Search Museum Next

In conversation with Chris Michaels

This conversation with Chris Michaels was filmed at the National Gallery in August 2020.

Jim Richardson: Hello. Today, I am at the National Gallery with Chris Michaels, who is Director of Digital Communications and Technology. I really wanted to catch up with Chris to find out what’s been happening here at the gallery during COVID, and about the innovative work that they’d been doing. This is your first time in London since March.

Chris Michaels: Yep. First time since lockdown, back on March 17th. Yeah.

Jim Richardson: Over the course of the lockdown, there must have been a massive amount of learning, especially with the digital realm, that you’ve got.

Chris Michaels: In some ways, this has probably been a period where we’ve learnt more about our audience than any other time in the last 200 years. You’ve seen this stripping away of the norms of museums. No physical visitors for 111 days, a sudden explosion in our digital audiences because of the way that we’ve responded to the crisis. Then, the act of reopening, where now every single person who comes here has to engage with us as a marketing organisation. I think we’re in an amazing moment of knowing who people are, and learning how to serve them better, through COVID. There’s an awful lot of problems that the COVID crisis has caused us, but it creates an amazing opportunity to make a better visitor experience, a better engagement experience for all those audiences, because you know who every single person is.

Jim Richardson: Do you think that the audience is different to the audience that you had before this?

Chris Michaels: Radically different. The old National Gallery audience was composed of 75% foreign tourists, domestic tourists, core London arts goers, young people. It’s been pulled away. The audience that’s returned immediately, is that core culture loving audience, people for whom this place is incredibly important in their lives. Already, 7% of the visitors we’ve had since we reopened, it’s only been just over a month, are people who are now on their second or third visits to the gallery. That’s an incredibly loyal, incredibly specific, part of what was our overall historic mix. At the same time, I said our digital audience in nearly 50% up over this period. Massive new diversity of people that we’re engaging with at digital scope.

Jim Richardson: What things have you done while the gallery was closed to engage with people?

Chris Michaels: Well, really the story of lockdown is about the importance of video. Video through social media, video through the return from 2008 of webinars, video is means to engage different parts of our audience mix, whether that’s donors, whether that’s members, whether that’s education audiences. Videos been the critical driver through all of that period. As you’ve seen at larger scale, the ever-growth of streaming markets in TV and film, the story for museums is about this explosion of the value, both commercial senses and in its engagement sense of video over lockdown.

Jim Richardson: What’s happening in those videos? What videos are you making?

Chris Michaels: The first period off lockdown was really working out what the hell should we make, because you couldn’t make the things you’ve made before, which were brilliant videos about exhibitions, curators talking, whatever it is. We had to work out how to make things remotely. That’s whether that’s curators telling stories from home, about the home, brilliant videos about people like Vermeer, who of course, amazing artists about interiors, to educators doing creative, make and create activities for young audiences online. Things like mindfulness videos, that we probably honestly would never have done before, but have been hugely popular and successful in been a… Jesus, a hell of a stressful time for everybody. We found new ways of making new stories to tell as a result of it.

The second part is about very specific things, for particular audiences. During lockdown, our keeper, Larry Keith, who is Head of Conservation, came to the gallery to check it, as a core part of his role, to make sure the paintings were all right. He has a huge responsibility to those works. He did these amazing pieces for some of our core donors of him inside the locked gallery. We did the same with our Director, Gabriele, him inside the closed gallery. His first real encounter, for a very particular part of our audience mix. It’s an incredible time for innovation in format, for the audiences that may never have engaged with us through digital before, to engage with us and to work out what digital formats might be for the future.

Jim Richardson: I’m guessing during this time, everything’s gone online, everyone’s working from home, everyone’s got ideas about what they could do with digital. You’re a front of house, educators, curators, how did you handle that? How did you facilitate everyone coming out with content?

