Building a New Wing: The Digital Engagement Project

Sarah Smith, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, USA, Emily Santillo, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, USA, Tim Songer, Interactive Knowledge, Inc., USA, Allison Wolf, Interactive Knowledge, USA


From conception to implementation to final project this paper will demonstrate the importance of museum departments working in collaboration to achieve an institutional priority – providing online, in-depth access to museum collections and inspiring ways to interact with the collections. The paper will offer tips relevant to a broad scope of museum expertise, including long range planning, interdepartmental relationships, fundraising, cataloging collection objects, publicizing the project, and creating a new website.

To reach its full potential, a museum’s digital presence requires the continued and focused support of its entire organization and community, not just a single department. From the very beginning, the effort should be clearly branded as a museum-wide initiative, allowing everyone to envision how the new website will change and enhance their unique role at the museum. If staff members feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves, part of a sea-change initiative that has the power to transform the way the museum works, they will eagerly anticipate the arrival of the new digital wing from the minute ground is broken.

Beginning in 2009, Reynolda House leadership developed a working strategy that allowed the Museum to unveil a digital wing in Fall of 2013. This paper will highlight the major milestones, key roles, and important lessons learned during the construction and launch of the Reynolda House digital wing.

THE STAGES (some overlapping):

  • Laying the Foundation (18 months)
  • Securing the Funding (6 months)
  • Gathering the Raw Material (4 months)
  • Searching for a Building Partner (2 months)
  • Branding the New Wing (3 months)
  • The Construction Process (16 months from wireframes to launch)
  • The Doors are Open (6 months…and ongoing!)

Laying the Foundation: A Strategic Plan for the Future

In June 2009, Reynolda House completed an intensive, 18-month, impact-driven strategic planning process. Both Museum staff and Board of Directors members were included in the process, which was led by a core team of the executive director, director of collections management, education director, and director of marketing and communications.

An important priority outlined in the plan was the use of technology as a means to connect people to the Museum collections and historic site. While conceptual innovation is a hallmark of Reynolda’s mission and historic legacy as a home, innovation in implementation had lagged.

Museum leadership understood that technology would play an increasingly relevant and important role for audiences to experience the Museum. In addition, priorities such as developing programs that respond to human concerns and strengthening the financial stability of the organization would influence thinking about the Museum’s online presence.

This planning process, called Reynolda’s Plan for the Future, provided the structure and top-level support required to move forward with an enormous undertaking: digitizing the Museum’s collections and eventually sharing them online. Without the existence of a plan to buttress the project, it would have been impossible to get it off the ground.

Things to Know:

Strong Executive Director and Board required. The overall vision had to come from top down – an executive director versed in current practice, listening to the needs/ideas of involved staff. The Board and major donors were brought on board early to demonstrate financial and resource support.

Have a North Star. Define a common vision and purpose that will keep staff members’ eyes focused on the end result. Never tire of the question: To what end?

Gathering the Raw Material: The Electronic Cataloging Project

The Museum launched the Electronic Cataloging Project in 2010 with the purpose of putting its treasures into a format accessible by people across the globe. More than 1,000 professional digital images were taken of Reynolda’s collections and nearly 500 in-depth records were created. Each record contained a vast amount of data and images that would serve the Museum’s staff and audiences into the future.

The purchase and implementation of The Museum System (TMS) software was a major step forward in the day-to-day management of collections information, and would change the way that curatorial, programs, archives, and development staff could reference the collections in their daily work. TMS was chosen because it is an industry leader and widely used by museums worldwide. The Museum raised more than $220,000 for the project, with a sizable portion of that coming from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Several months into the project, the Museum team realized that additional support was needed to make these robust images and in-depth information available to the public. The resources produced from the Electronic Cataloging Project would be impressive and useful, but it became increasingly clear that there was no adequate structure in which to house them. The Museum’s existing website and content management system, created in 2005, could not support the digitized collections nor allow for the re-imagining of their use. There were two aspects of this issue that needed a solution:

  1. The Museum lacked the specific expertise and resources on staff to develop and execute a project of this scope.
  2. All Museum staff were not fully enrolled in the need for a new site and the possibilities that housing the collections online would provide.


