Have a global audience and annual visitor numbers of almost 2 million people? Then how do you keep them engaged and interested when you close your doors for 3 years?
That’s the challenge that Senior Digital Manager, Katherine Biggs, and the team at the National Portrait Gallery has to contend with until 2023. MuseumNext caught up with Katherine ahead of this month’s Digital Exhibitions Summit to find out more about the Gallery’s digital exhibitions and what the team has learnt so far in a fast-evolving digital landscape.
Having been in role since August 2020, Katherine Biggs is a museum professional with experience of moving jobs in the midst of a pandemic. As Senior Digital Manager her position is a critical one for the National Portrait Gallery at a time when the world is still in the throes of the Covid-19 crisis and the emphasis on digital has never been greater.
Asked about the rollercoaster 12 months she has experienced since starting at the Gallery, she jokes, “Well, due to Covid restrictions I didn’t actually meet my boss in person until we’d been working together for a year. That’s one interesting point. I’ve certainly not had the usual induction into a new position.”
If that wasn’t unusual enough, Katherine has joined an institution in the midst of a major redevelopment and working towards opening its doors again 2023. As the National Portrait Gallery is undergoing substantial renovation and transformation work on-site, digital and off-site exhibitions are at the core of the Gallery’s activities for the foreseeable future.
“That means that we are working hard in the online space to maintain and increase engagement in the here and now. But we are also currently planning what our future looks like once the Gallery does reopen and how digital will sit alongside the on-site exhibitions for the long term.”
Seizing the moment
In a transitional period where they are without a dedicated physical space from which to exhibit, Katherine says that the National Portrait Gallery has identified an opportunity to make real progress in its digital presence and explore some of the different avenues that perhaps weren’t a priority in the past.
“I wouldn’t say we have ‘time’ because it’s been an extraordinarily busy few months. But I would say we find ourselves in this ‘moment’ where we can look at the website through a different lens. The focus is not on driving footfall, as it would have been in the past.
“That’s not to say that we aren’t running events elsewhere. We have a loans programme and touring exhibitions in locations around the UK and internationally and have been involved in new initiatives like the Art of London Augmented Gallery. But there is also quite a bit of room for us to explore how people can engage with the Collection online.
It’s also given us the opportunity to run audience research and gain a deeper understanding of who is using the website. Collecting data and analysing it will give us insights into how we should present and use our digital platforms in the future.”
One of the projects Katherine references is Reframing Narratives, the Chanel Culture Fund-backed initiative to promote female artists and sitters. In the case of this project, Katherine says,
“We’re trying to use the website to really bring out some of the stories from our Collection that people may not be familiar with. But we are also looking to acquire new artworks and shine a light on fresh talent and new stories – both artists and sitters.”
Behind all of the current campaigns, Katherine says, is a general drive within her team and the Gallery as a whole to “better understand how people are using our website, how they might want to use it in the future and what we should be doing to facilitate those needs.”
She continues, “We also have to understand that we aren’t an island here. As a digital team we need to explore the avenues that are going to benefit wider teams and help to support initiatives that we are running into the future. There are areas where we can really experiment from the ground up and allow things to develop iteratively; conversely there are instances where we have a clearer output in mind and need to explore the best way for our online presence to support those initiatives.”
A prime example of this is the National Portrait Gallery’s virtual exhibitions, which Katherine says had been planned for some time but that, in this moment, the team are taking the time to evolve that offering in line with the changing trends and demands of online visitors.
“There are a number of hypotheses we started with when looking to develop our digital exhibitions and build out our website. With the help of various metrics and the survey we’ve conducted it’s been possible to establish where our instincts were right and where we were a little off the mark.”
With 160,000 digitised images and more than 200,000 total records to choose from, helping users to navigate the rich depths of the Collection is a significant task in itself.
“The core focus is really that people want to find works of interest and want to have easy access to more information about that work. That’s an ongoing programme we are undertaking.”
The role of a digital manager
Asked if she feels that the role of digital manager has changed as a result of the upheaval of the last two years or the growing reliance on online activities during periods of closure, Katherine says,
“I don’t think the role has necessarily changed – at least that’s not been my experience. But I would certainly say that the attitude towards digital has changed significantly from wider teams. There’s always been a spectrum of digital literacy and digital interest within museums and galleries; and I’d say that the pandemic has caused that base level to rise a bit higher. Everyone is becoming more digitally literate and most people are more curious about its potential and applications.
“At the very least, the recent past has made everyone understand the importance of digital and the power of digital for sharing our Collection and our work with the public. That brings new challenges in terms of managing expectations within budgets and resource but it is certainly a positive step.
“Our digital presence has been an important point of contact with the public during this period where they had nowhere to go, and no cultural institutions were physically available. Seeing how audiences have engaged with us and being able to gather insights into their user preferences has been important to the Gallery as a way of staying connected with people.
“We’ve made the effort to share that with colleagues. Helping them understand how important the Gallery is to people and what it means to have art and culture in their lives even while they’ve been stuck at home.”
However, Katherine does offer one word of caution when it comes to museums’ growing digital presence over the course of the pandemic: “Our numbers have been higher than ever over the last 18 months but it’s important we dig deeper into that. With people stuck at home through lockdowns, we can’t simply say that growing visitor numbers is a sign of success. We still need to know more about what’s working and what isn’t online. That’s one of the key reasons why we’ve been carrying out audience research.”
And finally, what does Katherine hope to share in her MuseumNext presentation?
“When lockdown first happened, everyone felt they had to go online and share their collections. Everyone did it in different ways and it’s important, I think, that we share our experience and listen to how others have done so. At this stage what we want to share is what our most recent exhibitions have taught us and what we think ‘hybrid’ will look like for us in 2023 and beyond.”
Hear more from Katherine and an exceptional range of other museum professionals at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit running 6th – 8th December 2021. Find out more about the conference here.