Chris Michaels: There’s two ways. One is, you control from the middle, or you give people the freedom to go and create, Practically, it wasn’t really possible to say, “Just funnel everything through the same three people you have creative responsibility for.” It would have driven them mad. We never would have been able to do as much as we could. For me, from an executive point of view, it’s just like, “Go and make stuff. We’ll work out where the boundaries sit of what you should be able to do.” For educators, for fundraisers, for the guys who worked with member audiences, you know your audiences. Everyone’s got to recognise this may not be the best format in the world. You need to go do something. Just giving them both the freedom operationally, and the support in things like running a Zoom webinar, or whatever it is, from AV guys, et cetera, just go and do it. Just the right way, just the right respectful way to operate at a time like this.

Jim Richardson: The audience expectations have changed, you’ve seen on television, people recording stuff with iPhones, and all that thing. People are a bit forgiving in this time.

Chris Michaels: Audiences have gone through massive adaptations themselves in the last four months. My mom’s a 79 year old woman who goes to the opera twice a month, and goes to church every week. The second of those two things, she has done remarkably to get on Zoom, because she can’t turn her mobile phone on, normally. Remarkably, to get on Zoom and do every week. There’s been an enormous change in the audiences for arts, in how they engage in their lives, because we’ve all had to. Through lockdown, Zoom is a way of families staying together, there’s a way of kids being educated from school. It’s become a very different place. Of course, arts organisations have an amazing opportunity, with those tools, to just go out and do, at a point where yet, people are super forgiving if it’s not Hollywood production values. The point is to engage.

Jim Richardson: As you said, the gallery reopened just over a month ago?

Chris Michaels: Yeah.

Jim Richardson: What was the process of coming to the point where you would reopen?

Chris Michaels: The strategic reason why, and then the bits of how. For us, the why was we thought we could be, and we thought we should be the first people to reopen. We are the National Gallery, we are on Trafalgar Square. Practically, our collection and our building is a bit simpler than some of the other big museums in the country, so we made a very early decision, about the beginning of May, that we wanted to be first back, and that we could be. That then becomes an operational planning piece around the building. How do you do social distancing? Then a visitor experience, and digital piece about how do you make that a brilliant experience for people? There was obviously a risk that this can become a kind of health and safety nightmare, which would have been horrible for everyone. What we’ve really tried to do, is to make it a brilliant place to come, and to reengage with art. That’s a journey that starts online, now. Everyone has to book online before they come. It’s then about, practically, how do you get the most people through the door? How did you get the most donations you can? How do you sell the most exhibition tickets? How do you get the most people becoming members that you can? Doing that well, means real attention to digital experience.

It was a tough six weeks trying to execute on that, but the execution on that, and then the reopening early, means that we are now six weeks into doing that. We’ve been live for six weeks, now. We’re learning an amazing amount. We’re already into 50,000 people who’ve been here since we’ve reopened. If we can keep doing that, keep rebuilding, dealing with what’s going to be a complicated future, we know a lot already, to help us shape what the future might look like.

Jim Richardson: I visited yesterday. It was, firstly, great to be back in a museum after five months of not having attended anywhere. It was a great experience. I noticed when I booked online, as you say, you have to book online, there were donations requested. There was a catalogue tried to be sold, and all those things. It’s fantastically thought through. Am I to expect an email today asking me if I want to be a member?

Chris Michaels: It’s all of that. The way I described this, in a way was that galleries, museums, before COVID, in this country, were enlightenment age institutions. You could come, it was free. No one knew who you were. You could, effectively, not engage with a single human being from the beginning to end of your experience. That was fine. This, in a way now, is the information age visitor experience, where the cost of coming here is for us to have some means of engaging with you, to become part of our digital audience, and for us to build those relationships with you, that whether it is a two pound donation, a 90 pound membership, a 10 pound exhibition ticket, but to begin a two-way dialogue that, hopefully, gets us someone who keeps coming back. Becomes that 7% who comes back every month. For you, helps you have an amazing relationship to an amazing place like the National Gallery that could go on for the whole rest of your life.