Reynolda House would form a complementary, parallel project to develop a new website that would make the collections available to the general public, teachers, students, curators and researchers. In addition, the project would allow for the re-imagining of how the Museum defined, engaged, and interacted with its audiences:

  1. A Request for Proposals (RFP) was built to seek not only a firm that could lead the technical design and coding of a site, but one that would provide strategic leadership and guidance in developing an online strategy.
  2. The new project, Reynolda’s Digital Engagement Project, would be branded in a way that expressed the potential benefit to all areas of the Museum and garnered the necessary wide-ranging support.

Things to Know:

Build the help you need into grant proposals. Special projects are overwhelming on top of daily job responsibilities; build funded positions and contract help (like editing and photography) into grant proposals to make it bearable.

Technology is a moving target. Changes in technology move at a pretty quick pace. Products, services, and needs are continually evolving. Be open to new technology and how it will elevate your original idea to the next level.

Chicken egg holder 447w" sizes="(max-width: 247px) 100vw, 247px" /> Figure 4

Securing the Funding: Chicken meet egg.

Funding provides money and morale.

To get donors excited about the project, the people who know the most about it need to be at the table. Donors like details! But how do you know the details if the project isn’t funded yet? Reynolda House moved forward with both cataloging its collections and the Digital Engagement Project with the assurance that funding would be secured. It was a risk, but the only way to maintain focus and morale.

Between the Electronic Cataloging Project and the Digital Engagement Project, staff from marketing, collections, and curatorial departments participated in meetings with potential donors. The Museum gave ample practice opportunities for staff more accustomed to working behind the scenes: presentations ranged from small groups of staff at first, to all-staff meetings, then docents, Board, and donors.

One of the Museum’s previous donors with a particular interest in how the Museum was using technology to share the story of Reynolda with its visitors was matched with the Digital Engagement Project in a spectacular example of Reynolda House continuing the theme of his previous commitments. Reynolda House shared web statistics with him, outlined the RFP, and discussed its detailed vision for how this site would change the way the Museum reached visitors. It was an easy sell: the donor was both committed to Reynolda House and enrolled by the data and thorough process explanation. Thanks to this donor’s gift, the most important phase for laying the groundwork of the project, Phase I (research and planning), was possible. The project manager coordinated update calls with the donor during the process and again as the site went into design.

The Museum’s development team began meetings with Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) program officers nearly two years before its successful grant application. The timing of grant cycles presented a unique challenge: Reynolda House was requesting funding for Phase II of a project that, at the time of the grant application, had not begun the planning phase. In writing the grant application, staff leveraged the importance of Phase I to develop an informed and strategic approach as a demonstration of commitment to the project and a process that would best serve the Museum.

Then Reynolda launched Phase I. And waited.

It was a long 9 months waiting to hear from IMLS if funding for Phase II was successful. The research and planning was able to continue because senior leadership had committed to the project. If IMLS funding had fallen through, the funding would have been sought elsewhere. The charge to the project team was to move forward. This commitment was critical both for resource planning and staff morale. When the Museum received news that the grant was successful – in the amount of $137,000 – it was a boon to the project manager and planning teams who were now working together on a federally funded initiative. Total money raised for both the Electronic Cataloging Cataloging Project and the Digital Engagement Project was more than $350,000. Funding does not just provide the financial resources – it provides staff with confidence.

Things to Know:

Talk about yourself. Give presentations to engage potential donors and future users. Don’t just tell, show the work that is being done. You can’t be shy when you set a goal for a project of this scope. A public relations plan is just as important as the implementation plan; consider presentations with all constituents throughout the process.

The Search for a Building Partner: RFP

The Museum identified that the website project would live in the marketing & communications department, and identified the Assistant Director for Creative Services, who managed the Museum’s current site, as the project manager. The project manager needed the following characteristics to be successful:

  • Jack or Jill of all trades. Reynolda House needed someone with broad knowledge of all areas of the Museum rather than someone deeply invested in one perspective alone. This allowed the project manager to be seen as an unbiased and neutral but informed leader.
  • Taskmaster. Somebody on the team has to really want it. Like, want it enough to be ok with their job responsibility changing and making tough decisions when all the children are above average. It means nagging to ensure deadlines are met and finding solutions when there only appear to be roadblocks.
  • Flexibility of a yogi. Senior leadership may not be the best choice because they already have so many important, required responsibilities. The project manager needs to be able to accommodate additional duties and bend, bow, and stretch as the project evolves.
  • Interpreter. Among a staff with varying levels of technical experience and interest, the ability of Reynolda’s project manager to hear ideas and translate them to actionable items was critical.

