Planning, Executing, and Evaluating Digital Projects in Museums


Regardless of your reasons for becoming a museum professional, part of working in the field is working well with others. The curatorial staff has a different agenda than the advancement department, the board of trustees has different tasks than docents, and visitors have a different perspective than the public programming department. All museum professionals can benefit from understanding the basics of Project Management. With all of the new and exciting potentials of digital media, museum staffs across the board need to work with one another to create the best possible experience for visitors.

First thing first, even though it may seem obvious, in order to be a successful museum that organizes effective exhibitions and programs you need to understand your institution. This includes the needs of visitors (like we talked about last week), as well as knowing your budget, timeline, resources, and the expectations of the project. One way to map out a project is to break it down into more tangible steps. A typical project lifecycle includes:

  • Project Selection
  • Planning
  • Implementation
  • Control
  • Evaluation
  • Termination

During the Project Selection phase, you can review that the project is in-line with your museum’s mission and determining the feasibility of achieving the goals of the project. You may also want to check in with other departments at this point to be sure things like funding, staff, and space is available. When Planning a project, it is crucial to keep those lines of communication open with the other departments that will be involved. Establishing a flexible timeline, coordinating with staff and project stakeholders, and doing some early testing are all things you can do while planning. This is often overlooked, but establishing constraints and exclusions of a project is also important to do early on.

With the preliminary stages of a project completed, you can start Implementing the project. If things were planned well—you left room for growth and time for recovering from pitfalls—the project should move along smoothly. Having hard deadlines and sticking to them will move the project forward. Having a hand in Controlling the day-to-day progress of a project and periodically Evaluating the efficiency of the project will yield the best results. This can include studying the effectiveness of the project and adjusting accordingly, allowing for modifications to the original plan, and listening to staff and visitors. Also, you should have backup plans in case an aspect of the project or the entire project fails.

Even the best projects come to an end. Closing an exhibition or digital project is by no means an easy task. Having a plan to store and/or reuse objects and technologies employed during the project is practical and may save you the trouble of finding resources to use in future projects. Conducting surveys and holding a team wrap-up meeting may produce important information that you can learn from.

These principles should be known and reflected upon by all members of the project. This includes the Executive Management Team in charge of the project as a whole, the Project Managers overseeing specific aspects of the project, and the Team Members tasked with whatever it takes to get it done. I said this at the beginning of this post, but communication and interpersonal skills are probably the most important aspect of running a smooth and efficient project. Even with the best plan, you may run into unforeseen obstacles, difficult personalities, and unexpected situations.

There are various techniques that can be used at any of these stages of a project—although, it is probably best to employ them early and often. SWOT is a way to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Treats to your project and institution. PEST is a way to assess the Political, Economic, Social, and Technological responsibilities and impact of your project. RACI is a way to remain Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed about your project and its implications. One more acronym and I’ll wrap it up.

Many museums, both small and large, will outsource projects for various reasons. Knowing what an RFP (Request for Proposal) is and how they work may also prove to be important. If you are contracting an outside company for an RFP, you need to be familiar with many of the things necessary for managing your own project. The grunt work and creativity will be handed over to the professionals, but knowing your budget, timeline, anticipated audience, etc. will be crucial. The more thorough you can be with the contractors, the better the RFPs and end results.

Finally, there is one more skill that you might not have learned while getting your art history degree: Grant Writing. Every museum, large and small, will have limited funding and resources so being familiar with how to find grants and apply to them is a huge plus. Researching grants and knowing how to prepare a proposal is tricky, but it isn’t an impossible task. Once you are familiar with the process and the language required to write an appealing Letter of Inquiry and Proposal, you will have a highly valuable skill. Institutions of all sizes need funding to achieve their visions and being smart ahead of time will make the process of planning a big project all the easier.

Reading list 9/28/2016
Matthew Stiff, “Managing New Technology Projects in Museums and Galleries”  in Museums in A Digital Age, Ross Parry (ed.), 2010; pp. 353-364.
J. Davidson Frame, “Introduction” in Managing Projects in Organizations, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995, pp. 1-26.
Daniel Threlfell, “Help! I’m a new project manager, and have no clue where to start.” Team Gantt, April 22, 2014.
Cynthia K. West, “Four Common Reasons Why Projects Fail,” Project Insights.
UK Department of Finance, “Programme and project management tools and techniques,”
Erika C. Shugart, “How to Avoid Digital White Elephants in Your Museum,” NAME Exhibitionist vol. 32 no. 2, Fall 2013.
George Mayer, “Writing Successful RFPs,” NAME Exhibitionist vol. 26 no. 1, Spring 2007.
Vu Le, “10 Steps for Writing a Kickass Grant Proposal” on Nonprofit with Balls blog posted Oct. 6, 2014.
Optional (and interesting!):
Ford, Paul. “What is Code?” Business Week June 15, 2015.

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