Computer Club awesomeness: An interview with IWM’s Carolyn Royston

One of the coolest ideas that I picked up at Museums and the Web this year was the Imperial War MuseumsComputer Club; an “informal club for all staff that aims to provide a hands-on experience with technology.” It was so cool, in fact, that I’ve asked Carolyn Royston, Head of Digital Media at the IWM, to tell us a bit more about it.

Carolyn Royston, IWM
Carolyn Royston, IWM

Carolyn, first up, can you tell me what Computer Club is and how it all works?

Computer Club is a new museum-wide initiative that we launched in May. The Digital Media department runs informal monthly lunchtime sessions that aim to develop digital awareness and skills across the museum. It’s open to everyone and we run the club across all of our five sites. We want to introduce staff to new digital things in a very practical hands-on way, perhaps try something they normally wouldn’t get an opportunity to do in their job and hopefully just get excited about digital. We have specifically made it informal and non-museum focussed so that people will come along and just have fun in a relaxed and friendly environment.

The initial sessions you’re running cover topics like Twitter, Facebook, Xbox and gesture control, and movie making on an iPad. How did you decide what topics to cover in the first instance? Were these choices a response to particular institutional needs, or were the subjects chosen for another reason?

My team came up with a list of initial ideas based on what we felt would be of most interest and use to staff. In the first instance, we thought that most people would know about Twitter and Facebook but not necessarily have accounts, or know how they work, or not necessarily know how to get the best from them. So for the Twitter session, we give people the opportunity to set up their own account, show them how to follow organisations or people they are interested in and everyone sends a tweet. It’s just a taster really but it gives people the chance to have a go and see what it’s all about. We have a long list of ideas but have only suggested six so far as we want to ask staff what sessions they would like us to run. We want Computer Club to be as user-focussed as possible.

Have you held your first session yet? How did it go?

Yes we ran our first session on how to use Twitter at our London site last month. We had a great response – fifty people from across different departments (including two directors) signed up. We want the sessions to be totally hands-on and we provide the equipment. We had to run the session three times so each person could have their own tablet and ensure the group was small enough for the team to provide help and support. There was a mixture of experience from people who already use Twitter and wanted to learn more about it to someone who had never held a tablet before and didn’t even really know what it was.

We also learnt an awful lot about the practicalities from the first session like dealing with wifi issues, trying to support sixteen people signing up for a Twitter account at the same time and just running out of time to get through everything we wanted to cover. A session is only an hour long and it’s surprising how quickly the time goes so we have learnt very quickly to limit the number of people per session to a max of 16 and keep the content very simple so there’s more time to play and experiment. We realised that we could always run a more ‘advanced’ session later on if people wanted to learn more.

We have just run the first of our second sessions on making a movie trailer on an iPad using iMovie. This is very different to the Twitter session as we ask people to work in small groups, give them a genre for a trailer, and let them go off for twenty minutes to make a trailer using iMovie. A member of the Computer Club team goes along to help them. They then get to do a very limited amount of editing and we upload the trailer to YouTube and watch each group’s trailer together. It’s a fun session that gets people collaborating, introduces them to the video camera on an iPad and shows them how easy it is to make a film and put it on YouTube. Hopefully, they will be encouraged to go off and try making a movie for themselves. Again, we’re thinking of running a more advanced session later in the year that focuses more on iMovie editing and shows what’s possible for those people that might want more than just a taster.

One of the things I love about the program is that you actually recognise people’s achievements with stickers and rewards of different kinds. Do you think this kind of recognition is important for other units seeking to run internal training sessions?

Firstly, I should say that every single person that has come to Computer Club has wanted a sticker at the end. I think the stickers are a really important part of the Club. Everyone, no matter what age, loves a sticker! – It’s recognition that a person has come along to Computer Club in their lunch hour to have a go at something digital. We have designed several different stickers and we give out a different one depending on the content of the session. It would be great if in the future we could build in rewards and other badging ideas perhaps when we have a more established programme. We got some nice tweets from staff after the first session and I have started to see stickers proudly displayed on people’s computers and staff badges. It’s great to see people really engaging with Computer Club and the stickers definitely help with that.

