Digital and museums: an interview with Trilce Navarrete.

Published on May, the 2nd, 2022

[Illustration :Jozef Israëls, Children of the Sea, 1872, huile sur toile, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Collection en ligne, Rijkstudio ]

Besson, Julie

As digital is gaining importance in museums, we asked Trilce Navarrete questions about how it is changing the behaviors of museums and their publics. Trilce Navarrete, digital heritage researcher, focuses on the historic and economic aspect of new technologies in museums. We thank her for accepting this interview.

You can find the article in French here.

J.B. : First, could you introduce yourself and your research ?

T. N. : I come from an interdisciplinary background. I have a bachelor in art history and a master in museum management and on cultural economics. During my PhD, I worked with a team of information scientists. I studied those three disciplines: museums, economics and information sciences. It was logical for me to focus my work on the economics of digital technology in museums. I am interested in the informal educational social role of museums and how they communicate about their collection.

For the ICOM CIDOC [ndlr : ICOM International Committee for Documentation], I have been focusing on this information side that museums develop through research, documentation, and preservation of collections and on how they communicate this.

Even though digital is now in fashion, I would argue there is no  digital museum. Digital museums are in fact inherent in the museological processes, covering all activities where the digital technologies are adopted. The technology allows everyone to see it differently but, in fact, at the core, it is the information about collections that matters, no matter whether a paper or a digital database are used.

During my research, I discuss these ideas and question how/why we see it this way, how technology is working and how we can use it. In museums, digital systems are generally used for managing collections’ information administration, but not so much for research. The system does not work yet. Museums have to make a new infrastructure, a knowledge infrastructure to support research, instead of only serving administrative purposes. We miss a system that facilitates the work of curation and preservation.

J.B. : Though we can see the digitization of museums through their activities, we tend to ignore that it also changed the way museum professionals work. What are the most noticeable changes ?

T. N. : Indeed, it is the same work at the core. But if you ask : what is the core of the work of a museum ? If we take the current ICOM definition, there are the missions of researching, collecting, exhibiting, preserving and there is also a prominent social role of study and research. Everything remained.

When people are asked if they trust museums, they answer yes. Yet, if they have a question, they don’t ask museums. They ask google, newspaper or sources of news. I believe it could change, with a different interface, people could ask questions to the museum. In exhibitions, we have one story, one topic and we cannot ask. If museums are able to answer questions, they will be seen as facilitators.

We also have to understand how people learn. It used to be just listening but now people are more active, students are asked to present, to teach. We can see that activities and educators are changing the way museums allow learning.

Participation is a lot more active nowadays. This is facilitated by technology (it permits to make comments, to make memes and to be active in the way you re-use content and learn) and it is normal that our understanding of education is changing in the way people learn and museums are adapting to it.  

At the core, it remains the same : it is a social role of informal education about history or art, or science or whatever the topic is.

J.B. : Digitization is both present on-site/in the museum and online : what is the public consumption of these devices ?

T. N. : When you are on site you can access content through a computer, augmented reality, or any screen, at home there may also be variants and you can gather information either from the website or mobile application,etc. It is all hybrid. There are also other things purely digital : digital art or NFT for example.

Gathering data about the way people interact with museum websites is challenging because things change rapidly and so, there are no national statistics on webstats. We know how many people go to a physical museum a year, because of a ticket entrance/ museum cards, sometimes we know if there are repeated visits. Online, we could see how many people come to the website and what they do but we do not have an effort across countries yet to harmonize online stats. It is still in development.

I have done some research on the use of museum collections in third-party websites such as social media or Wikipedia. The images are watched a million times per month whereas in the museum website, it is only viewed a hundred times. There is an explosion of views in a different context for completely different reasons but still, the museum content is being accessed. What do the public do with it and what do they think about it ? We do not know yet, but we know people are viewing.  

