Journal Articles

The world needs to see this!

Social media and the museum.

Any professional that has spent time in the museum field has had a simply breath-taking moment – the moment that makes one want to run out the door and drag the nearest person to see what they’re seeing. It could be a tiny artifact found while doing inventory, a thrillingly massive canvas re-stretched and rehung, a subversive inscription hiding beneath the matting. These are ‘the world needs to see this’ moments.

These moments are one of the joys of the registrar’s profession, but they are frequently unshared. The world never gets to see that.

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Through social media, museums have the ability to share these strange, wonderful, and even frustrating experiences with a broad audience, including those we already know as friends and visitors, those who will never visit, and those who need to be convinced to come to the museum. Who better to share these moments and tell these stories, than registrars – the very keepers and stewards of these extraordinary objects?

There is a tendency to view social media as strictly a marketing tool, and it does indeed do that. However, it is not enough to create a Facebook page, post the opening hours and fees, and call it successful social media. Having an active profile on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest can be the personal invitation the community needs to see a museum as something they can have ownership in. To use office jargon: we can create stakeholders out of passive consumers.

Which of the following statements is true for your museum: Is social media more important than the collection? Is social media less important than your collection? Or is social media complementary and supplemental to your collection? The last equation is one to cheer for – seeing social media as a component and tool in your collections care and community outreach.

But if we’re giving away the content of our museums for free on the Internet, why should anyone come to the museum?

From a registrar’s perspective, we’d like the answer to be because we have spectacular examples of whatever our particular institution covers. And that’s pretty close to right.

A survey of 4,000 adult museum visitors conducted by Reach Advisors lends some validation to an object-centered view of visitorship.[1]

Respondents listed the main categories that were, ‘most likely to hit their emotional core and create meaning and response in them.’

They were:

  • Connection with Content (the emotional connection with the stories being told or the sheer beauty of the presentation)
  • Information Learned (the ‘I never knew that’ factor) and;
  • Hands-on Experiences (touching the stuff or creating their own objects).

However, it is still the objects and the stories connected to them that drive people to visit museums. In the Reach Advisor’s survey, Original Objects were twice as likely than the Information Learned to strike that emotional core, and four times more likely than Hands-on Experience.

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If it is the objects and art that we hold that are going to strike an emotional chord with our visitors, why on Earth would we waste our social media voice on things like the fact that we are open for our normal visiting hours? While this is certainly useful information, and in the case of abnormalities like closure for a severe weather event, very valuable, it doesn’t drive people to interact and engage with the institution. Social media is meant to be just that, social, engaging, informal. It’s meant to be a dialog.

In their blog about Museums and Open Education, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker hit on another aspect of how social media relates to the public:

We’ve found that personal, direct, and intimate content that allows for both passion and expertise is wildly successful. We have found (and research confirms) that the hand-drawn and hand-held are often better than the slick and polished. For example, a hand-held photograph taken in a gallery full of visitors can often be better than a carefully lit professional shot, an authentic conversation held in front of a work of art is often more powerful than a scripted monologue or interview. This is because people want to understand art as they, and those around them, experience it—real, imperfect, and authentic. If we can bring these intimate experiences to people across the globe, why wouldn’t we?[2]

This quote illustrates a massive shift in how museums and visitors connect to each other on a very basic level. Historically, museums were seen as places of authority, of proper conduct and enlightened taste. The museum was seen as an instructor, an educator to the uneducated, a director of thought and philosophy.

Then the museum took up the mantel of the taste-setter and trend-setter, looking toward contemporary society and ways of making art.

And perhaps the contemporary museum has all of those aspects tied in to its identity. But it has a new one, too: the museum as friend, community center, and place of the people.

What Harris and Zucker are essentially saying is that the public, for whom we protect our objects, and by extension, for whom we work, are willing and able to view us as friends, and all of the imperfections, difficulties, joys, and rewards that are tied to the title of ‘friend’.

As an extension of this new role as ‘friend’, museums should recognize that they already enjoy an unprecedented level of trust from the public – our expertise and scholarly achievements are secure in the public’s mind. An extension of this invested and implicit authority is a unique ability, and arguably a mandate, to try new things.

The public will not think less of a museum for sharing something humorous or strange, indeed it is these displays of humanity that illustrate to many that the museum is not omniscient, and that the functions of a museum are carried out by real live humans who occasionally have complex problems that need creative solutions.

In re-joining professionals to this conversation, one might ask how, in the face of austerity and already woefully understaffed museums, anyone could possibly have time to devote to maintaining Twitter, outside of that mysterious coffee swilling bespectacled twenty-something zipping around the marketing office?

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Firstly, it doesn’t have to be a monolithic or solitary task – arguably social media is improved by a diversified voice and a shared workload. Secondly, the time it takes to write a tweet is miniscule, and the rewards returned by an active and creative social media presence more than pay for the perceived loss of staff time. And it isn’t just visitors that will benefit from a multidisciplinary social media presence; institutions can use their social media to boost staff morale and investment in the organization.

The majority of museum employees, from registrars to service staff, are creative and intelligent people with a myriad of interests. It’s likely that your sales manager is a guerrilla knitter in her spare time, or your IT person wrote a postgraduate thesis on Victorian toilets, or your registrar does artistic welding on her days off. It isn’t their job to know about these things, but chances are that they would be more than happy to share these interests and perspectives with an audience.

