The Modernization of Museum Tools: Designing Technology with Sustainability in Mind

  • Emily Crum


In January 2019, the Daily American “Question of the Week” asked: “Are museums still relevant with the digital age?“ The author discussed a visit to the Smithsonian Museum to see the Hope Diamond, affirming: “I feel museums are extremely relevant even though we live in an age of technology. Virtual tours of museums or pictures of artifacts cannot replace the real objects seen in person.“, The world grappled with this first hand when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the mass shutdown of cultural institutions around the globe. I want to acknowledge this mass transformation, but also the widespread adaptation of virtual engagement for museums. As an emerging museum professional, I—and others—were forced to dive headfirst into the deep end of digital and try to reconcile the field’s reality versus my skills and investments as an educator. Not only do virtual tours not replace seeing objects, but after remote working for 40 hours—not to mention if children were attending virtual school, too—logging back onto a computer is the last thing someone wanted to do. The twenty-first century’s digital age complicates the struggle of art museums faced with remaining relevant as society struggles with Zoom fatigue and becomes more engaged with social media, digital platforms, and forgets reality—or museum objects—in their immediate presence.

When viewed strategically as versatile museum learning tools, digital technologies—such as social media, blogs, podcasts, virtual exhibition tours, virtual lectures, in-gallery screens, and storytelling interactives—allow museums to deepen the physical experience with art and modernize the traditional informal modes of learning in the gallery space. This modernization includes designing content, programs, and curating virtual happenings. Although simple in theory, the reality is that many museums are slow to adopt these modern tools. Museum boards and executives do not see the investment as something sustainable within their means, capabilities, and budgets. The general, average museum worker would not argue against modernizing their department’s offerings with digital tools. Still, met with much difficulty—budgets, capacities, and the digital literacies of staff and museum leadership—the discussion is stopped before the project gets off the ground. As Dr. Vera L. Zolberg eloquently stated: “The survival of museums as institutions depends upon their ability to adapt to their changing social and intellectual environment.” In the digital age and struggling with the long-term changes due to COVID-19, now is the time to adapt and address the changing landscape.

The significant pushback for digital technologies is that they are unsustainable investments of precious resources. How do you design digital technology when today’s technologies are always modernizing? With so much at stake—money, time, outcomes, and more—how do you design digital technology with sustainability in mind? Where do you start, and how do you think about digital technologies as such tools? Also, not all art museums or institutions can afford to have a dedicated digital team or staff, which is amplified by the financial hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. A hurdle of adopting digital technology is the number of resources it takes to create, design, manage, and continuously update programming. There are more possibilities for large institutions, such as the establishment of a digital experience department or large grants to test a new program. The reality is that not all museums have access to these resources.

Smaller institutions are not absent from the cultural sphere, and while they may not be as nationally prominent, these institutions usually address more specific communities or subject matters. Small institutions with limited staff and lack of resources have more pressing issues to ensure the institution’s longevity. These institutions must take into consideration the payoffs, and if the outcomes are worth the commitment of resources. While these are things to be considered, museums of the twenty-first century must adopt new tools of engagement, even small institutions. While these museums will not adopt the most cutting-edge—virtual reality or sensory—technology, these are not the only types of technologies to invest in or create.

This paper serves as a theoretical foundation for museums and museum professionals new to digital and as a resource during COVID-19 times and beyond. I seek to investigate if designed successfully and with a purpose whether digital technologies are sustainable investments of money, resources, and time. The paper also serves as a guide to start the conversation around integrating digital technologies into museums’ virtual and physical spaces. How do you do this as a smart investment beyond COVID-19? Where do you begin and how do you get to the finish line?

Sustainability in the Digital Age: Outthinking the Evolution of New Technology

There are many reasons why art museums are slow to adapt to the modern tools of society. If 2020 has taught the museum world anything, it is that digital technology is now more valuable than ever before. Still, people—such as myself and the broader MCN community—exist to lead the modernization of art museums into multisensory spaces of art interpretation, learning, and engagement.

