April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Starting a Digital Revolution

Daniel Incandela, Meg Liffick, and Dan Dark, Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA


More rapidly than ever, digital technology and interactive multimedia are changing the way we learn, work, interact and entertain. Videos, audio broadcasts and interactive technologies are tools that museums can now use to engage and communicate with their audiences. Media broadcast via the Internet can give even the smallest, most remote museum a global presence. While there is little doubt that digital media have the power to transform institutions, for many museum professionals the practical use of these emerging technologies remains elusive. The new field of digital media is complex, fast-paced and often poorly defined.

There are many barriers keeping museums (both large and small) from venturing to this exciting new frontier. So how can museum professionals overcome these barriers and help their museums stay up to speed? How can an advocate of technology affect institutional change? This paper provides answers to these questions and offers clever, practical and inexpensive ways to develop, create and distribute digital media.

Keywords: Digital media, institutional change, advocate, audio production, video production

Introduction: Why a Digital Revolution?

Interactive multimedia and digital devices are pervasive in many American households. Multitasking cell phones and the ever-improving iPod are rapidly altering the way individuals receive and relay information. Digital media and the technologies associated with this emerging field are not only changing our personal behaviors but also  transforming society itself. Nearly 72% of the total population now owns a cellular phone (CTIA, 2006); every month has 20 million unique users (YouTube, Inc., 2007); and last year 12% of  users downloaded podcasts (Madden, 2006). More rapidly than ever, digital technology and interactive multimedia are changing the way we learn, work, interact and entertain.

Videos, audio broadcasts and interactive technologies are tools that museums can now use to engage and communicate with their audiences. From collections to marketing, education to administration, nearly all departments within a museum should view digital media as a means to better serve diverse audiences. Museums can cultivate new audiences (existing in both the cyber and physical environments) as well as encourage return visits. Technology also enhances museum gallery visits as the use of digital devices heightens the sensory connections a visitor makes with exhibitions and collections.

One of the most exciting benefits of broadcasting new media content via the Web is the immersive experience available to audiences who may never step through a museum’s  front door. Digital media can widen the margins of communication by presenting richer content. Although it may be true that nothing can replace the first-hand experience of a museum visit, technology can help to make the Web experience analogous to reality. And, best of all, digital media can give even the smallest, most remote museum a global presence.

While there is little doubt that digital media has the power to transform institutions, for many museum professionals, the practical use of these emerging technologies remains elusive. The new field of digital media is complex, fast-paced and often poorly defined. There are many barriers keeping museums (both large and small) from venturing to this exciting new frontier. For some, it’s getting a handle on the basics: “How do you create a podcast?” For others, it’s getting a handle on the budget: “What happens if we sink all this money into a project and it’s a dud?” And maybe, for most of us, it’s getting a handle on the boss: “No, seriously, a viral video is actually a good thing.”  By the time you overcome these obstacles and have the budget and support to use new technology, you may be way behind the curve. So how can museum professionals overcome these barriers and help their museums stay up to speed? How can an advocate of technology affect institutional change?

Before this paper addresses the “digital revolution,” there is a caveat. Technology is only a tool for communication; in the scenarios that we present: it is not a product unto itself. What and how we communicate should work in tandem to further the museum’s mission and priorities. When using interactive multimedia and digital devices, museums should not diminish the significance of the content in favor of the novelty of the technology.

Part 1 - Your Very Own Digital Revolution

Seeds of rebellion:  create successful first projects that will kill the enemy Doubt.

Every project will fail or succeed.  If your institution is new to technology, then it’s important to begin with a project that has the highest likelihood of success. A first attempt that ends in catastrophe is likely to put an immediate end to your digital revolution, for much of your battle is in building the goodwill, trust, and support of others in your institution.  Early victories are the keys to building and sustaining technological momentum. Regardless of its complexity or cost, any technology project you begin will need to be evaluated from a variety of perspectives.  There are simple questions that first must be asked.  For instance, do you have a particular collection area with a compelling story to tell?  Has a collection area recently been digitized? Do you work with collection experts that are willing to experiment with a digital project? Is there an existing network of new media professionals you can access (such as a colleague, a local university or a production house)? Your answers to these questions may reveal smart options for content, organization and delivery. Content should drive the digital project. Identifying a rich collection area and its story is step one.

