Reinventing Museums for the Digital Generation

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Penn Museum Director Julian Siggers talks about how the institution uses digital tools to showcase its treasures to people around the world.

Museums are reinventing themselves to keep abreast with the times and stay relevant in a digital world. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, known as the Penn Museum, is no exception. The museum’s latest endeavor is to combine digital strategies with its unique institutional knowledge to appeal to the next generation. In 2017, the museum launched its biggest makeover in more than a century — the Building Transformation project that will renovate 44,000-square feet of gallery space at a cost of $100 million.

Leading this institution’s transformation is Museum Director Julian Siggers, who was recently chosen as one of the “Men of the Moment: 5 Men Shaping the Future of Philly Right Now” by Philadelphia Style magazine. He spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about his ambitious plans to double the museum’s annual visitors and make it a must-see attraction in Philadelphia. (Listen to the podcast at the top of the page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start with something quite paradoxical. Museums are institutions that excel at preserving the past, but as a leader you have to focus on preparing the institution for the future. How do you manage this balance?

Julian Siggers: It’s a very interesting question. This museum has around a million objects, and it contains the whole past human story, from 2 million years ago, from the beginnings of the evolution of our species. We bring that to life and show the museum-goer — through our exhibitions, permanent galleries and programming — the relevance of the past to the present. That is a lens that we filter everything through.

You can see it particularly in our new galleries of the ancient Middle East, where we look at a story that seems to be a very distant one. But as you go through this exhibition, you see how so much of what we are showing you is relevant to us today as city dwellers. That ability to connect the past to the present is really what we are trying to achieve in so many of the different things that we do.

Penn Museum's Middle East Galleries

Visitors explore the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries. (Photo: Eric Sucar/Penn Communications)

Knowledge@Wharton: Audience engagement is an important part of that connection. An increasing challenge that many museums face is how to connect with younger generations beyond the cultural elite. What are your thoughts?

Siggers: It is certainly one of the big challenges that we face. As you look at what is available to millennials, the marketplace for your time gets bigger every single year. Also, the actual notion of a museum has changed. Museums are not automatically considered to be a voice of authority, so engaging younger audiences is a really important part of what we do. But it often means we have to change how we work and how we program.

It is usually a more consultative process where you ask younger generations: What do you want to get out of a museum experience? You have to design galleries with them in mind. I have a great deal of faith in millennials. They are a very engaged generation, and they are looking for content, and they are looking for authenticity. That is what we do.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the more innovative strategies museums are using to engage with younger and more diverse audiences?

“I have a great deal of faith in millennials. They are a very engaged generation.”

Siggers: The key thing to remember is you just can’t program for an audience without their involvement. What museums are doing increasingly is being more aware of the communities that they want to serve. That means, often, partnerships with those communities where they become part of the programming process. You are essentially asking them what they would like. We are about to open a series of galleries that highlight our African collection, and we have set up a steering committee of community members to get at what issues they would like to explore in a gallery with content like that.

I see that with museums all over the world now. It is no longer, “Here is our content that we have curated for you.” It is almost a joint curatorship. But at the same time, museums contain this enormous pool of intellectual capital that we want to give, as an act of generosity almost, to the people, too.

Knowledge@Wharton: Which are some of the more innovative museums around the world that have figured out ways to overcome the limitations of just serving people in their immediate region and are using, say, digital strategies to engage more broadly with other audiences?

Siggers: The Brooklyn Museum has done some amazing work with digital content. They have a whole team of content producers, and they actually program for a level of membership that is purely digital. There is new programming, there are podcasts, there are deep dives into the collection. They have done an amazing job.

The British Museum did an interesting thing. They wanted to be the classroom to the world, so they put a great deal of their collection online and included a range of teaching resources that are really first-rate. That is one of the things that we set out to do about eight years ago. We have these million objects, and most of them aren’t on display. But now we have digitized around 700,000 of those, and we also put all of our content, our lectures on our YouTube channel. It’s amazing. We can have a lecture in one of our lecture halls on something that is reasonably esoteric like early cities of Mesopotamia [and make it accessible to a global audience]. We found that within a year that lecture had 30,000 views from all over the world. We were contacted by people from Australia who are using our content in their classrooms as well as for their own personal edification.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the lessons you think other museums can learn from some of the strategies you have described?

Siggers: Mike Condiff is the head of our website, and his strategy is “more is more.” The more material that you put up, the better. It just tends to build on itself. This idea of record everything, have everything available to everyone, everywhere, and make it free — that is something that I think a lot of museums are realizing [works].

We used to charge for images of our collections. We used not to let people take photographs in our gallery. But you are [curtailing] this potential advocate who can post your material on social media, download images from your website and use them in ways that you haven’t even figured out. It is wonderful marketing — and free marketing — for museums, to get our message out.

“Putting material online is time-consuming and costly, but it really does pay dividends.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the biggest obstacles museums face in trying to implement digital transformation?

