Learning ‘Digital Courage’: Using Technology to Build Agency and Equality in the Museum Workforce


Wednesday, April 07, 2021: 1:30pm - 3:00pm - - Paper Session

Sophie Frost, University of Leicester, United Kingdom

Published paper: Learning “Digital Courage”: Using Technology to Build Agency and Equality in the Museum Workforce

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a crisis in museums – that we have not done enough to reconcile our histories and narratives with present racial, social and economic inequities. It has added a sense of urgency to existing deficits in digital skills in museums, joined by an increased recognition of technology’s crucial role as an enabler of new, radical practices of equality.

This paper argues that what is needed, more than ever, is the practice of “digital courage” in museums. More collaborative than “confidence”, “digital courage” has equality at its core. Digital courage is linked to the idea of small steps, not big leaps; to slow, emotionally intelligent and methodical digital activities which involve enabling staff to use digital at a level and with a tenacity that suits them. This idea reclaims digital activity as a radical, equalising practice that, by including all the voices that make up a workforce, can speak more profoundly to audiences and communities (Rogers, 2003). “Digital courage” asserts that the acquisition of digital skills is an exercise in freedom, whereby museum workforces adopt new technologies and at the same time acquire the rights to reinvent them.

Consciously, the concept of “digital courage” is being proposed here through emphasis on three intersecting ideas from social theory: creative agency (the act of self-expression and self-affirmation), radical pedagogy (which disrupts the normative idea of teacher and student, focusing on the practice of equality in knowledge transfer), and diffusion theory (in which the implementation of an innovation is seen as a form of participatory democracy).

Drawing on longitudinal examples from action research projects in the US and UK, this paper explains how, through the application of these concepts, we can construct an understanding of what it means to be an agent of change in a museum or heritage context, and what the act of learning new digital skills can mean for the future of museums.

As well as the specific sources cited below, this paper and session will draw upon the growing body of published and openly available in Culture24’s 'Digital Pathways’ online platform.

Barnes, S., Kispeter, E., Eikhof, D. and Parry, R. (2018). ‘Mapping the Museum Digital Skills Ecosystem’. Phase One Report, One by One.

Banks, M. (2017) Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work and Inequality

hooks, bell. (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom

Nesta and ACE (2017) Digital Culture 2017. Nesta and Arts Council England. https://www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/digital_culture_2017.pdf (accessed 30 Sept. 2020).

Parry, R., Royston, C., James, D., Finnis, J. and Dziekan, V., (2016) 'It’s All in the Confidence: Co-designing the Future of Museum Digital Literacy’, presented at Museums and the Web 2016, Los Angeles, US, April 2016.

Rancière, J. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation

Rogers, E.M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations

Royston, C. & Parry, R. (2019), 'Building a framework: The museum sector needs to rethink digital skills - from the ground up', Museum, vol. 98, issue 1, 34-39.

One by One UK-US 2020 is a 9-month multi-partner project bringing together international cultural organisations, policy makers, academics, professional bodies, support agencies and communities of practice, to build digital confident museums. Our project partnership team includes: American Alliance of Museums (US) and Museums Association (UK) as commissioning partners; Museum Computer Network (MCN) (US) and Museums Computer Group (MCG) (UK) as community partners; Haitham Eid (Director, Museum Studies Program, Southern University at New Orleans) and Ross Parry (Professor of Museum Technology, and Deputy Head, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester) as research partners; and museum partners including, in the US – Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; Smithsonian American Art Museum; American Women’s History Initiative, Smithsonian Institution; paired with four ‘critical friend’ UK partners – Science Museum Group, Victoria and Albert Museum, Amgueddfa Cymru -National Museum Wales, and National Museums Scotland.