Digital Transformation!

Catherine Devine - Technology as an enabler for museum‘s missions.

An interview by Diana Fehr / February 11th, 2021

Catherine Devine is the Business Strategy Leader for Libraries & Museums, Microsoft Worldwide Education. In this role her goal is to leverage Microsoft technology and to explore emerging opportunities to further the missions of Libraries and Museums globally. With a strong background in the technology industry and as formal Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, she brings together her expertise from both worlds to form a continuously changing world.


Museo: Over the last four decades, Microsoft has been developing solutions for schools and universities and in 2019 they added Libraries & Museums to their worldwide education program. Why was it important for Microsoft to take this step?


Catherine: Education is always valued by Microsoft, as it has its roots going all the way back to the beginning, and has always been linked to museums and libraries through their interaction with schools and universities. Therefore this step was a natural extension of Microsoft‘s education program. Additionally, Microsoft is a very innovative company and therefore it is always spinning off and supporting ideas that can make an impact and empower communities across the globe.


Museo: How exactly can a tech-giant like Microsoft be an enabling partner for museums?


Catherine: It is good to see that museums are adopting digital technology more and more. A trend that will continue to grow rapidly and which is now even being accelerated by the global pandemic. But what we also see is that museums respond to the latest technology only as it develops. They mostly focus on the consumer side of technology, as they think that digital is only about marketing and content production. But they haven’t necessarily thought about the topic holistically and this is why they are limited.


It is necessary to talk more about digital transformation and the importance of digital infrastructure, as well as about technology as an strategic enabler of museums mission. We need to educate and inspire museums on different levels, as we want them to think more about concepts and digital strategy, and ask questions around – „How can technology help to achieve our mission and enable every part of our organisation?“ – „How can we crate an infrastructure that allows us to scale, so that we can build efficiencies?“ A very encouraging example for this is Douglas Gurr, the new director of the Natural History Museum London. I heard him talk about technology in museums, and I’m like „Wow, we need more of you“.


But it is also important for Microsoft to drive forward the right solutions and to support innovation. We want to bring the right solutions to museums, which are affordable and accessible for them. This is why for example, Microsoft is partnering and investing in an entrepreneur, who developed a collection management system with a very modern thinking approach. An innovative collections management solution for the industry that has a roadmap, and that is sustainable and affordable. Nothing like what it costs museums today or what it would cost them when they try to build it themselves. In this case, Microsoft provides investment and expertise around architecting systems, through which this company could assemble the whole solution much faster than they initially thought. This is why we support innovative companies and solutions rooted in museums and libraries. So we bring the solutions to museums, as in general museums should not be focused on building technology, but rather on developing their missions and capabilities.


Museo: What is it exactly that you want to achieve with the digital programs and platforms you are woking with? 


Catherine: We want to inform and provide a holistic view of the opportunities and possibilities, and inspire people about what digital transformation really means for museums. Our free monthly webinar „Libraries & Museums Digital Transformation Framework“ is created specifically for the library and museum community, which provides information about big picture trends and global perspectives, as well as plenty of case studies and practical examples.


But it‘s also about experimenting on various channels, as these are all different in many ways. We want to engage with diverse audiences and meet them on different levels. This is why we also produced a podcast series with Emily Kotecki, where we bring different voices into the discussion in an authentic way, which became very popular during the pandemic. You can follow the journey of digital transformation in museums and libraries from around the world and we explore emerging trends as well as reveal critical truths about digital change. So hopefully it inspires museums all over the world on what is possible and helps to provide good examples of how to think about technology.


Museo: What do you think are the biggest opportunities for museums with digital transformation at the moment?


Catherine: The biggest opportunity, in my opinion, is to reduce the cost base of museums. It seems to be a less interesting and exciting topic, but it is a very important one when we think about sustainability. Intelligent environments and modern technology systems can support organizational processes and run sustainable buildings and thereby reduce costs significantly. It is proven that Internet of Things (IoT) technology can reduce energy costs in a building by 30%, which also has a significant impact on climate change. Furthermore, modern digital tools and processes can help to connect organizational systems efficiently, like HR, finance and the CMR systems, so that a lot of time and effort can be reduced. The money which is hereby saved can be used much better in a way that is more aligned with the museum‘s educational and research mission.

The second opportunity that I’m very passionate about is the use of artificial intelligence to support Knowledge Mine Collections. We have been limited by what technology can do for years, but now we have so many technologies that are available and readily affordable. Artificial intelligence can search topics and trends in a way that, unless you’ve got time and capacity for research, people wouldn‘t have the possibility to. Today you can tag your entire collection, you can describe what’s in the images, and if it is a manuscripts, it can be completely translated. It can also be taken from text to speech, so that it becomes an audio.


