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Digital Works Podcast, Episode 25: Kati Price

14/10/2022 By Ash

Kati Price is the Head of Digital Media and Publishing at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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Ash Mann (AM): I was listening back to the chat we had in February, 2020 and it was very much a pre-pandemic conversation. We were talking about ‘what are you looking forward to over the next 12 months’ and you didn't say ‘being told to stay in my house for months on end’.

So I'm hoping we can reflect on what the last two years has meant for people like you heading up digital teams in institutions, and what it's meant for the discourse around digital in the sector.

I'm gonna refer back to a few things that we touched on last time. And one of the things we talked about was how people leading digital in organisations can get their voice heard in those strategic conversations, how they can insert digital into the conversations at the top table.

My perspective is that due to the pandemic, for all of the bad that it brought to the world, suddenly digital was a huge priority for organisations because it became the only thing that they could do. Was that your experience at the V&A?

Kati Price (KP): Absolutely. And the subject of lots of conversations since then. In fact, people are doing PhDs on this very topic.

I guess it’s a bit of a double edged sword in that yes, there was a lot more attention and focus, which was brilliant, and a sudden realisation that there's this massive digital opportunity.

And I actually don't think that was a sudden realisation for lots of organisations who already recognise the role that digital plays and the potential in terms of reaching audiences.

But the downside is that then put a lot of pressure on digital teams to deliver more of what they were doing already. And I think, with that came a lot of stress, a lot of, almost like a hosepipe, of ideas and requests.

And that puts a team in quite an interesting and challenging position, both in seizing the opportunity, but also managing a lot of inbound requests around how to do things that normally take place in buildings and do them online, which I have never really seen as the end goal of any digital activity. Lots of people talked a lot about online exhibitions and virtual galleries, et cetera.

And I think just using those physical paradigms and then putting them in a digital context is not the key to good digital thinking.

Instead think about what are those narratives and how do we draw from what's happening in buildings and create new experiences, new content formats for online? And that requires quite a lot of dialogue to get people to understand that dynamic.

So digital teams found themselves saying no a lot. And often we're saying no in the politest way, because often there's a lot of demand and relatively small resource to actually service that. And at the same time we're trying to think strategically and opportunistically about what might be possible in this new context of everyone being at home and on their devices.

I think we need to recognise that that took a lot of emotional labour, not just for digital teams, but for people who were still left at the museum working and not on furlough, it was also difficult for those on furlough.

So it became a really divisive time as well, I think, especially with teams that were split across those who were furloughed, those who weren't. And that did take its toll.

And I think I'd say, not to get straight off onto a really gloomy start, but I think we are still suffering the burnout of the last two years. Certainly my team is, and that's something I recognise and I think what we're dealing with now is possibly the fallout of lots of what happened then in terms of people just having a lot to do and continually a lot to do even though the doors are back open. And that's challenging and that puts a real onus on leaders and leadership more broadly in making sure we're looking after our people. They're the most important part of what we do.

AM: Absolutely. And that emotional labour point, I think, is key. Suddenly the weight of entire institutions rested on often quite junior members of the team who were, as you say, suddenly having to field demands or expectations from leadership in a way that they probably weren't used to.

And that digital facsimile of physical experiences with something we touched on last time.

If those were the types of conversations, initially at least, that you were having or you were aware that peers were having at other institutions, did you manage to move people on from that and get them to understand that actually digital is a different shape, a different type of experience, and so therefore it needs to be a different type of conversation about how you leverage that?

KP: Yeah absolutely. And I think what was brilliant about that moment was two things.

One was we saw a shift towards people valuing digital engagement in the way they value physical visits to the museum. And I think there's still work to do in really quantifying and understanding that. But I think we've definitely seen that shift, which has been really good.

And then the second point is that we saw greater collaboration internally between different teams by thinking and by really unpacking what does, what are good measures for digital audience engagement? What does that look like? And how can we collectively work towards that end? We saw much more internal collaboration and we've continued that in having much greater connection between internal teams across digital marketing, comms, membership, events, learning, et cetera, to just work in a much more joined up way.

And we've held onto that, which has been really, really, productive and successful. I think people often talk about museums and galleries and heritage organisations being deeply siloed. I think this last two years has led to a de-siloing because possibly cos we're not in the physical spaces that physically silo us but also mentally and conceptually we are more aligned towards common goals, I think. And audience engagement online is one of those goals, and a powerful one. And I think that's hopefully here to stay in terms of being at the top of organisational agendas.

