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Future-proofing the Natural History Museum… the best job in digital?

Updated: Apr 28, 2019


We caught up with Piers Jones, Chief Digital & Product Officer at the Natural History Museum in London, to find out a little more about the museum’s digital journey.


In common with many other organisations ‘Digital’ can be used to mean many different things at the Natural History Museum. For example they have around 80 million specimens in the museum’s vast collection and are in the process of ‘digitising’ that collection, making the data associated with each item available openly and freely for scientists to use in research.


As of today their science team have digitised over 4.2 million specimens and published the results through their data portal. In the Engagement Group of the museum, Piers and his team concentrate on supporting the museum’s strategy to engage people (or the public) with the Natural world by delivering the right digital experiences for their target audiences in the UK and globally.


Most engagement happens through their website as well as through their social channels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


There are four main objectives to achieve the museum's digital vision:

  • Create digital content that connects more people to the natural world and the work of the museum

  • Deliver a best in class digital experience for visitors to the museum in South Kensington

  • Make it intuitive and easy for people to support the museum's work financially

  • Inspire and enable people to actively investigate the natural world through digital products, for example through citizen science.


Sir David Attenborough meeting himself in Virtual Reality in the Natural History Museum's library

How is NHM using tech & digital to help us understand the natural world?


We use a range of techniques to help people find the content that we create. For example we use a content strategy that shares many characteristics with a successful online publisher or news organisation to create compelling and engaging content for subjects where we have genuine expertise like ‘Dinosaurs', ‘Biodiversity' or ‘Evolution'. We will look at the popular search terms that the public use to research and learn about different subjects when they ask a search engine questions like ‘what is natural selection?’ or ‘could scientists bring dinosaurs back to life?’. We can then ensure that we have created a genuinely valuable answer to those questions, based on our scientific expertise, available to our users.


One area where we differ from a traditional ‘publisher’ is that all of our scientific content is verified independently with one of the NHM science team, so we know that what we are publishing is based on the latest scientific knowledge. We also create different types of content designed to suit the different platforms that our audiences use, whether that’s short explainer videos for social or very rich interactive experiences for virtual reality and gaming platforms.


It's perhaps an obvious point, but you don’t have to come to our museum in South Kensington to learn more about the natural world. Instead we can bring the content that we create directly to you when you use any connected device and we aim to do just that!


How do you choose the right technologies to achieve goals as broad and important as 'creating advocates for nature'?


At the museum we are open to using a range of technologies to connect with our target audiences and certainly don’t choose one technology over another based on what looks technically interesting or trendy at any given moment. Instead we try to make our choices based on what we think will work best for the audiences that we are trying to reach.

For example we recently launched a game aimed at children and their families called ‘naturenauts’ as a progressive web app (PWA).

We chose a PWA over a native app or other technology as we knew a PWA would work easily on a range of mobile devices, since children often don’t use the latest and greatest phones.

We aim to keep our approach open and simple and to ensure the experiences that we are creating meet a genuine need and that we can reach the maximum number of people with the content that we create. We also have a relatively small team, so we need to be smart about the number of different technologies we invest in and can support over time. No good launching something and then not being able to support and update it later.


Where do you look for inspiration for future-proofing an institution as legendary as the NHM?


As a team we are constantly inspired by those around us whether that’s by other cultural and scientific institutions like the V&A or Calacademy, other public sector providers like GDS (Government Digital Service) or companies in ‘adjacent’ sectors like media and publishing for example the Guardian and BBC. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and share what we find all the time on Slack and so on. On the whole I think we take the most inspiration from other purpose-driven organisations that are approaching their digital strategies with a goal of engaging with broad audiences in a free and open way, just like us.


We hope that by keeping things simple, open and most importantly centred on the genuine needs of our users then we will make the right choices for the long term. We do try and balance a desire to gets things right and being true to our ‘legendary’ institution with not being afraid to take a risk and to innovate. I hope we have got the balance about right but we are always trying to learn and improve over time.


What have you learned from building the museum's digital team from scratch?


We’ve been incredibly lucky at the museum to build a very talented digital team who come from a diverse mix of backgrounds and experiences. I’m constantly inspired by the team and the passion that they have for working at the museum and how much care they put into creating a great digital future. We have put a lot of work into our hiring process and how best to involve a wide range of the team in hiring so that we can find the best people. We also work pretty hard at getting the team communication right, whether that’s through regular ‘all hands’ meetings or more informal paths.

I’m not sure that any advice that I have to offer will sound that revolutionary but would say that hiring, motivating and retaining the right people is the most important part of any successful digital team.

You can never be too open, too transparent or communicate your goals and challenges often enough if you want to bring people with you on the journey that you have set out on.

I'm not claiming that we have it 100% right but we are working really hard at it. Also for a purpose-driven organisation its important to find ways of recognising and motivating people outside of pure financial incentives, most of the NHM digital team come into work in the morning because they want to inspire people about the natural world and our science.

Finally I love what happens when you throw different disciplines like content, marketing, development and ux together to work on a shared challenge. Often the best approaches are found in the collision of different experiences and ideas.

What’s most challenging about engaging such a diverse customer base?


Prioritisation. We don’t lack for creative ideas or opportunities at the museum but we are limited by our team size, funding and what we can do well within the constraints that we have. Saying ‘no’ is not something that has come naturally to the team as we love to make people happy. We are getting better over time at saying no to some ideas so that we can spend more time concentrating on others. We are not all the way there yet, but by being really clear about our objectives and how we measure success we are refining the long list of things that we could do, into the hopefully much shorter list of things that we really need to do right now.


What do you love most about your job?


Not just saying it, but I think I have the best job available in digital! I’m incredibly lucky to work in such an amazing place.

Where else do you get to walk past a dinosaur and take an escalator through the centre of the earth on the way into the office?

I really love taking a walk through the museum and seeing the public enjoying themselves and being constantly reminded of what the museum does and how great it is at it. That and the time that I get to spend with the digital team working on new ideas or making the old ones even better. I would definitely recommend the Natural History Museum as an amazing place to work if you ever get the chance.

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