Following the Museum’s awareness that it lacked the specific resources on staff to develop and implement such a project, the team wrote an RFP that sought a firm that could not only lead the technical design and coding of a site, but one that would provide strategic leadership and guidance in developing a digital strategy.

Before writing an RFP for the website, the team scheduled coffee or lunch with potential vendors. The conversation comparisons between the vendor that fit and and everyone else were very revealing. When analyzing the potential fit of a vendor with the Museum, Reynolda asked important questions such as the following: is the vendor excited about the opportunity, do they seem engaged with their clients, what will the learning curve be? Were Reynolda staff inspired talking to them, did they present new ideas we had not previously considered?

Thanks to the informational interviews and time thinking about what Reynolda House really needed in an online presence, the inclusion of specific details in the RFP meant the Museum team did not have to waste time wading through proposals full of bells and whistles, making it much easier to compare proposals from several companies.

In May 2010, Reynolda House issued the final RFP to five vendors to redesign the site ranging from small, local firms to nationally known vendors. Interactive Knowledge was the only firm with direct and extensive museum experience, a background in educational products that mirrored the Museum’s mission, experience with grant-funded projects, and recommendations from colleagues and consultants, including Randi Korn & Associates, the firm that led Reynolda House strategic planning process.

Things to Know

If what you want doesn’t exist, create it. Buying an off-the-shelf system for the interface that would connect the new collections database to the website did not meet Reynolda’s needs or vision, so the Museum asked Interactive Knowledge to build one. This decision not only produced the desired project, but also resulted in long-term savings. An important consideration in this decision was more upfront cost, but less long-term cost by avoiding an annual license fee.

Hire vendors you trust. Reynolda staff didn’t know how to write code that makes one database talk to another database across three different servers, and didn’t even really know how to tell if a vendor did. But by talking with their previous clients, meeting the majority of their staff, and looking at a history of well-known work, Museum staff felt comfortable entrusting access to all its data, as well as authorizing the vendor to work on behalf of the Museum with other vendors. Although hard for a group that prefers to be in control, this proved efficient and invaluable in managing time and the technical aspect of the project.

Branding the New Wing: Reynolda’s Digital Engagement Project

Reynolda House’s well-trained staff felt that “the website” was a “marketing responsibility.” How would the project manager enroll all staff of the possibilities online collections and a dynamic online presence would present?

Brand the project in terms of impact. To elevate the project beyond simply a marketing-department only “website redesign,” the Museum thoughtfully branded the effort as Reynolda’s Digital Engagement Project. Project teams were created with staff from across the Museum and relied on language consistent with the strategic plan: impact and engagement. In this way, staff from all departments and function areas could see themselves as part of the team and begin to envision how their work could be enhanced by the new digital wing.

Develop a team.

Digital Engagement Project Internal Team Structure:
Project Manager – Assistant Director for Creative Services
Core Team – team of three staff

  • Assistant Director for Creative Services – leading the vision for the project
  • Director of Collections Management – representing care of the collections
  • Director of Education – representing how collections are shared

Core Team Ad Hoc Member, Editor-in-Chief – Director of Marketing and Communications – To provide leadership support and ensure consistent tone and throughout the site

Need for a New Staff Member Identified:
Audience Engagement and Communications Specialist
The expectations of this new position were not maintenance of technical needs, rather the execution of the Museum’s desired impact among a digital audience. This staff member, hired in the last months of Phase II, is responsible for creating synergy between on-site experiences and virtual experiences and coordinating the extension of the Museum’s desired impact and brand online and through digital channels including, email, social media, and other technologies. Due to limited resources, the creation of this new part-time position meant that an existing part-time position would be eliminated. The Museum’s strategic plan provided the undergirding necessary for this difficult decision.

