10 Insights about the future of technology during the post-COVID-19 era. Interview with Conxa Rodà

Conxa Rodà, expert in the field of new technologies, head of the Department of Innovation and Digital Strategy of the National Museum of Art of Catalonia until 2019, member of the jury for “the Best of the Web Awards”, speaker, author of numerous articles and professor, who, in this in-depth interview shares her vision of the impact of technologies on the cultural sector.

1. Cultural institutions are gradually emerging from confinement. Let’s summarize the first results of your experience starting with the digital. What has confinement given and taught to the museums?

Beyond collections, what gives museums true meaning is being experienced, visited, used, in other words, it is the public that visits them. With museums closed, the only way to continue connecting with the public for months has been via digital means. That level of global digital preeminence in culture has never occurred before. The centrality of the digital during the pandemic will have generated exponential post-COVID digital growth in organizations.

We have experienced an extended virtual expansion. Doors closed physically, but wide open digitally. The web and social networks went from complementary to being the main vehicle of communication and engagement with the public. That overnight digital prominence caught everyone off guard. That’s a wake-up call to start having or rethinking a solid content strategy and producing quality digital content.

Two ideas that we have been defending for a long time have now taken on special relevance: first, the idea that virtual visitors are also visitors to the museum. For months, they have been the only visitors. And on the other hand, that the digital dimension is transversal throughout the museum, that it is not the responsibility of a single department, let alone a single person. In this period, internal and cross-departmental collaboration has increased. I think both concepts have gained enough strength to stay.

2. Has the mandatory closure changed the dialogue and interaction between the public and museums in the digital landscape?

The way in which users live the museum experience has changed. It has intensified the so-called digital engagement. Your digital skills and expectations for the museum experience will probably have grown.

On the part of the museums, there has been an increase in interaction, especially over the networks. And the needs of users have been taken into account in times of confinement. We will have to devise more and better options for participation, collaboration, and co-creation.

I also believe that museums should take a turn to address social concerns such as social inequality, racism, gender equality, the digital divide, health.

3. How do you value the digital preparation of Catalan museums? How have you experienced this closed-door phase overall?

A notable effort has been made to intensify the digital presence, either by giving new life to existing content or by creating new content.

In general, our museums have not yet reached digital maturity. This is surely a product of a combination of lack of resources, lack of digital capabilities and almost more importantly, lack of digital mentality throughout the organization. This last barrier, perhaps with the crisis, will be improved. And I want to think that as the need for digital skills training has become more evident, digital training plans will be drawn up for museums and heritage centers, perhaps by the administration.

Naturally, those museums that were better prepared for digital services and with abundant quality content are those that have been able to offer a good digital service during confinement.

In relation to concrete proposals for the Catalan museums, I recommend these articles: Las propuestas de los museos en internet (in Catalan) and  Los museos catalanes (no) han cerrado por el coronavirus (in Catalan).

4. What interesting strategies and initiatives have you launched? Which online formats have been more successful and why?

This has been the moment of digital mediation par excellence, as an experience in itself. In general, museums have focused more on the collection. Initiatives that have worked very well have been good virtual tours, Instagram stories, real-time broadcasts or Live Streaming of commentary on works and interviews with curators, artists, and educators; podcasts; downloadable educational materials for coloring; the multiple actions in networks #elmuseoencasa. Participatory initiatives such as quizzes, or collecting and sharing stories, during COVID have attracted audiences of all ages.

It has been the shining moment for the massive use of relatively well-known platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, GotoMeeting, Jitsi, etc., indispensable during confinement for meetings, online classes, debates and conferences.

Perhaps one could even speak of a certain excess of digital supply. And not everything has been of good quality … But the common background has been, without a doubt, wanting to continue being there for users.

5. During confinement, among professionals, many online meetings, sessions and webinars have been held. What themes have been the central ones?

Yes, local and international meetings have taken off. Recurring themes have been the need – now yes – to have a digital strategy, to improve the digital capabilities of the internal team, to offer new ways to access heritage, to diversify formats, to use good narratives, in short, to rethink the museum in digital and social terms.

In general, the recovery of physical visitors and the economic loss for this year are worrying. There has also been a lot of talk about giving a greater social value to museums, striving to be more relevant to society, to focus more on the local public, in the community. The cancellation of temporary exhibitions, for example, will allow us to refocus and center on the essence of the museum: its collection and its audiences.

For this new phase it will be even more necessary to strengthen external alliances and strengthen internal cohesion. It might be necessary to remodel the internal organization of the museum and extend the reach of the digital throughout the entire museum.

6. Online digital trends, modeled by confinement, will they stay with museums in the post-COVID stage or will they disappear?

I do not think they will disappear but quite the contrary, they will be enhanced. It will be necessary to apply a selection criterion as to what will stay, what contributes value. It may not be sustainable to endure the intense rhythm of production required during confinement, but the supply of content and digital experiences in museums will increase to connect with visitors and users.

It would be optimal if additionally, equipment, technological infrastructure and investment were strengthened.