I really think there is scope to think about recognising people’s achievements in this way in other areas of staff development. For some reason as we get older, learning and development seems to become more and more boring and predictable in its delivery. It’s hard for me to think of one really interesting training course that I have been on since I entered the museum sector. I think Computer Club has caught people’s imagination partly because its different to anything else that staff have been offered before at the museum and also that it’s not tied to more formal training. It’s light touch sessions that people come along to because they’re interested and want to learn more about an area that perhaps they don’t feel very confident about. You come for a fun taster session that lasts an hour, get a sticker to say you’ve attended and then go back to work. Why can’t that approach be adopted for other areas of skills development? Ultimately, my aspiration is that Computer Club stickers are recognised by managers as a form of achievement. The more stickers a person gets, the more it shows their interest in digital. If this is recognised, then perhaps it can lead to people taking on digital leadership in their area of work and provide further opportunities for people to develop their digital interest and skills. This has to be of benefit to the organisation.

IWM Computer Club stickers
Computer Club stickers

In the piece you wrote for Sarah Hromack and John Stack’s Institutional Strategy Digest, you mention that that IWM’s digital strategy has “at its heart an aspiration – to develop the confidence, initiative and digital capabilities of staff at all levels, so that they embed digital media instinctively in their work.” I think this is the sort of aspirational ideal that digital staff at most institutions would love to see in their own museums. How do you intend to build this sort of digital confidence and competence into your institution? What role do you expect Computer Club to play in this process?

This relates to my answer above. I firmly believe that in order for the museum to transform into a modern digital organisation we must raise the digital skills of staff. Computer Club is just one part of this strategy and is firmly about reaching the widest number of people and introducing them to digital possibilities. However, there are three other key strands to this strategy that support that approach and are designed to increase the confidence and digital capability of staff in a more sustained way:

One is identifying ‘transformational’ projects that have a strong digital component and will move the museum to where it needs to be more quickly. These projects are classed as ‘priority projects’ and provide an opportunity to work in ways more suited to digital development, illustrate good practice as a model for others, and enable us to demonstrate the difference and value that this approach brings if investment is made in this area.

Secondly, to support working in this way, the role of the Digital Media department will need to evolve into more than just providing digital project delivery. We need to mentor and coach project teams working on transformational projects, giving them the confidence and support to ‘own’ their projects, better embed them into their overall programme of work and show initiative when thinking about future development and planning in this area. This requires the Digital Media team to develop their skills in coaching and facilitation.

Finally we are introducing a new set of digital competences and digital leadership roles across the museum. These are applicable to Directors, Heads of Departments and all staff members. The digital competences will be applied to job descriptions, annual job plans and appraisals as well as newly advertised roles. The introduction of these new competences sends a very clear message about the importance of digital skills, about the need for on-going development and training in this area and raises expectations about what is required and expected from all staff in terms of digital skills and knowledge in their areas of work.

My goal is that through this strategy we will start to see a more digitally capable museum. This could be expressed in a number of different ways:

  • Staff are excited about all things digital and displaying an appetite for doing more and taking initiative in this area
  • Staff feel more confident in using digital tools in everyday work
  • Staff are more skilled in managing public participation projects and using social media
  • Computer Club continues to grow and staff are actively involved in choosing topics
  • Digital competences are implemented and digital leadership from staff at all levels starts to emerge across the museum

What do you think the challenges will be in running Computer Club?

There are definitely logistical and capacity issues trying to run Computer Club across our five different sites. Successful delivery relies on everyone in my department being involved in some way – from brainstorming session ideas to designing sessions, to leading and supporting their delivery. This obviously becomes a big challenge for the department from a capacity point of view as at the moment we are doing this in addition to our normal workload. The team have been brilliant in taking this idea on and making it happen and I hope that once we have a developed programme of sessions it will become easier to manage. However next year, if Computer Club is successful, then I want to ensure that it is built it into our overall programme of delivery and not seen as an add-on.

You’ve committed to run the program for a year initially, to have time for evaluation. What will Computer Club success look like for you? What would you love to achieve with the program?

