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Museums and the Web

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Navigating The Bumpy Road: A Tactical Approach To Delivering A Digital Strategy

Carolyn Royston, Imperial War Museums, and Charlotte Sexton, The National Gallery, UK


This paper discusses the importance and impact of developing, delivering and sustaining a digital strategy within a cultural organisation. It uses recent experiences at the National Gallery, London, UK, and the Imperial War Museums, UK, to demonstrate why having a strategy is so fundamental to the long-term success of digital development, and how it can be used as a driver to shape direction for a strategic programme of work that is aligned with organisational needs and priorities.

Keywords: digital strategy, organisational change, leadership, social media, website development, media channel


This paper looks at problems faced by institutions across the cultural sector. As heads of digital departments at two very different organisations, we came together to compare experiences about the preparation of a digital strategy. What could an Old Master painting collection like the National Gallery (NG) with its iconic Van Goghs and Leonardos have in common with the Imperial War Museums (IWM), a contemporary collection focusing on modern war and wartime experience? In terms of aspirations for digital engagement the answer, it turned out, was a great deal. The lessons learned are applicable to museums small and large.

This paper sets out to give some fundamental principles for any cultural institution writing a digital strategy, singling out key elements including how to deploy a strategy and embed it for the long term. The paper draws on the experiences of both cultural institutions to illustrate how these principles apply in practice.

About the organisations

Established in 1824, the National Gallery (NG) collection represents all major traditions of Western European painting from late medieval works to post-Impressionist art, and contains many of the world’s most iconic works, including Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. Today the NG continues to ensure that the widest public possible can enjoy its collection through its ongoing commitment to free admission, a central and accessible location, and the development of an extensive range of online, mobile and in-gallery digital interpretation.

Figure 1: View from Trafalgar Square of The National Gallery, London. © The National Gallery

The Imperial War Museums (IWM), was established nearly a hundred years after the NG in 1917, and was initially tasked with documenting the First World War, which was still being fought. Based across five branches, the IWM aims to enrich people’s understanding of the causes, course and consequences of modern war, by interpreting modern history through objects, film, art, photographs, sound, and new media – all of which immediately resonate with people today.

Figure 2: The IWM London building on Lambeth Road, London. © IWM

On the surface, as cultural institutions the NG and the IWM would appear to be miles apart. However, despite the differences, there are striking similarities in our ambitions to use contemporary communication tools to engage with contemporary audiences.  

Key drivers for change

Although both organisations have been effective in building audiences and in promoting and interpreting their collections over many years, there were a number of key drivers – both internal and external – which provided a need for a new vision for digital engagement.

Every strategy needs a champion

The starting point for change for both organisations began with key new staffing appointments. In autumn 2008, IWM appointed a new Director-General, Diane Lees. One of her first actions was to create a separate New Media department for the organisation and to appoint a new head of that department (Carolyn Royston). This sent a clear message that digital was central to the future of the museum, and needed to be given profile and backing by the senior management team.

Similarly, at the NG in September 2009 a new directorate was created, headed by Jillian Barker, focusing on public engagement and interpretation. This structural change significantly affected the Digital Media department (led by Charlotte Sexton) as it subtly shifted the emphasis from ‘communications’ to ‘engagement’. Once in post the Director of Education, Information and Access’s first action was to initiate a series of strategic reviews, with digital at the forefront.

Both of these new appointments were critical in championing digital at the highest levels of our organisations, supporting and positioning it as something that should be central to organisational thinking, and in doing so helped to provide a ‘friendlier’ climate in which to nurture emerging plans.

The right time to pause and reflect

The past ten years have seen frenetic growth in the use of digital media by museums and galleries. We have seen the launch of first, second and even third generation corporate websites, the growth and sophistication of in-gallery interpretation tools and more recently engagement with mobile and social platforms.