Determining what digital devices and interactive media your visitors will support and appreciate is critical. The good news is that these answers are easy to find. Surveys are simple, cost-effective methods that will help you organize your project and select the right delivery mechanism. Conducted on-site or via your institutions’ Web site, surveys provide important information about which digital devices or applications visitors are most comfortable using. For example, prior to creating or deploying an audio tour, you should assess the percentage of your audience that owns or feels comfortable with the various distribution methods (cell phone, podcast, or on-site distributed mp3 player). Keep in mind that segmenting your audience can lead to different results; a contemporary art collection may have an audience more comfortable with podcasting than would a historic house museum. Great content and well-designed delivery tools alone won’t guarantee success. Your audience must buy into the plan.

After you’ve chosen your content and assessed your audience, there are basic steps for ensuring success. First, determine a set of modest goals that align with your institution’s priorities. As part of this process, evaluate and decide whether you will rely on quantitative or qualitative evidence of success. For example, do the number of people that use your device matter as much as the favorable impressions they report?  Identify the methods you will use to collect and measure your data. Are surveys necessary? Is there a way to track use? Your ability to evaluate and communicate success will, in turn, enable you to apply for and receive funds, create cross-departmental consensus, and importantly, promote your digital revolution.

Circle Of Trust: Gathering Your Allies 

Once you have identified your project and defined your metrics of success, it is time to build your team.  As you begin, have conversations with people throughout the museum about your ideas and ambitions. Engage fellow staff members in discussions about technology and its potential. These conversations are effective in assessing the enthusiasm of your peers. To build the strongest basis for your project, your team should consist of colleagues with varied managerial levels, expertise, and experience. In assembling your internal digital team, you may discover you have an individual or a group of talented staff members experienced in using audio, video, image or animation software. In larger museums, other departments may even have software, cameras or lighting that could be utilized: IT, Exhibits, Education and Photography are always good sources for this.

Create a strong foundation for your project by working with people who can effectively deliver creative content. Do not overlook the stewards of your collections. Establishing productive and meaningful working relationships with those closest to the stories will produce an environment ripe for your revolution and lead to a successful project. Any innovative project, no matter how great the foundation, can collapse without support. While expertise and creativity are important, time and again the ability to positively influence members of the highest level of the organization is the most crucial element of a project’s success. A supporter of your project may not necessarily understand the technology or be an expert in the content covered, but he or she must understand the significance of the project and unreservedly support the endeavor. Whether it’s the director of a department, the CEO, or the museum’s board, at some point  someone in  authority may be leery of technology and question the validity of your project. When that time arrives, be sure to have a champion of your digital revolution who can serve as an advocate for innovation. 

No matter the size of the museum, it is often rare to have enough staff or time to commit to a new and potentially risky project. Innovation is rarely budgeted for in not-for-profit organizations.  Historically, museums react to social or technological trends rather than anticipate them: the museum field may find itself significantly behind the corporate and academic world. To overcome the gap, find an outside partner that has a proven track record of success in the technology you plan to employ, and also has the resources to assist you with the project.

For organizations with limited budgets, universities with tested and applicable research projects may be perfect partners. Collaborations with universities are mutually beneficial:  the students and researchers provide the expertise, time, tools and data to assist in a project, and the museum provides content and the environment to prove the tangible benefits of academic research. An added benefit to these academic collaborations is that the social good produced by such a partnership creates a better case for budget allotments, corporate giving and foundation support for both parties.

