The Tate Digital Strategy: a change that starts from within


As more and more museums use digital tools to reach new audiences and carry out their activities, reflections on how to structure initiatives and approaches – in synergy with the other more traditional facets of the institution – are becoming necessary. Tate embraced this concept and produced a transparent document (Tate Digital Strategy 2013-15) in which the path of the digital transformation is outlined.

The document, as well as its principal claim “Digital as a dimension of everything“, has become an inspiration for the community of practitioners. For example, we suggest listening to this ‘Museopunks‘ episode.
The networked approach that the strategy introduced inspired us to interview different professionals throughout Tate, asking them what this radical organizational change has represented for their work and what does digital mean to them. ‘Invisible’ and ‘normalized, this is what they hope digital would become. To them, digital is a driver for collaboration and a merger of functions that were previously conceived as separate, a transformation and a process the Institution has to go through to have an impact on the audiences.

The vision stated at the very beginning of the document clearly declares the transformative approach Tate wants to promote and sustain: ‘Through embracing digital activity and skills across the organization Tate aims to use digital platforms and channels to provide rich content for existing and new audiences for art, to create and nurture an engaged arts community and to maximise the associated revenue opportunities. We will achieve this by embracing digital activity and developing digital skills across the organisation.’

We wondered, what can happen after kicking off such a radical approach and what does it take to go through this change? What are the right tools and platforms, but also, what is the right mindset that an institution has to embrace in order to rationally scale its digital effort for accessibility, interpretation, communication of collections and research?

Tate Britain by Flickr User under_volcano/CCCC BY-SA 2.0

Tate Britain by Flickr User under_volcano/CCCC BY-SA 2.0

Impacts: Global Audience And “Mobile First”

The strategy has been published in April 2013 and its goals are set for 2015. While the objectives set for the previous years focused on the Tate’s website, the new ones consider digital as a “networked” system. Rather than a compartmentalized sector of the museum, as much as education, marketing and collections, Digital becomes the common language through which traditional departments of the institution talk to their different audiences. Since the strategy was first launched, there has been significant changes on how audiences connect with the institution.

Both Rosie Cardiff, Senior Digital Producer and John Stack, Head of Digital, highlight how publics are increasingly engaging with Tate through a number of different platforms. Online audiences have been steadily growing: 40% of them are international and in particular, the  70% of Tate’s Facebook fans are from outside the UK. Furthermore, Elena Villaespesa, Digital Analyst, told us about the importance of an audience-centered approach that requires a deepened evaluation of existing tools, as well as an investigation of visitors’ digital habits, onsite and beyond. Among these tools, mobile has a crucial role and the way in which people use their devices inform the choices of the institution in this direction. As John Stack pointed out, everything Tate is doing online has to be mobile enabled. In the next months, audience research will be conducted in order to offer different experiences of the website according to where visitors are consulting it from (in galleries and beyond) as well as to provide a variety of contents “on the go” (tours, ebooks, apps etc.).

Digital Is Spreading Like a Virus: the Change that Comes from Within

Most of the work that has been done so far, is more about organizational change. In this sense, it will take time to show any significant difference to end users. Indeed, the change that Tate is initiating is radical and starts from within, rather than being limited to the surface.

Every department, such as education or curatorial, are now looking to accomplish more of their strategic goals in the digital spaces. As John Stack declared, digital is spreading like a virus, and Tate is working on putting in place the most efficient processes and standards to prioritize projects, ensuring quality and coherence. Tijana Tasich, Digital Production Lead, describes this process as a way to establish a networking culture where different teams collaborate on delivery of physical/digital experiences. This will only have a positive impact on the digital products.

Emerging from Balka's box by Flickr User Chris JL / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Emerging from Balka’s box by Flickr User Chris JL / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Different teams across the museum are thus collaborating rather than operating in “silos”, as everybody has a stake in the digital transformation. Traditional museum functions are merging together and contents are shared, used and re-shaped to communicate with the key audiences of each departments. For example, a message tweeted by the education staff, may end up creating more echo than a press release. As a result, Museum’s authority and control are being challenged by the rise of multiple voices. John Stack gives an example of this shift in describing how Tate decided to digitally produce and deliver collection catalogues rather than print them. The digital medium offers numerous possibilities, such as the inclusion of video and interactive media, that make the research process very different from the one experts and curators are used to. In this sense, we can see that the very essence of the research process is being transformed and re-shaped. As a result, traditional museum’s professions are challenged by the need to employ new skills and deal with new tools.

Sometimes, this process has encountered some resistances or skepticism, given the fast changing nature of the digital scenario. Increasing digital awareness is one of the possible solutions in this sense. Tate considers training and professional development as an integrated element of the transformation. The strategy includes a section about the organization itself structuring the pace for staff education, policies as well as new ways of working.

Tate Modern by Flickr User SLR Jester/CC BY 2.0

Tate Modern by Flickr User SLR Jester/CC BY 2.0

New staffing models will need to be developed to ensure that staff are empowered to use digital as part of their work. Training, policies, software and hardware tools, recruitment, induction, professional development and performance management will all be part of the required transformation of the organization.

Along with the work with more traditional roles and functions, new positions have been created to oversee and prioritize digital production and ensure quality. Support to the organizational change and design of new processes are among the main responsibilities of the professionals within the Digital Department. They manage and consult every stage of a digital project: from the beginning to its evaluation. This latter element is described by Elena Villaespesa a key to sustainability, to the extent that evaluation thinking is being propagated across the museum at every level, and is not limited to digital tools.

Lastly, we asked people at Tate to give a few tips to Italian museums that would like to kick-off a digital strategy. They all agree that an analysis of the core values, goals and audiences of an organization is necessary to start such a radical transformation. As Tijana points out, find out what your public need and expect from you most and give them that one thing, while Rosie highlights the importance of a strategy that reflects needs and ambitions across the organization, not just one department.

Other resources and inspirations on digital strategies:

The Digital Engagement Framework by Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson can help institutions structuring their own digital approach:

Plein Air Interactive gives a few tips on what to include in a digital strategy:

Although presenting reflections from a media organization, the New York Times leaked digital report, is a very honest representation of how a traditional institution can face the digital change

We would like to thank John Stack, Elena Villaespesa, Rosie Cardiff and Tijana Tasich for sharing their thoughts and considerations on the Tate digital transformation.

Picture at the beginning of the post: Tate Modern by Flickr User Tobias Demarmels /CC BY-NC-SA 2.0