The NG and IWM can both demonstrate impressive digital pedigrees, stretching back to the launch of their first websites in 1998 and 1999 respectively, and in the NG’s case even further back with the innovative in-gallery kiosk system MicroGallery in 1991 – the first of its kind. Both have invested heavily in their ICT infrastructures, including their collection management systems (IWM uses Adlib; the National Gallery, The Museum System), new website content management systems (Amaxus and Drupal) and in the case of IWM their digital asset management system (Cambridge Imaging Systems).

However, while recognising these significant accomplishments, it is also important to acknowledge that many of these initiatives were often conceived as ‘stand-alone’ projects in the absence of an over arching strategy or vision. They were made possible with ad-hoc or opportunistic uses of funding. In some cases limited consideration was given to long-term development.

It was imperative to embrace the lessons learned from these past initiatives in order to move towards a more coherent and sustainable future. The first step was to develop a digital strategy that could provide an overall framework for prioritising and planning projects in a more strategic and holistic way to meet wider organisational objectives.  

Why a ‘digital’ strategy?

After receiving backing from management created by the new posts, we had a mandate to focus on creating a digital strategy. The process of developing these strategies enabled us to set out clear statements of intent about what our respective departments stood for, their ambitions, key projects, and how they would fit into wider organisational goals and corporate priorities. It also enabled us to keep digital high on the senior management agenda. The overall goal was to make digital central to organisational thinking and planning.

We were both aware that there was a danger that digital could be seen as either a siloed activity, or be considered too late as an adjunct to core planning. Any strategy needed to show clearly how digital fitted into a much wider public engagement agenda as another aspect of the overall public programme. Both of us saw that the best way to achieve this was by demonstrating and developing different digital services over time that could show sceptics across our organisations, and those who were less digitally literate, the value of investing in the digital space.

About the process

The building blocks for developing a strategy

The development of a strategy can be as easy or complex as the organisational culture demands. Looking back at our processes we found there were many common building blocks – similar to those you will find at other institutions, particularly at the Smithsonian and Tate ( and These building blocks included:

  • Commissioning peer reviews and sharing best practice
  • Cycles of internal consultation with staff at all levels of the organisation
  • Facilitated workshops with staff and digital teams to brainstorm ideas and gain a shared understanding
  • Iterative development to check thinking and allow staff to respond
  • Written papers including statement of intent, provocation paper, consultation paper, summary paper (for senior management and Trustees), defining priority projects and final strategy/vision paper
  • Publication and communication of ‘finished’ strategy to staff and eventually the wider cultural community

Following an almost ‘agile’ development process, time was given to review the emerging strategies, consult and then iterate. This process in itself helped to ensure that staff across both organisations had an opportunity to feed in their own thinking and to take ownership of the end result. The goal was to ensure staff made an investment in the process and would therefore be more likely to help when it came time to deliver the strategy.

The process in action

A significant challenge faced by both of us within our organisations was the complexity of having to navigate a path through the sometimes opaque, hierarchical workplace culture. Both IWM and the NG had a limited practice and experience of open collaborative working. At times, this was made more challenging by the low levels of internal communication and open sharing of information, combined with a general lack of digital literacy. Careful consideration had to be given to the best method for ensuring that staff were fully engaged with the development of the emerging strategic plans and were able to contribute from an informed position.

The solution at both organisations was to host a series of internal and facilitated workshops. Staff across the IWM and the NG took time out of their day-to-day activities in order participate in a series of dynamic sessions. This method enabled large numbers of staff to participate – over 100 across the various branches at IWM and 80 plus for the NG – facilitating dialogue among staff at all levels of the organisation. Carefully planned and led by a ‘neutral’ external facilitator, the sessions proved to be an invaluable tool in engaging staff. At the NG staff commented that they felt more respected for having been consulted and that they had greatly enjoyed the opportunity to work in this creative way. From the perspective of those tasked with formulating the strategy at both organisations, it provided valuable new thinking, and greatly helped to legitimise the overall process of developing the strategy.

