Chris Michaels, Digital Director, The National Gallery, London

Chris Michaels, Digital Director at the National Gallery, discusses digital as an integral part of a museum’s broader strategy and vision, and explains how technology can help connect visitors to the  museum objects they encounter  in meaningful ways.

Acknowledging that there is no perfect map for museum digital strategy, he shares his belief in embedding digital into the heart of museum’s broader strategy to deliver value to audiences. With a background at digital agencies, in publishing and educational app development, Michaels explains that while his path into the museum world was not planned, it followed as digital began to change the ways people behave and how institutions offer services to their audiences. Noting the impact of the kindle on how readers read while working in publishing, and seeing the impact of iPads and Netflix while working in television, Michaels realized the potential and potency of digital in the cultural sector through his work at the British Museum. He led projects at the British Museum that utilized digital to deliver on the founding vision of the museum, making its collection and stories accessible to global audiences through online extensions. Recognizing that you can only fit so many people in a museum, he speaks of the ability of technology to expand audiences as more and more of the world gets access to the internet.

Speaking of Virtual Reality, Michaels reiterates the importance of digital to not change the way a person encounters an object, but to enhance it and to offer unique experiences otherwise not possible. He explains that the projects he’s led in Virtual Reality directly address problems encountered by students. By putting an ancient object in a museum, he explains, you’re taking it out of its original context. Moreover, there is limited ability to visit ancient sites or temples in which many museum objects were originally used. Projects like the VR Bronze Age roundhouse experience humanizes objects and brings them back to the space in which they existed. Creating apps that can be accessed at home and extend the museum’s reach,  “extra museum experiences” like the VR exhibit Two Million Years of History and Humanity, enables users to do what in real life only a curator gets to do –  handle ancient objects.

Finally, he discusses user research and the study of various data sources to generate insights into audience behaviors. Looking at behaviors and insights across audience segments, there’s an ability to bring the voices of audiences into the institution. Acknowledging that digital transformation has not always been easy, Michaels speaks to his excitement that, with opportunities now in social media, mobile, VR data, and the growing enthusiasm within the cultural sector, it is now time for museums to create brilliant work that leverages digital to deliver on their visions.



  1. Elizabeth G. says:

    What a great interview! Chris really makes a case for using VR to recreate a historical environment like the “Bronze Age” project. There is so much potential in this space for museums, and I loved his comment about bringing back objects to a place in a virtual setting to provide context for the piece and create a richer learning experience!

    1. Jenna Stepp says:

      Elizabeth, I agree there’s a huge potential for VR, AR and other immersive realities in museums. Do you have any favorites that you’ve seen?

  2. Jennifer Hall says:

    This was a really fascinating and applicable interview with little gems scattered throughout. I love hearing from museum professionals like this who are right on the leading edge of the role of digital in museum strategy. Setting up a user-centered digital team is what it’s all about, and it was nice to hear the perspectives of someone who understands the value of that kind of effort.

    His discussion about the appreciation for object context leading to the Bronze Age project was also fascinating! As much as we consider context in exhibit and web design, I feel like there isn’t nearly as much consideration for original life of an object, the reason it was created and its previous lives in other spaces. Even if this is discussed in the didactic material, it seems to me that there is a conceptual barrier simply by virtue of the fact that the object is being presented in the physical space of the museum. I love this because it’s a perfect example of digital being the perfect solution to a museum need rather than a go-to when perhaps another strategy would suffice.

    Another thing I noted: his commentary on headsets and how he doesn’t “get that” but sees its potential for application toward online audiences. I think that’s something that defines the digital moment in museums right now; a beta phase where digital strategies are being re-tailored after some use, feedback, and hindsight. It’s really refreshing to hear a digital professional talk openly about the shortcomings of go-tos like audio tours.

    1. Jenna Stepp says:

      Jenn, completely agree about the conceptual barriers you note in truly understanding the ‘life of an object.’ The use of VR for this project really is the perfect fit – it’s not just using a ‘shiney new tech’ for the sake of it, it’s successful because it truly solves a problem/responds to a challenge and delivers on the strategy.