While I see the optimistic outcomes of digital technology, I acknowledge the perceived sustainability issue when integrating tools that will become outdated in a mere year or two. The most common statement I encounter as a museum digital strategist is: “digital technology advances too quickly, so it is not a sustainable investment of museum resources.” I agree, to an extent. However, there are specific ways museum professionals can think strategically about investing in digital technology. Specifically, I see three ways: viewing technology as a long-term investment, museum staffing practices, and following my Designing Digital with Sustainability in Mind: A Guidebook to aid in the process.

When viewed merely as hardware—a single investment in digital technology—the interest or desire to take the digital plunge may seem daunting. To combat the rapid evolution of technology, museum professionals can advocate for the investment of designing virtual programming—not the physical hardware, but the programs that run the software and get projected onto the screen. I am especially interested in the idea of compiling a database that can be always and instantly updated as new works are added or deaccessioned. As physical hardware becomes outdated, the database or software will remain effective. While this does not eliminate the need to adapt or update, it does justify the investment of the resources and time. This is because it will assist multiple departments. For example, education will access collection information quickly, curatorial will be able to track objects easily, and marketing will choose images for their social profiles.

Another aspect of sustainability is staffing. Traditionally museums have isolated digital departments, treating them as internal “consultants.” Even though digital departments are integral to every part of the museum, their specialty is the technology, not the content. Thus, museum roles such as digital and media specialist manager, digital media manager, digital content manager, or even basic database management attract some familiar with museum work and draw professionals who are technology experts. A part of changing the model to be sustainable is creating roles to toggle between the two. Using myself as an example, I struggled to find positions—it was the middle of a global pandemic when I graduated with my Master’s—suited to me as a museum educator by trade, but acutely a digital strategist focused on digital learning in the museum environment. Despite digital being a vital portion of the museum’s inner workings, staffing practices and open positions have not aligned with the field’s growth in general.

We are no longer merely using digital to measure online engagement or statistics. Still, these tools need to be adapted to modernize the in-museum experience and the virtual offerings outside the museum walls. To do this, I believe museums must have individuals working to communicate between specific departments and moderate or manage projects related to their expertise. With specified individuals in these positions to create strategic digital solutions, thinking strategically about integrating these tools is simpler. By understanding one department’s intentions and how to design them in digital manifestations, developing digital tools to go beyond “technology for technology’s sake” and transform into sustainable, suitable investments of money, time, and museum resources.

Finally, how do you go about designing these tools with sustainability in mind? It is easy to state that things can be done, but we are about deliverables as museum workers. The next section—and the remainder of this article—is dedicated to examining the processes of how I would strategically design sustainable technology for institutions new to it.

Designing Digital with Sustainability in Mind: A Guidebook

As explained, there are ways to strategically think through how to design digital with sustainability in mind. Understanding how to tackle the process in this way is easier said than done. There are procedures to follow to identify the desired outcomes, learning strategies, and desire to invest in digital technology.

Your institution decided to invest in technology; where do you start? When I was completing my Master’s thesis, I began to theorize and create Designing Digital with Sustainability in Mind: A Guidebook, a helpful guide to mediate how to think strategically about designing digital for sustainable futures, not technology for technology’s sake. First, identify the who, what, where, when, and why of creating sustainability in mind.

This subsection will assist with determining your expectations and outcomes when beginning the process. Second, what questions are vital when tackling this undertaking? By thinking through these questions now, you bring in internal stakeholders, identify the audience, desired learning outcomes, and more to ensure you are thinking strategically about the investment. Finally, understanding the steps and procedures to pilot the process of designing an intentional digital tool to satisfy your institution’s desires and mission. No two institutions are identical, meaning each technological tool will be unique.