I think there are a number of success criteria including the number of people that we’ve reached across the organisation over the year – looking at how many attended multiple sessions, range of departments and types of work they do. We also want to run some surveys over the year to get some qualitative feedback as a measure, and also find out which sessions were the most popular and useful. I think we need to look at the how the Club develops over the year; we have changed things after just one session so I imagine that they will continue to evolve and improve as the year goes on. There are also practical operational considerations – is it sustainable for the Digital Media department to run the sessions across five sites?

I will also evaluate how Computer Club has contributed to the success of the digital strategy along with the other activity we are doing. Are there signs that we are raising digital capability in the organisation? Is digital leadership emerging, perhaps in surprising areas? Are we starting to see staff embedding digital media more instinctively in their work? Have our expectations changed around the digital skills and knowledge that we are expecting our staff to have?

The IWM is a pretty large institution, set over a number of locations. Do you think that a program like Computer Club can scale to suit institutions of different sizes and types?

Why not? There are lots of ways you can champion digital in your organisation. This could be anything from running a Club like we’re doing, to simply sharing links and ideas of things you’ve have seen and are excited by, to just talking enthusiastically about digital with colleagues. For me, it’s all about displaying digital leadership and positioning yourself (and your department) as the digital champion in your organisation – whatever the size. You just need to work out what’s right for your organisation, what skills and knowledge the staff need to have to make the organisation more digitally capable, how you can contribute to raising the digital agenda so its seen as important, and who in the organisation can help you to achieve this. Start small with like-minded colleagues and aim for some quick wins!

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Computer Club?

Just that I’ve had a really positive response from the museum community since I announced Computer Club at Museums and the Web. I’m really interested to see if, in the future, it’s a model that can be replicated or adapted in other organisations.

Carolyn Royston is Head of Digital Media at Imperial War Museums and is responsible for the strategic development, delivery and provision of all public-facing digital outputs across the museum’s five branches: IWM London, Churchill War Rooms, HMS Belfast, IWM Duxford and IWM North. Carolyn’s work spans web, in-gallery multimedia, mobile and social media. She has transformed the museum’s approach to digital engagement so that it is now central to organisational thinking and planning. She is a skilled digital project leader and manager with over 15 years of experience working in the cultural and education sectors. Prior to joining the museum in 2009, Carolyn was project director of the National Museums Online Learning Project where she was responsible for co-ordinating and managing the needs of the nine national museums and galleries to create a range of educational resources. Prior to this, she was Head of eLearning at Atticmedia, a top 25 UK digital agency, where she led several large web projects in the education and cultural sectors. Before moving into digital media, Carolyn was a primary school teacher.

Thank you so much Carolyn! Now I’d love to know what you think. Does your museum have anything like Computer Club for internal staff development? Could you see an approach like this working in your institution?

Museum technologists + organisational digital literacy

Just a quick post whilst sitting in the digital strategy session of MW2012. Is it the responsibility of musetech staff to help push the digital literacy of the broader institution? We often talk about the expectation that other staff in the organisation need to learn how digital works in order that they understand the value of digital, but is it our place to be teaching this? If not us, how will staff with existing low digital proficiency learn about how to negotiate the tech landscape? Do they even need to? If you want a curator to blog or participate on Twitter, digital proficiency is clearly important, but is it up to us to enable their movement into this space?

My talk for the Digital Culture Public Sphere

On Monday night, I found out that I had been slated to talk at the Digital Culture Public Sphere, which ran on Thursday 6 October 2011. This was both a fantastic opportunity, and responsibility, and I’d like to thank Senator Kate Lundy and Pia Waugh for inviting me to be involved. Below are rough notes from my speech. Get involved on the Wiki or Tweet to #publicsphere to contribute your thoughts.


My colleague Tim Hart painted a broad picture of the current state of digital culture in GLAM institutions. He illustrated the close ties the sector has to education, and the role we must play in telling our local, state and national stories. Of particular note was Tim’s salient point that even if we don’t engage online, our communities do; we still live in a world that is shaped by digital.


Theoretically, the Internet enables new opportunities for developing and delivering Australian cultural content to the world. The National Broadband Network will enable organisations in regional areas notable opportunities for connecting with national and international audiences and markets.

