Museum Innovation for Sustainability

Alex Benay

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Ok, maybe it’s not falling … but there does appear to be troubling times ahead for Canadian museums.

Should one buy into the narrative that museums around the world are seeing a global trend of diminishing visitors? Or, if you believe scholarly research on museology in Europe and the United States, museums should be worried about changing visitor demographics. Let us assume these are accurate trends, then combine these factors with difficult economic conditions, global digital disruption (think news, music, television, etc.), and one thing is certain, a ‘shift’ is definitely underway. The times, they are a changin’. Museums need to change with them, or risk becoming less and less relevant from a community, education, and nation building perspective. Even worse, without increased relevance in these sub-sectors, how can public institutions such as museums hope to achieve sustainability? “Sustainability is, at its most basic, concerned with the needs of the future” (Davies and Wilkinson, Museums Association, 2008).

I will not propose to provide THE solution to these complex issues. But perhaps the beginning of a path. Canadian museums desperately need to embrace a new definition of what makes a museum successful. The old concept of visitor attendance as THE benchmark is outdated — the global digital revolution has ensured this. People are more and more virtual, and more and more mobile. Samsung and Apple have all but guaranteed that most adults carry smart phones on them at all hours of the day, and this, anywhere across the country. Pre-teens in major urban centres across the country now have cellular devices. The world is digital, and will never revert back.

Furthermore, successive generations of Canadians are now “born digital”. Consequently, museums need to think of success more in terms of Reaching, Connecting and Engaging — the world offers more opportunities than the visitors we see coming through the door. By focusing on in-person attendance, we are ignoring most of the rest of the globe. Yes, digital will never replace experiencing “the real thing”. Absolutely, the artefact will always be sacred. But in an interconnected world, museums, as public institutions, have a duty and an obligation to ensure that all Canadians and all global citizens, can access their treasures. The ONLY way to achieve this is by becoming fully-fledged global digital citizens and interacting with the new digital reality around us. Don’t believe there is a shift going on? When is the last time you saw an actual brick and mortar movie rental store? Why is Netflix accounting for well over half of Internet traffic in the United States? Why is Canada Post “Delivering the Online World”? If you were born after 1980, you are a digital native. And this fact will change how museums reach, connect, and engage for decades to come. We simply do not yet know how to interact with this generation because we continue to apply “attendance” metrics as the key to success. Let us ask ourselves the following: with an outdated definition of success, how can museums hope to achieve sustainability?

Museums are public institutions that have a mandate to educate, engage and preserve — we all know this. No one doubts the validity of the preservation mandate within our institutions. However, in this new world, how we educate and engage as public history organizations puts the entire role of museums at risk. This risk, to further layer the issue, is now hidden under the cloak of what we term “sustainability”. Therefore let us not talk of sustainability without first identifying the root cause of the issue: we operate on success metrics that are outdated, in a world that is undergoing change at the fastest pace in human history — we are diametrically opposed to the direction in which the world is undoubtedly heading.

Within this new, ever changing world, we as museums need to Reach for broader audiences. Reach is about visibility, and visibility is critical in a digital, common global culture. Reaching new audiences requires us to understand where digital natives live and breathe, as it is this new group that will attend our museums, whether they be physical or virtual. Snapchat, lnstagram, YouTube, etc., are the messengers of the new digital native age. As knowledge institutions first and foremost, museums have a duty to understand this and reach out to these audiences on their terms, using their language. “Yes, but Reach statistics do not generate revenue for us, attendance does. Digital will never generate revenue for us.” My vision has been challenged over the past year since the Canada Science and Technology Museums have decided to make the shift to becoming true digital citizens. This argument, I would argue, is completely false. Why? Let us use an example. Some of Canada’s top cultural earners are not the people you see on television, but rather youth, on YouTube, generating millions in income by showcasing their creative works in sectors such as gaming and arts. If they can do this from their basements, literally, why then can museums not engage in revenue generating activities in the digital world? Simply by increasing our Reach commitments as an institution? It is 100 per cent feasible.

If museums can create revenue for ourselves with reach, we can also increase sustainability by Connecting more broadly in this new digital universe. Connecting means increasing contact. The days of pushing content out on Twitter, with a museum Twitter account, are behind us. Yes ... already. If museums wish to ensure relevance with upcoming digital generations — generations that, by the way, will be our forever target audience moving forward — we must connect with digital natives where THEY reside: Snapchat, lnstagram, YouTube, etc. Notice I did not say Facebook? That is where digital immigrants reside, with a sprinkle of digital natives. Connecting with this future generation of museum goers will ensure they attend our institutions, and that they help us generate revenue, frankly that they even know museums exist in the first place. To discuss museum sustainability means, as a first step, we need to discuss museum relevance with future generations. If we cannot reach and connect with this generation, and they ultimately do not engage with us, both physically and virtually, then museums will never reach a critical relevancy mass that will ensure their sustainability in the future.

