LSBF Great Minds: Technology is the finest enabler of customising client experience, believes Natural History Museum’s Sir Michael Dixon


The Director of London’s Natural History Museum, Sir Michael Dixon, has spoken out about the importance of the impact technology can have on visitor experience.

Speaking in the museum’s Darwin Centre as a part of London School of Business and Finance’s (LSBF) Great Minds series, Sir Michael explained that technology is important for both visitor interaction and the scientific happenings behind the scenes.

“In the days when we used printed labels, you were clearly limited by the physical space,” Sir Michael said. “Nowadays we use touch screens, so you can layer the information. People can explore what interpretation we provide about objects based on their own interests.”

“Five years ago we were worrying about what technology to put in our galleries. Nowadays everybody carries a smartphone, and instead of putting tech into the galleries, we should rely on people to bring their own smartphones. [Using smartphones] visitors can plot their own journey around the museum – customise their experience.”

Looking at things from a more scientific angle, it’s unsurprising that the Natural History Museum is home to some rather impressive technology. Sir Michael explained how the museum utilises their immensely powerful CT scanner.

“We have a very rare and unusual anglerfish in our collection. We don’t want to cut it open so we put it inside the CAT scanner. Anglerfish swallow things bigger than they are, and our scientists have been able to look at the skeleton of the fish inside it and determine what that species is. We even think we’ve been able to see the contents of the stomach of the fish that the anglerfish ate. We couldn’t have done that 15 years ago. That’s a very old specimen and we’ve been able to do that in a non-destructive way.”

In the near 11 years that Sir Michael has been the Director of the museum, the annual number of visitors has risen from 3 million to almost 5 and a half million. “[This] is phenomenal growth,” Sir Michael said. “Far more than - dare I say it - most of the other museums across the UK have been able to achieve.”

Asked about the biggest challenge for the museum, Sir Michael cited cuts in government funding.

“Over the past five years we’ve seen our government funding fall by just about a quarter. [However] I think cultural organisations in this country - particularly those that are sponsored by government - have become very resilient over the last two decades. We’ve diversified our income streams very successfully.”

“Government subsidy is really important and these great, national institutions that hold national collections really aren't viable without significant government subsidy. But also, our own entrepreneurial ability to generate our own income has become incredibly important.”

When it comes to leadership, Sir Michael stressed that delegation skills are one of the most important things for a leader to get right.

He said: “I realised over a period of time that delegation is the biggest empowerer of people and people generally don’t delegate very well. They’ll say ‘I’ve delegated this: I’ve told somebody what I want them to do, how I want them to do it and how the outcome should be’. That’s not a learning experience for the person. If you’re going to delegate, tell them what the task is and let them solve it their own way and you may learn a lot.”

Finally, for those looking to join the industry, Sir Michael had these words: “This is an incredibly rewarding sector to join. The job satisfaction figures here are almost of the scale. If you have a passion to work in a particular area and a cultural institution, it can be incredibly rewarding. That doesn’t mean you have to be a tree hugger or that you are not grounded in reality – we need people with a variety of skills, people who have got good business training.”

LSBF Great Minds Series

As well as offering programmes dedicated to fostering leadership skills, LSBF also endeavours to provide students with insight and inspiration through a number of innovative resources. One of these initiatives is the LSBF Great Minds Series: a collection of video interviews with leading business and political leaders promoting debate on education, employability, entrepreneurship and the economy.

The video series started in 2011 with a conversation with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, followed by an interview with former Education Secretary Lord Kenneth Baker. In 2012, entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group said that universities worldwide should become hubs to boost entrepreneurship and inspire self-starters to develop their own businesses. In 2014, LSBF spoke to Will Butler-Adams from Brompton Bicycle, Guy Hayward-Cole from Nomura Bank International, with former British Prime Minister Sir John Major, entrepreneur and investor Deborah Meaden, Google UK sales director Kevin Mathers and BBC Worldwide CEO Tim Davie.

In 2015, LSBF hosted interviews with Andrew Miller, CEO of Guardian Media Group; Jill McDonald, CEO of McDonald's UK; Kevin Costello, CEO of Haymarket Group; Amy McPherson, CEO of Marriott Hotels Europe; veteran BAFTA-winning broadcaster Jon Snow; live chats with Kevin Ellis, Managing Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers; Guy Hands, Founder of Terra Firma and many others.

To find out more, visit the Great Minds Series page.

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