In order to give the workshops a conceptual structure and to ensure staff had time to prepare themselves, both IWM and the NG circulated various documents in advance that were intended to:

  • Open up the potential of digital to enable people to learn, explore, create
  • Provide discussion about what new digital products and services might look like
  • Explore the impact on individuals and their working practice

After the workshops, both organisations collated and summarised the outcomes using different methods. At the IWM, notes from sessions were published on an internally accessible Wiki, which staff could comment on and edit publically. At the NG, knowing the working culture, a decision was taken to use e-mail as the main method of feedback, allowing a greater degree of privacy. At IWM it was felt that this was an opportunity to start as they intended to continue, so although there was a low take up for the Wiki, it was a good opportunity to signal new ways of working with a mechanism where staff could feedback in an unmediated way.

Despite the reticence to broadcast opinion, we would both agree that overall there was a high level of engagement and enthusiasm from staff, and a general agreement that there was real value in delivering well-planned facilitated workshops using a non-hierarchical approach. This is particularly evident at the IWM, which has gone on to replicate this model in other non-digital initiatives that the museum has undertaken: a real example of how the application of strategic thinking as applied to a digital project can lead on and influence organisational change.

Approaches to drafting the strategy

The final strategy documents could only be drafted once this consultation was completed. These documents had to outline the vision, scope and direction of travel that each organisation would take in order to realise their long-term digital ambitions.

In contrast to the consultation phases, which in the case of the NG were stretched over several months, the writing of the final strategies happened over a relatively short period of time. This was beneficial for the Digital teams as it re-energized the process, and was a clear indicator that the strategy development phase was almost drawing to an end. Both the IWM and NG aimed to ensure that these documents would be usefully concise. They needed to provide a vision for long-term ambitions that was grounded in ‘real’ projects and written in a language that everyone could understand.

IWM’s Digital and New Media Strategy focused on four key areas:

  1. Connecting digital activity across the museum to ensure that it was joining up and co-ordinating content, resource, commercial activity and technology strategically and effectively;
  2. Making the digital agenda pivotal to the IWM’s future success;
  3. Creating a new website that builds the museum’s profile and supports its brand values, and is delivered on time and to budget;
  4. Providing online and digital services to grow and develop the museum’s audiences, both at its physical sites and online.

Three further short documents were created which underpinned IWM’s main digital strategy dealing with IWM’s Technical Web Strategy, Multimedia Strategy and Social Media Strategy, outlining the organisations short-, medium- and longer-term aims via these channels.

The NG choose to adopt a different method more commonly used in parliamentarian circles, circulating a ‘green paper’ as a discussion document intended to stimulate debate and launch a process of consultation, which then evolved into a ‘white paper’ used as a tool for ‘participatory democracy’ (Doerr; Doern & Aucoin 1971). This white paper would also provide an opportunity to educate readers and help them make decisions. The combined feedback elicited by these earlier documents was then used to guide a distillation of thinking into a final document entitled Connecting: Taking Digital Engagement To The Next Level. The NG’s Digital Engagement Strategy identified eight key development themes:

  1. Remote connections: Upgrading the capacities of the Gallery’s website and broadening its content;
  2. In-gallery connections: Upgrading in-gallery digital interpretation;
  3. Scholarly connections: Extending the dedicated Research area within the website;
  4. Social connections: Extending the Gallery’s use of social media;
  5. Deeper connections: Launching a new, media channel with extensive audiovisual content;
  6. Mobile connections: Developing a diverse mobile programme;
  7. Connected learning: Launching an e-learning programme;
  8. Operational connections: Supporting the organisational needs of the Gallery.