AM: And that point around sort of inter departmental collaboration is something that I've heard from other people that I've spoken to as a positive outcome of the way that everyone had to work through the pandemic. Because it was such a unique set of circumstances where almost every institution was trying to do something new.

You talked there about impact and engagement, and that was something that we touched on last time.

KP: Forgive me if I'm just repeating everything I said!

AM: No, no! I think that what this proves is that the issues and priorities that you were identifying last time suddenly and very tangibly became real for almost every cultural organisation, whether they'd been thinking about them up until that point or not, they suddenly had to engage with that.

You know, there were funders that stepped into that moment and were quite generously funding digital work, but they were perhaps asking questions and making expectations of organisations that hadn't had to think in that way before, or hadn't thought in that way before around, okay, well how do we measure the value of an online experience? How do we measure engagement? How do we measure impact?

And again, reflecting on your experience at the V&A, do you feel that your understanding of those more qualitative metrics has evolved over this time because suddenly everything was hyper-focused on those types of considerations?

KP: Absolutely. I think we've refined our understanding, our collective understanding, of audience engagement and how we measure and value that. But also how we think about our different channels on our platforms and how they work collectively.

And we’re also thinking about commissioning in smarter ways so that we are thinking about how different audience members will find and discover and enjoy the stories of the V&A through those different channels.

We want to make sure that we are really refining our offer for each of them, thinking collectively around how we commission smartly as well. Especially in a context of dwindling funds, et cetera it's much more efficient.

But I think from an audience perspective, it makes for a much more cohesive experience online. One that's much more framed around your particular interests and your modes of behaviour on those different channels.

So how we show up on TikTok is very different to how we show up on Instagram to what you might discover on YouTube or on the main website.

AM: That sounds like a hugely positive maturation of the conversation at the V&A.

You mentioned earlier that suddenly, during the pandemic, digital teams were expected to be able to respond to this opportunity as well as continuing to do all the day to day ‘keeping the lights on’ stuff - I know your team launched a new search the collections/explore the collections site, you've launched a website redesign recently and you did lots of experimentation through that time too.

Now that something of a pre-pandemic status quo might be trying to assert itself or certainly anecdotally I've heard from other organisations that that's the case, that the snap back to the pre-pandemic norm is quite assertive. Has that been the case at the V&A? Are you managing to find space to continue to do business as usual alongside experimentation?

KP: Yeah, I think what we did successfully was balance doing new stuff and experimentation. And that was with generous outside support and funding that we are in a really privileged position to be able to access.

That allowed us to do things like the Alice in Wonderland VR experience with HTC Vive for an exhibition that was delayed because of lockdown. So it made us think very differently about how we deliver a VR experience to people outside the museum. And it made us think differently about how we structured that narrative, how we packaged up that content to be available to an ‘at home’ audience as well as in the galleries once the museum was back open.

But at the same time, I think really building on the good foundations of what already existed. We have a bank of incredible content that was already there. It wasn't that there was a push to only make new stuff. I think what we did a lot of work around was highlighting what already existed and looking at our digital channels to drive more people to existing content.

It also allowed us to explore more long form content formats. And that was super interesting in terms of behaviours during the lockdown that we thought might just be ‘a lockdown thing’, that people had more time or inclination to be on their devices and engage with long form content.

So we saw people looking at Leonardo DaVinci's, codexes, we saw really high dwell times as people were looking through that sort of content.

Actually there’s a great example. One of my team produced a film around a watercolour artist creating this watercolour of a pomegranate and it's 42 minutes long and that was launched relatively recently but still in the sort of 2021 period.

And what's super interesting is that people are still watching that and they're still watching to the end. It's actually one of our best performing pieces of content in terms of people actually staying till the very end. And the stats around that are fascinating in that most people watching that are aged 16 to 34.

So it's an interesting counterpoint to people wanting a lean back, algorithmically fed social experience. Actually people are really engaging in long form content in new ways. And that feels like a behaviour that's here to stay. It wasn't just a lockdown thing, it's really reassuring that people are still engaging with those stories and are still making time to engage with them.

And it gives content teams an exciting opportunity to think about what that means in terms of the different stories we want to tell about our collections and really dive into the creative process in detail.