Perhaps all departments can share the load by asking each to write a 140 character Twitter post on their favorite day ever in a museum. Or let an individual or department commandeer the Twitter or Facebook account for a day, or a week. Alternatively, you could include creating vats of information – blog writing, photos, Twitter posts, Vine videos – and having a single person deploy that information as needed by using scheduled posting services.

At the very least, collaborating on social media could provide staff with a better understanding of their co-workers and their roles within the museum. At the best, it creates an identity for the museum, one that reflects an image of a vibrant, authentic organization that responds to its community.

Actively responding to social media interactions is crucial to success, no matter the platform. It would be better to have a completely boring social media presence than one that doesn’t respond to inquiries or feedback received through the account. Even mundane questions should be addressed through redirecting with links, or better yet, by making that information easy to find in the first place. A non-responsive account that publishes only the basics of the institution is likely to be seen as a ‘spam’ or robot account, and will be quickly ignored by the audience.

All of this requires a high level of trust, and an institutional will to try and potentially fail. If we wait and deliberate and ‘curate’ every message to death and agonize over the platforms we want to use, we’re going to be left behind while other industries and institutions are enjoying the benefits. Social media relies on the authentic, the organic, and the unexpected. If every tweet, post, and picture has to go through committee before being made live, it’s old news before it even hits the web and begins its digital life.

Advocate the motto of ‘trust and try’. Try every platform, or just one or two. Success is likely on one platform or another, when the audience sweet spot is discovered. It could be that visitors respond more naturally to a museum’s Twitter feed than their Facebook page, or that a particular museum does better on Pinterest and YouTube while they’re completely stumped by Instagram.

If the institution cannot sustain interest in the information or the audience isn’t there to receive it, is it failure? Even if it is classed as failure, this particular instance has few serious financial or institutional ramifications. The internet has an understood level of obsolescence and trend peaking, so the retirement of one account and the uptake of another is unlikely to shock many – how many have consigned their MySpace, Livejournal or Bebo pages to the proverbial scrap heap in favor of seeking community in new virtual spaces? Little to no money has been spent, no buildings have been created, and if existing staff are administering the accounts, no additional staff funding has been needed. No collections objects have been put at risk, and unless something has gone seriously awry, the internet will live to see another day.

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If we’re not worried about failure, how can success be determined? This is more difficult to measure. There are of course the standard metrics of ‘likes’, ‘followers’, ‘favorites’, ‘retweets’ or ‘re-pins’, but does that reflect what is truly happening? These metrics are good indicators of where the audience is finding the museum online, but they don’t tell the story of how they’re connecting with the museum.

Judge social media success by dialog and feedback, not by sheer numbers and not just the page ‘view time’. Think of this scenario: a visitor walks into a gallery, moves swiftly around the room, and then leaves. Total time in the room? Under three minutes. The temptation may be to read this interaction as a failed, un-engaging exhibit and a disappointed visitor. Or it could be that the visitor comes faithfully every Wednesday at noon just to check in on that one painting in Gallery 10, ‘their’ painting, the one they have loved since their childhood.

It isn’t that the visitor isn’t interested or connected, but they don’t need to sit and spend 20 minutes with the minutiae of that work at that very moment, their deep connection with that artwork and the museum is already formed and strong. One would never insist on formal introductions and ‘getting to know you’ banter with a friend of twenty years, the relationship is understood to exist and understood to have history and strength, much like a museum. The same is true with social media. Users may browse the information frequently, maybe multiple times a day, and only respond once a week to a post. That doesn’t mean that the account isn’t useful or meaningful, it just means that the viewer has chosen to not engage at that particular moment.

Now, if there is pure silence, and never any interaction, that can certainly indicate a need for a change of approach, alteration of voice, or change of platform – or even an integration of other platforms to link together projects and stories.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum is the social media campaign that goes ‘viral’. This much-maligned phrase is often bandied about with little thought of the actual impact of the viral campaign.

Firstly, one cannot ‘make’ something go viral. One can hope things go viral, one can position things to go viral, but one cannot make things go viral.

The viral web, like the name implies, is an organic thing with its own lifespan. A viral campaign is great in that it generates a lot of interest across a wide network very quickly, but by its very nature, it doesn’t necessarily correlate to sustained interest, long term support or continued engagement.

To frame this in registrarial terms, banking on a brilliant viral campaign to create interest and engagement for a museum is like expecting a full conservation overhaul of one object to encapsulate the entirety of collections preservation and management. One should endeavour to make social media part of the day-to-day best practices in collections care; we tell people about these items because we care for them. What use is preservation if no one ever hears or knows of its existence? And if we never talk about those things we hide in the cellar, then are we truly fulfilling the mission and mandate for access?

When collections care professionals engage fully in social media, they provide a visible voice for the objects in their care, and provide an additional visible face for the institution. It is time for registrars to be recognized for the crucial work they do in bringing objects to the public, and to begin to consider the ‘back of house’ the front line in the mission of museum engagement and visitor connectivity.

By Tracey Berg-Fulton, Registrar at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

Tracey received her M.Litt. in Decorative Arts and Design History from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and her BA in Art and Journalism from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, USA. She can be contacted on Twitter under the handle @BergFulton. 
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[1] ReachAdvisors. ‘Meaningful Museum Experiences; It’s the Cool Stuff!’ Museum Audience Insight. ReachAdvisors. Web. 1 November 2012.
[2] Harris, Beth and Zucker, Steven, ‘Museums and Open Education.’ e-Literate. Web. 1 November 2012.