Once coherent drafts had been written up by the NG and IMW teams, it was imperative that they be reviewed by senior management and staff, ensuring that both digital departments had a clear mandate to begin an agreed programme of work. Final documents were presented to both the Boards of Trustees (in the case of the NG with a follow up paper outlining three priority projects) and their senior management teams for sign off. Both organisations had already actively engaged senior management teams in the process. However, at the NG, there was perhaps a missed opportunity in having not had access to trustees before the final presentations, as they showed themselves to be not only deeply supportive to digital engagement in general, but also able to offer significant real-world knowledge and experience in this area.

Once the strategies were ratified, both digital departments had clear authority to move to the next stage of delivering them. To complete this phase it was imperative that the outcome of the strategy development be disseminated as widely as possible, and communicated clearly and consistently across each organisation. Both IWM and NG used their internal staff intranets to communicate with staff. IWM also used their own departmental museum blog to publish the strategy.

At the time of writing neither organisation had made these documents available to the public, or wider museum community. This was in part due to the fact that public dissemination was not a primary goal in their creation, and so had not been prioritised. Both Digital teams would acknowledge the importance of communicating the strategies, but also recognise the additional work that would be required to produce ‘public friendly’ versions which would potentially entail the removal of business sensitive information, and projects that had not yet been fully approved.

How to move from theory to practice to deliver digital programmes

For those tasked with this responsibility, moving from expressing the vision to delivering it can be where the real challenges lie. Both of us have years of experience to draw on in delivering successful digital projects and recognise that failure early on in this process would risk derailing the strategies in the longer term. From a political perspective it was imperative to build confidence within our management teams, and to respond to the sceptics by implementing well executed projects, on time and to budget.

We used the approval of the strategies to set out to the organisation an agreed set of priority projects that provided focus for our digital programmes, allowing progress and measurement against an agreed set of priorities, and identification of the resources and funding needed to deliver them. In turn, the digital departments’ job was to deliver these projects on time and to budget, ensure that progress, both success and failure, would be disseminated to the organisation appropriately and in a timely manner, that lessons were learned as they moved to work in new ways, and that there would be ongoing advocacy about the digital agenda with senior management and other staff.

Delivering priority projects

The IWM website

The first key priority project for IWM was the development of a new website (, launched November 2011). This was designated as a corporate priority project for the organisation. And because of the work undertaken to develop a strategy, it enabled a marked shift in attitude toward digital in the organisation, moving away from a passive, risk-averse and marketing-driven approach to create a new website that is dynamic and daring, bringing IWM’s collections and people’s experiences of human conflict to life for a global audience.

Figure 3: The homepage of the new IWM website, launched in November 2011. © IWM

The strategy also provided the basis for the development process itself, with a commitment to apply strong project management principles, working in an agile way and iterating to enable staff and audiences to feedback. It was designated as a ‘change project’ and it was imperative that the principles set out in the strategy were exemplified to the organisation throughout the project lifecycle.

The website was built using a hybrid Agile/PRINCE2 methodology that enabled IWM to keep iterating to allow for consultation and feedback from staff to truly inform the development process. The project team were able to work in this way partly because the organisation had already been exposed to this method in the consultation process and knew that their feedback would be considered. The digital team embedded the collections holistically into the site, reinforcing everything the organisation stands for. IWM have developed open source services for their website CMS and collections ‘middleware’, which are flexible and scalable enough to serve the needs of the organisation now and going forward. This approach allows IWM to be more ambitious in scope and output while providing a system that is easier and cheaper to maintain and develop, and aligns more closely with an ‘open data’ ethos. These were ambitions stated in the Digital Strategy (and accompanying Technical Development Strategy). In addition, as part of IWM’s more ‘open’ agenda, the website was launched as a public Beta with accompanying FAQs to explain why it had built a new site, what new features were available, and to ask the public for feedback. Finally, the project team delivered the project applying the principles that they had agreed about the way in which they wanted to work across the organisation.

Significantly, the digital team demonstrated success by delivering the project on time and to budget – a key element of IWM’s Strategy. By doing this, it has given the organisation confidence that the department can deliver on its promises and has enabled us to continue to develop new projects in the same way, applying the same processes and principles.