What does that mean for people ? We have no statistics for that either. The European Commission through EuroStat has gathered some information about : do you look for museum websites ? Do you search for information about museums online ? We have an indication that people visit museum websites but we don’t know what exactly or who the visitor is. During the pandemic, ICOM, NEMO and UNESCO gathered information about what museums do and a little bit of what people are looking for, and we see that we are lacking a methodology for that. NEMO proposed to ask museums if they do podcasts, social media, virtual tours, etc… but we don’t have a set of digital services that we can ask. We do have it for physical services : permanent exhibitions, temporary exhibitions, education material, educational programs, lectures.. We don’t have that online because you can do the same or you can do more things. Lectures : are they online or recorded? On your website or on your platform ? Then, you get so many variations. I think people make it more difficult than it is, because if you look at the core activities, we could ask : do you do exhibitions ? Permanent, temporary ? Physical, online ? It could be easier. Do you provide this support online ? this educational program online ? We could also see how many people from school look at that. We could try to translate some of the materials to digital format.

It gets trickier with tours, because what kind of content is provided ? Are they guided tours ? Via an app you download or via the website? Can you track how many people watch it ? We have museum documentaries but also contents, packages to view at home, on Youtube. The question is always how to count that : via Youtube, via the website. Yet, the most important is what is the service, what it is that the museum is providing for its community.

The Dutch Ministry of Culture has published a report (1) about what is the benefit of doing this activity online. People like to watch images, pretty pictures, to read about history and find information about their families or learn about other cultures… People like learning.

J.B. : It is often thought that online exhibitions can help to reach new publics, and maybe non-museum goers : does research confirm this hypothesis ?

T. N. : The Louvre did a study on their physical and digital visitors and it seems that from the people who visit the museum, only a small part of them would go online. People rarely visit the museum online.

There have been other studies, larger, smaller. Many of my students tried to catch non-visitors of physical museums who go online but it is extremely difficult. Even during the pandemic, people didn’t think of visiting an online museum or they didn’t know about it.

The underlined question is about what a digital museum is. Is it a website? Is it nice to watch ? I don’t think so. The infrastructure is still clumsy. It’s nicer when you do videos and the curator tells you a story but at the same time, you might not want it too long. What is the fun part of it ? When you go to a museum, you are with your friends, you can take a coffee and you miss this service online. I think museums are still young and exploring what services they want to provide online. As they  improve themselves, try to propose new things and also do something else with their collections. For example, when they provide open data collection. It is like a phone book but that is not a service for the general public. They need to create a package in which the information is presented in a more inviting format. Maybe with artificial intelligence or other algorithms, we can reposition our content better, people can ask questions and then it makes sense to ask the museum.

Museums publish open data but they barely use the open data of others. I think they could start by re-using open data of others, showing how that works so people can be inspired and re-use it. Right now, it’s only creative coders who sometimes splay with museum data but it doesn’t happen often either. It needs to be stimulated.

J.B. : Which trends can be next ?

T. N. : Several things are changing. Internally, the staff: because some museums are having in their management team an information specialist. This is not the person that manages the hardware but the one that knows the backend of what the public sees.

The infrastructure of information is evolving : museums are trying to unite their data sources : their archives, their library, the collection, the website…

Generally, digital is slowly getting understood as part of the DNA, a basic infrastructure you need. With this vision, you approach things differently, with a team, with a budget…

Concerning the external side of museums, a visible trend considers the users as a knowledgeable / capable individual that can contribute valuable content. There are new approaches to education, co-creation, and inviting people to support. In Estonia, for instance, they work with the concept of inclusive documentation. The museum invites the community to provide stories or oral history to enrich their collections. It helps because the staff is not knowledgeable about everything, and is unable to do everything. Organizing such co-creation allows more engagement from communities while benefiting museums from these enriching collaborations.

There is also a financial side. We see more museum shops online and the engagement will be when museum shops sell co-creation, when they associate with local crafters to be inspired by their collections. To see the public not only as ticket-buyers but as contributors to make museums : to make the stories, to make the shop.


(1)   KEMMAN M., HANSWIJK M., GRND A., WEEMHOFF J., BONGERS F., VAN DER GRAAF M., (2021),  Stand van het nederlands digitaal erfgoed, Ministry of education and culture. You can find the report here. Interesting figures are p. 32 (figure 12 showing what people do online ), p. 35 (figure 15 showing what people get out of their digital participation) and p. 40 (figure 21 showing that the younger the generation, the more active participants they are)

To discover more

On her website : trilcenavarrete.com

Video series: Museums in Context

Latest book: Handbook of Cultural Economics, Third Edition

Blog: Economists Talk Art

To cite this article : BESSON, Julie (2022). Digital and museums: an interview with Trilce Navarrete, Metis Lab, published on May, the 2nd 2022. Available at :

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