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Tech tool for museum to widen reach

“I am an unusual educator rather than a technologist. Digital is just a means of delivery,” says Carolyn Royston, head of digital media at the Imperial War Museums (IWM) in the UK.

She was a participant at the international conference and seminar on “strategic transformations” of museums organised to celebrate the bicentennial of the Indian Museum earlier this month.

Meeting Royston between sessions posed a problem. The tea breaks were too noisy. We had to seek refuge in the desolate exhibition space of the Indian Museum auditorium.

Royston is a bustling woman with a warm and reassuring smile. Her persuasive manner (without being overbearing) can convince you that digital technology can be the driving force in the transformation of a museum. It comes to you as a surprise when this woman, who heads digital media at the five IWMs, three of which are in London, declares that she has “no museum background.”

She is no technologist. She is actually a teacher. But she was always interested in technology.

Royston is from Manchester and spent her formative years in the US. Her master’s was in social and political thought in the UK.

For years she worked in the private sector in digital agencies on educational and cultural digital projects. In 2006, Royston landed the job of project director at London’s V&A Museum when she worked on the National Museums Online Learning Project (NMOLP), a partnership between nine national museums and galleries.

Her job was to create online learning resources for children using museum collections. To quote the website: “By creating online learning environments for children and adults structured around the collections of the project partners, the NMOLP aims to increase levels of user access to partners’ digital collections to draw in new audiences and to forge change in the ways in which museum users engage with and learn from digital collections.”

Once the project was over in 2009, she joined the Imperial War Museums. Royston says it is of utmost importance for a museum to have a good website. “It is your brand. It is the primary communication channel. In the UK it is the first thing to make people’s mind up. The website shows all activity of a museum in all places.” The Indian Museum website is in a mess like many other institutional websites. The Victoria Memorial Hall website is better but it is dull and drab with nothing for children.

Royston stresses a point over and over again — content. “The most important is content,” she said.

“Creating content for the right audience is of vital importance. Content is storytelling. If you know your audience you can create content. Technology can help you tell stories in new and engaging ways. A well-designed digital platform will encourage participation. It will not be just passive experience. It is active learning.”

Technology leads to creating activities for children. “Museums are in such a strong position to create content through digital technology because content is so rich. Museum staff have to develop some digital literacy. Museology must teach about the potential of digital technology.”

Most museum staff here are innocent of IT.

Royston has opened an informal Computer Club for all the staff at the IWMs to provide hands-on experience of technology. Royston’s advice is sound: “Don’t spend a lot of money. Learn what the audience wants and do more things that work. Digital development will drive organisational change rapidly. This happened in UK museums.”

How to lure unlettered Indian viewers? “It has to be visually led. Using photographs, film, sound and creating stories that are relevant to them. It needs to be interesting. Visually arresting. And easy to use,” signs off Royston.