Broadening reach through engaging digital content: what has worked


Digital experiences offer opportunities to reach completely new audiences who might not otherwise engage with culture and science, due to geographic distance or because the services they provide do not feel relevant. A child’s family may not visit museums, but through engaging with a virtual reality prehistoric sea dragon, they may develop an interest in learning about the development of life on earth, or the rich diversity of our oceans. Ultimately, they may come to care more about our planet, develop a lifelong interest in the natural world or even begin to picture themselves working as a scientist in a related field.

We also need to acknowledge that public expectations are changing rapidly – much of our younger audience see sharing digitally-enhanced video as a normal part of life, and cultural institutions need to embrace new technology to stay relevant.

The Natural History Museum was a genuine pioneer of virtual reality, with the First Life and Great Barrier reef experiences, which we developed in partnership with Atlantic studios. As a next step, we wanted to develop virtual reality that did not require people to be physically present in the museum, but that could be enjoyed by anyone in the world with a smart phone.  Through a partnership with Google Arts and Culture we developed new ways to explore the museum, including 360 video of our galleries and collections storage areas, as well as the VR experience of the sea dragon, Rhomaleosaurus. This can be viewed using just a low cost viewer compatible with Google Cardboard (from approx. £5) – however, until there is widespread adopting of virtual reality devices, one way in which we are engaging people with this technology is through the Google Expeditions programme, a virtual reality “field trip” currently on tour of UK schools. This experience has shown how the power of digital can unlock learning and bring collections to life, by helping people understand the story behind objects they may otherwise hardly notice.

National museums in particular have a responsibility to open their collections and engage as diverse an audience as possible, and the Natural History Museum is investing heavily in this area. The Natural History Museum already reaches more people in a single month through social platforms than visit the museum in person during a whole year. Off platform partnerships provide huge potential for us to engage people with the natural world and our science; however, we need to have the right content available. For example, the Museum now publishes one ‘explainer’ video each week designed for social with views ranging from 10k to 290k as well as a regular series of live events called NHM live streamed to Facebook and Twitter. We also want to provide the answers when the public have questions about the natural world through search, so we are aiming to provide content that is indexed for topics like the oceans with our new oceans hub  or to answer questions like ‘how did humans evolve’ through our human evolution hub. In order to engage people with science and nature we first need to find out how to connect with the public in a way that works for them. New digital tools help us to better understand the needs of our audience, their questions and their behaviour. This in turn enables us to remain relevant, supports our financial sustainability, and informs how and what we programme for diverse audiences. Crucially, it also allows us to assess the impact that we have.

In order to remain relevant in the digital age, museums must invest in their online content and experiences. The Natural History Museum has invested in virtual reality experiences and high quality video, but we have also had positive responses to simpler content that could be delivered with organisations with fewer resources: for example, live streams to Facebook / Periscope or writing evergreen content informed by good keyword research.  As well as budget, organisations need the right mix of skills. Organisations without in-house resources could benefit from training on understanding user experience, service design, software development, data and analysis, product management, and more simple skills like how to live stream. The Culture is Digital initiative could provide a huge support to cultural institutions like museums by helping them to develop, attract and retain the digital talent that they will need to deliver success in the future. 


Why the contribution is important


There is a natural limit to the number of people that can visit a physical museum, but already in 2017 47% of the planet owned a connected smart phone and could potentially use the services that we provide digitally. To remain relevant to the public, break down barriers to participation and unlock learning, we need to take digital seriously and ensure that our services can be accessed through the digital devices and destinations people use every day.


by NaturalHistoryMuseum on August 11, 2017 at 10:44AM

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