Carolyn Royston, Head of Digital Media, Imperial War Museums


Carolyn Royston can be attributed with the impressive task of pioneering, developing and instituting the New Media Department at Imperial War Museums (IWM), a family of five related but distinct institutions located in the UK. Imperial War Museums include the IWM London; IWM North in Trafford, Greater Manchester; IWM Duxford near Cambridge; the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, London; and the historic ship HMS Belfast, moored in the Pool of London on the River Thames. “IWM is unique in its coverage of conflicts, especially those involving Britain and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present day. We seek to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and ‘wartime experience’.”

Prior to 2009, the IWM family had no discernible Digital Media department and lacked any kind of workable digital strategy.  Carolyn joined the team after the newly appointed Director-General Diane Lees created a separate New Media department and asked Carolyn to head the division.  Carolyn immediately set to work making digital central to organizational thinking and planning. She had the daunting task of convincing the staff at IWM that digital is the future and had to stress the importance of developing a long-term plan for digital media that is a central activity in museum operations, rather than a disconnected or segregated activity as in the past.

Carolyn and her New Media department sought to create a seamless onsite and offsite experience by initially participating in low-risk digital media projects such as Flickr images, HistoryPin, BBC Paintings, and Google Art Project as a means of easing the way into larger digital media projects with larger risk. In addition, Carolyn succeeded at getting the existing staff at the IWM involved and invested in digital media projects by taking a non-hierarchical approach and holding workshops that encouraged comments, critiques, and opinions from all.  The workshops overall elicited a positive and productive response from staff members who were willing and excited to play an active and essential role in developing a digital strategy at the IWM.

Carolyn’s previous experience before joining the IWM included a position as Project Manager of the National Museums Online Learning Project in 2008.  The NMOLP was an ambitious project to create a social media resource across nine different national museums.  Carolyn’s experience as the “Project Champion” for the NMOLP served to help inform the decisions and strategies she would implement later on at the IWM. Carolyn “was responsible for coordinating and managing the needs of nine national museums and galleries to create an ambitious, sustainable programme that included a large-scale social media application, school-based resources to promote critical thinking and a cross-collection search that links the nine museums together for the first time.”

Although Carolyn admits that not all digital projects turn out as expected, or run as smoothly as she would like, each one is an iterative process that brings us closer to making the change from “risk adverse, to risk aware,” and developing long-term, sustainable digital media platforms that are flexible, adaptable for future opportunities and constantly improving with the evolution of technology.

Carolyn graciously took the time to answer some questions regarding her work with digital media on the NMOLP and at the IWM.


Listen to the interview

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  1. Ruth Goerger says:

    I was especially interested in how the Imperial War Museum took a look at their copyright policies prior to launching their digital strategic plan, leaving their risk aversion tendencies on the wayside. This is a forward thinking idea, and not one I would have considered at such an early stage in planning.
    I was also very interested in the Social Interpretation project. With the development of my museum’s new exhibit space and mobile app, we have increased the presence of smart phones in the gallery. There has been talk of having an “Ask a Curator” function on the mobile app where gallery visitors can send a message to content specialists in the museum. However, we have not had support for this idea because of workflow issues; i.e. curatorial staff isn’t at work on weekends, piling more work on already overworked people, what happens if a question can’t be answered as quickly as a ½ hour.

  2. Brittany Baksa says:

    I found Carolyn’s interview to be very informative while providing helpful advice for digital media initiatives. One aspect that really resonated with me was when Carolyn stressed that a digital strategy is not just a document but it is in fact the way in which you work, it is a frame of reference to insure that you are on the right track. I thought this was great advice for any of us who might be developing strategies for their institution. I found comfort in the manner in which Carolyn introduced digital media to her institution. By initially participating with low-risk digital media projects such as HistoryPin, Flickr, and Google Art, it laid the groundwork for easing into larger digital media projects with a larger risk. I think it is important to show that projects can be achievable in order to convince staff members to participate in the implementation of a larger digital media initiative.

  3. Matt Eaton says:

    It was great to hear Carolyn speak about the National Museums Online Learning Project! As someone who is currently trying to bridge connections amongst five separate institutions and promote one another via social media and other resources, it was fantastic to learn about this sustainable program that Carolyn saw to fruition.

  4. Linda Hruza-Jones says:

    Carolyn Royston’s approach to getting the staff involved, interested and excited about the “brave new world” of digital possibilities is so helpful. She reinforced many of the ideas that we have discussed in class such as the importance of building a trust with the staff by including them in the process. Especially interesting are her comments about starting slowly with low-risk digital media projects and then after achieving success with them, moving on to higher risk projects.

  5. joan says:

    It was fascinating to listen to Carolyn talk about her work, particularly her work at the Imperial War Museum. Who would have known that the Imperial War Museum has the Second Largest Contemporary Art Collection after Tate, and the Second Largest Sound Archive after the BBC? Thanks to Digital Media, now we all do. Perhaps these examples highlight one of the mega benefits of Digital Media; providing open access to information that less than a decade ago was not shared so freely, nor so easily.
    Carolyn’s discussion about a project that did not lead to success, is one I will tuck away for future use. The takeaway for me was that key learnings from “failed” projects were transferable to successful ones.

    Other key words and points I heard were:
    – Create and follow a Strategic Framework
    – Deliver on promises
    – Consult with staff in a way that promotes participation (There was no mention of some feedback being “not useful”)
    – Solicit comments and feedback at every stage of the process

    In conclusion, I would love to know how Carolyn plans to include measurements of impact on and further engagement by visitors in the Imperial War Museum digital spaces.

  6. joan says:

    This article from the New York Times appeared in timely fashion yesterday. Fear of failure can lead to a risk averse culture. As Carolyn highlighted the lessons from “Failures” in one project can lead to success in later projects, if one analyzes what went not so well, and why.

  7. Carly Dykes says:

    I loved how Carolyn spoke about convincing everyone that digital is new way in which the world is heading. Sometimes getting everyone to be on the same page with these kinds of changes are the most difficult task.

  8. Brian says:


    Fantastic job on this interview and I really enjoyed your back and forth. Carolyn’s description of transforming oral history into social (media) interpretation really spoke to me, and I loved the idea that we can engage our oldest visitors in a socially savvy way without them even knowing. It mirrors what I’ve experienced with some curators, where they don’t even know that what they have would be interesting to web audiences. Using blogs or other social avenues to catalogue oral history is a great way to blend the new with the old.

    (And I agree with Brittany’s assessment of the importance of looking at a digital strategy not as a document but a process.)

  9. joan says:

    Thank you for making yourself available for further questions.
    My question is:
    What types of evaluation tools are you going to create or use to measure or assess the level of visitor engagement online? Will you use a rubric to assess engagement and make inferences between the minutes visitors spend on pages, or comments that they submit to the institution? Or will you look at stats that are perhaps more vicariously connected – ex. a spike in the number of volunteers or members who join the institution?
    Another question I have is: Does the IWM plan to charge for digital “extras” a la MOMA?

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