What Tristram Hunt actually said about digitising collections

we’re very passionate about it, we’re strong on it

If you worked on the digital side of the museum world I imagine you’d be pretty chuffed to hear a high-profile museum director publicly supporting this kind of work. Right?

But if you were following the reaction online over the past couple of days you’d have thought he’d suggested sacking the V&A’s (consistently award-winning) digital team, ripping out the building’s wifi, and deleting their entire online collection.

So what happened?

In case you’re not up to date on this one, Tristram Hunt is the recently-appointed director of the V&A (or a “novice museum worker” if you want to get all ‘not one of us’ about it, as several did). He recently gave an entertaining talk at the Hay Festival about the V&A’s history, then answered questions from the audience about acquisition policy, plywood, and using technology to make their collection more accessible.

His answer on the last topic was reported in The Times (Museum visitors seek refuge from digital world) before being increasingly misinterpreted:

I wouldn’t bother clicking any of those if you’ve not already read them, but keep the headlines in mind for later on.

Now, I got a C in GCSE History a couple of decades ago, so I’m fully aware of the benefits of going back to primary sources.

The Hay Festival website has a rather wonderful thing called Hay Player. Audio recordings of talks going back several years can be found there, and you can pay £1 to download one. A small price to pay.

Here’s where you can get a recording of Tristram Hunt’s speech and the Q&A that followed it. I highly recommend giving it a listen. The bit we’re interested in starts around the 54 minute mark.

I hope the good people at Hay don’t mind me reproducing the question and answer.

[Question from the audience] “You’ve talked about making the art more accessible for people in regional locations but you didn’t talk much about how technology can help you to do that. So I’m wondering if you have strategies around using the internet, social media, apps, etc to make things accessible.”

[Tristram Hunt] “Yes, this is a really strong and active area of debate. In one of our new galleries you can, on your iPhone, download your own personal guide to the contents of the galleries. And it’s done beautifully – there’s music, the curators talking… but you’re wandering around listening, either with your headphones or listening to your iPhone, whilst looking at the artefacts.

And actually it hasn’t proved that popular. There’s a sense of people often coming into the museum as a way to get away from digital activities. And what we’ll find is that they’ll then go home often and want to look at what they saw today, or they’ll be in the cafe looking at it, so they’ll reflect afterwards through digital media and digital access on what they saw, but in terms of their own personal interaction with the object, often they want to step back from that.

At the same time, what we’re involved in is a massive programme of digitising our collections. But again, it’s a debate. There’s a very big debate in the museum world about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the amount of investment they put in to digitising their collection, which means that you’re taking it away from other areas.

And so we’re very passionate about it, we’re strong on it, but it’s rather like the newspapers – no-one’s got the answer yet about what you should do.

What I’m very passionate about is ensuring that we’re giving teachers the professional development and advice they need to be able to access our collections online to inform their teaching.

So if we pursue it though a more education-focused lens, that would be my ambition”.


That doesn’t sound so ridiculous, right?

To recap:

  • He didn’t say he was about to “bin spending on digitising collections and creating apps, audio tours and other digital content, as he thinks the average museum punter isn’t interested in any of it”.
  • He didn’t confuse digital collections with digital art. He didn’t even use the phrase ‘digital art’, and certainly didn’t say that anyone had been doing it all wrong.
  • He didn’t say that “digitising museums is a waste of money”.

What he did say is that there’s a debate about how in-gallery technology might best be provided. I think that’s fair, and there are plenty of very interesting projects and experiments we could all point to that are exploring this area.

We might disagree with the assertion/assumption that people want to get away from interacting with digital technology in galleries, but there’s grounds for a debate (see the comments on the Times article). A more nuanced position is likely to be summed up by any or all of these:

  • museums can be improved by in-gallery tech done well
  • museums can be worsened by in-gallery tech done badly
  • museums can work well without in-gallery tech

With a big fat ‘it depends on the circumstances’ bolted on.

Tristram uses the example of an audioguide in one of their galleries not being massively popular, and of course, we all know there are plenty of reasons why uptake of a particular thing might not be great. But you don’t even have to leave the building for an example of in-gallery audio technology being integral to the experience – see the current Pink Floyd exhibition that’s had rave reviews.

It’s also true that there’s a debate about the amount of museum resource that should be allocated to digitising collections. The particular merits of the Met Museum case can (and have been) debated too, but his key point seems fair enough to me. Museums don’t have bottomless reserves of cash and there’s a perfectly valid discussion to be had about how activity within a museum is prioritised.

So go back to those headlines again. How well do they line up with what was actually said? And where did some of those quotes comes from?

In the interests of transparency, I should mention that the V&A are one of my clients. I’ve never met Tristram Hunt though, and I didn’t speak to anyone there about this post before hitting ‘publish’.