Jim Richardson: That’s a great return rate, 7%. That’s obviously working.

Chris Michaels: Yeah. Again, those are probably never audiences we really knew, statistically, at least, that much about before. You know there are people that come all the time, but of course, this tiny little bit here compared to this mass here. Now, this mass is like this, actually you can start to see them. Of course, if those are people who aren’t members, who aren’t donors, what do we do? How do we build a relationship with them? They’re coming back, this place means something to them. How do we get mutual value from that, more mutual value, for each other?

Jim Richardson: What about the no-show rate? It’s free to attend, so I’m guessing you must calculate in that will be a certain percentage that won’t turn up.

Chris Michaels: Yeah. Of course, we didn’t really know what that was going to look like at the start, and we’re still learning about that. Of course, it’s part of free ticketing, is your incentive to come. The weather has been mental, frankly, over the last month. Rainstorms, hottest days in history, there’s an awful lot of things. Frankly, people probably get scared. My first visit on the tube, today, in five months, it’s a bit odd. I’ve been on the tube everyday, pretty much, since I was a 10 year old kid going to secondary school. It’s strange. It’s a strange world out there. You’re going to have that. You don’t want to get too bogged down in it, you’ve just got to adapt to your capacity models, et cetera, around it, as you understand it.

Jim Richardson: Yeah. I read notes from the lockdown yesterday, was there weren’t too many kids there. Schools in the UK start back in a week and a half, I’m guessing school visits won’t happen. How are you innovating around what you offer schools and children?

Chris Michaels: It’s not just schools and children, it’s I think, the whole education market. What’s been an intense few weeks, we’re talking about this in the middle of this exam scandal and crisis, as all that plays out, I think, there’s an enormous opportunity for museums in this space. The digital education market’s been very difficult for the museum sector to penetrate, but there’s no question to me, it’s going to become a huge part of both the national future, as a way of delivering education, whether at school or university level, and therefore, for museums. This is a chance to go and do those things that people have played with, but not quite committed to, and recognise that a digitally delivered education experience is a huge opportunity, and possibly a requirement for future sustainability, and for quality of engagement.

Jim Richardson: It’s the thing that there needs to be funding put in place to allow innovation around that because it’s just not being done, or hasn’t been done in the past.

Chris Michaels: Yeah. And recognising that’s a business model innovation piece, as with everything else. It takes time and resource to make a digital education offer, as it does to do anything else, frankly, in life. That resource is in different places. It’s in video production, it’s in learning design. Again, not necessarily things museums have known how to do, historically, but as with all the new skills. The unique thing about this, potentially, as it’s a way to make money whilst doing good. That hardest of balances in terms of wanting to both reach mass audiences, and be sustainable businesses. There may be, maybe we’re about to find out, there may be an ability to do both of those things at the same time.

Jim Richardson: That seems to be one of the key things that I’m hearing from museums. There is a need to replace visitor income, with online income, which is a really hard task for the National Gallery, even where you’ve got a massive audience, let alone a small historic house, or a small museum. What innovations do you think can happen around that space?

Chris Michaels: It’s really recognising that, again, there is a core audience that cares, and that is one that you can rebuild your income with. Membership, donor programmes, patrons programmes, those things are actually reached back very deep into the history of museums. I can’t remember, the first membership programme was in 1860, or something like that. It’s not new. Those are the bits to see how to digitise. Of course, many of those programmes have been run through CRM systems for a long time. How do you get the service offering, those online digital events, get that kind of core relationship community management happening online? Recognise, therefore, in an economic structural sense, you’re pulling things behind the paywall. If I was a magazine publisher, I’d always rather be the Economist than be the Times, because the Economist has an amazing paywall. It’s brilliant, and it’s built to brilliant business, in a way the Times is getting there, but the Guardian and others who want to go out to the mass digital audiences, super hard path. Super hard path. The only viable path, to me, is one. It’s where we find where that paywall sits, and create the right service offerings behind it, that can engage those audiences, and can help build that revenue growth.