Enlist support from leadership. The Museum’s executive director was a champion of the project and consistently emphasized its institutional importance. She used all-staff meetings as opportunities to announce when teams were formed, share milestones on the project, and reveal updates on the site development. Support from senior staff is invaluable in terms of morale and harnessing people’s attention.

Things to Know: 

Project lines can blur. One of the more challenging internal milestones related to internal management of the extensive amount of work required to meet these goals. When the Museum’s collections team decided that the interface offered by the database vendor did not meet expectations, a “third” project was formed to identify the ideal interface. Who would manage it? Was this a function of the Electronic Cataloging Project or of Reynolda’s Digital Engagment Project? The answer – Yes! After some passionate discussions, Reynolda House assigned ownership of the interface to the website project because the same vendor would build it, but remained in close contact with the colleagues managing ECP to ensure seamless working relationships between vendors. At the end of day, the both projects were working toward the same goal and needed players to work together–both staff and vendors.

Expect some conflict. managing an interdepartmental and multi-year project means there will be some disagreements and differences; don’t let this damage morale.

Create benchmarks and celebrate them! The team working on the project needs benchmarks and they need acknowledgment when those goals are met. Reynolda House held full-staff lunch meetings to unveil site design, informal idea and chat sessions to focus on specific aspects of the project, and presentations with visuals to acknowledge when milestones were met.

Have advisory meetings not working meetings. Design and decision-by-committee is not ideal. Reynolda House succeeded by presenting recommendations to committees rather than presenting the raw data.

Please Excuse the Noise: The Construction Process

Why Strategic Meeting Planning and Scheduling was Critical the New Digital Wing’s Success

It was important for Reynolda House to divide its project into two phases. Phase I: what do we want to do. Phase II: let’s do it. This structure allowed the Museum to consider the scope of the project and plan without having to implement at the same time. It also fit into funding cycles for donors and grants.

In Phase I the core team worked with IK on multiple levels of a written site plan with numerous options for wireframes and visual design allowing for opportunities to make changes along the way, without stalling the work that actually needed to get done.

The most critical staff meeting occurred when the formation of the core team and subcommittees were announced in January 2011, approximately mid-way through Phase I. The Museum’s most important news, updates, and projects were routinely shared during these meetings, so staff members were primed to hear critical announcements in this setting. The project manager and director of marketing and communications met with the executive director the week prior and presented the proposal of core team and subcommittees. Upon approval, it was determined that the announcement come not from the project manager (who was two levels down in the organizational structure) but from the executive director as a visible symbol of the top-down support for the project.

Meetings were structured as follows:

  • Project Manager and Director of Marketing & Communications – several times a week
  • Project Manager and Vendor – weekly during Phase I and Phase II
  • Core Team – bimonthly during Phase I; as needed during Phase II
  • senior leadership – bimonthly during Phase I and II
  • all-staff – at critical milestones: kickoff, completion of wireframes, completion of design

Reynolda House inserted a survey tool on its existing homepage to gather data on the current environment of its online visitors to help inform the planning process. The survey revealed that online visitors were evenly split between people who had visited the Museum in person and those who had never visited or, as Reynolda House called them, digital constituents and potential on-site visitors.

The second phase of the project focused on production of the site, visual design, blueprints, content inventory, testing, and soft launch of the site.

Things to Know:

What is a soft launch? Manage expectations. Reynolda House started using the term “soft launch” among its staff early – and explained what it meant. Staff might see things that need tweaking, content was still being added, or a page may not load properly. This approach enrolled Museum staff in diving in to help fine tune the site and become champions for the process.

The Doors are Open. Is the Project Over?

So the project is over, right? Of course not. The most important message for staff is that this is just the beginning. Engaging with online audiences is now a parallel priority for Reynolda House. The new site is a platform – a new wing – that now requires programming, marketing, curating, and daily tending to make it the best experience for visitors, just like the physical building. Because this message had been a major theme of the project from day one, incorporating digital audience into planning was expected.

How has site changed the way the Museum works?