The last of our three proposed metrics involved in redefining success, Engage, is by far the most critical. In today’s digital disruptive world, public institutions such as ours must Reach, Connect AND Engage. Engagement is more important than attendance for digital natives. And increasingly today, engagement starts not on bus advertisements, or at the gate of our institutions. But rather when parents browse Facebook, when teenagers flip through lnstagram on their cellular device, or when a ten-year old sees something he or she likes on YouTube. Even more important for museum sustainability, engaging is cheaper to produce in the digital world than the physical one, and it leads to true co-creative environments between museums and the public which we serve. Engagement is about an exchange, and it requires museums to become true Digital Citizens in order to exchange in both realms, the physical and the digital: to engage in debates online, openly and without fear of repercussion; to enable the public to classify online museum archives for themselves — without our help; to trust public historians more and enable them to dynamically contribute to the provenance of artefacts — in real time. We must change our mindset completely as an institution if we are to achieve this new reality, consequently achieving greater relevance, and therefore ensuring sustainability. Why not let the public catalogue artefacts online? Why not leverage the power of the masses? Transform our role from the provider of the sole source of the truth, to be online engagement specialists, content coordinators and quality control overseers? This factor is critical because digital natives are born creators. They are born collaborators. Digital natives are used to interacting with celebrities on Twitter, discussing issues via Google Hangout, etc. Frankly they are exactly the type of clients museums dream of, we are simply failing to reach them en masse and let go, just a little, of our existing model of operating in order to unleash a new museum collaboration era, one more in line with today’s broader market realities.

Should we choose to fully adopt this model, it would first require a drastic shift in mindset, a shift that has to occur now, for as we know, the world is changing around us ... now. If we do this, we will be global leaders in participatory heritage with a generation of Canadians that are craving engagement. To be even more direct, digital innovation is the only way to ensure museum sustainability moving forward. It is a realm where as public knowledge organizations, we control our own destinies. We can choose to create with digital natives as partners, not as educators. We can leverage the power of the crowd to do more work, not see it as an add-on to our workload. We can generate revenues for ourselves and increase relevance, simultaneously. When we shift our mindset from attendance-focused metrics, to discussing Reach, Connect, and Engage, good things can happen.

But it will require courage. It will require the internal fortitude to invest in this area, to let go of our traditional ways of operating, and to embrace change that may be led by others, outside of our own walls. This is not an easy thing to do, but one that must happen in museums across Canada in order to increase relevancy and therefore increase sustainability. Digital natives expect to engage and co-create, not be lectured to. And we, as some of the most prolific knowledge institutions in the country, can enable a new way of creating culture for our nation which has historically embraced such concepts as multiculturalism and freedom of expression. Let us unlock those Canadian qualities in a participatory digital heritage framework. A stronger sense of national engagement and transparency will rise from more people becoming engaged in the making, interpreting, and remaking of the meaning of culture in Canada. “That’s what digital natives are up to when they remix our culture,” claims Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. “It could be what they are up to when they decide which new blogs and other sources information they enjoy — but only if we manage to teach digital literacy effectively. The hardest question we’ll have is whether we will attempt to thwart this burgeoning online creativity in digital natives in the name of protecting crumbling institutions, or foster it, and the participatory culture it can lead us to.”

Alex Benay
President and Chief Executive Officer Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

Alex Benay was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC) by the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages in July 2014. The CSTMC operates three national museums: the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, as well as the Canada Science and Technology Museum, and reached close to 14 million Canadians last year.

Prior to joining the Corporation, Mr. Benay had been Vice­ President, Government Affairs and Business Development at OpenText, Canada’s largest software company, since 2011. Over the years, he has played a leadership role in Canada’s digital industry, as well as promoting global digitalism in organizations and groups such as the G20, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Olympics, etc. Prior to his time at OpenText, Mr. Benay managed various teams and programs at the Canadian International Development Agency, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Natural Resources Canada, as well as Library and Archives Canada.

A native of Quebec City, Mr. Benay grew up in Ottawa and attended the University of Ottawa where he studied history. He is a community volunteer and an active hockey coach for close to 20 years. In addition to his current position, Mr. Benay acts as director on the Board of the Canadian Association of Science Centres, is an advisory board member for Algonquin College’s applied museum studies program, and is an active member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Mr. Benay lives in Ottawa with his wife and two children.


“The analysis in this volume suggests a troubling future for museums if current trends continue unchanged. Like most parts of the cultural sector, American museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public. If the demographies of who visits museums do not change, then American museums con expect to serve an ever-shrinking proportion of society.

Source: Museum Experience Revisited, 2013


“Unlike most digital immigrants, digital natives live much of their lives online, without distinguishing between the online and the offline.”

“Whether or not they realize it, they have come to have a degree of control over their cultural environment that is unprecedented.”

“The Internet, by giving people the ability to shape and reshape cultural understanding through digital creativity, has introduced something that is truly different. And it is digital natives who are best poised to engage in this process.”

Source: Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, 2008


  This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, March/April issue, 2016.