AM: And it sounds like from the two examples you shared there, both how you took that Alice exhibition out of the physical space and also the point you made about commissioning content, that actually the impact on the work of your team and your exhibitions colleagues and curatorial colleagues might be quite sustained actually. As you say, it wasn't just this two year period and then we get back to ‘being a museum as normal’, actually there's been a shift.

And of course not everything will stay shifted, but we are reshaped, how we exist now is quite a different thing to how we existed at the end of 2019.

KP: Yeah. And that's both an internal thing in terms of how we work together, how we collaborate internally. And it's an external thing in terms of the fact that some of those behaviours were very specific to a moment in time, but some of them like that audience appetite for content about making and long form content is absolutely here to stay, as well as things that are just more short form and entertaining. But it's been really interesting to think about what that shift in audience behaviours and appetite means for how we make and share content online.

AM: I suppose the last two years forced more people than ever before to engage with digital content to whatever degree. So suddenly people are perhaps having the opportunity to try things they may not have done before. And equally, people who may have never engaged in using their phone beyond texting were suddenly using it for cultural experience. And I think that pattern you remarked on there between there being a push towards short form, but also very long form is something I've spoken to Matt Locke at Storythings about, that he was noticing pre-pandemic.

So it's going to be really interesting to see how many of those audience behaviours stick as we move into 2023 and and beyond.

Obviously the sector has been, the whole world has been, through this traumatic period. Millions of people have died, millions of people's lives have been irrevocably affected and the cultural sector is not immune to that. Teams are smaller, institutions are dealing with a constrained financial situation, in person attendance is maybe not the same as it was prior to the pandemic still.

And again, when I was listening back to our last conversation, we both mentioned people we know in the sector, specifically Rob Cawston, who was at the National Museums Scotland and Daffyd who was at the National Museum Wales, both of whom are no longer in the museum sector, they've both moved into government digital services.

And that feels reflective of a wider brain drain from the sector of people who had been in the trenches for years, who deeply understood the challenges and opportunities that the sector was trying to engage with, as well as being really smart digital thinkers.

And I wonder, is that something you've experienced at the V&A and do you have a perspective on how the sector should be thinking about this reality?

KP: Well, while you were listening to our last podcast on the way in, I was listening to Beyonce's Break My Soul, and it really captured a moment as well as being a brilliant song.

It speaks to us all having gone through this moment where we're questioning what we're doing, how we're doing it, what our priorities are, and we're all looking for new motivations and new foundations.

I'm not sure if Daff and Rob was specifically inspired by Beyonce to make move out of the sector, but I know that I've chatted to them, they're good friends, and it's not without a lot of discussion, reflection, and questioning, because they both have been in the cultural sector for a long time, as have many of us. And we are all in this sector because we are passionate about it.

We really care about culture and the opportunity for digital to really change how people engage with culture and open it up to new audiences.

But I think it's such a difficult time for our sector. And it has led to people leaving, lots of people within the digital side of the cultural sector. But it's affecting not just digital teams, it's affecting curatorial teams where people are just thinking about what they do and whether they can do that in a new context, in new ways.

And people are thinking about contracting, thinking about working in the commercial sector, thinking about other mission-led organisations outside of the cultural sector.

And I think that remuneration is an issue. We're facing churn in my team. People have left whereas we've previously had quite low churn. And it's because people are thinking about building on the foundation of all the amazing things that you learn within the cultural sector and taking that to new sectors.

And I think that's exciting for everybody personally. I think it's a big shame for the cultural sector more broadly because I think we do see a potential brain drain, particularly around digital skills where it takes a while to understand how the cultural sector operates. So things that are very specific to how digital works within our institutions.

And I think it's a big shame that we'll probably continue to see lots of people leaving our sector.

But at the same time, I think there'll be an opportunity for other people to enter and come in with brand new ideas. And it'll be interesting to see what happens next.

But I think this is the beginning of quite a big shift and probably quite a few people will be leaving digital roles within our sector, as much as I hate to to recognize that.

But let's see what happens next. I think it's part of this bigger context of people thinking very hard about what gives them motivation. What does work life balance look like? What's meaningful work? Where do they want to work on what terms? And being much more in charge of their own choices and working styles and context.

And everyone's had two years to think long and hard about their life and their priorities.

AM: Absolutely. And as someone who has a team, that you have a responsibility for and, as you say, you're recruiting. What is your perspective on things that institutions could or should be doing to make the cultural sector somewhere that is attractive, that retains its people, you mentioned pay there, and I think that's been a longstanding issue in the sector.