If a university collaboration is not attainable, there are options available in the corporate world. Digital media production has become a new and lucrative field for many businesses. As in Web design, museums can now hire companies (either local or national) to create interactive multimedia for countless uses and for digital devices. These partnerships can be expensive, but because you are paying for the work, the process is generally more straightforward and less time-consuming for you. While you may be doing less work, keep in mind that the content and direction of the project must reflect your museum’s mission and institutional priorities. In the end, the product has to fit the identity of the museum, not that of the company that created it. 

The Uprising: Self-Promotion Can Lead To Institutional Adoption.

Promote. Promote. Promote. It is important that once your project is successful, your colleagues know not only about your product, but also about your process. The publicity you create will demystify the use of technology in the museum context. Your peers will gain insight into the benefits of digital media and will begin to explore its limitless applications. Help those who are interested go deeper by directing them to on-line resources and materials through which they can become better informed. 

With your organization listening, take it public. Nothing is more effective than media attention to serve as validation for your revolution. After your initial success, spend some time with your museum’s public relations team to explain what you have done and why it’s significant. Write a fact sheet and present it to your communications staff. No project is too insignificant for public attention. Even if it is just a paragraph in your membership’s newsletter, do all that you can to make your success known beyond the walls of your museum. Keep in mind that projects strategically deployed to the Web may do the talking for themselves.

The buzz created will have people talking.  The successes achieved in previous work will influence museum-wide perceptions of digital content. As the knowledge of your museum staff grows, so, too, will individuals’ ability to identify ways that digital media can serve the needs of their department. As demand grows for technological projects and as you broaden the diversity of your project teams, transformation will occur. This shift will dramatically affect the direction and outcome of the revolution you began. Eventually, project ideas will originate from outside the established ‘tech’ teams. A curator, marketing executive or educator will one day stop you and comment, “Would it be possible to create an orientation video for this upcoming exhibition?” or “I think we need an audio guide for the grounds,” or even better, “I have some money left over in my budget. What can we do?” The seeds of revolution that you sowed have taken root.

As people approach you with opportunities and ideas, foster their interest. To cultivate enthusiasm on an institutional level, it is important to keep the buzz alive. While it sometimes may be difficult, avoid saying no to ideas, and instead, if the proposal isn’t strong, take some time to think creatively in order to give it a chance. Consider expanding your product line. By increasing the scope of your services, you may be able to find a digital platform to match almost any idea. Be flexible and open to new ideas, and in this early stage of adoption, do all that you can to make it work.  

 As institutional adoption occurs, the biggest hurdle may become the scarcity of time to work on projects. This could be the perfect opportunity to request a larger budget to allow for more new media resources, including that highly desirable but usually elusive creature - the additional staff member. As for staff members interested in their own digital projects, let them act as advocates for you.  Take advantage of the fact that they will be more willing to support your welfare because of their own enterprises. Keep in mind that they may have direct access to those in major decision-making positions.

Revolution To Status Quo: Make Technology Pervasive

At this point in the revolution, things are looking pretty good. By now you’ve touted your successes throughout the institution, continued a steady flow of production, and over time, converted non-technical co-workers into supportive colleagues.  At what moment does the creation of digital content become an institutional priority?  If you have assembled a new group of supporters for the digital revolution, a group capable of influencing museum-wide decision-making, then you have succeeded.  If this commitment to digital creation is strong enough to make it into closed-door budget meetings, congratulations! You have really arrived. 

Producing digital content is hard work. It requires great attention to detail and is creatively draining.  A revolution has occurred and the continued demands are high. In the past, technology was considered an in-gallery novelty or a once-every-two-years investment in an educational microsite.  The institutional organism now thinks in terms of technology. Now, current exhibition teams include a technology representative well versed in new media production.  Additionally, the museum’s grant writers consistently feature digital projects you have produced.  An early technology project might have revealed a fascinating story about artwork, social history or science, but new projects might be  for marketing, or fundraising, or as the focal point of a complete Web redesign. Your revolution that began with extreme caution is now woven into the fabric of the museum.