7. From now on, what digital strategies should museums invest in developing?

I believe that the digital transformation of museums and other cultural organizations will be accelerated. It will be more necessary to include the digital dimension from the beginning of the projects and not as a later addition. This does not mean doing digitally the same as we did in analog. It requires a new approach, new methods, new ideas, new products. However, before starting to produce new content, you have to stop and reflect deeply on what kind of experiences the museum wants to offer, what spaces to generate for participation, what audience(s) to serve.

Since thinking is free, I’m going to dare to make a wish/prediction list on the post-COVID digital stage in museums:

– diversify digital formats and narratives, the use of immersive technology and transmedia narrative; develop more attractive and interactive virtual tours

– intensify the digitization of collections and documentation

– to propose a digital version of the temporary exhibitions from the beginning and more as another way of experiencing it rather than merely replicating the physical exhibition

– move beyond considering the web as a space to report on events in the museum, and on to being a space where things happen, a virtual space with great potential for online events, for exploration, for learning and, why not, to have fun; build the web as a relationship space

– improve the knowledge about users and their segmentation by interests and motivations; focus measurement on experience quality rather than quantitative metrics

– open more options for public participation and make user generated content (UGC) more visible than before

– more networking, more cooperation between museums for shared digital projects

– greater flexibility and partial teleworking; fewer face-to-face meetings and more video conferences

– lobbying for more resources for the digital.

Related to all this, although not only in digital terms, the need for a content strategy will also become stronger. That means, to plan and manage content on multiple media and platforms for multiple audiences in a comprehensive, coordinated and distributed manner throughout the museum.

Not everything can be tackled all at once, nor by all the museums, especially the smallest ones. Therefore, it will be necessary to prioritize based on the overall objectives of each museum and share resources by economy of scale. And work to not lose momentum. Digital has been key during the confinement. The staff of the entire museum has become aware of the digital dimension, and therefore it is both an opportunity and a challenge to reinforce the digital from now on.

8. What technologies will be relevant in the future?

Doing futurology in digital technology is very risky because everything progresses at breakneck speed and we will have to be very attentive to the evolution of social uses. It seems logical to think that while prevention through physical distance and contact lasts, rather than interactive screens, touch surfaces or audio guides, it will be time to advocate the use of users’ mobile devices, offer downloadable material on the web, exploit features such as augmented reality, offering good virtual guided tours, incorporating more audiovisuals into the museum tour, experimenting with immersive spaces.

It may be the time for interactivity via gesture sensors. Although this is not without difficulties, as I read in this good article from the Digital Lab of the Science Museum Group: Is this the end of touchscreens in museums? The use of touchless gesture-based controls

There have been instances of good practice of more advanced uses, such as robots and artificial intelligence, in museums around the world, but I would say that in our environment we are still a ways-off.

I would like to see that the verification during confinement of the essentials of accessible content in reaching a wide audience will be a courageous push for more museums to adopt an open data policy, without restrictions on use, in tune with the openGLAM movement. This would require solid technical work of opening data via APIs, guaranteeing interoperability and a friendly visualization of the data.

In any case, even with its doses of uncertainty and complexity, the current context is a good stimulus for innovation, for finding new ways to connect collections and the public, and to center museums from a social perspective.

9. Studies show that the growth in the consumption of educational content during quarantine was 437%. Do you think this trend will stimulate museums to create new educational content, such as online courses or workshops?

Yes, definitely. It is already happening. It would be a good strategy to multiply educational resources and offer a virtual classroom, thinking beyond the school or academic environment, training for all, offering courses of different durations, intensive courses, MOOCs, etc.

10. As co-director of the Digital Strategy postgraduate course at the UOC and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, how do you see the future of museum professionals’ education? Will studies related to ICTs take on importance?

I think that the training offered in digital capabilities must be intensified a lot, not only for the staff dedicated to producing digital content, but for the entire museum team. Society is digital, museum professionals must be too.

Just now in June, the Digital Talent 2020 report by Barcelona Digital Talent was presented. The lack of digital talent was revealed as there is much more demand than supply and the gender imbalance in terms of ICT occupation, which reaches only 26% of women continues to exist. Therefore, the answer is a resounding yes to the importance of studies related to information and communication technologies.

In conclusion, what valuable experience can museums draw from the pandemic and how can they apply it in the future? What have you personally learned and what conclusions have you drawn from the pandemic?

I think that in general we have learned to be aware of our own fragility, to distinguish the essential from the expendable, to value relationships and … the importance of having good connectivity!

My conclusion would be that museums require more strategy, more pervasive digital culture and more training.

And insisting once again on the idea that it is not that the virtual compete with or replace the face-to-face. The physical visit and the direct contemplation of the works have a unique irreplaceable value. Technology gives us another way to live that experience, to expand knowledge, to share, to offer accessibility to audiences who may never go to a museum. One COVID effect is going to be the acceleration of digitization and we must know how to take advantage of it to offer unique and enriching experiences, to establish connections with users, to attract their engagement, to offer multiple ways of approaching heritage, to be more accessible, open, participatory and social.

Special Thanks

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Conxa for sharing her opinion on the ICT situation with blog readers, and above all, my appreciation of her vision and her highly positive contributions to the future of technology in the context of the pandemic.