This online convening, which took place on April 26 and 28, 2022, was an opportunity for ASTC members to hear inspiring stories of successes in museum digital engagement, learn from their peers, and have discussions about developing their own organizations’ digital strategies. Discussions focused on four key areas of sustainable digital engagement: Reflecting on 2020-2021, Finding Your Strategic Value, Staff Capacity, and Sustainable Financial Models.
Reflecting on 2020-2021
Trends in Online Learning in Museums
Dr. Megan Ennes from the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida, gave an overview of what digital engagement efforts in museums looked like before the pandemic and trends emerging now as museums recover from pandemic closures. Megan’s team conducted a survey that captured data from 2019–2021 and revealed how museums face a variety of barriers to creating digital programming, including cost, staff capacity, and institutional support. Megan suggests that some of these barriers can be overcome with a focused increase in professional development and strategic partnerships.
Christine Morris from the Montana Natural History Center in Missoula, Montana, shared her organization’s work to reach their adult audiences with targeted digital programming. The three programs Christine described demonstrate a range of time commitment from staff and participants: the volunteer-operated Naturalist Book Club got up and running with just a book selection and a Zoom room; the Nature Writing Club offers a structured class but focuses on independent activities for participants; and the Master Naturalist Program is one of the center’s existing programs turned virtual and features live, online classes and presentations leading to participants’ earning master naturalist certification.
Mitch Sava from the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, explained how the museum’s Real Science: Field Trip Fridays series capitalized on exciting research being done right in the Durham area. Mitch’s team was able to partner with the local school system to develop this “phygital” (physical and digital) engagement program for area students. Each week, the team livestreamed interviews with science practitioners every Friday and sent clips to teachers along with classroom activities so that students could participate from school or home. Mitch emphasized how important this effort was in creating partnerships and developing a valuable collection of video content for the museum. See a broader overview of the museum’s 2020 “digital experiments” here. Remarks start at 10:55.
Taking a trip online
Zack Anderson from TELUS Spark Science Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, discussed the science center’s efforts to take learners to places they might otherwise be unable to visit. The Direct From series offers a chance to visit—via video—places like an operating room and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to explore fossils. The program created an opportunity for the science center to cultivate partnerships with a wide range of organizations and government agencies across Canada. Although introduced as a free program, Zack described how the team successfully pivoted to a fee-based model in order to manage production costs. Remarks start at 19:33.
Finding Your Strategic Value
Melissa Higgins from the Boston Children’s Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, shared how the museum is working to incorporate digital engagement into its overall strategic plan. Melissa noted that the museum’s resources were focused on engaging the community through things like exhibitions at the museum rather than activities community members could interact with from home. Although, as a children’s museum, the team is focused on in-person learning experiences, Melissa explained that they have learned there are real opportunities to create engaging experiences in the digital landscape as well. Among the goals Melissa shared, ensuring the digital offerings effectively introduce audiences to the museum is paramount.
Mitch Sava from the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, spoke about some of the considerations driving decision making as the team integrates digital engagement into their strategic planning process. Mitch shared that, although it can be a challenge to keep digital engagement at the forefront when planning, there are concrete avenues to making progress: focus on embracing digital programs that drive real-world experiences, explore what other institutions are doing, and think about how all of the museum’s departments can collaborate on digital programs—from the back office to customer-facing departments.
Zack Anderson from TELUS Spark Science Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, offered insight into how the science center’s team figured out their strategy for digital engagement. Zack explained that they decided to focus less on creating content and more on connecting their community with people doing science and highlighting that work. The science center’s team found that they had a knack for live programs and, through interviews and site visits, taking the audience to places they might not otherwise go. Zack shared that, in order to effectively serve audiences and judiciously use staff time, it’s important to know where to focus resources and sometime making the decision to cut programs.
Jamie Vought, STEM education consultant, explained how the impact of the pandemic on staff capacity at her former institution, the Arizona Science Center, led to changes in their digital engagement efforts. The financial impact of the pandemic left the museum team smaller due to layoffs and under-resourced, so the team focused on making digital offerings that could be developed using existing materials—from virtual guided tours to lesson plans for teachers to do-it-yourself activities. When the team did create new content, they made sure it was designed for multiple purposes. Jamie noted that taking time to celebrate accomplishments was a valuable part of their process.
Nik Honeysett from the Balboa Park Online Collaborative in San Diego, California, shared his work to guide organizations in building staff capacity and supporting high-performing teams. Nik described how developing efficient project management processes creates a space in which staff have the freedom to innovate, whereas ad-hoc and inconsistent processes are unrepeatable and overtake staff time. Nik also emphasized that organizations must take stock of what pre-pandemic expectations around work (e.g., commuting to the office, etc.) are critical for the organization and what should be left behind in order to better support staff.
Sustainable Financial Models
During a discussion on sustainable financial models, three speakers—Karyn Torigoe of Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio; Steven Beasley of Field Theory and formerly of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois; and Rosie Siemer of FIVESEED in Dallas, Texas—described how organizations can leverage funding to create better opportunities. Karyn emphasized the importance of knowing when to increase pricing and asking for input from people with an interest in the organization’s services, including visitors and educators. Highlighting programs that serve multiple purposes can lead to a good return on investment—showcase these programs and find opportunities to collaborate with external partners. Steven shared ideas about how to create sustainable activities at museums. Virtual field trips create an easy way for students to participate and cultivate important partnerships with the local school system. Drum up interest in new content and events by making sure to notify your audience members and expose them to the full array of offerings. Rosie explained that it’s critical to get out of a mindset of undervaluing digital content. Museums are creating incredible programs and should be charging for this content. She agreed that virtual field trips are a great way to drive participation from members, including those who have not been active members.
Thank you to the members of the Digital Sustainability Working Group who made this convening possible:
- Brittney Gorter, Kentucky Science Center (Louisville, Kentucky)
- Jamie Vought, formerly of Arizona Science Center (Phoenix, Arizona)
- Jennifer Robinson, Montana Natural History Center (Missoula, Montana)
- Megan Ennes, Florida Museum of Natural History (Gainesville, Florida)
- Melissa Higgins, Boston Children’s Museum (Boston, Massachusetts)
- Mitch Sava, Museum of Life & Science (Durham, North Carolina)
- Zack Anderson, TELUS Spark Science Centre (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
The ASTC Digital Engagement Inquiry Project is supported by the Overdeck Family Foundation, a foundation that is committed to inspiring young minds and strengthening family learning through out-of-school time STEM experiences.
For questions, contact Naomi Wallace, Manager of Impact Initiatives.