Part 2 -The Basic Arsenal: A How-To Guide for Creating your Own Digital Audio and Video Projects

The most critical part of the production process is defining the product and its format. What is the story the museum is telling? In order to create a polished piece, be meticulous when outlining the content. What is the best way to tell the story? To best answer this question, you must determine the audience: whether it is an in-gallery or an on-line feature; why it is being distributed (marketing or education). Finally, identify the lead resource for the content of the story. This could be an educator, marketing executive, or member of the community. Work closely with your resources to better appreciate the story to be told  through audio or video. 


There are two clear-cut choices for distribution of your self-produced audio:

  1. the cell phone tour – audio information visitors can access by calling a provided number or
  2. the mp3 broadcast (podcast) – audio downloaded on to a personal mp3 player or one provided by the museum.

There are strengths and shortcomings to both. To determine your means of delivery, several decisive factors should be considered, including physical feasibility (cell phone reception), availability of technology, market research (as mentioned in Part 1), and the project goals defined by you and your team .

Cell Phone Tour

The cell phone tour is a low-cost, low-maintenance, easy-to-create method of reaching visitors. There are a selection of companies that host cell phone-based audio guides independently produced by museums. Through these companies, you are assigned a phone number for which you can create an individual greeting: “Welcome to the Museum’s Garden and Grounds Cell Phone Tour.”  Instructions for navigating after the initial greeting are supplied by the host company. Once you have an account and assigned phone number, you can upload audio content directly to the provider’s Web site.  The information prompts (typically numbers followed by the pound key) are organized so that each file can be assigned to the respective number. You can also control whether a prompt is live or dormant, allowing you to easily modify seasonal or periodic information. 

The flexibility of cell phone tours can be invaluable; adding, deleting, switching and updating audio files are easy tasks that can be accomplished in minutes.  Uploading content for distribution is intuitive and straightforward.  Projects associated with cell phone tours are self-sustaining, and little management is required. Measuring the success of cell phone tours is easy, as the data associated with usage is tracked and compiled by the provider. Personnel costs are saved by cell-phone tours because visitors own the device, eliminating any need for staff involvement in the distribution of audio devices.  For visitors the program is intuitive, with instructions similar to automated customer service lines.  Thus users have a pre-established understanding of and comfort level with the process. 

While the strengths of cell phone tours are numerous, the drawbacks may be insurmountable.  Cell phone content is broadcast in mono audio, so quality can be compromised. The largest hurdle is the availability of cell phone coverage: dead spots will prevent access to audio content. Be aware that for hosted services, the phone number may not be local, and therefore is open to any fees associated with an individual’s calling plan. This information should be communicated to your visitors.  It is advisable to always keep cell phone content engaging and short so as not to waste people’s minutes. While an individual’s choice of service plan is out of your control, it is very important to understand the potential accessibility issues and criticisms of this technology. 


There are two basic methods of offering a podcast.  You can post audio files on your Web site and allow users to download each file. Visitors can then listen to these audio files from their own computers or transfer them to a digital audio player. The other option  opens up your content to a global podcast-subscribing audience.  To access podcast listeners through iTunes and other programs that gather podcast feeds, you will need to establish your own podcast or RSS feed for content.  There are a large number of blogging programs, applications and free podcast generators you can utilize. Furthermore, there are a large number of on-line resources devoted to educating the novice podcaster. These sites can improve your audio broadcasting ability and help you to create a larger audience for your content.

Because podcasts are not bound by the walls of your institution, the possibilities for content are limitless. In addition to tours that are relatively short and concise, podcasting provides the capacity to create long-running interviews with curators, horticulturists, and even the museum’s CEO. The content that you create can have an autonomous life beyond an exhibition or gallery and can serve boundless audience interests for an unlimited amount of time, thus, maximizing your digital assets.  

Podcasting can be an easy, cost-effective communication tool for museums. However, there are several shortcomings to consider. The audience needs access on-line to obtain podcasts. In addition, audiences must own a computer or mp3 player to download and hear the files. While the potential to reach a larger audience with podcasting exists, the reality is that the profile of podcast users may be dramatically different from your regular visitor profile. It’s important to be mindful of these demographic issues when choosing your method of audio content delivery. 

