London Calling

by Jessica Ramesh

Antony Robbins, Director of Communications at the Museum of London, will be among the speakers at the Figaro Digital Conference in London on 18 July. He tells us about the museum’s award-winning ‘Streetmuseum’ app and explains how the organisation has been embracing digital technology

Tell us about the Museum of London’s digital strategy and how it’s evolved.

Mobile, and particularly AR, has been a very big thing for us at the Museum of London. We relaunched in 2010, when Boris Johnson, Sir Michael Caine and Barbara Windsor opened our £22 million Galleries of Modern London, which tell the story of the city from 1666 to the present day. Prior to that, the Museum of London had been seen very much as a hidden gem. What we wanted to do was really put it on the map. Part of that involved creating a new brand and visual identity, and we ran a campaign called ‘You Are Here’, which won various prestigious awards. The campaign was designed to put visitors at the centre of the experience, and took a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the museum’s collection, in that it mixed up old and new items that hadn’t been seen before, and reflected London’s diversity.

The question then was, how can we take this story further and attract a younger audience – people who don’t necessarily go to museums? We worked with an agency called Brothers And Sisters and with them devised the ‘Streetmuseum’ app, which really puts the museum in your pocket. Using GPS it enables you to look, for example, at St Paul’s Cathedral through your iPhone and see icons from, say, the 1850s or the 1940s. It really took the museum beyond its bastion walls and out on to the streets of London – just where it should be. This brought us to a new audience and positioned the museum as an organisation playing a leading role in the use of digital technology and AR.

This year we did some research looking at how people engage with the Museum of London. What we discovered was that either people didn’t know it, or they did and thought it was a bit quirky, but not as quirky as the Cabinet War Rooms, or as sexy as the Tate or as contemporary as the V&A or as tapped into the zeitgeist as the Wellcome Trust. The upshot from that research was that we really needed to ‘own’ London’s history, and to do that we wanted to be seen as a bit cooler, more contemporary and more connected.

Through the research, we now understand a little more about how to tap into our leading audience, which consists of two similar but slightly different groups who we call ‘Cultural Connoisseurs’ and ‘London Insiders’, and we want to do that by providing content in exciting new ways – but not spoon-feeding these two sophisticated and culturally aware audiences. We wanted to double the size of that leading audience to 20 per cent, because they really drive our core audience of regular museum goers – families, tourists and day-trippers. So, it’s by concentrating on this digitally-savvy leading audience that we hope to drive our overall strategy.

Has the move into digital been easy?

Like lots of organisations, the museum staggered slightly into its digital future. AR was untested in our sector back in 2009. Now that I’m a Director it’s easier for me, but when I joined the organisation it took a bit of convincing of our senior team of the merits of a mobile offer. You can understand their hesitance though: at that point everyone was hard at work trying to get our new galleries off the ground.

Initially the apps were seen very much as a marketing effort – a bit of a lossleader. If we got 5,000 downloads that would have been good. If we got 10,000 that would have been fantastic. In fact we’ve had 350,000 downloads and counting. It took a while for us to change our culture and to start thinking of digital in a much more integrated fashion – to integrate the app itself so that it’s not just seen as a bit of marketing fluff but a part of the whole Museum of London experience. For us it’s been about learning how to take content to those places where people are already active online, rather than us saying, ‘We’re a museum – you’ve got to come to us.’

Interview by Jon Fortgang