A new programme at the NG

Having already launched a successful new website in June 2009, the NG has instead decided to adopt a more iterative and phased approach to the development of their new priority projects. By doing so, the NG digital department aims to better manage the risks inherent with large-scale productions, shorten the development timeline (showing results earlier), and provide opportunities to iterate and refine in discrete stages, thereby building on real-world development experience and direct audience and staff feedback.

Having only ratified the NG’s strategy at the end of September 2011, at the time of writing the digital department was midway through the initial phase of its first priority project: launching the first phase of a media channel. This project involves reorganising and re-presenting published video content within the existing infrastructure of the website in order to provide better access to this material from a central location. In tandem, the NG is developing a new dedicated media channel using an externally hosted solution. And finally, we are developing a new model for commissioning films (both short and long form) which will provide the NG with a flexible and scalable model of commissioning, the ability to tailor content to better meet the needs of audiences, and to respond to the ambitions outlined in the emerging interpretation strategy.

Figure 4: Screenshots showing the first phase of development of the National Gallery’s media channel. © The National Gallery

While to date the technical implementation has been fairly straightforward, the more challenging aspects of the project have primarily centred around the organisational change required to meet the needs of this new platform in the longer term. To do this effectively the NG must now reach consensus on the approach to commissioning new film content, whether it is produced internally, or externally commissioned using a stable of film production companies, and agree a new approach to editorial planning and approval.

Having a long-term strategic direction has undoubtedly enabled the NG’s digital department to produce a more coherent and prioritised programme of work. It has also helped the team to break down large, complex initiatives, such as developing the media channel, or new mobile website into smaller more manageable ones. When all of this work is put together it will result in the delivery of truly significant strategic developments. What it has not been able to do – at least in the short term – is to effortlessly resolve the changes necessary to existing internal processes or the structures required to smooth the way to these future developments. In some cases this will need to be achieved incrementally and with great finesse in order to maintain good working relations and continued staff support from across the organisation in the future.

Examples of how to keep the strategy ‘alive’

There are inherent and ongoing challenges for those leading the development of strategic digital programmes – most notably the tension of balancing project delivery against the time and effort required to nurture the ongoing organisational change necessary for the long-term success of any digital strategy.

Since the IWM completed their strategy some 18 months ago (compared to 4 months ago at the NG), they are in a stronger position to comment on the steps taken to embed the strategy within the organisation. These steps have included:

Setting up a new analytics group of stakeholders to measure site performance against agreed criteria and objectives

Benefits to date have included the prompt feedback on performance; opportunities to respond to data and make changes or improvements; the ongoing internal engagement with their new website’s performance; and the opportunities to recognise success.

Setting up a digital content editorial group tasked with developing a monthly content plan across all digital channels

This has helped co-ordinate overall content development activity, ensured content development has been better aligned and more strategic, and enabled more efficient use of editorial resources.

Delivering a series of in-house workshops for staff

The workshops have helped staff to produce better quality content for the web appropriate to a diverse audience, increased capacity by improving digital skills, and improved staff confidence in this area.

Set up a Content Programming Group comprising senior management stakeholders

Establishing this group has provided an opportunity for senior stakeholders to review progress on a regular basis and ensured alignment with the wider public engagement programme.

Project management principles

In contrast with IWM the digital department at the NG has just begun a journey that will challenge the existing organisational culture. However, both of us would argue strongly that the key to successfully delivering strategic digital initiatives requires adherence to some fundamental principles, regardless of the size, complexity or amount of budget available:

  • Agreeing priority projects and understanding how they fit into a wider public engagement programme
  • Developing project plans that set out the approach, resources, budgets, schedule and risks
  • Working in an agile, open and transparent way
  • Agreeing success criteria and methods of measurement against those criteria
  • Not being afraid to change course if a project is not working
  • Sharing success and failure, and learning from both of these


Both the IWM and NG have come a long way on the road to realising their digital ambitions in a relatively short time. For the IWM, this journey began with the creation of a New Media department, only three years ago. In that time, it has managed to formulate a digital strategy setting out its digital priority projects, secured the resources to cover their development, and delivered a new website and collections online – all using principles and processes outlined in the strategy. It has pushed ahead and introduced new ways of working across the organisation as a direct result of the digital strategy development; this has begun a shift in organisational thinking which – while there is still a long way to go – will enable the organisation to better embed digital as part of its wider public engagement agenda.