It’s time to consider the essentials of production.

Capturing And Editing Audio

The basic tools for creating a polished audio file are the same regardless of the delivery method. A portable flash card audio recorder is a sensible and versatile investment. This device allows you to record audio in mp3 format and easily transfer the files to your computer. The cost of flash card recorders varies, but a budget of $250-$600 should be sufficient.  In addition to your recorder, invest in a microphone and headphones (to monitor the audio while recording). These two pieces are fundamental for polished productions and, if not included with your recorder, are reasonably priced. You also need to acquire software that will allow you to import, edit and export your sound files. Popular software programs like Audacity and Apple iLife’s Garage Band are free or inexpensive audio editing programs that are downloadable and easy to use. Other programs such as Adobe Audition and Sony Soundforge operate under the same usability premises and offer additional features, but are higher priced.

Now that you have the tools, it’s time to record. First, you must select the recording environment. A quiet, undisturbed location is always a safe choice, but don’t discount the benefits of ambient sound. The bustle of a gallery during public hours or the rustling of trees outside may enhance the recording by bringing your audience closer to the actual experience of a visit. To determine whether you have selected the right location and to establish your audio levels, be sure always to test before an event or interview. Also, consider doing several takes; this provides flexibility when editing and the opportunity to mash-up the best sound bites from several takes into one recording.

When you have concluded recording and have uploaded the files to your computer, the editing (a.k.a. the fun, creative part) can begin. If the recordings went well and your files are organized, the editing process should be straightforward. As you review the recordings and begin to edit, be mindful of unnecessary pauses and verbal interruptions such as “Ums.”  Removing these will give the track a polished, well-paced quality.  The results of your editing can provide professional sound with little effort.  Removing or altering audio is painless and very similar to working in a text document: highlight and drag to move or delete; use the tool bar to apply specific effects to sections of your audio. Once the editing process is complete, save the file as a good quality mp3, typically 128kps, 32000Hz, although you may be satisfied with higher or lower settings.


Producing video is more complex and time-consuming than audio.  Every frame of the video needs the consideration of an audio tech, videographer, lighting expert and editor. You will often wear many hats as an in-house producer. If you are willing and able to do the work, the commitment will pay off.  Video offers a rich and immersive experience to your audience.  It can transform a gallery space and extend the impact of your museum’s experience well beyond the front door.

Creating and delivering video content

Video projects can be produced in-house with the help of your assembled technology team and an investment in some basic equipment.  The costs of MiniDV and HDV video cameras are becoming increasingly competitive. These cameras range from several hundred to ten thousand dollars. The decision of what camera to buy is based on the expected quality of video, the format in which the finished piece will play, and the available budget.  Keep in mind that videos produced exclusively for the Web do not need top of the line HDV camera,s but if quality is your ultimate criterion, it is beneficial to invest in a good camera early. At any level, purchasing a video camera, a tripod and a compatible lavaliere microphone will allow you to document artist interviews, live events or gallery tours. With this equipment you can create footage that can be combined, enhanced and transformed through the editing process.

The decision to purchase software hinges on the knowledge and expertise of your editor. Applications such as iMovie (Mac), Pinnacle (PC), or Adobe Premiere Elements (PC) are intuitively designed for the novice user.  These programs operate similarly to audio software and allow the editor easily to create titles and subtitles, use transitions, add music and export to some formats. If you happen to have staff members who are already comfortable editing or are naturally gifted with new media software, consider professional applications like Adobe Premiere Pro (PC), Avid (Mac or PC), or Final Cut Pro (Mac). These programs will operate similarly to iMovie or Pinnacle, but offer additional export options and added tools for correcting and manipulating your video.  Both price options will allow you to create videos that look professionally produced. Editing requires a reasonably fast computer capable of capturing footage via a FireWire connection or a device that will capture video to your computer. Before you rush out and buy new hardware and software to edit your video, be sure that your Photography, IT or some other department doesn’t already have some of the necessary tools. 

