(I was a fan of museums long before I worked for one. Museums tell stories. They display artifacts. They teach history, art and science. They provide a stimulating diversion. They provide a relaxing diversion. They are a refuge.
As someone who loves artifacts, it pains me to say this: artifacts are less important than stories, or teaching. Artifacts can be the “wow” factor and they often make me gasp. Now, when going to a museum is an impossibility, I miss artifacts (and seeing art in person)—but I consider this a disappointment, not a tragedy. (Failure to preserve artifacts would be a tragedy.)
For now, museums can only be virtual. Nearly every museum has a website, but those sites weren’t made for this kind of situation.
Although I never anticipated the current pandemic, I’ve been thinking about the unrealized potential of museum websites for quite some time. Back when I worked for the National Constitution Center, I proposed the idea of Digital Membership. The museum rejected the idea, but I never lost interest in it.
As conceived back then, Digital Membership was a way for people who live too far away from the museum building (to visit) to best experience what the museum has to offer—at a distance. Like other museum members, these Digital Members would be charged a fee, albeit a more modest one. And those who could would also be encouraged to donate.
What would the Digital Membership offer? A variety of experiences beyond the free public part of the website. This, of course, depends on what each museum could provide. Some possibilities include:
- Online Exhibits
- Live Events
- Recorded Events
- Moderated Discussions
- Interactive Experiences
But right now museums are struggling. They have reduced staff and are trying to figure out the future—including the short-term future. They are desperately looking to raise money and cut costs. In the process, it seems that the mission can be lost, at least for now.
Nobody likes this situation, but that’s what it is.
So I asked myself, can Digital Membership help save museums? As a web developer with about 25 years of experience (yeah, I was there at the start), can I help? How?
Here’s what I’m thinking: I’ll try to develop a template with the core technologies for museums with limited technical skill to create their own Digital Memberships. This product would be given to university museums for free. They can use the features they want and keep the others in reserve. I would try to use technologies that are exciting for the users, but not too intimidating for content creators, educators and other museum personnel. I’ve targeted university museums because I feel they are excellent under-the-radar institutions and are, perhaps, less diverted from their missions by Boards of Directors.
I would offer support but design the product such that the need for it would be minimized.
Most important, during the development process, I would solicit the advice of museum workers, starting with: Is this a good idea at all? And if the answer is “yes”, as I continue development I’d request additional guidance on what’s useful and what isn’t.
So, can I start with YOU?