The NG in contrast is just starting to do the work that will embed the strategy in the DNA of the organisation. It cannot be understated how significant an achievement it has been to have engaged and consulted with staff from across the organisation in the creation of the digital strategy and then to have had that strategy ratified and approved at the highest levels. With its new mandate the Digital Media department has already begun to see the benefits of having the digital strategy in place, using it as a solid framework through which to focus its future planning, prioritisation and resourcing.

There are still many issues yet to be resolved, and these will need to be tackled incrementally to keep moving things forward – even if it is one small step at a time. However, there are also really exciting opportunities to build on the inherent qualities and authenticity of the organisation in order to deliver the long-term goals of the digital strategy.

The work never ends

We feel passionately that a Digital Strategy should be thought of as a living, organic document that should provide a framework for digital development and should evolve and iterate in line with a wider public engagement strategy – it is the digital aspect of any public engagement strategy, not something siloed and separate.

Ensuring the strategy continues to evolve is a never-ending process. It requires support from the senior management team, not just in approving projects and priorities, but also in challenging established ways of working, and supporting those staff that are driving organisational change through their digital projects. The strategy should be revisited and reflected upon on a regular basis, with success and failure continuously evaluated against the organisation’s corporate priorities and aims.

We have drawn together some general principles of good practice to think about based on our experiences:

  • Do not be afraid to course correct and change your project priorities if key aspects of the landscape (like extreme, external financial pressures) have changed since you first wrote the strategy and you find that it no longer matches wider corporate priorities.
  • Communicate with peer organisations that are working on similar projects to benefit from shared experience and expertise.
  • Make sure your list of priority projects is achievable to deliver in the timeframes required, and with the resources and budget you have available. This will give the rest of the organisation the confidence in your ability to deliver, and help build advocacy for future digital projects.
  • If budgets are tight then focus on impact rather than volume, and consolidate in areas where you have made progress so that you have a solid foundation on which to build.
  • Refresh your strategy periodically: if you are still working on the same programme in 3–5 years you are probably out of touch.

While museums are not necessarily set up to manage rapid change very well, this does not mean that new structures and support mechanisms cannot be put in place to support the increasing centrality and importance of digital activity across all aspects of museums, however big or small. A digital strategy can act as a catalyst for change, not in the form of a document but as a vision, a framework, a way of working, and specifically through delivery of projects on time and to budget.

This approach, despite differences in the institutions, has been a springboard for both the IWM and the NG in their digital development. It has been a driver for change that is not about technical development, although this is important to consider, but more about how to ensure digital fits into a wider public engagement strategy and programme of activity. It provides a framework for a short-, medium- and long-term sustainable digital programme aligned to the organisations’ core goals, and begins to truly address the ways we need to work to achieve this. Digital has truly become a driver for change in the cultural sector.


We would like to thank everyone who fed into the process and made the digital strategies possible. We would also like to thank our colleagues at IWM and the NG for all of their ongoing support in delivering the priority projects.


Doerr, Audrey D. The Role of White Papers. In: Doern, G.B. and Peter Aucoin. The Structures of Policy-making in Canada. Toronto, MacMillan, 1971, pp 179–203.

Smithsonian Institution Web and New Media Strategy. Consulted January 30, 2012.

Stack, J. Tate Online Strategy 2010–2012. 2010 published in Tate Papers Spring 2010. Consulted January 30, 2012.