Creating And Delivering Video Content

Once you have tested all of your equipment and software, you are ready to begin your project. Location shoots. Scripting. Storyboarding. These are all terms applicable to the next steps for your video. It’s time to determine the visual flow of your video and decide how to make your vision materialize.  Identify the desired locations for the story, main video and B-roll shots, interviewees, music (or other audio), and additional media such as images, historical materials or archived video.  Create a comprehensive outline of everything needed to tell the story and make it flow.  Visually map out the story from segment to segment, and work closely with your colleagues to define this process. While often time-consuming, this planning will simplify and organize the production and editing process, and will ultimately save you time.

When the storyboarding and planning is complete, it’s time to record. Most video shoots cannot be done alone, so turn to existing allies who support the project. You will probably need the help of your photography team to assist with lighting. It’s advisable to have colleagues who can help conduct interviews, monitor audio, or organize logistics. Video shoots can be stressful, and often, unexpected issues arise. While it is possible to do it all yourself, it’s always better to have a team.

Some basic tips will eliminate irreversible and frustrating problems. It might be a video shoot, but don’t neglect the audio. Be sure to utilize the audio tips mentioned in the above sections. If you are conducting interviews, select a quiet space with good indoor or outdoor lighting. Nothing destroys a video shoot more than poor lighting or background noise that drowns out the speaker. Always go out of your way to make the person on camera as comfortable as possible: the appearance of whoever is in front of the camera is as crucial to the final product as the skill of the person behind it. The tripod is a reliable tool and will provide steady, professionally composed shots. Operating the camera by hand can provide more flexibility, but be wary of shakiness (zooming-in only increases this effect). Videotapes are inexpensive; don’t be afraid to let the camera roll.  Finally, be mindful that as a videographer, you are providing the eyes through which others will have to look. Don’t get too clever or the story might be lost. 

The Editing Process

It’s a wrap.  Shooting for your video is complete, and it has been captured to your computer. You’ve identified the additional media you want to include, and everyone is in agreement about the project’s definition. Review all of the video, listen to the interviews (even transcribe them), and begin to organize the footage. At first, this process may feel overwhelming, but have patience: the project will slowly take shape. To ensure the best possible product, allow peers to view and critique early, middle and late versions of the piece.  Stay true to the project’s original definition and format, and allow the stories to emerge.

Exporting Video

The final format of your video will have been determined in your initial stages of production. Keep in mind that your editing software can either restrict or support this decision. Most editing programs will support burning to DVD, have formats that will allow direct playback on a computer, and have some file types suitable for Web deployment.  For additional export options - video compatible in NTSC or PAL format, video for iPods, Flash-based applications, various computer media players, or a video suitable for YouTube - you should explore separate encoding software. 

The good news is that the finished video can be encoded to play in practically any format. The better news is that creating a polished video is the biggest challenge. Exporting and delivering your final product to the Museum’s galleries or into people’s homes is a process that should be reasonably uncomplicated. Congratulations! The stories that had previously remained untold have now come to life through your efforts.

Shake the Tree

By establishing an infrastructure that supports the creation of inexpensive and creative digital projects, you in turn effect institutional change.  Maintaining the successes of your digital projects, continuing budget-conscious decision making, and utilizing the strengths of your technology advocates will continue the momentum and ensure the ongoing success of your digital revolution.  Be open and flexible, and the true value of your work will emerge.  As Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara stated; “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall” (Guevara, 1980). Your revolution begins now.


CTIA (2006) Wireless Quick Facts. consulted January 5, 2007.

Guevara, Ernesto (1980). Che Guevara Speaks: Selected Speeches and Writings. New York: Pathfinder Press.

Madden, M. (2006). Pew  Project Data Memo re: Podcast Downloading. 2006, last updated 11-Nov-2006. Consulted January 26, 2007.

YouTube, Inc. (2007). YouTube Fact Sheet. Consulted January 26, 2007. 

Cite as:

Incandela, D., et al., Starting a Digital Revolution, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note