Siggers: Putting material online is time-consuming and costly, but it really does pay dividends. But it needs a concerted focus from the top down to do it. The bigger challenge is the digital realm [when it comes to the] galleries. To get back to your earlier point about the younger generations, so much of how they learn now is through a digital interface, so they expect it to be in the galleries.

But the thing about digital technology is it becomes dated very quickly and it is very expensive. So you will always be trying to find that careful balance between having technology that allows visitors to drill down into the information [available], but won’t become obsolete. [Of course], we can never compete with the video game world.

[Also,] you don’t want the digital technology to take away from the integrity of the object that is right in front of you. You don’t want [technology] to overwhelm it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Many educational institutions are experiencing disruption at three levels as a result of digital transformation: in research, teaching and engagement. Do you see the same thing happening at the Penn museum? If so, what have you have done to address these issues?

Siggers: Those three realms are very interesting ones for a museum like ours because at our heart we are a research and teaching institution. But in many ways, that is what makes us the most interesting. We all live digitally — all of our researchers, our students who come visit us and the public. The key is, how do you unite all of these different digital arenas so they are all informing each other?

For example, in our galleries I have often said that the most interesting thing about archaeology is archaeologists, so we update in our galleries what our field archaeologists have been doing in the field. The research angle comes through to the public, so they know that all of these different areas are working together to cross-fertilize one another.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the biggest mistakes businesses make when trying to go through this digital transformation journey is that they hire a chief digital officer and expect that one person to change everything. Of course, that approach doesn’t work, and then after some time the chief digital officer is out. Have you encountered similar thinking at museums around the world? What is a better way to implement digital strategies?

“One of the lessons I learned very early on was that the best way to communicate with anybody was with storytelling. That is really at the core of what we do.”

Siggers: Many museums have actually employed a chief digital officer. The Met is probably the most famous example that we have seen in recent years. They do sort of think that [having a chief digital officer] will be the silver bullet that will cure everything. I think there are potential [benefits in hiring] chief digital officers because they can find ways of uniting the different platforms that are happening digitally anyway in the museum and bring some order to chaos.

It can be somebody who can look at a researcher who is, say, working in Egypt with the projects out there, and he could basically help inform them of digital tools that they didn’t really know about. But it is certainly, in and of itself, not going to solve your problems. I think museums are feeling their way with this one. Many museums have gone down this route, and not always successfully.

Knowledge@Wharton: You were at museums in Toronto and London before joining the Penn Museum in July 2012. Were there lessons learned early in your career that were helpful to what you are doing today?

Siggers: One of the lessons I learned very early on was that the best way to communicate with anybody was with storytelling. That is really at the core of what we do. You are trying to transform somebody’s understanding of themselves through stories of the past, or whatever your discipline is. I have always known that nothing is more powerful than actually meeting the people who are doing the research, and finding ways to get them out in front is paramount. Everybody responds to a person, and that is always a challenge for museums because we are often galleries with nobody in them.

There is one thing I have learned from being at the Penn Museum that I didn’t know [before]. The other museums I have worked at have been very large, fairly hierarchical, mostly government-funded. Penn is in a university environment, so you need to have a much more consultative approach to leadership, which of course is the academy’s way. Initially, I thought that will probably slow things down a bit, but I think it makes things a lot more effective.… I think it leads to more substantive change.

The other big difference coming from a government-funded institution to an institution like Penn is, of course, that fundraising is a huge part of the leadership [role] here. If you want to do something, you have to fundraise for it, and Penn is enormously supportive in that process.

Knowledge@Wharton: What has been the biggest leadership challenge you have faced in your time here?

Siggers: The biggest challenge has been our Building Transformation project. This museum is a really remarkable and unique one. You could never create a museum like the Penn Museum today. Our focus has been teaching and research, but we have collections, some of which are in every single textbook of the history of art. These are incredibly important objects. But we sort of let our public spaces go. Some of those galleries have been around for 70, 80 years, so this was an enormous opportunity and an enormous challenge to redo 44,000-square-feet of the museum. Of course, it comes with a fairly hefty price tag of more than $100 million.

“Where else in the world outside of Egypt will you be able to see an Egyptian pharaonic palace at full height? It is going to be spectacular.”

Our biggest challenge has been adopting a fundraising strategy that can help us meet our goals. Luckily, we are at Penn, which gets very excited by big ideas. We are at well over 60% of our goal so far. But that is, and will always be, the heaviest lift I have as a leader here — to meet those goals — and we will.

Knowledge@Wharton: How would you like Penn Museum to be positioned for the future, and how would you measure its success?

Siggers: Right now, anybody who is an archaeologist or art historian, who deals with the ancient world, knows about our museum. [As] these galleries reopen … my gauge of success will become more public-facing. I would like any visitor to Philadelphia to be very upset if they don’t have an opportunity to come to the Penn Museum. It has to be an absolute must-see when visiting Philadelphia.

There are obvious ways to measure that success. We are at around 200,000 visitors a year, and I would like to double that. I think it is eminently possible. Where else in the world outside of Egypt will you be able to see an Egyptian pharaonic palace at full height? It is going to be spectacular.

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