British designer Jim Richardson has always loved museums, frequently roaming their halls in the Northwest of England back when he was a child. Today, his platform MuseumNext advises museums around the globe on digital transformation. Richardson is convinced that those who ignore the digital revolution will soon be left without visitors.

Mr. Richardson, when was the last time you were really excited about a museum?
Jim Richardson:
That wasn’t too long ago. I went to the Museum of Tomorrow, a science museum in Rio de Janeiro and it was a very special experience. Thanks to digital technologies, it felt like the whole place was alive. The exhibition was personalized: You come in and tell them your language, so in my case, all explanations changed to English. But I also enjoy visiting a museum with my kids and seeing how much fun they have. Especially if they can be creative there.

Entrance hall of the Museum of Tomorrow.
Welcome to the future: the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.
Photo: Byron Prujansky

What prompted your passion for museums?
Jim Richardson: I’m from a very industrialized area in the UK where most people were employed by the coal industry. On weekends, my parents would take me to the museum where I saw worlds very different from the one I grew up in. That’s why I wanted to become an artist myself. Later, I became a designer and worked in a digital and marketing agency that specialized in helping museums, festivals, and theaters.

That’s what good museums can do, right? Open windows to new worlds and change people’s lives?
Jim Richardson: Museums have always done so, be it through education or inspiration. And today, they can do it in more ways than in the pre-digital age.

colorful elements on an exhibition wall in the museum.
Interactive exhibition at the Museum of Tomorrow.
Photo: Byron Prujansky

How did MuseumNext come about?
Twelve years ago, I discovered MySpace and realized that museums had to change if they wanted to stay relevant. If they did not exploit the possibilities of digital transformation, there’d be a gap between what the public expects and what the museum offers. In the beginning, MuseumNext was a blog presenting best practice examples. Over time, the site has developed into a forum: Since 2008, we have been organizing conferences where digital pioneers from different museums exchange information.

How did people react when you started blogging?
At first, nobody thought the digital world mattered. But much has changed over the past ten years. Today, when museums conceive an exhibition, one essential thought is: “Which parts of the exhibition have the greatest chance of showing up on Instagram?” The digital revolution has allowed everyone to express themselves. This changes all aspects of society and thus also the museums. The whole notion of curators telling the public what to think is no longer working. They do not have to relinquish authority, but they must ask themselves: How can we initiate interaction with our visitors?

Visitors of the MuseumNext conference talking.
Furthered exchange: the MuseumNext conference in Amsterdam.
Photo: MuseumNext

But in order to do this, they need to be prepared to give up some of their power …
Jim Richardson: In return, they get back an even greater power. When museums actively involve their visitors, when they benefit from their creativity and knowledge, the impact of their work is so much greater. In Derby in England, for example, the Museum of Making integrates the local community. During weekly workshops, artists work with local people to develop new formats to show exhibits from the museum archives. Those who get involved feel a completely different connection and tell their friends about it. This differs markedly from the traditional approach of inviting a star architect and not telling anyone anything before the exhibition opens.

Man holding a keynote at the panel talk at the MuseumNext conference.
During the MuseumNext conference in Geneva.
Photo: MuseumNext

Can you think of more such examples?
Jim Richardson:
 There are quite a few actually. Amsterdam‘s Rijksmuseum put 300,000 photos and paintings online, inviting the public to use it as the base for their own art, design, or products. A cash prize of 10,000 Euro await the winner. Fashion collections, condom packaging, facial masks, or wine labels were turned in, all featuring the museum’s art pieces. Old tableaus thus found new life, catching the interest of a new audience.

And back home in the UK?
Jim Richardson: The British Museum recently hosted a 3D scan hackathon: They invited visitors to capture museum objects in 3D scans and the museum then published the results on its website. Now, teachers anywhere in the world can print these objects with a 3D printer and present them to their students. Then there is the Tate Britain, which initiated a prize to inspire creatives to present their art in new forms and formats. One of the results was “After Dark”: For two weeks, four robots roamed the museum at night, controlled by the visitors. Online queues for this easily rivalled the lines usually seen at the gallery’s front door.

Exhibitin floor with colorful exhibits.
A view of the floor: the Museum of Making in Derby.
Photo: Derby Museums

At the same time, using such technologies means that museum curators need to expand their own role: In addition to curating, they need to become as creative as the featured artists. Sounds like a major challenge.
Jim Richardson: You do not necessarily have to control everything yourself. Technologies are constantly evolving. No one can keep track of that. So, museums need to form partnerships with digital companies. Thanks to their great content, they can usually attract the cream of their respective disciplines. This can also prevent them from making mistakes. In the past, museums have often spent a lot of money on a great idea, like an app. And then this idea didn’t work, the whole budget was gone, and nobody wanted to hear any more about the scope of digital options. It makes more sense to think carefully about which technology is best suited for which purpose, and then to start with smaller projects and learn from the mistakes.

Next year, your platform celebrates its tenth anniversary. What are your plans?
Jim Richardson: We have several conferences next year. First in Australia, later in London, New York, and the Netherlands. This is where museum operators meet and exchange information. Of course, it is important to have great speakers. But the conversations in the corridors or later at the bar are usually even more meaningful. Conferences are where museums set up collaborations and tell each other about what went well and what didn’t work. To be honest, we are still at the beginning and making many mistakes.