Connected culture: Cisco to help digitise UK museums
Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains exhibition, at the V&A in 2017.

Connected culture: Cisco to help digitise UK museums

The UK government’s #CultureIsDigital campaign aims to combine culture and connected technologies in a way that drives more visitors through the doors of the country’s historic and cultural attractions. Among them are around 2,500 museums, many of which have seen visitor numbers fall in recent years.

In support of the digital initiative, networking giant Cisco has partnered with several cultural institutions to enhance the museum experience, as well as publishing a white paper on the subject: UK Museums Sector: Embracing Digitisation.

Embrace the ‘digital vortex’

The white paper identifies several potential causes of the reduced footfall at some cultural venues. The pervasive connectivity that has filtered into many aspects of our lives, and the impact this has had on expectations of content, entertainment, and services, is an obvious example, it suggests.

The recent viral photo of schoolchildren staring at their phones, rather than the paintings, in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum emphasised the generational challenge facing museums and galleries.

Paul Garvey, Cisco’s head of government and national security, has described this as a “digital vortex” and believes it can be harnessed. Cultural institutions, he said – though steeped in tradition and history – can benefit from “closer alignment between business and technology, along with the continually improving capabilities offered by digital technologies.”

Recent high-profile exhibitions, such as ‘David Bowie Is’ and ‘Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains’ at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) have integrated Sennheiser audiovisual technologies and mobile, interactive elements, breaking visitor records at the design-focused museum – albeit with the aid of two pop culture icons.

Cisco believes that the future is very much about technology being deployed to ‘fill in the gaps’ in this way, to attract the next generation of visitors, and bring the museum experience up to speed in the digital age.

That’s already being done at a number of institutions. But “long-term digital success requires a comprehensive digital strategy rather than a traditional short-term project-oriented approach. It necessitates a roadmap for strategic IT investment aligned to the museum’s needs and goals,” said Garvey.

Cisco’s move to work with some of the UK’s leading institutions is part of the company’s Country Digital Acceleration programme, in which it hopes to partner with leading figures from national executives, industry, and academia to, among other things, provide innovation and education across the public and private sectors.

Engaging audiences, protecting legacies

Scot Gardner, chief executive of Cisco UK & Ireland, agrees that cultural institutions across the UK embody the country’s legacy, but face an existential threat from the very digital world they need to embrace. “Museums preserve our society’s legacy. However, they are at risk from changing cultural dynamics,” he said.

“Our engagement with museums, libraries, and cultural hubs across the UK reflects our belief in the power of digital and its ability to improve public services, engage new audiences, and in the most unlikely way, protect our legacy. There are many ways that digital can positively impact society, but where better to start than with our heritage?”

Michael Ellis, UK minister for Arts, Heritage, and Tourism, said, “We want to unleash the creative power of technology to reach new audiences and ensure our cultural sector can thrive in the digital age.

“The UK’s future will be built around our twin expertise in culture and technology. I am delighted that leaders such as Cisco and the Natural History Museum are coming together to help museums capitalise on exciting digital opportunities.”

Internet of Business says

Cisco should be congratulated for two reasons: one, for this forward-looking partnership programme that, we believe, correctly identifies an important challenge; and two, for finally making sense of the UK government’s decision to lump technologies such as AI, robotics, and mobility in with media, heritage programmes, football, and athletics, at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and (as BBC satire WIA brilliantly put it) “for some reason also sport”.

While the DCMS may be home to some exciting and forward-looking initiatives – including co-hosting the new Office for AI, created in February 2018 – its broad, unfocused, unwieldy remit has long suggested that media, sport, technology and, indeed, culture, are things that the government either doesn’t understand or doesn’t believe merit their own briefs.

Demonstrably, this can produce some intriguing cross-pollination of ideas in programmes such as this, which we applaud. However, the UK’s technology sector – while having its own heritage in figures such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee – should avoid being positioned solely as the enabling wing of the tourist industry.

AI, robotics, autonomous vehicles, the IoT, and more, have all been identified as crucial to the UK’s future economic prosperity, and for that reason alone surely merit their own, focused department. Meanwhile culture and sport are, separately, also of critical importance to national prosperity, well-being, and pride, and so also merit their own dedicated departments. That wouldn’t prevent projects such as this from happening.

But of course, none of this is Cisco’s problem or its responsibility, and the networking giant should be supported in its aim to roll out this promising and timely programme.