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of Designing with Sustainability in Mind

First, it is vital to identify your expectations and outcomes. Although you can look at other museum institutions, the digital technology you will develop is unique to your institution. As with any project and its management within 501(c)3 institutions, it is imperative—especially for funding and approval purposes—to determine the essential reasons, objectives, return on investment, and goals to create new tools. This is especially integral when you are a mission-driven institution, such as art museums and other nonprofits. A few ideas can assist in parsing out the essential functions of the technology.

The “Why” Statement: The Mission Statement

At the beginning of the process, determine the technology’s mission as it will remain central to the project. “Why” is intertwined with “who.” Who your audience is will inform how you intend the technology to interact with them? As public-serving institutions, the “who”—your audience—typically matters more than the “why.” Also, knowing the metaphorical “field” within the museum world will inform the idea of “who” is watching and what the stakes are. Museums are always looking at one another to inform their best practices, whether it is a new, controversial, or trailblazing initiative. To ensure your technology is living up to the expected standards—especially when considering the size of the institution and collection—knowing “why” you are doing it will help inform the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when.” “Why” is also intertwined with purpose, specifically the purpose the technology will fulfill. For example, if you received a grant from a foundation to put on an exhibition with a technological tool, you must follow through.

The “Who” Identification: The Audience

Knowing and identifying “who” the audience is for the technology can better serve the intended purpose. Understanding how they currently interact—or do not interact—with the museum can greatly inform how digital will be used and characterize their interaction with the tool. By understanding and identifying how technology has infiltrated the broader educational system and society at large, art museums can better characterize themselves as learning environments. More broadly, identifying individual learning types and styles, and recognizing visitor identities allows art museums to make programs—both digital and not—to satisfy these expectations. By considering these and specific audience research, digital technologies take learning in the art museum setting one step further into the future.

The “What” Distinction: Platform or Hardware

Determining “what” your technology is is the key to moving forward with the project. What is going to serve your institution and audience best? Is it a web-based platform or an in-gallery kiosk? When discussing sustainability and digital technology, this is the step when you must think most strategically. How can your museum/team utilize your resources to the best of your ability? This means looking beyond the technology the program will exist on, but what underlying program will exist. For example, you can invest in a database or underlying digital layer that will—or can—exist on multiple platforms now and in the future. The digital layer is the backbone of digital technology. While the hardware may change, the foundational software remains and is vital when the digital interaction is essential to the museum experience. The digital layer relates to educational technology and the broad, general concept of digital technology. This includes, but is not limited to, websites, applications, databases, and general museum operations. The digital layer and its repercussions follow the visitors throughout their various plans of maneuvering the museum’s digital experience.

The “When” Report: The “Realistic” Timeline

For example, if you received a grant from a foundation to put on an exhibition with a technological tool, you will have grant reporting obligations or a final deadline. Do you have a grant deadline? Is this release coinciding with an exhibition, program, or anniversary celebration?

The “Where” Position: Placement Within the Museum

Organizing with other departments in the museum will address three points: (1) the physical limitations of your potential technology, (2) strategically think through placement in the museum to maximize visitor engagement, and (3) determining if other departments have strong opinions about where the technology cannot go. Being able to visualize where the digital technology will live allows you to be smart about how you design the technology.

The Practical “How”: Staff Team and Software Development

Determining and understanding “how” you can and will design the technology is imperative to the process. Are you going to do this in-house or put it out for bid? Is there a company you can partner with to create your digital technology?

Questions to Ask

Second, it is of utmost importance to ask questions with your project team as with any process. At the Art Institute of Chicago, their JourneyMaker technology was designed by asking visitor-centered questions. JourneyMaker was created to be a “family-focused digital engagement.” The JourneyMaker system considers central, driving research questions, including: Could it use imaginative storytelling and participatory activities to connect families with fine art? Could they use these devices to integrate learning about context, culture, and creativity? Finally, could it be fun and playful?