Jim Richardson: Which is a big change from the past few years where the government and funders have really wanted to diversify audiences. It’s going to be balancing diversifying audiences, with hitting those core audiences who have money.

Chris Michaels: Yeah. It’s going to be a tough road, because you want to do both. You want to do both. Diversification of audiences, is the long-term need for how we build the audience of the future, but isn’t short-term payoffs. That’s the hard balance we’re going to run, is the need for greater diversity to reflect the audience, frankly, who’s out there. London’s a 41% BAME city. We’ve got to reach out to those communities in different ways, but we’ve also got today’s crisis to deal with. Just navigating the balance of doing both, in different ways, that’s the challenge for the future.

Jim Richardson: Taking money from one, to allow the work for everyone.

Chris Michaels: Hopefully. Museums have always done that. They’ve taken what they’ve done for their core audiences, and they’ve reinvested it into the diversification of audiences elsewhere. That will get framed in slightly different ways, now, but that’s the challenge.

Jim Richardson: The way that everyone at the National Gallery has been working for the past four or five months has been radically different, people working from home. Do you think that way of working will be how you move forward?

Chris Michaels: For us, it always was going to be like that. We’re in the middle of building a new office facility, inside the gallery itself, which opens in the middle of next year. It’s always been built on a model of a 50% occupancy rate, 50% work from home rate. Of course, what COVID has done, is made sure that everyone is really used to doing that, because 100% of the people who have been doing that for the last four months. I think, seeing how my friends in the different industries are working, for an awful lot of industrial sectors, that’s not going back. Businesses that have huge financial pressures, we’ll see, there’s a great opportunity to reduce their office costs and keep a work from home, with a bit of in-office engagement. I don’t think that’s any different for us, for the civil service, for other arts organisations. It is going to be the model of work for the future, however long that is, we’ll see. I think it’s going to change. Of course, it will change where people live, a huge amount will change around that.

Jim Richardson: It changes the city. Being in London the past 24 hours, it’s a markedly quieter, because everyone’s working from home and there’s far fewer people in the city centre.

Chris Michaels: That’s right. It’s about 25% annual, of the previous years figures. Now, that’s tiny. Of course, the structural economic effects of that are pretty severe. Central London is built on being super busy, whole places constructed itself around that. Some audiences won’t come back until there’s more offer on. International tourists say they won’t come back to London until theatres open. Theatre can’t open until they have an audience to pay it. Again, this is a time of extraordinarily difficult balances. How we navigate them, who knows. Whatever it is, it is very, very different from what it was before.

Jim Richardson: Without those international tourists, you’re looking at more local audiences?

Chris Michaels: Yeah. Our audience, two million people from the UK, four million people from abroad. Our audience, now, nobody from abroad. A few tourists, but not really any on a considerable scale. Massive structural difference. Of course, tourism will start to come back in some form, but at that scale, who knows. And whom, from where, under what conditions. We don’t know any of that.

Jim Richardson: And when.

Chris Michaels: Yeah. And when. Of course.

Jim Richardson: Obviously, the past few days more museums in Central London have started to reopen. Hopefully, that starts to create more of a reason for people to come into town, that they can go to multiple places within a day.

Chris Michaels: That’s right. Your next key moments become October half-term, when schools break again, and that roll into Christmas, to see how that works. It is a fingers crossed time to wait for how this works out. For us, participate as hard as possible in the marketing initiatives of London and partners at the GLA, our local business improvement districts, to try and help get the message, that these are great places to come to, now. Now, as ever. But now, particularly, when there’s an experience of the place, and experience of the collection. It was impossible in some ways, four or five months ago.

Jim Richardson: It was fantastic to visit yesterday. Good to see the museum open, again. Thank you for your time today.

Chris Michaels: Thank you.


Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week