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The enigmatic mirror. Wilhelm Bendz (1804-28), A Young Artist (Ditlev Blunck) Examining a Sketch in a Mirror, 1826.

SMK digital | 24.apr.2013

In front of the digital mirror

The museum’s digital team have taken a good look at themselves in the mirror – and made a discovery on the road towards a new digital strategy.

Over the course of the last five years we have explored what it means to be a digital museum here at SMK. This is not to say that there were no digital activities at the museum prior to 2008, but in May of that year a generous donation from the Nordea-fonden allowed us to accelerate our efforts greatly, translating our ideas, dreams, and visions into reality.

Much has happened since then. Sometimes things actually take a surprisingly long time to gestate in the digital world. For example, talk about scalable design had begun to emerge back in 2008 – today the flavour of the day in digital development work is responsive design. Even so, the first major results of such work are only just coming in.

At other times new technologies almost seem to fall out of the sky and become widely adopted in no time. For of course we knew that mobile traffic would become huge back in 2008; things like the iPod Touch and the early usage of mobile phones as computers in Japan told us that. But those tablet thingies, and particularly the iPad, we hadn’t seen coming back then.

During the extremely long winter that is only now stumbling towards its long-overdue end we have summed up, discussed, worked with and analysed the lessons we have learnt in our digital team. We have engaged in a spot of self-assessment. What does it even mean to be digital? Where should our results and experiences take us – and how do we get there? We have needed to devote some time to learning things – as a team and as an organisation – in order to formulate a new digital strategy.

In connection with this assessment work I re-read Nicholas Negroponte’s still-relevant book ”Being Digital” from 1995. Here he describes the digital revolution, which was still in its early stages then. Note how I say “early” viewed from a museum perspective; at the SMK, for example, personal computers for all employees only became standard practice in the late 1990s. Negroponte provides many glorious examples of how bits and bytes will revolutionise the world of atoms. His book certainly offers excellent inspiration to present-day audiences. Partly because it allows us to arrange a little bit-history in the right order, and partly because some of his predictions prompt us to smile, thereby giving us that little extra boost that allows us to think – when we are caught up the digital-chaos-du-jour – “aah, all will be become clear one day” (of course, such clarity will be followed by even more chaos). The very best thing about the book is, however, its wealth of enduring (if one dares to use such a term!) digital truths. For example, Negroponte writes that the future will bring an on-demand mindset, which is gaining ground by leaps and bounds these years; that open systems will conquer privileged monopolies, and that the digital realm is scalable in its very essence. He also writes almost poetically about how all enterprises must stand before the digital mirror to see what role they can play in the digital world.

So where do we stand – at the SMK? What have we seen in the mirror?

Perhaps the most important thing of all is that we are still a museum. That may sound very simple and straightforward, but it isn’t. For the role of the museum is evolving, and the 01 digits push that process along. Museums collect things, and so they possess a great many works of art and many competences that imbue them with gravity, values, and traditions. This provides a taut counterpoint to society’s digital pulse and rapid pace. That counter-position is a challenge and a gift, and we have recognised that the need for leadership is by no means diminished when chaos arises. Digital leadership, that is.

A museum like the SMK will always be a venue that people wish to visit physically. However, general usage of the museum and the museum’s wider relevance is extended by digital offerings – that relevance has a worldwide reach and does not require the movement of atoms. We can reinvent ourselves as catalysts for users at a whole different level than before. We are also part of a hyper-complex society where social communication plays an increasingly important part, and where “the crowd” has astounding and as yet unrealised power. All of these factors contribute to adjusting the museum’s self-image.

In 2008 the entire museum faced a situation where the management was new and the organisation faced major changes. At that point the digital team sat down to formulate a digital strategy that would set out a clear course for us to follow – and we have been proud to find that this initial strategy provided us with firm support and not only gave us a sense of direction, but also generated changes that have since become firmly embedded in the museum’s DNA. 

We are now leaving behind a period where our course was established, but which also accommodated an explorative mindset. We have conducted many experiments, made many mistakes, and built even more successes. We have sought to share our knowledge and are proud of the praise we have received. And throughout the period we have experimented with digital communication.

Perhaps the most important learning point is that we all, as an organisation, now need to take a full turn in front of the mirror to find out what we look like from the back and from the side. We still don’t have the full picture.

All you out there are very welcome to help us. What do you see when you look in the mirror with us?


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