors have a physical sense of being part of the display or action while using these devices. Serious games and simulations using your 3D assets can be exported to peripheral devices such as the Kinect and Occulus Rift, leveraging your investments in virtual exhibits, museum collection systems, and existing computer hardware. “Create once and use” over several platforms that integrate various forms of digital assets optimizes the return on your initial investments and long term strategy.
  9. Popular Offerings
    Museums would be wise to investigate what museums of similar size and high popularity are offering their visitors. There may be popular options your institution might want to explore, such as Storytelling: using your digital assets to create videos for in-house theaters. Although you want your museum to be unique in its offerings, there is no merit in re-inventing the wheel, or going down a path that has not been fruitful for others. Also, keep in mind that often legacy materials can be revived and integrated with the new technology. An example would be a recording of centurions from your community talking about local daily life as children, integrated into a mobile app.
  10. Revenue Generating Options
    Revenue generating possibilities are the key to the heart of business operations. While most expenditures tend not to fall into this category, the mobile apps, serious games, and interactive books that are generated from the use of 3D digital assets will be the exception. 3D assets from the museum could also be licensed for use by artists, movie and television studios, and illustrators. There are several online asset stores where the museum’s collection would attract sales

Citing an Example

In late 2012 the National Museums of Scotland announced the closing of the National Museum of Costume at Shambellie House near New Abbey Dumfries. The official announcement was, in part:

“As a consequence of the economic recession, National Museums Scotland, like many organisations in the public sector across the UK, has seen a reduction in available public funding. While it has been working hard to supplement its funding through reducing staff numbers, efficiency savings, growing earned income, and attracting donations and sponsorship, the financial climate remains very difficult.
The smallest of the five national museums, the National Museum of Costume is open seasonally, for seven months of the year, and attracts 0.6% of total visits to the group of National Museums. The site has low visitation, with 10,000 annual visits to the museum and 5,000 to the shop, café and grounds. The net operational cost to run the site is £220,000 per year. The configuration of the domestic house in which the museum is situated offers limited space for displays and public events.”

Many of the solutions we are proposing in this paper were not available to the National Museum of Costume. However, there are dozens of similar small museums facing the same challenges over the next few years. We offer this technology strategy as a road map to a better outcome for other museums.

  1. Using online virtual exhibits to keep the museum accessible year round.
  2. Social media promotions and newsletters to keep the museum in front of members and visitors.
  3. Study carrels in the museum that provide virtual/interactive access to exhibits that are
    composites of several of the national museums with a small footprint.
  4. Serious games and simulations based on the National Museums’ collections that can be sold at
    the museum store and café.
  5. Study carrels with database access to the National Museums’ collection which could be a
    research access point for the region.
  6. Media stands with children’s interactive books/videos based on the National Museums’
    collections.
  7. Sale of images and models from the virtual exhibits

With the above technology updates, the scenario of a typical visit to the museum could be quite changed. A young family of two adults and two children might arrive in the morning. The father is looking to research a historical setting in another region. He uses a study carrel to do his database search of collections from the National Museums. He then uses the Internet connection to search online archives. Before lunch, at the Museum Café with his family, he has completed his paper.

While her husband writes his paper, the mother helps their eight-year-old get started with some of the serious games at another study carrel. Her son is quite intrigued with both the virtual display of Highlanders and of historic battles. He also seems to enjoy playing an interactive game of matching tartans to clans, and researching his family clan. His younger sister is also engrossed with the physical displays and the virtual displays depicting the costumes around her in realistic settings.

With the children occupied with virtual storytelling based on archived special exhibits, the Mom is free to spend her time exploring costumes at the museum and the other National Museums virtual exhibits for ideas for theater costumes for the local theater group she is involved with. She is delighted to see from the newsletter that next month’s virtual display will be a “History of Theater Costumes: Kabuki through Phantom of the Opera”.

The family has lunch at the café before continuing to the Gift Shop, where each of the children is allowed to pick one item. The children pick gift cards that will allow them to download the games they have been playing at the museum to their PCs and tablets. They are also given a coupon for online activities at the museum during the off season, with a special prize for a Facebook “Like”. The family then returns home after a very positive “user experience”, not even realizing they have been exposed to state of the art technology, while the museum has engaged visitors not only for this visit but future involvement.

Summary

In conclusion, it is not difficult to make a business case for emerging technology. What requires careful consideration is how technology can be used as a tool in the long term strategic planning for your museum. Each museum will be different in its needs and perceived benefits, and not every technological offering is suitable for the desired results. However, great success is possible if one attempts to solve an existing challenge using technology, rather than solutions in search of a problem.

Debra J Adamson

Cross Design Group LTD
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Rolling Meadows, IL 60008
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