Following this example, here are some questions to consider when in the planning phase of integrating digital technology:

  • What is the underlying desire to invest in technology?
  • “Who” is watching? What are the stakes?
  • What are the intended outcomes? Grants? Investors? Visitors?
  • How will you fund this project? Are you attracting grants, or do you have these systems in place? Are there foundations you have a relationship with that would fund this?
  • What do you want out of the experience?
  • Based on each institution’s development and mission, what will the technology look like and do?
  • “Who” is watching? What are the stakes?
  • What is the ideal outcome of technology at your particular institution?
  • Does it have to be cutting edge or just aid in the experience as a tool? Form versus function?
  • What level of interaction with the technology do we want to take place instead of looking at the work?
  • What are your specific learning outcomes with this technology?


Finally, how do you go about actually implementing the technology you worked so tirelessly on? This is where the “When” Report: The “Realistic” Timeline becomes integral in understanding the expectations of the process. Do you have a grant deadline? Is this release coinciding with an exhibition, program, or anniversary celebration? These procedures do not have to be in this exact order and be based on the institution’s process. These are just guidelines for how to begin thinking through the process of developing technology. It takes time, money, and resources, and seems daunting, whether for a big or small team. Large institutions will have red tape, bureaucracy, and departments that do not talk to or respect each other but have more stake in contributing to the field. Smaller institutions will not have the staff to dedicate as much time to develop but can rely on external companies to assist in designing, planning, or completely overseeing the project.

  • Determine a staff taskforce/team. Which departments should and can influence the tool? Who on your staff needs to be—and should be—involved?
  • Develop goals, outcomes, and expectations.
  • Funding? Budget? Address where the money will come from and how much you have to invest.
  • Identify how to develop? In-house, out-of-house? Both?
  • Re-identify the timeline. As the different facets of the project come together, it is important to re-evaluate your timeline and expectations.
  • Survey your audience. Knowing your audience is vital to understanding how the museum interacts with the public(s). Knowing your audience and who they are can give you the best insights into how your technology can best serve your audience.
  • Use focus groups to better understand fragments of these audience demographics. By using a variety of focus groups and demographics, these inputs can ensure that your technology is fully user-friendly. Is your technology addressing your audiences' needs versus your expectations/predictions?
  • Content development. What stories do you want to tell? What are your learning outcomes, and how does that translate to your collection?
  • Process developments. Manufacture, test, and evaluate the technology’s processes.
  • Develop a framework of analysis. What is most important thing to evaluate? What data are you attempting to capture?
  • Run processes by other focus groups with special emphasis on the intended audience(s). Once you have the technology in a “draft” form, run it by your focus groups. Use their input to ensure the technology is great and serving its purpose.
  • Develop technology. Finally, develop the technology in its totality.
  • Implement the technology. Set it up, and open it to the public!
  • Set parameters for evaluation. What data were you attempting to capture? How do you do that? Are you meeting your goals, outcomes, and expectations?
  • Test the program with randomized focus groups and revisit the intended audience(s). Use this process to evaluate (as noted earlier).
  • Write about your process and evaluations to add to the field.
  • Evaluate and adapt, as needed. Are you meeting your goals, outcomes, and expectations? If not, adapt!
  • Continue to write and document evaluations to add to the field.


In closing, art museums must adopt a version of a technology that promotes access to information and serves as a tool for its visitors’ experience. The possibilities of digital technology—such as the ability to reconstruct context, reenact the process of creating pottery, and create custom tours—fill in gaps of missing information museums cannot include. By considering these possibilities and specific audience research, digital technologies take learning in an art museum setting one step further into the future. But, these digital technologies are unsustainable. The rapid evolution of technology can be minimized by investing in the programming (software and content), not just the physical tools. This means as the hardware becomes outdated, the foundational program will remain in use. By understanding how to view digital technology strategically, this eliminates extraneous costs and risks even further. While sustainability and digital technology may seem like paradoxical phrases, this paper sought to prove that there are ways to approach the subject to maximize the investment in the digital and the processes on how to do so.