Marketing & Social Strategy

  • What’s the same. Marketing and interpretative message priorities are no different for the digital audience, they are just executed differently. The Museum sets specific goals for exhibitions and individual programs – these goals direct event planning, ad placement, label writing … and digital messaging.
  • What’s different. The Museum has moved to fewer printed pieces and less text on the pieces it prints. More detailed descriptions about events are online; blog posts are planned around upcoming events to expand upon and promote the event. Its spring Members Calendar, mailed to more than 1,100 members and available at the front desk, includes two links to its Curate Reynolda blog for images and more information on the content in the calendar.
  • Focus. Reynolda House made it a priority for all social media posts, tweets, comments, and images to link back to the website. The new digital wing is the hub of content. Throughout the fall of 2013, Facebook posts featured objects from the collections, rotating between the three collections and highlighting details seen only online.
  • We’re using the tools. Using the Museum’s new personnel and online platforms, Reynolda House hosted its first virtual media preview for a new exhibition that opened in August. Using a common hashtag, video content was shared with people worldwide. More initiatives are underway.


  • The part-time position Audience Engagement and Communications Specialist is now full-time, and the responsibilities of digital engagement and audience development are so ingrained in the functions of the Museum that Reynolda House titled the position more broadly: Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications.

Processes & Goals

  • Discussion of digital components to exhibitions, events, programs, and visitor services is incorporated into routine meetings. The Museum’s thorough exhibitions timeline document now includes deadlines for object packages and online galleries alongside the traditional printing of labels and installation of works.


  • People are paying attention. The percentage of people who respond that they heard about the Museum from a digital source (email, website, social media) has increased steadily: in 2010 just 10% of visitors indicated an online source; in fall of 2013, that number was nearly 25% — the top response.
  • Stats reflect Museum goals. A digital wing allows for a level of measurement that is more difficult to achieve in the on-site environment. Reynolda House set as two of its goals for the new site to increase the “sticky factor,” or pages viewed, as well as time spent on the site. The first four months of the new wing visitors explored 3.69 pages per visit and spent an average of 2:57 on the site. Statistics from the same period from the previous year were 3.09 pages and 1:58 time spent per visit–numbers garnered during the soft launch of the site. The Museum planned its major launch of the site – a mailing to peers in the field, educators, and members along with other marketing efforts – in the spring of 2014 to ensure that any tweaks or edits to the site were complete. While the Museum keeps track of overall visits to the site, it is more focused on engagement with its audience in all digital platforms and continues to explore the best tools for measuring this engagement. At the writing of this paper, the marketing team was using Google Analytics and SumAll to evaluate its online impact.

Reynolda House Museum of American Art has a rich legacy of innovation – from its beginnings as the modern 1917 home of R.J. and Katharine Smith Reynolds to its evolution as a museum of American art fifty years later that expanded its gallery space with a new wing in 2005. The extension of the Museum into the digital wing is in keeping with its history and mission; but how would it approach such an undertaking with limited resources? Reynolda House took a visionary approach to an otherwise routine museum project — the Museum considered the design of a new website as the building of a new, virtual wing of the Museum. The result was a dynamic new website, new staff resources to support the site, and a Museum equipped and inspired to utilize its new space. Reynolda’s Digital Engagement Project demonstrates how impact-driven planning can elevate a small museum project into a big-time thinking.

View our Presentation at:


The Digital Engagement Project was inspired by these references:

  • Nina Simon’s post about the Walker Museum Redesign ( A transformative moment for the team was the concept that Nina talked about in this post about the Walker Art Center: “ is not about the Walker Art Center. It is the Walker Art Center, in digital form.” That is what Reynolda sought to create – an online experience parallel to the online experience.
  • Groundswell Website –
  • Smithsonian Institution Web & New Media Strategy Wiki (
  • Colleagues Not in the Museum Field. The project manager spent time talking with colleagues in web design and social media field who weren’t necessarily invested in museums or the arts. This gave a neutral perspective to Reynolda (i.e. a developer, an information architecture/logistics person, social media specialists, etc) to bounce ideas, share problems and get feedback.







Cite as:
. "Building a New Wing: The Digital Engagement Project." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published January 31, 2014. Consulted .

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