Städel Museum meets San Francisco – digital rules!


Over the past few years, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany established itself as a thought leader for online communication in museums. For their 200th anniversary last year, they launched a new website including a brand new online collection (which I personally think is well done), developed several educational apps such as the award winning Digitorial, and this year published a video online course for art history alongside their ongoing Social Media efforts on various channels.

The museum announced on March 22 that museum director Max Hollein was chosen as the new director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the largest public arts institution in Northern California. Jack Calhoun, Chairman of the selection committee, said this about why they chose Hollein:

Hollein’s combined art and finance perspective, his impressive background simultaneously leading three great art institutions in Frankfurt, his fund raising acumen, and his ability to harness technology and new media to increase income and engage audiences, make him a perfect match for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (

The statement marks an important shift in acknowledging the importance of digital media as a means to communicate with visitors.

I’ve been following the Städel for a while and also visited the museum last year. This semester I attended another Knowledge Management class for my Content Strategy studies during which we were supposed to interview someone who works in our field. The objective was to receive helpful input from someone else’s experience that might be useful for our own projects. I immediately thought of the Städel Museum and reached out.

Unfortunately my interview request was turned down due to lack of resources – a problem I know all too well. However, Silke Janssen (assistant to PR manager) thankfully provided several links as study material and I watched a webinar with Axel Braun (PR Manager) for Treffpunkt KulturManagement. In particular the webinar provided a lot of interesting insight and included information and questions I would have asked as well during my interview. Therefore I chose to write my blog post based on the webinar.

Digital Strategy at Städel Museum

The Städel Museum is the most visited art museum in Germany with around 600,000 visitors a year. As with all museums, they are only able to show around 1% of their collection. In 2009 and in light of the anniversary, they contemplated on how they could provide additional access to their collection to better fulfill their primary task of educating the community. The museum has a long tradition in outreach to communities outside of the museum facilities and wanted to ensure that younger and future generations who live and breathe online can engage with what they offer.

In 2009, Museum director Max Hollein established a team and launched several digital projects to expand the museum’s educational program into the digital world with the aim to enhance the visitor experience instead of replacing it with digital media. They don’t consider themselves as “digital media team” but rather as team for communication in general. The Städel has is a small core team of currently 4 employees who service online and offline media across all departments.

Project management

During the webinar, Axel Braun mentioned that the Städel was founded as private institution. Unlike most art museums, only 15% of their annual budget is subsidized by the government, thus making it easier for the Städel to apply for grants. Since the museum is responsible for generating the majority of their funds, it also allows that income to be more freely distributed, which in turn creates more flexibility in particular for digital media projects. In the digital world it’s easy to start a project and discontinue if it doesn’t work out. Social media monitoring and analytics are essential tools for them to understand what works and what doesn’t.

The communication team primarily coordinates projects, provides support and facilitates the conversation with stakeholders. In general, all employees are welcome to contribute to the online communication channels and propose project ideas. Once upper management signs off on a project and funds are secured, the communication team establishes a cross-departmental team with members from each marketing, education, communication and science. The proper balance of everyone’s interest has a high priority and plays a vital role for the success of the project.

The communication team utilizes Scrum to better coordinate their internal project flow, other tools like Slack are not in use as of yet and communication heavily relies on email and personal meetings. The team is also responsible for emphasizing the importance of digital communications across the board and to show how visitors can benefit from making content accessible. This also means dealing with staff who is less open for this digital approach. The team coordinates staff training and workshops, and invites external experts for advice. Proper training ensures that new tools that are mostly developed from external partners are maintained internally, such as the Digitorial and other apps.

My primary take-away goes back to the beginning of the article: by-in from upper management or even better, a top-down acknowledgement and encouragement for digital thinking.

Social Media strategy

The overarching goal for the digital strategy was not only reaching new and future audiences, but also engaging the audience in their own environment. The museum’s social media activities have become an integral part of this approach since 2008. The Städel was one of the first museums on social media and by now Facebook posts average over 1,000 Likes. They also launched a successful international Instagram campaign by asking users to take inspiration from Monet and the Impressionists and photograph their very own #MonetMoment.

Community relations are also important, the museum hosts exclusive after hours events for bloggers and the social media community. One of those events in respect of their 200th anniversary propelled the Städel Museum into the top 3 German Twitter trends for a day with over 1,500 Tweets and 6 mio. impressions on #200jahrestaedel, in addition to over 500 images on Instagram and several blog posts. At the beginning of this year, they broadcasted a community event via Periscope for the first time. In general, upper management is open to any ideas, so I think it’s only a matter of time until people can engage with the Städel on Snapchat.

Digital content

The Digitorial first launched for the affiliate Schirn museum and was funded by the Aventis Foundation. The platform received the Grimme Online Award 2015 and is also very popular with visitors. An external partner helped develop the platform which allows visitors to educate themselves before their visit so they wouldn’t need to read a lot of text on site and focus on the exhibit instead. During the development process, the project team specifically decided against using stationary screens and rather chose to rely on the use of wifi and smartphones. Every visitor who purchases a ticket online receives a link to the Digitorial. In 2015, the Städel sold 70,000 tickets online, which resulted in 250,000 unique page views for the Digitorial.

