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In conversation with: Linda Spurdle from Birmingham Museums Trust

Benny’s Babbies by Cold War Steve

As the lead on digital strategy, engagement and ICT across Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT), it’s not surprising to hear that the last 12 months have been a busy one for Linda Spurdle. Ahead of her talk at MuseumNext, Linda shared her thoughts on how the pandemic has changed the digital landscape and how the success of recent digital exhibitions has given Birmingham Museums Trust plenty of reason to be positive about a hybrid future of virtual and in-person experiences.

“We’re quite a small team at Birmingham Museum Trust, which I think is normal for a museum of our size. And there is, of course, a lot of cross over between what we might determine to be ‘digital’ and ‘IT’. But having integrated Microsoft 365 and made good laptop provision in 2019, we found ourselves in a relatively strong position to adopt remote work I think.”

While Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) certainly hasn’t been immune to the impact of the pandemic, Linda sees that there has been much cause for optimism in the last 12 months as the organisation has adapted to an increasingly digital world.

“What’s been fantastic to see is the fact that people are using their initiative and exploring new opportunities more than ever. As we were forced to adapt to remote working and dealing with certain team members being furloughed, many of our staff were inspired to learn to use new tools and discover new ways of creating content – like using video editing software or adopting new social media platforms.

“As I said, we’re a small team and can be quite pushed to do everything we want. If nothing else, the last 12 months has driven staff to multitask and advance their own skillsets more than ever. It’s exciting to see and it’s really a sign of the commitment and dedication of my colleagues.”

Like many other museums in recent times, Birmingham Museums Trust has been forced to look closely at the approvals process and “red tape” that could easily prevent the team from being reactive and responsive in the face of reduced resources and limited time.

“I think that the gratifying thing to see is that the public have embraced the more organic, informal content that has been produced during this period – both from our own museums and more generally across the industry. If I think back to last March, it’s funny, people were just craving information and entertainment in some form or other. The human touch to content like ‘behind the scenes’ tours really seemed to connect with people – perhaps more so than slicker, highly produced content would have done.

“The only thing we’ve remained strict about is that content needs to retain a commitment to accessibility. Our videos have to be subtitled to ensure that a greater number of people can enjoy them. But we’ve really encouraged our team to have fun with it.”

Occupy White Wall’s allowed the public to create their own version of Birmingham Art Gallery

With a career spanning more than 20 years, Linda has seen an incredible transition in museums’ approach to digital. From the project-based digitisation of assets and artefacts that took place during the 1990s and early 2000s to the adoption of social media as a communication and promotional tool, much has changed over that time.

“When I started in my early digital roles, managers would debate whether a website was needed for a museum and whether instructions were required to show people how to navigate it. That is a far cry from today. I think the fact that digital work was always project-based reflects how it was seen as a peripheral or ‘nice to have’ add on.

“In fact, in some instances there used to be a resistance to digitising artefacts because museum managers thought that it would stop people from coming in person.”

Linda’s favourite story from those early years was her experience of trying to persuade management to build a Facebook presence. She says,

“When I made the case to set us up with an account, I was told to ‘print out Facebook’ so that they could take a look at its merits in a meeting! That’s the biggest shift really – everyone is now using these tools and they understand their value.

“Even if someone isn’t on TikTok, they know that there’s a value to reaching people and engaging with people on that platform. The question I get more often nowadays is, why aren’t we doing something rather than why should we do something in the digital space.”

An explosion of interest and a time for digital curation

If the steady march of digital progress and innovation has been the hallmark of the last two decades, the last 12 months has been more of a more rapid acceleration. Asked to reflect on the changes that have taken place since March 2020, Linda says that although it has been a time of great uncertainty and challenge due to budget constraints and staff furlough, the shift online caused by lockdown caused an explosion of ideas from museum staff.

“I was inundated with ideas really. It was quite a strange phase having to almost curate those suggestions and pick through what was feasible and would work best for our audience. Initially, of course, you go for the existing assets and most interesting content you’ve got to hand because speed and responsiveness were important during the early days and weeks.

“In many respects we were fortunate because we had already worked on our virtual tour and simply hadn’t made the necessary changes to get it right for our website. The closure of the museum pushed it to the top of our priority list.”

Subsequently, Linda and her team developed a number of other 360-degree tours, alongside other fresh content. Crucially, the museum’s web presence also now reflects the fact that digital is part of the museum experience; not simply a marketing tool to signpost in-person visitors.

“One thing I would say, however, was that having programming teams and curators off on furlough was problematic . . . because you lose an important source of information and expertise. While our digital team and those left working certainly all contributed, one positive thing to look forward to in the future is that we can build on the efforts of the last 12 months with the right staff in role. That’s particularly true in the case of our Learning and Engagement teams.”

Working more collaboratively in the future is something that Linda is working hard on through 2021 as part of BMT’s digital strategy. She says,

“Collaboration between teams is a key focus for us going forward. It has to be the way that we work now, largely because it’s actually just a much better way of working. Digital can’t be seen as peripheral or an afterthought working independently from learning, engagement and programming teams. We know that a collective approach will make exhibitions and campaigns more impactful.”