And I know the research that you've carried out with Daff really identified remuneration as a key consideration. But I think, again, this is something that I've been seeing certainly in my peer group. Money isn't everything for many people now. What else should the sector be really properly engaging with around working conditions?

KP: I think that there's going to be a shift, as my research with Daff showed that as organisations mature, they're gonna be shifting away from centralised teams to digital being more dispersed across the organisation.

So I think organisations will and are investing more in making sure that digital skills are spread more broadly across the organisation. So it's less incumbent on central teams to do all the digital work.

Cultural organisations have so much to offer. I think it's what keeps many of us in these roles is that there aren't many other organisations with the breadth of what we do.

A digital role at a cultural organisation spans so many different interesting areas, not just around storytelling with incredible source material from collections and galleries, et cetera. But also thinking differently about commercial opportunities, thinking about immersive technologies, thinking about collections data and what could be done there.

There's this whole wealth of stuff that you can do and get involved in. It's just super exciting.

It also means a workload that's spread across many different areas. And I think that's why it's so important that organisations prioritise. And I think that's what the lockdown moment, the pandemic moment helped us do was keep some focus.

And I think cultural organisations need to be really clear about mission, vision and what the priorities are. Because we could all be doing a lot of things, but saying very clearly, here's, here's what good looks like, here's what we're all aiming for to bring our collections and our cultural stories to the world at large.

But that's incumbent on having a lot of really strong leadership. And it's not just about digital leadership, it's about leadership of cultural organisations and being very clear about what you stand for.

And I think it's been tough times for cultural organizations, particularly in the context of increasing awareness of our role in doing anti-racist work and the whole bigger backdrop of decolonisation debates within the sector.

So I think having a very clear position on that and understanding how much of a priority that is in our work is going to be important.

And you've got lots of incredibly passionate, committed people in our organisations who want to do that work. And it's important to recognize that we need to prioritise that work, and that means we won't be doing certain things if we're focusing on these areas that matter.

AM: And I think that point of prior prioritisation and focus, that feels like the thing that is present in all of the happiest organisations I know,they're very clear on what they're doing and why they're doing it, but equally, they're very clear on what they are not doing.

And they don't need to burden themselves with constantly scanning every opportunity. They can focus on doing good work in a very specific set of areas.

So I'm intrigued, the sector is reformed, reshaped by the last two years in many ways. That is interesting and positive in many ways, but that presents new challenges. It does feel that the pandemic blasted a space for digital in a really unequivocal way. And I'm intrigued by your perspective on how teams and individuals and institutions hold that space and continue to build on the positives that have emerged from the last few years.

How does good stuff continue to be made and shared? How do good conversations continue to happen whilst acknowledging that challenge is very present?

KP: I think keeping hold of the glue that we had during the pandemic that held these teams together, that meant we moved away from more siloed cultures to working collectively towards shared goals. That's super important.

That's down to how we work, but also having a clear focus for that work. And so at the risk of repeating the last bit I think having a clear set of priorities and focus is how we will continue in the future to know what the right things are to focus on and what to do that drives most impact.

I think what we also saw, which we haven't touched on yet, is people being more data informed and making decisions based on good evidence of what is working and using that to make the case for what they prioritise and, and how they work together.

So I think that's really important. But also working with what you've got, we are in a different context where there is less money, there are people leaving the sector. So I think that's about working smartly with budgets and with people.

In terms of that budget context, it is really difficult. The idea that we can do more with less is obviously bonkers.

So really working out what it is that we're focusing on and then making sure we're prioritising what money we've got around those ends, but also thinking what other funding opportunities might exist that we can draw on.

And there has been a moment where there has been quite a bit of investment in the sector, not all of it available to everybody, regrettably, and that can be divisive in and of itself, but there is funding out there and thinking more commercially around how we can see some of those opportunities when we've got this sort of dwindling pots of money internally.

But the people point is really important. And I think acknowledging that the shape and sizes of our teams might have shifted drastically, but making sure that we are there for prioritising what we do around the existing shape of our teams rather than an ideal state of all roles being filled rather than running with vacancies, for example.

But I think there's such an important point there around our roles as leaders to make sure we're nurturing our teams and looking after them, because as I said at the beginning, they're pretty burnt out and making sure we're thinking about the people on our teams, because without them, none of this could happen.

And it's really important to look after people and nurture an internal culture that feels supportive - that doesn't feel draining, but feels much more nurturing.