  3. Mary Mathias says:

    Like Jennifer said, it was great to hear from someone who has been at the cutting edge of digital projects in museums! One bit of advice from Chris that stood out to me was what he said about working with leadership and making sure all of the digital projects are tied to the museum’s goals/mission. That’s a good thing to remember. Sometimes organizations create something just so they can say they have or because similar organizations are doing it, but the projects are not what the audience wants or aren’t related to the museum’s goals. Everything should be able to be tied back to the museum’s strategy and mission.

    1. Jenna Stepp says:

      Mary, that’s something that stood out to me as well. If your digital projects are true to your mission, and your mission is focused on your institution’s strengths and priority audiences, your efforts will stay focused on improving the experience of all guests (online and in person) to your museum in a way that is both authentic and unique to what the museum offers.

  4. Robin Reif says:

    I was impressed with Chris Michaels view on success being cumulative in order to reach an audience on a global scale the museum has to have a “high profile” digital presence that shares the museum’s ideology not just basic information.

  5. What an interesting conversation! I enjoyed hearing Chris’s thoughts on new technology and trends, and the best way to embrace them in museums. Using virtual tools strategically to augment the in-person experience can add another layer of interaction with objects – and in his words, give “the potency of the object back”. I also found his discussion of personalized content useful, and the value-add necessary to warrant collection of personal information is definitely something to keep in mind!

    1. Jenna Stepp says:

      I certainly appreciated his comments on personalized content! He flagged strong watch-outs about having enough content to do that well and ensuring that the content is something audiences really want to engage with. I couldn’t agree more that after visiting a museum, most audiences won’t just want to search a database of images. It’s exciting to think about the potential for continued narratives that will make audiences want to come back to the museum, or continue to explore and deep dive into information and stories around a museum’s objects online.

  6. Christopher Martinez says:

    It was interesting to think about the digital skills that museums desire, and Chris got me thinking about the possibilities that things like VR can bring to a museum. It’s hard to understand some of the nuance of what digital applications can do if, like many of us, you have more of an academic background in art and history. This is a good reminder that we can’t be complacent in our field, but look at new things and keep an open mind.

    1. Jenna Stepp says:

      Agreed! Thinking of technology and digital applications/properties as tools can be really helpful, and that’s why it is beneficial to not just look at what other museums are doing with tech, but to look outside the industry to see how other brands are using technology to deliver personalized experiences, tell stories, or connect with their audiences. Museums have such a wealth of fascinating material and stories to share around their collections, it’s just an opportunity to tell those stories in new ways to audiences even beyond their physical visitors.

  7. What a great interview! Extremely informative! Chris has some great insight on the digital world. I really loved his explanation of the evolution of technology through examples of the nook and Netflix. It helps remind us that technology is constantly advancing and improving. As a person working in the digital world, it is crucial to stay relevant and on top of these improvements to have a successful digital presence.What we associate now with the Internet, social media, websites, etc. may look completely different in a year, two years, five, and ten. It almost seems like a side of the business that essentially will be self-taught based on ones own experiences with technology changes that impact everyone’s own lives.

    1. Andrea A. says:

      This is Andrea! I’m not sure why it doesn’t have my name on my profile.

    2. Jenna Stepp says:

      Andrea, connecting advances in technology to products and services that are now deeply embedded in our daily lives is a clear way to understand how rapidly things have changed. Specifically, i like these examples because they have changed the way people expect content to be delivered, and how we expect to engage/find content. It’s technology that has changed user expectations, which is what we really have to understand and meet. This is particularly relevant when thinking about how we can reach audiences with content from museums and other cultural institutions.

  8. Zoey Washington says:

    Jenna, what a great interview! I particularly loved his points about how the digital arm works to enhance the in-person experience, a point that can largely go ignored in the world of digital media. In a way, it makes sense that he would see this connection given his previous work at an advertising agency where the objective is to engage digitally and connect physically.

  9. Kelly McKenna says:

    Hi Jenna,

    You asked wonderful questions, and conversed back and forth with great fluidity. I’ve never heard such an in-depth discussion about VR, so this was really eye-opening for me. Chris made an excellent point when he said that by putting things in museums in the first place, we are taking them out of their context. I help support the work of many archaeologists, and the conditions in which excavated objects are found is very important. I had never really thought of VR as a solution to help put objects back into their context. It was also interesting to hear about how VR can give the audience a chance to do what normally only curators can do, like holding the objects.

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