An additional smartphone app replaces the audioguide and enhances the visitor experience. The app includes an image scanner which acts like a QR Code – simply take a picture of the art work and the app will provide the proper content. Axel Braun mentioned adaptability to different devices as the biggest challenge for this project, which has already been downloaded over 10,000 times on Google Play. For the audioguide to the current Maniera-exhibit they asked Giovanni di Lorenzo, editor-in-chief of Germany’s nationwide weekly newspaper Die Zeit, to provide his voice. The audioguide is also available on Soundcloud, a streaming platform that we also started using at Universalmuseum Joanneum.

Imagoras is an app for kids age 8-12 and according to Axel Braun has so far been their most challenging and least used app due to the target group. They worked with a team of external illustrators to create Flux, the app mascot, who teaches kids about masterpieces at the Städel and art history through gamification. The app is nominated for the Grimme Online Award 2016 and has around 1,000 downloads on Google Play.

Imagoras app for children

The museum also set up a professional in-house video production studio and so far created over 130 videos, in particular for educational purposes. The online art history courses are presented by German actor Sebastian Blomberg and introduce 250 materpieces of the Städel collection from 1750 until today. The classes are structured in 5 modules and like the Digitorial, users can dig deeper into the content if they choose to do so. Each art piece is also set in historic context which provides additional content. I already signed up for the classes and I’m looking forward to browsing through the content. During the intro I noticed museum director Max Hollein passing through the screen and quietly showing his support for the project:

Städelmuseum Kunstgeschichte Kurs

Online art history classes, intro video with museum director Max Hollein in the background (screenshot, Copyright Städel Museum)

The Städel online collection is the largest digital project and launched in 2015. The project started about 3 years ago in cooperation with the University of Darmstatt that provided the data base and structure of the platform. So far the museum tagged around 900 artworks and continues to expand their collection.

The art pieces are tagged in a way that allows browsing through the collection independent from the presentation on site. Next to the historic and contextual taxonomy, the art works can also be explored via keywords related to association, image elements and mood. This allows the user to explore the collection in a completely new way. The experience is enhanced by additional content, audio and video files. Axel Braun mentioned image SEO optimization as another important task to improve the findability of their collection online.

Screenshot Städel Online Collection, Copyright Städelmuseum

Browsing through the online collection based on keywords such as “seriousness”, “calm”, and “hope”. (Screenshot Städel Online Collection, Copyright Städel Museum)

In terms of the digital collection, the Städel also decided to offer the most popular artworks as prints in high definition in their online shop in order to relieve the shop from custom requests. After purchasing a license, users can either print the artwork themselves or on the other spectrum purchase a framed print that includes a signed letter from the museum director and white gloves for hanging.

Apart from digital content for visitors, the department of restoration developed a high definition 3D scanner for sculptures which is now also used by other museums. I can see how the digital team would use those scans as educational material in the near future.

Digital media team at Universalmuseum Joanneum

We have a similar workflow for our digital team at Universalmuseum Joanneum where I’m responsible for the strategic and technical development of our online assets, and my other two co-workers for editorial content and our CRM. We primarily coordinate projects with co-workers from different departments and each museum has a representative on site who is responsible for publishing content.

In total, around 35-40 people are involved with content for our website, educational apps and social media. As with the Städel, all staff members fulfill their duties for online content in addition to their regular job, which also creates a challenge in terms of priorities. Only recently, the first staff member at Kunsthaus Graz received a job title “Web & Communication” outside of the digital media team, which to me shows a shift in the right direction. As with all museums, the biggest challenge for change is the cut in government funds every year, which in turn forces us to look for funds and sponsoring elsewhere.

Project management

I work closely with one of my teammates to oversee the website and make sure it is optimized for user experience, SEO and also internally for data entry. We are more and more involved in digital projects in particular for our educational teams, but it has been a slow learning process for other departments to invite us. As soon as we hear about a project we’re not already involved in we make sure we become part of the conversation. Other times we need to take control over already existing assets, such as social media channels who were created for the wrong reasons. However, over the past year we’ve been able to establish ourselves as primary contact for our online assets and also invite employees to training and workshops as well as individual meetings.

In my job I try to establish more understanding for the digital visitor experience. We utilize User Experience Testing to optimize our website and try to find new ways to enhance the visitor experience. For example our content for exhibits previously included mostly a header image, text and maybe an image gallery. Now we also feature a video or even a playlist for most exhibits at the top of the page,  statements from the press, social media content and an audioguide. I believe that this enhanced content helps the user to better create an expectation about the exhibit and makes them feel more engaged ahead of their visit on site, which also shows in increased YouTube and Scoundcloud analytics.

Changing the conversation

Museum director Max Hollein stated in an interview, that their digital projects don’t necessarily intend to draw more visitors to the museum. Instead they should enable visitor education and create impact on the community. I believe that this understanding is the key to internal support for such projects.

At Universalmuseum Joanneum I face the challenge, that activities on social media are expected to draw more visitors to our museums, when in reality those channels should increase awareness and interaction with visitors. The digital world provides different means to communicate with visitors independent from opening hours, therefore online users should be acknowledged as important addition to visitors on site. The Städel Museum provides a great role model for us and helps people like me to build a case and make that change happen.

Further readings

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