Occupy White Wall’s allowed the public to create their own version of Birmingham Art Gallery

Growing reach with Occupy White Walls and Cold War Steve

During 2020 Birmingham Museums became the first official museum partner to Occupy White Walls, the AI-driven arts platform that allows its 75,000+ users to explore a growing fantasy world of art.

With two hundred artworks from Birmingham’s collection made available to players in the digital world, the partnership has served to introduce some of the museum’s finest pieces to a whole new global audience, as well as enable those already familiar with its works to deepen their connection with their favourite artwork through the game.

At a time when people in the UK (and throughout much of the world) were unable to step out of their home, providing access to art through Occupy White Walls (OWW) proved to be the perfect solution for both the game’s developers and the museum.

“We are always looking to reach more people and do things that are fun. That’s really what has driven some of our most successful recent partnership projects. Of course, there’s some trepidation about putting BMT’s name to a computer game because it’s a slightly different world, but really you can tell that the users of OWW are art lovers, design fans, architecture enthusiasts and the kind of people who would probably quite happily explore our physical galleries.

“The beautiful thing about these virtual galleries is that people invest so much of themselves in there. They are curating spaces to fill them with images and artefacts that they love and cherish, so that they can visit them whenever they feel the need.”

Birmingham Museums’ work with Occupy White Walls wasn’t the only partnership that made waves during the course of the pandemic. In 2020 the Trust commissioned Cold War Steve to produce a work inspired by the Trust’s digital image database. Linda says,

“It really came off the back of the work we’d done in 2019 with remix and hack events, trying to encourage people to use our out-of-copyright images creatively, but they weren’t having an impact. A partnership with Unsplash was tremendously successful in encouraging people to find and use our images. Not long after, we came up with this idea of commissioning Cold War Steve – a local to Birmingham and lover of the museums – to produce works using our digital image database.

Cold War Steve taking inspiration from the Birmingham Art Gallery collection.

“The initial idea was to have a physical exhibition in April of 2020. But as the pandemic hit in March we obviously had to rethink our approach. It was actually Cold War Steve and his manager who approached us to suggest that we share his work – Benny’s Babbies – online for people to access during lockdown.

“What it has shown us is that releasing exhibitions or artworks digitally absolutely doesn’t detract from the in-person experience or put people off visiting in the flesh. When we did briefly manage to reopen during the summer, we saw huge interest in the exhibition . . . we even produced prints in our shop to meet demand.”

Cold War Steve’s commission formed part of a broader series of artistic interventions through 2020, entitled “Cut, Copy, Remix”, which included a partnership with Birmingham’s Black Hole Club to support emerging digital artists and provide them with extensive resources.

As Linda explains, having the opportunity to document and share this project digitally served to enrich the experience and further its reach within the local community.

“I think the fact that the artists documented their creative process online, shared their progress along the way, and then finally published their finished work digitally, gave us so much more quality content than might otherwise have been possible.

“I think we have seen the advantages of working collaboratively to bring partner exhibitions to life now and I’m certain that in the future we will explore other avenues where there is potential to create online or perhaps hybrid campaigns and exhibitions.”

Cold War Steve taking inspiration from the Birmingham Art Gallery collection.

Looking towards the future

While the world looks to get back to some form of normality, Linda suggests that, in digital terms at least, going backwards is not now an option. Instead, the learnings of the last 12 months should inform future strategies and encourage museums to see their online platforms as tools to add genuine value to arts and culture audiences.

“There is a raft of practical things that must now be done right. Making improvements to website functionality and tying in ticketing functions more seamlessly are at the top of that list. We also need to use digital tools to support the museums’ broader ambitions to be inclusive and reach the Birmingham audience in its entirety. We know that our archives and digital assets are heavily weighted towards dead white artists, and that is something that we need to address if we are to attract the modern population of Birmingham.

“It comes down to serving our city better, representing it better and engaging in conversation with the community in a more meaningful way. Digital will play a critical role in this engagement work – and that’s something that will be at the heart of our digital strategy.

“As I think Chris Cloud suggested in his talk at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in February, we need to listen to what our community wants from us, to put them first, not think that we know what they want or would benefit from. We have to provide an essential service if we want our museums and galleries to stand the test of time, so my argument is that we need to work hard to enhance the local community’s lives wherever we can.”

The value of shared experiences between museum professionals

After a period of significant turmoil, change and learning, Linda knows that it is more important than ever for the museum community to come together to share experiences and communicate effectively to help the sector move forward through what will undoubtedly be a tough few years to come. She says,

“I think that events like MuseumNext are incredibly important. We’re all so busy in our daily lives that it’s critical to have dedicated time to think about new ideas and explore where we need to go next.  Obviously, you learn so much from what people are sharing and, as a lover of ideas, I just relish the opportunity to find out about exciting projects going on in different museums. I just get so much from being exposed to that kind of melting pot of experiences.

“It’s good to hear where others have implemented similar things to you that it gives you confidence that you are probably doing things right. And, similarly, when museum professionals kindly share how they have messed up it also reassures you that you aren’t the only one experiencing sticky moments along the way.

“MuseumNext conferences are refreshing because they seem to me to be far more generous and open about the bad experiences as well as the good. To me, that is so critical. It’s also the fact that the shared learnings come from around the world from institutions of all shapes and sizes. It’s not just the huge national institutions explaining how they’ve spent millions on a project . . . which just isn’t relatable to smaller museums.”

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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