Melissa Firth, Chief Digital Officer, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Melissa Firth

Melissa Firth started as digital lead at Te Papa in 2015 with 20 years of digital experience involving strategy, innovation, content, user experience and product development. And while she’s not trying to do herself out of a job, Melissa thinks that in 10 years’ time her role shouldn’t exist.

“Digital should be part and parcel of the way that any business operates. But right now, we need a ‘digital centre of excellence’ to push out what that looks like to teams as they grow in digital maturity”.

Melissa is executive sponsor of Te Papa's innovation incubator, Mahuki, which is part of Te Papa's digital vision: reaching beyond museum walls to connect people with their cultural and environmental heritage, through digital experiences that open public access to the museum’s broad and deep collections and knowledge. Mahuki, now into its second round, involves teams of innovators working with Te Papa to explore solutions to one or more of the 13 challenges facing Te Papa and other cultural institutions.

“At our first public information event about Mahuki, we said, “We want to create an innovation hub and we think it might be this kind of thing. My favourite piece of feedback was, ‘I’m interested, and a little bit excited, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to do and I’m not sure you do either’. And, that was great because it meant we’d opened up a conversation that we could build on,” said Melissa. “When you’re innovating, you’re always in uncharted waters. Navigating a path is a process of discovery.”

“With digital and all the complexity it brings -- accelerating change, proliferating data and human knowledge, and the opportunities of exponential technologies, you can’t do everything yourself, you just can’t. Mahuki is the result of genuinely collaborative conversations with a wide range of people and organisations in our community. No business has limitless funds, so you have to work out who in your networks has expertise you can partner with to create value for both sides.”

“Setting up Mahuki for creative technology and cultural enterprise teams to work specifically in the cultural sector was the right thing to do for Te Papa and the culture and creative industries around us. Having ten teams of roughly 40 people inside Te Papa for four months saw, not only the development of those teams, but also a lift in the capability of the whole organisation. For example, we had virtual-reality teams asking our collections information team ‘Can we please have access to your 3D models and scans?’ And our collections team, which doesn’t yet have 3D scanners, realised that future was closer than initially thought. That kind of lift in awareness has expanded across the organisation because of the Mahuki teams sited at Te Papa.”

Creating digital change in the museum setting has its challenges. “Because the museum world operates in an academic environment, there’s a tendency to want things to be unassailably perfect before they go out in front of anybody. But, from a digital angle, it’s better to put unfinished work into the public domain so you can improve it with feedback from your users.” said Melissa.

“At the same time, we have a lot of digital natives and fantastic digital talent who are delivering digital learning programmes to kids. They’re using the digital tools and generating interesting stuff. We don’t need to help them get there, they’re already getting there themselves.”

Melissa outlined the digital principles at the heart of Te Papa:

  • the user is always at the centre of design
  • everything is rolled out with underlying analytics and decisions are based on insights from data rather than opinions 
  • digital is in our DNA - we look at how we can increase Te Papa’s operational efficiency and sustainability by leveraging digital technologies
  • increase Te Papa’s audience access, reach and engagement with culture, arts and natural sciences digitally, so Te Papa is better delivering on its mandate as the national museum.

“Whenever an organisation is trying to do something new, there is fear of change and failure. Fear of failure is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. For Te Papa’s Digital team, we’ve designed a ‘lean product development’ process that relies on experimentation and validation in iterative cycles to manage risk, and that thinking is starting to change the way other teams work as well. The organisation’s senior leadership team is also an adaptable group, willing to try new things. That’s an important mindset for leading in times of rapid change.”