AM: I think everyone who worked in a cultural institution through the past two years has gone above and beyond, and there's been no opportunity to take a breath. And I think that does relate to the point you made about trying to move away from this obsession with always doing the next new thing and instead really understanding what our audiences are interested in, and then thinking about what have we done already that we may be able to resurface or recontextualize or repromote that meets those those needs. Cultural organisations are very good at making a thing, sharing it for five minutes and then moving onto making the next thing. Whereas actually, if you look at commercial content providers, they're very good at taking a piece of content, slicing it up, presenting it differently in different spaces to different audiences. And, this is quite a yucky term, but sweating the assets.

But, but it feels like, to that point about trying to alleviate some of the pressure on the teams, creating something new is always going to be more work than taking something that already exists and working out how it can still be useful.

And that does feel like a sensible response to teams being overworked, teams being smaller. There being less funding around, but also us having this much better sense from the last years of what our digital audiences actually want.

And, just to finish, but in terms of the work of that your teams are doing at the V&A,, as we touched on even through the pandemic, they have launched huge projects around the collections, around redesigning the V&A website, which is amazing and huge congratulations to everyone involved in those pieces of work. But what are you excited about and looking forward to over the rest of this year?

KM: It was so weird to be asked this question two and a half years ago. It feels so different, but I think I still feel optimistic. I think you're right in terms of balancing the need to create digital content and products that we know will work and need to be made versus doing new exciting things.

What I'm excited about is thinking about a new opportunity we're exploring around creating a new digital product for kids and kids engagement.

And I think it's been a really interesting response to that moment where we started understanding collectively that digital wasn't just about driving visits to museums. That actually digital engagement is a thing in and of itself - really thinking about a new audience and a new type of need. And, well, we haven't previously really considered what kids' engagement could look like online.

So that's something we're exploring that I'm very excited about. Also continuing to think about the role of immersive and other new technologies that might make a difference in the experience of our buildings, our galleries, our exhibitions. So we're having some interesting conversations on that front.

And my role after the pandemic was broadened to look at experience as well as digital. So thinking about taking some of the principles of good UX and user-centred design into thinking how we create experiences in the building. So I'm involved in a project at the moment, looking at our welcome experience, working with a service design partner, looking at how we create a signature experience across all our V&A venues. We’re at this exciting moment where the V&A is expanding, and we want to really think strategically about what that means in terms of how we welcome people, not just to those physical buildings, but how we show up digitally as well. And underpinning that with a set of experience principles that can speak to those very different types of interactions with a physical or digital, but in a much more consistent holistic way and a meaningful way. So that's an exciting project that I'm super enthused about as to what that might mean in future. And it's, it's exciting to be using some of the principles and the rigour of digital thinking to put that to the context of the building.

AM: And on that final point, I think just before the pandemic I was seeing Chief Experience Officer, or Head of Experience roles starting to pop up moreso in North America than here in Europe.

But reflecting on what you said earlier about how more mature organisations seem to have dispersed digital expertise across the organisation, is your perspective that maybe more mature organisations also have these experience-focused senior roles so that digital isn't this pillar that sits on its own, actually it's a strand of, as you say, that visitor experience and it is a potential touchpoint or type of experience that is seen as integral to what the institution offers.

KP: Absolutely. And it's about thinking in that much more holistic way so that you are really interrogating and pushing yourself to think about what is, in our case, what is a V&A experience and what does that mean. Whether you encounter the V&A online or in a building, and how can we, to a certain extent, codify that into a set of principles, but also create useful tools for different teams across the organisation to deliver lots of different services in really consistent ways that are much more user-centred.

And I think that is absolutely a shift that most organisations will be facing, if they haven't already. And most organisations are pretty audience-centred, but I think it's about putting experience at the heart of that. It's not just about being audience focused, but thinking about what's the experience we want to provide to those audiences. And those audiences do have very different needs, in different venues, buildings, online, et cetera, and really understanding what that means for how we do our work, whether that's digital content or products we make, whether those are digital products or products like membership and exhibitions and how that gets wrapped up into experience so that whatever your interaction is, it's a good one, a meaningful one.

AM: Well, Kati, I can't wait to see what you do with with all your new powers

But good luck and thank you. Thank you. And, once again, I know how difficult the last two years have been, so well done for making it through.

KP: Well, it would not be without my incredible team who've just done amazing, amazing work and it's all down to them. They're brilliant.