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Beyond Office: Microsoft and the museum environment

As a Business Strategy Leader for Libraries and Museums in Microsoft’s Worldwide Education team, Catherine Devine spends much of her time considering how digital transformations can and will take place in some of the world’s most beloved institutions.

In her first article for MuseumNext she tackles some of the preconceived ideas that a “tech company” like Microsoft encounter in the museum space and offers her thoughts on the importance of digital strategy for the survival of institutions in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.

It’s no secret that first impressions count. We’re told that in all walks of life we need to put our best foot forward and present ourselves as we wish to be perceived. From a job interview to a first date, those initial minutes, or even seconds, can shape the course of an interaction.

But what about those instances in which your reputation precedes you?

This is a concept I’ve often considered since I first joined Microsoft at the start of 2019. After all, the organisation for which I work is best known for its operating systems and suite of software for offices. It’s a household name with a globally recognised founder and is counted among the most iconic “tech giants” that have come out of the USA in the last half century.

Whatever pops into your head when you hear the name Microsoft, I very much doubt that it is as an enabling partner in the world of museums. Yet that is precisely the journey I am on in my role for the organisation and one that I’m extremely passionate about.

As a technologist, I’m excited by what lies ahead for museums and, although the seismic changes brought about by COVID-19 have brought many institutions to the brink, I very much hope that the work we are doing at Microsoft can support the recovery process.

We have already seen in many industries how the spread of Coronavirus has served to accelerate digitalisation and push many businesses into working in different and perhaps more innovative ways.  After all, change has a habit of being driven by crises.

This will certainly be the case for museums around the world, but as cultural hubs we should also acknowledge that there is a delicate balance to be struck between new digital experiences and the traditional museum environment, which we never want to lose sight of.

In future articles I wish to tackle the concern that digital technologies are a threat to traditional museum experiences, but for now it is simply worth stating that our focus at Microsoft is on enablement and empowerment of museums. I’m a passionate supporter of the authentic, natural experience of the museum; I love nothing more than to wander the halls of my favourite institutions and enjoy the cultural experience that takes place every time I interact with art or artefacts.

The premise of Microsoft working with museums is not to undermine what they stand for but rather to give them with the tools to enhance their offering, stay relevant or simply preserve the quality and security of their exhibits.

Enabling digital transformations for museums and libraries

At Microsoft we are working to enable museums through technology in a variety of ways, which can be encompassed in 4 distinct categories:

Dynamic Operations

It’s no secret that data is a valuable currency in the modern world. But for museums the challenge is to collect meaningful information that actually enhances business intelligence. Armed with this, museums can gain a clearer understanding of how visitors interact with everything from exhibits to the gift shop and even the vending machines. In this way, museums are empowered to improve and refine the customer experience.

Advanced Discovery

What we love about museums is that they are treasure troves. Museums and libraries gather and manage millions of items, preserving collections and making them discoverable, not just for the casual tourist but also for researchers and academics for educational purposes.

Through a combination of digitisation, database building, improved collection management and the support of artificial intelligence, museums are now able to make their archives more accessible than ever before.

Intelligent Environments

All too often technology is considered to be a tool for taking away from the physical and drawing people into the virtual world. Yet some of the most important work we are doing at Microsoft involves the protection and preservation of the natural environment within museums by implementing smart building technologies.

Whether it’s helping to reduce energy consumption and lower carbon emissions, monitoring visitor behaviours in the physical space or mitigating the safety and security risks within a museum, we can help institutions to keep visitors, staff and collections safe – using fewer resources in the process.

Enhanced Visitor Experience

Digital technologies can undoubtedly be used within live exhibitions to engage visitors and enhance memorable experiences. Through connected experiences such as Augmented Reality, museums have the capacity to add new layers to their exhibitions, bringing new creativity and reimagining of historical artefacts or interpretations to life like never before.

Yet, if the Coronavirus pandemic has shown us one thing it is that digitalisation also has a role to play in giving museums and, of course, their customers accessibility – even in circumstances where visiting in person becomes impossible. After all, the cultural impact and value of an exhibit doesn’t have to stop at the doors of the museum in 2020.

These unprecedented times have shone a light on the fragility of so many of the things we hold dear in life. And I believe that there is a greater appetite for finding ways to mitigate those challenges than ever before. By investing time and resources in transformation projects now, it is not only possible for museums to enhance their offerings but also ensure that their exposure to challenges in the future is significantly reduced.

In future articles I look forward to discussing in more detail some of the ways we are helping museums reach new audiences and how the collaborative process of digital transformations can actually work in practice.

Connect with Catherine Devine on LinkedIn here.

About the author – Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine is the recently appointed global Business Strategy Leader-Libraries and Museums at Microsoft. She was formerly Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization in the world to achieve more.

With Microsoft’s focus on understanding and solving the specific needs of Museums,  Catherine is leading this effort at Microsoft.

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