The New York Times recently posted a most curious article on the digitization of museum artifacts and art. In a sort of dystopian teen novel spin, there are two core reasons for why museums should adopt the approach outlined in the piece:

1. Too many sweaty people in a museum at a time ruin the assets so we need to keep the number of visitors down.
2. When the building burns down, we have a record of the priceless artifacts lost.

While both those are fascinating reasons, however apocalyptic, neither even cracks the top 10 of what digital media can do for museums.

In particular, most museums do not fear the masses. That is the problem of an elite few. That is like saying every actor experiences the shopping dilemma of Brad Pitt, balancing the need for sliced bread with the droves of paparazzi awaiting him while he strolls into the Piggly Wiggly.

Most museums need more people. They need visitors and they need members — some of whom, hopefully, will become patrons. Digital is an amazing tool in gaining that audience.

Digital content, done well, can change the relationship people have with a piece of art, an artist, an artifact or an entire arena of history. And by changing that relationship with the object, we change the relationship that person has with the museum.

Museums have that content, right now. It’s in the head of every curator, every staff expert. Great, swarming masses of knowledge that make the “why” behind each object relevant. That knowledge needs to make its way into the public sphere.

People care about the “why.” And when you give it to them, they soak it up like sponges. And when they like it, they share it.

Although their savvy might vary with age, the one thing we know for sure is that the overall social media audience is growing in size, every day. Pew Research just released an extensive statistical analysis of how “digital” people are by age, socio-economic level and ethnicity. Which makes digital more essential every year.

Quality visual content, well-curated, gets shared. For example, the excellent @HistoryInPics has 2.9 million followers, and they get great engagement numbers.


But guess what? Mediocre visual content, badly curated, also gets shared. The similarly named @History_Pics, which regularly shares clickbait content, has 1.75 million followers. Yes, million. Their tweets get retweeted around 300 times, and their Likes regularly top 1,000. They post some public-domain image every day. (Occasionally, it’s not public domain. Oops.) There’s no unifying theme. No curation, no context.

Now consider what an informed and curated run of content could do. Imagine being able to find out about the life of the artist, the politics of the day that influenced the art or the influencers on that artist. Envision being able to select different information for your second- and seventh-graders at the touch of an icon, so both are equally engaged. How likely are you to use that site or visit that museum as your interests grow and your children age?

Digital isn’t just putting an electronic copy of something out into the world. Digital is the ability to create multiple lines of information without it becoming cacophony.

Because of my position, I get to see museums differently than the average visitor. I get to walk exhibits with the curators. And here’s the difference: My experience has a rich narrative, compliments of those curators. It’s moving, emotionally engaging and heartfelt. I can feel the passion and the resonance of why this exhibit matters to the curator, and those stories make it matter to me.

That narrative, though, is nowhere to be found in the exhibit. And usually, it isn’t online either. Up until now, the need to have a single monolithic narration overrides what could really make any collection shine: an emotional, human connection.

Museum directors’ biggest fear is that digital does exactly what The New York Times suggests it does: keep visitors away, when they have easy access to the collection online. So this philosophy is not only wrong, it’s harmful to the one tool that can help museums connect with future generations.

Digital shouldn’t just tell you that something exists. It should show you why you should love it, care about it, invest in it and go see it for yourself.