A post about a comment

Lots of blogs still have sad, neglected little sections exhorting people to “Leave a Reply. Want to join the discussion?  Feel free to contribute!” at the end of each post, even thought all the conversation’s (mostly) long since moved on to other places.

So if you do go to the bother of paying attention to what someone’s written, and then take the time to leave a considered comment, only for it to be deleted… well, that’s annoying.

Which is what happened to me a couple of months ago. The good news is I have my own blog as an outlet for this sort of thing, and I’m screenshot-happy, so my comment wasn’t lost forever.

So anyway. A ticketing supplier put out a post titled “Google Analytics Dashboards – What’s On Yours?” (the lack of link is deliberate). I do a lot of work with ticketed venues (theatres, arts centres, museums, etc) and Google Analytics is very much my bag, so this was right up my street.

It wasn’t a bad post, but a couple of things caught my eye. The main thing was this table…

Google Analytics traffic sources table

Being the eagle-eyed type, I noticed a few issues with the data in that table, so I left the following helpful (I thought) comment…

The traffic sources screenshot is interesting. At a guess, I’d say there’s an issue with cross-domain tracking that’s not been solved properly. Revenue from direct traffic is unusually high, which would be fine on it’s own, but revenue from organic is weirdly low. The two together point to a problem. Usually you see this when the website’s domain has been added to the referral exclusion list in GA, but the tags on the pages aren’t behaving like they should.

Also, the 4th line of that table – it’s been redacted, but I’d guess that’s a self-referral. It’d explain why, of 6,000 sessions, none are from new users.

So my guess is that a lot of revenue is being incorrectly attributed to ‘direct’, making a mess of any ROI calculations and meaning that other marketing channels aren’t getting the recognition they deserve.

I tried to phrase it gently, or at least in a ‘huh, isn’t that interesting’ way. Thing is, this is one of the most fundamental, but also very common, errors that I come across when auditing Google Analytics accounts. I won’t go into it here but it’s not good, causing double-counting of sessions and ruining marketing attribution.

It’s really not the kind of thing you want to be showing off in a blog post where you’re trying to claim how great you are with analytics.

There were two more issues with the post.

One was very minor. The Google Analytics Shopping Report (an enhanced ecommerce feature) was referred to as the Checkout Funnel, which is a different report. Like I say, no biggie

The other was more major. The post ends with “if you would like some help getting these up and running, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.”

As you’ve probably gathered, doing that would be a mistake. If you want a hand with your analytics then you’d be much better off getting in touch with someone who knows what they’re doing.

To be honest, I didn’t expect my comment to be published. I thought maybe they’d correct the errors I pointed out and drop me a line to say thanks for helping them to avoid looking like idiots. You’d have thought that would have been easier. Ah well.

Online fundraising: donate buttons and the need for context

I was flicking through a copy of Now, New and Next, which is a magazine from the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy programme.

Now, New and Next

There’s a good article about how smaller organisations are diversifying their fundraising efforts and it calls out a few small changes that are making a difference…

Putting in place simple response mechanisms such as donation buttons positioned prominently on websites, collection boxes, and offering the opportunity to top-up the ticket price.

I want to pick up on the ‘donation buttons positioned prominently on websites‘ bit and add something so that people don’t get the wrong idea.

It’s this. I’ve seen websites with donation buttons sprinkled all over the place, I’ve fielded requests to add them (back in my web design agency days), and I’ve seen the stats showing hundreds of thousands of people across multiple websites all ignoring them.

You know that awkward thing where someone goes in for a kiss and the other person dodges?

That’s what it’s like seeing those buttons littered around the place.

That’s not to say you can’t ask for a donation online. Of course you can. But context is key.

A donation button should be there, ready and waiting, when:

  • You’ve provided some sort of value to someone. For instance, if someone has been allowed to download all your podcasts or learning resources then absolutely ask for a donation towards the cost of producing and maintaining those things.
  • The person already has their credit card out. A simple message at the point of making a transaction can work very well.
  • On a landing page for an email/social campaign. You’ve warmed the recipient up to the idea of a fundraising campaign in their inbox or news feed, they’ve clicked through and the call to action on your landing page is there to seal the deal.

You may have your own things to add to that list, and I bet the context is stronger than ‘the person just happens to be on the website’.

It’s why these days the smarter sites are falling over themselves to offer you an ebook, a chance to win stuff, access to a back catalogue… something in order to pull you in. That offer is their most prominent call to action. The idea is that once the person is (contentedly) hooked they can then start building a (more lucrative/engaged) relationship with them. There are even whole products built around this premise.

So to sum up, from what I’ve seen, ‘donate’ buttons on every page on your website are likely to be ignored. If that’s the best you can do for now (and the article was aimed at smaller orgs) then fine, I get it. But I’d highly recommend doing something that brings the person into a context where they’re more likely to want to donate to you. Then you should make the ask.