However, there are some simple yet significant realities that prevent many cultural institutions from being able to fully engage with digital opportunities.

There are cultural institutions within Australia that are locked behind strict Internet Use policies, which prevent staff from accessing social networking sites including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Although permission can be sought to access these sites, such policies create immediate barriers to adoption of simple technological advances in the creation of cultural communities. Similarly, such policies ensure that only one or two members of staff are designated as the online intermediary between the institution and its online publics.

Similar policies also prevent some institutions from accessing online cultural resources, including Flickr Commons, where photographic collections from the National Library of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum, Australian War Memorial, the State Library of Queensland and the Powerhouse Museum are made available for use.

Despite increased access to the Internet, these simple Use policies prevent affected cultural institutions from developing a strong digital proficiency.

These are local issues, but they still provide simple barriers to access mean that cultural professionals in affected organisations are dissuaded even from participating in today’s Public Sphere consultation. While no doubt many of you are Tweeting even as I speak, cultural professionals trapped behind limiting Internet usage policies are not enabled to engage in these conversations.

Local issues do impact upon our cultural institutions’ abilities to meet the global marketplace.


There are instructive lessons from a recent study conducted by Infoxchange, with the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund, which examined the capacity level and use of information and communication technology in small to medium community sector organisations.[1]

The study found that organisations with low digital proficiency were excluded from new ideas and innovation delivered by digital means. These organisations accept and expect slower systems and response times and have less access to information and less capacity to advocate for their needs. Such organisations were unlikely to improve digital proficiency, because it was not required or valued internally to the same extent as it was by organisations that had already developed digital proficiency.

Similarly, increasing digital proficiency within cultural institutions will lead to new opportunities to link to global networks and ideas from around the world; to greater potential to connect with donors and funding organisations; and provide important new opportunities to serve Australia’s communities and participate in the telling of local, state and national stories.

In order to develop an active and proficient digital cultural sector, there must be increased access to better training, and a more open online environment.


One innovation that could lead to way that such change draws inspiration from the Geek in Residence program; a pilot grant scheme run by the Australia Council for the Arts through the Arts content for the digital era strategic priority. The program places artistically confident technicians, and technically confident artists into host arts organisations on a subsidised secondment. The idea is to create a cultural shift within that host arts organisation, increasing their digital skills and confidences.

Similar programs could be created that would see technologically minded “geeks” inserted into cultural organisations to teach staff within the organisation how to better adapt to advances in digital technology.



Global advances in technology today shape the expectations of cultural audiences. This is a key point made in the 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition, by the New Media Consortium. The Report lists six significant challenges for technological adoption in museums, among them the fact that:

Many in museums still fail to grasp the notion that audiences have high expectations with regard to online access to services and information. It is often difficult enough for museums with scarce resources to serve their physical visitors and to keep audiences in their geographical region satisfied; the notion that museums must, in addition, provide information and services via the Internet and mobile networks is too often seen as frivolous or unnecessary.[2]

The Report goes on to identify other key challenges to technological adoption, as well as four key drivers to adoption in the lead up to 2014. These are the increasing value of ‘rich’ media – images, videos, audio etc – in digital interpretation; the expectations of museum visitors to be able to work, learn, study and connect with their social networks in all places and at all times using the device of their choosing; the abundance of resources and relationships offered by open content repositories and social networks challenging us to revisit roles as educators; and significantly, that digitization and cataloging projects will continue to require a significant share of museum resources.[3]


As the report notes, museums – and with them, other collecting institutions such as libraries and archives – are distinguished by the content they keep and interpret. As discussed in the National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper, collecting institutions perform a central role in preserving and making Australia’s art and culture accessible.

According to the 2007–08 Survey of Museums, museums held a total of 52.5 million objects and artworks. Of these, about 5% were held by art galleries, 1% by historic properties, 11% by social history museums and 82% by natural, science and other museums. Museums which had 100 or more employees held 77% of these 52.5 million objects, with approximately 1.3% of the objects on display.[4]

In order to meet the growing expectations of visitors to be able to readily access accurate and interesting information and high-quality media, collecting institutions need to plan strategically for the digitization and cataloging of collections. However, undertaking this process, particularly at institutions that have low digital proficiency, requires hard choices in the allocation of money, personnel and time.[5]


So why should we as a sector commit to such a task?

