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In conversation with Douglas Hegley

Jim Richardson and Douglas Hegley in conversation in New York, May 2022

As Chief Digital Officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Douglas Hegley has a unique perspective on the rapidly changing museum landscape, the role of digital and the challenges that are faced by institutions looking to stay ahead of the curve.

MuseumNext’s Jim Richardson caught up with Douglas in May 2022 to gain a greater understanding of the Met’s digital strategy and how efforts were being refocused after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Asked about his remit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Douglas Hegley says, “I think of it as a kind of digital media company within a museum. So, I have videographers and audiographers and storytellers and editors – the people who craft the stories that we share to engage our audiences. Now, that requires developers, too, folks who can write code and fix broken code. And I’ve got a small administrative team.

“In addition, I’ve got responsibility for the foundational data. All of the information about our almost 2 million works of art is in a particular database, and I have responsibility for that too – as well as digital asset management and archiving of digital content. Those sorts of things.”

Douglas suggests that if he had to summarise his role in this process it would be to strategically align those teams and departments to get them working together and pulling in the same direction.

The purpose of digital content

“Museums shouldn’t produce so much stuff; they should focus on doing less but doing it really well.”

That is perhaps the key message and the critical takeway from Douglas Hegley’s interview with MuseumNext. But to understand what he means and how this works in practice requires a little more detail.

Jim Richardson and Douglas Hegley in conversation in New York, May 2022

It is really easy to get caught up with trying to produce as much digital content as possible. Social media platforms are geared towards the constant production of new and more exciting content. Douglas Hegley is the first to admit that the Covid-19 pandemic put a lot of pressure on the digital departments of museums and galleries all around the world. They went from being underfunded and underutilised to suddenly being the thing that would “save the museum.”

He says that his priority now is to give his team the opportunity to take a breather. They have been “sprinting” over the last few years, and now is the time to take a step back and look at what has had the most impact . . . and what can make the most impact in the future.

Museums should not, in his opinion, use digital content to solely expand their reach. Instead, the purpose of digital content should be engagement first and foremost. Douglas Hegley sees his role as connecting people to the museum’s collection. He is there to remove the barriers to learning or experiencing the collection. The goal of digital content is to engage with people and keep them coming back to learn more or discover more.

How digital strategy should integrate with the museum’s overall strategy

The digital engagement strategy should naturally fit into the museums overall strategies for engagement. It should translate the museum’s outreach goals and strategies into the language of digital platforms rather than be a standalone strategy.

Douglas sees a lot of museums hiring outside consultants and strategists. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, he says that it would be more effective to create a strategy that repurposes much of what your educational and engagement teams are doing.

An Agile Museum

In 2016, Douglas Hegley co-authored a paper called “The Agile Museum” (with Meaghan Tongen and Andrew David whilst at Minneapolis Institute of Art) about the strategy they were implementing at The Met. Their strategy applied concepts from the Agile Manifesto to the museum space.

Douglas Hegley says that they are not “Agile with a capital”; he describes what they do as agile because the original concepts come from software development and are just not applicable to the museum industry. But what he has borrowed from the Agile Manifesto in his Agile Museum concept is to move the focus away from rules and procedures and onto relationships and iterations.

One of the major benefits of digital is the ease of changing things. If you are creating a physical product like a print guide, then you need to be fastidious in checking for errors. It is costly to print the guide in the first place, and therefore it is costly to reprint if changes need to be made. But digital products can be changed quickly without cost. It is easier to fix issues or pivot when needed.

This agile approach allows Douglas and his team to experiment and take little steps and see where they go. They can try things and make incremental improvements without having to commit. If it doesn’t work, the project can be scrapped, and if it does work, then improvements can be made.

Douglas Hegley is the Chief Digital Officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He spoke to MuseumNext for the Digital Summit 2022.

 

MuseumNext offer online learning for museum professionals striving for engaging, relevant and flexible professional growth content. Learn more about our virtual museum conferences here.

 

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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