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In conversation with: Hilary Knight, Director of Digital, Tate

“We had to take the temperature of the public: find out where they were in their mindset and what they needed from us.”  

Ahead of her talk at the MuseumNext Digital Summit with Kati Price, Hilary Knight reflects on a year of upheaval, challenge and learning.

In February 2021 Tate was in a great place as an organisation. A very successful 2019 across its four galleries; a mature digital team with a strong reputation for producing eye-catching and engaging content; ambitious plans to improve digital infrastructure and grow. Oh, and a highly anticipated Andy Warhol exhibition ready to become the next blockbuster hit.

“. . . and then the galleries closed,” says Hilary Knight. “We had a roadmap for 2020 that we were extremely excited about. But then the whole landscape changed in a very short period of time.”

While much of the focus of her discussion at the MuseumNext Digital Summit will be on Tate’s digital content strategy over the last 12 months, Hilary points out that the first consideration in March was a much more practical and operational one: how should her team be working each day.

“In the immediate aftermath of the galleries closing in March, we first had to understand if we had our systems set up correctly to maintain activity. We had to assess what our working practices were; what the cadence of our day should be; could we continue to film effectively and how could we adhere to newly implemented restrictions and guidelines. We forget now that during those early weeks, social distancing, masks and hand sanitiser were new to us all.”

“Just as importantly, we had to take the temperature of the public: find out where they were in their mindset and what they needed from us. As that became clearer, my team were required to pivot very, very quickly in order to find the best way to not only do their work remotely under new conditions, but also to cater for a global audience stuck at home and demanding content.”

Hilary suggests that much of the early content created by Tate’s team revolved around providing comfort, reassurance and positivity at a time when there was little joy to be found in the news. While Tate’s digital presence is the envy of many institutions around the world, Hilary says that even with a large archive and a highly skilled team on hand, it was still far from easy to mobilise and pivot effectively.

“Like many other museums we still had to compile quite a bit of emergency material over the course of the Spring. After all, we’d just closed some major exhibitions and, even though we were refunding tickets, we needed to show a commitment to those who had been looking forward to visiting us. That meant swiftly filming the exhibitions.”

Once it became apparent that Tate’s galleries weren’t going to be opening their doors for some time, Hilary says that the remit of the digital team took on a new dimension. No longer would they be dedicating resources to driving ticket sales; instead they could channel more effort into delivering “experiences”.

“The way I approached our role in this period was to distil the Tate down to its core purpose. As a team we asked ourselves, what should the organisation represent without galleries open to the public? What could we offer them?

“Fundamentally, we came back to the fact that we are expected to share collections; and then the stories, the knowledge and the expertise we have about those collections is where we add value and deepen the visitor experience. In everything we’ve done, that has had to remain at the heart of things.

“We were in a strong position already because we had a huge archive of digital content to draw on. But we still had to mine that effectively. Fundamentally the plan was to create quick turnaround content to compensate for the exhibitions that were closed, as well as unearthing hidden gems that our website visitors might not otherwise have come across.”

Learning on the go

An important part of the process, Hilary says, was to extract value from the challenges of 2020. By trying new things – new workflows, new delivery formats and new ways to measure activity – the digital team would be able to make informed decisions about what should be retained in the future, once Tate finally emerged from the pandemic.

“We couldn’t just allow ourselves to think about a stop gap plan and what was right in front of us. While it was necessary to be reactive and flexible, we did also need to know that the work we were putting in could help to inform the future.

“We pride ourselves on being an organisation that is evidence based and makes informed decisions. We learned how people were navigating our website differently during a period with no in-person exhibitions to promote and no tickets to sell. In some areas we lost a type of visit and gained a different type of visit.

Picture of the Tate Kids website

A prime example of that would be the huge surge in activity around Tate Kids. As you might expect, the absence of school education drove thousands of parents to our website for educational purposes. That’s been a huge success story for us and provides us with plenty of food for thought for the future.”

While the absence of ticket revenue and in-person exhibitions has led many institutions to consider the prospect of paid digital offerings, Hilary says,

“It’s clearly a pertinent question that’s facing museums and galleries right now. But I don’t think that the last 12 months has been the right time to make that leap at Tate. I don’t think it would have landed well for us to charge for our content during this period. We needed our audience to know we were there for them during the difficult times and that arts and culture could be a positive feature in their life – when everything else was difficult and restrictive.

“Instead, we’ve concentrated on monitoring how our audience interacts with the content we are producing. This enables us to ask the question: in the future would we consider charging for this type of content.”

“One thing I’m adamant about, though, is that if digital content and online experiences are utilised to supplement income, they must feel authentic and add genuine value. Otherwise they won’t work.”

Plotting a course towards “normality”

Asked whether she believes that the trials and tribulations have changed the status of digital teams within museums, Hilary says,

“Yes. To an extent. From conversations with colleagues at other museums, I certainly think that digital departments are beginning to be seen as part of the core activity of the museum in a way that they haven’t been before.

“I think that was an inevitable result of this disruption – a disruption we’ve dodged as an industry for many years as book publishing, music, retail and newspapers have all experienced seismic shifts. But in the face of the pandemic, we’ve had to embrace the technology that’s enabled us to maintain relationships with our audience.

“How digital will interact with the traditional museum experience in years to come still remains to be seen . . . and it will vary from institution to institution. What I can say, however, is that this period has shone a light on the need to do more around digital literacy within organisations.”

One of the misconceptions that Hilary is quick to dispel is the suggestion that digital transformations in the short term will serve to undermine or cannibalise the real-life museum experience.

“Digital isn’t there to compete with, replace or detract from the in-person experience. That never was the intention and it never will be, so we need to understand how it can provide a complementary, supporting or even standalone experience to lovers of art and culture.

“What I’m keen to convey is that it can enhance a visit. It can make it deeper, more immersive and better informed. Digital enables us to build relationships with audiences over a longer period of time – with the end result often being an in-person visit further down the chain.

Whatever happens with the pandemic over the coming months and however museums continue to utilise digital tools in the long term, the last 12 months has given Hilary confidence that her team have the skills and resilience to adapt to whatever is required of them:

“I’m so proud of my team. They have delivered a tremendous amount of work to an incredibly high standard, remaining committed and finding new ways of doing things when times get hard. That’s been a real measure of their talent and integrity.

“I only need to look at some of the feedback we’ve had through our social media and other channels to see how much the work we’ve done at Tate has proved itself to be a valuable source of joy and respite from the doom-scrolling and negative news headlines that seem to be everywhere.”

And what is Hilary hoping to learn from the MuseumNext Digital Summit?

“I am interested to see how people are exploring potential new revenue models, certainly. There will be differing views on how this can or should be handled and that’s something I’m keen to explore.

“I’m also fascinated to find out what’s been going on in other countries over the last year. It’s all too easy to get lost in our own experiences as a nation within our borders – but every country has faced its own difficulties to a greater or lesser degree and so it’s something I’m intrigued to learn more about.”

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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