But more importantly you can actually use data science approaches very excessively. It is quite fascinating to be able to go back to primary sources and to history you may not have heard about. For instance, I was able to learn about a concept, called the Bachelor Tax, because the National Library of Australia digitized all of their newspapers of the 200-year history of colonial Australia. A concept of taxing men when they choose not to marry. As they weren‘t considered to be making a contribution to society, they where forced to pay a compensation. This is only one example, but there is so much more to discover. Especially with the access to open collections we now have insights that we have never had before. We can start to compare across countries and time and bring pieces together and connect history. And this is where museums can really have a huge impact on the world. I think this is the biggest opportunity for museums in the future.


Museo: So this is about Advanced Discovery?


Catherine: Yes, because Advanced Discovery has the most potential for transformation. As said, data science techniques can help to make connections and help discover new insights. A lot of museums did not digitise initially, or they did digitise as technologies became available, but they didn’t necessarily know why. Now technology has progressed a long way and we are getting some great examples of why we should digitise. A lot of research can be done now on the digitised image; you can see inside the object, rotate, expand it, and explore it in new ways.


The other piece of Advanced Discovery is the capability to do research on a bigger scale. This is now possible, because we have enough computer power to do it and because we have the computer facilities that are available in the cloud. Today we can run millions of simulations, like it was just done with the COVID vaccine. We are able to solve problems that we couldn‘t solve before and this is the best discovery for me.

Museo: But isn‘t it true that a lot of museums have problems to share their data, especially as the tech-giants are all based in the U.S. What is your experience with that?


Catherine: Absolutely, it comes in a number of different ways and I hear this a lot. I understand that particularly national museums and libraries are concerned and sensitive about their data. Even New Zealand who is generally open to technology, doesn‘t necessarily want digital copies of their data and have them stored somewhere else. But the good thing is that Microsoft is well ahead of this. The challenge has been around for years and it has been solved in different ways, for every other industry, like the very sensitive defense industry. With Microsoft you can choose where your data is stored and you can control where your data goes.


Museo: Already before COVID you were a passionate advocate for finding new ways to engage audiences with digital technology. Now museums are forced to increase access to their digital spaces. What are the possibilities here?


Catherine: I think it was always necessary to bring different perspectives to the exhibit as there are different interests and needs. Children engage with exhibits differently than adults, and people who have expertise in art are different than a casual visitor. Digital allows you to provide these different perspectives and you can do that through technologies that are not intrusive. In the work that we are doing at Microsoft, our focus is always on using innovation to enhance or complement the visitor experience.


Now with COVID, museums started to look at accessibility seriously. For sure, the pandemic has been devastating for the world and it has been a major disrupter, but there is a silver lining. We have learned from the pandemic, with everything going virtual, that museums can reach far more people than ever before. There were always lots of valid reasons for why people couldn‘t come to the physical building. That could be the fact that they are living in a completely different part of the world, or they are disabled, or simply because of financial reasons, which doesn’t mean that they are not interested in engaging in culture. This is all about going beyond the walls of the museum and making exhibitions accessible for everyone who is interested in them.


When you open yourself digitally, you are certainly opening yourself to the world and you can reach a bigger audience. So we have to acknowledge that museums have to give the digital aspect more attention, but they also have to think about how they can appropriately get a return on the amount of money that they invest in those channels. For instance, people are experimenting on how to monetise this digital content, like The National Gallery of London started to charge for virtual tours.


Museo: Are there other challenges that come with digital transformation?


Catherine: We are still at a very early stage of our journey on digital discovery in the museum sector. There is no doubt at all that fast-developing technologies and new innovations will present new opportunities and challenges in abundance. 


But for digital transformation to occur we must overcome resistance and embrace change. Even if we have the desire to keep a level of stability, change is there all the time – It’s just happening. For instance over the course of my career I have seen continuous digital change. From personal computing, to internet and mobile, 3D experiences, and now quantum computing is coming next. So it’s changed like six times for me. But now we can see that digital change is happening outside the technology profession in every industry and that therefore we have to adapt. It becomes important and necessary for all of us to continuously update our skills. For museums this means investing in effort and expertise on a deeper level and not only focusing on the front-end representation. 


The premise of Microsoft working with museums is not to undermine what they stand for but rather to give them the tools to enhance their offering, stay relevant or simply preserve the quality and security of their exhibits.


Museo: How has your recent work and the results you gained from it affected the way you will proceed with your program in the near future?


Catherine: I wish to tackle the concern that digital technologies are a threat to traditional museum experiences. I look forward to discussing in more detail some of the ways we are helping museums reach new audiences and how the collaborative process of digital transformations can actually work in practice.


I will definitely proceed in experimenting, because it leads to find unexpected outcomes, as I could see with our podcast series, which became very successful. Finding out what works and what doesn‘t is a part of the skill set we talked about. So I will try out more things, which you would think won‘t work.


Museo: Thank you for this interview and sharing your thoughts with me.

Images: Catherine Devine, Unsplash