About the Author

  • Emily Crum

    Emily Crum is a passionate museum educator who strives to ensure museum spaces are innovative, accessible, and serving the public at large. Emily holds dual Master’s degrees in Arts Administration and Policy & Modern and Contemporary Art History from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree with Honors in The History of Art and Architecture with an emphasis in Museum Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her Master’s thesis, “The Integration of Digital Technology in American Art Museums for Learning and Interpretation,” argues that digital technology is a tool and platform that provides a point of access for non-museum goers and can foster the creation of relevant experiences with art in museums. This body of work is one of the only of its kind to strategically analyze the investment of modern digital tools for learning and interpretation in an informal learning environment. Emily has a wide array of experiences from holding positions in several museums, the government, and more. She is most passionate about exposing all audiences to art and culture through facilitating multi-sensory experiences with lasting impact.


  1. Weaver, O. et al. 2019. “Question of the Week: Are Museums Still Relevant with the Digital Age?” Daily American.
  2. Ibid.
  3. As I wrote this paper, I was amid COVID-19 shutdown, quarantine, the widespread closure of multiple industries, and the transformation of the world as we knew it.
  4. I want to clarify that my background with this topic is solely within art museums, so I am hesitant to assume all museums are the same. I will continually reference art museums, simply because that is my museum expertise. Though there may be overlap or a broader theme connected to other museum types, I focus on art museums over galleries, science and history museums, or libraries because those are the institutions I can speak to specifically. On the same note, I am a United States citizen, working exclusively in American cultural institutions, so this is the only system I can speak to with authority.
  5. Digital technology is the breakdown of messages, signals, or forms of communication between the creating device and the receiving device through the use of a string of information known as the binary code. In the twenty-first century, digital technology includes smartphones, computers, laptops, iPods, eBooks, social media, and high-speed Internet.
  6. “Sustainable” is an adjective for something that can sustain, that is, something that is “bearable” and “capable of being continued at a certain level.” “Sustainability—What Is It? Definition, Principles, and Examples.” Youmatter.
  7. Zolberg, V. L. 1994. “‘An Elite Experience For Everyone’: Art Museums, The Public, And Cultural Literacy.” In Sherman, D. J. and Rogoff , I. (eds.), Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, 49–65. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  8. An example of this is a complete and composite database of all collection objects or a program that requires images and 360º scans of artworks.
  9. Project Management for Non-Profits. (November 2014). Pudget Sound Cares.
  10. Devine, C. and Tarr, M. 2019. “The Digital Layer in the Museum Experience.” Museums and Digital Culture: New Perspectives and Research. Springer Series on Cultural Computing. Cham: Springer International Publishing. The “digital layer” is a term used by Catherine Devine (Global Business Strategy Leader, Libraries and Museums at Microsoft) to define a digital experience that both sits independent of the physical experience and will work along with the physical experience. The digital layer goes beyond seen technology, but includes the unseen and adds to the visitor experience in a way that physical exhibits cannot. Technology tells a story, connects themes across the museum, lets visitors see what they could not otherwise see, all in service of a more impactful museum experience that contributes to the institutional mission.
  11. As software engineers realize there is a need for these customizable applications in cultural institutions, companies developed to serve this need. The platform is designed based on the institution’s specific needs, wants, and desires.
  12. Through a hybrid of human-centered design, experience design, and museum pedagogy, the JourneyMaker system came from a series of simple prototypes and idea pitches on developing this interactive, without developing technological archetypes. Belle & Wissell, Co.
  13. JourneyMaker–MW17: Museums and the Web 2017.
  14. Do you wish the technology to have? Do you wish the technology to be the entire experience or a hybrid experience? A virtual tour will exist solely on the digital hardware, while an in-gallery screen can have underlying processes that can be duplicated.
  15. There is a wide range of learning types and activities that satisfy diverse audience types. By identifying the specific learning outcomes that your museum’s education and interpretation team deem as a necessity, then knowing them prior is vital when you begin the process of developing the programming. This may involve a prototype phase as you determine your expected outcomes and how your general audience receives them.
  16. Reference the Questions to Ask section.
  17. A label can only be so long!


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