The Internet has become the true cultural hub of our time. At no previous time in history have people been so connected to so many opportunities for information, entertainment and communication. Now ubiquitous, expedient and on-demand information is available via seemingly endless sources at almost any time, and on virtually any subject. Because of this, the nature of knowledge itself is shifting, and the effects of this change will be far reaching.

If cultural institutions do not engage, if our collections are not online and able to be used, interpreted and reinterpreted by the public in ways more vital than anything we have hitherto imagined, then we risk being accused of irrelevancy to this changing world. If our collections are not made available as freely as possible, then our nation’s most significant objects and stories will risk being lost.

The Australian Library and Information Association lists first amongst its core values that it promotes the free flow of information and ideas through open access to recorded knowledge, information, and creative works.

Similarly, the Museums Australia Constitution states that

A museum helps people understand the world by using objects and ideas to interpret the past and present and explore the future. A museum preserves and researches collections, and makes objects and information accessible in actual and virtual environments. Museums are established in the public interest as permanent, not-for-profit organisations that contribute long-term value to communities.[6]

We cannot now even imagine the full possibilities that might come from the uploading of our collections to the Internet.


Only last month, Kalev H. Leetaru published research that showed that “computational analysis of large text archives can yield novel insights to the functioning of society, including predicting future economic events.” He applied tone and geographic analysis to a 30–year worldwide news archive and discovered that global news tone is found to have forecasted the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, amongst other things.

Similarly, citizen science projects like the Galaxy Zoo project have made significant developments in helping solve the world’s scientific and medical problems. The delightfully-named Zooniverse is home to the Internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects.

With Galaxy Zoo, participants were asked to help classify galaxies by studying images of them online and answering a standard set of questions about their features. In the first year, 50 million classifications were made by 150,000 people. Galaxy Zoo became the world’s largest database of galaxy shapes.

Likewise, it was recently announced that crowdsourcing online gamers playing a protein-folding game called Foldit helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade.

Who knows what possibilities for new discovery, new knowledge and new insight lie hidden in the collections of our museums, galleries, libraries and archives? Digitising our collections and making them available online in usable forms, such as has been done by the Powerhouse Museum and Museum Victoria, who have each uploaded their collection API for use by the public, will lead to incredible new opportunities for cultural institutions to gain new relevance in the global knowledge economy.

We need to look at new partnerships for this process, and new skills for staff (I’d love to see data visualization specialists working in museums).

The arts and creative industries are fundamental to Australia’s identity as a society and nation, and increasingly to our success as a national economy. The National Broadband Network connects us to new global opportunities for engaging with communities and telling out national, state and local stories.

But unless digital proficiency is increased right across the sector, we will never meet the lofty ideals of being cultural world leaders. Planning for digital culture must by included right at the start of the strategic planning process. Too often, it is an afterthought, both in terms of planning and funding.

The Internet liberates our public cultural institutions to be truly public. But we need to address this across the sector, not just in those few institutions that already have high digital proficiency.

[1] Infoxchange, “Digital Proficiency in Small to Medium Community Service Organisations: Consumer Report, Executive Summary and Key Findings,” (Infoxchange with the support of the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund., 2010).

[2] L. Johnson et al., “The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition,” (Austin, Texas.: The New Media Consortium, 2010). 5

[3] Ibid. 4.

[4] Brian Pink, “Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview,” (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010).

[5] Johnson et al., “2010 Horizon Report.” 4.

[6] Museums Australia, “What Is a Museum?,”

Australia, Museums. “What Is a Museum?”

Infoxchange. “Digital Proficiency in Small to Medium Community Service Organisations: Consumer Report, Executive Summary and Key Findings.” Infoxchange with the support of the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund., 2010.

Johnson, L., H.  Witchey, R.  Smith, A. Levine, and K. Haywood. “The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition.” Austin, Texas.: The New Media Consortium, 2010.

Pink, Brian. “Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview.” Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010.