Should museum websites pull in content from non museum sources?

A few weeks ago the Walker Art Center launched their new website. I was really excited to see that the site contains a range of content, and voices from across the center but also from external sources such as blogs and newspaper articles. In a web survey that I carried out in May/ June of this year I found that visitors wanted museums to curate the web and indeed the art world for them, hosting content from external sites is a great way to do this.

The survey I carried out was distributed across all of the Irish Museum of Modern Arts’ Online platforms*, and gathered a range of data on the context of  visitors online experience. From their current location, to what other online and offline activities they were carrying out whilst engaging with the museum online.

The survey ended by asking two open response questions:

1.What do you like about what IMMA does online ?

2.What would you like to see IMMA do online?

One of the key, and perhaps unexpected trends that the responses for these questions showed was that visitors want museums to curate the web, and indeed the art world for them. For this blog post I have selected a few key, relevant comments to share. The comments show that visitors are keen to learn more about IMMA, it’s artists and the art world, they want to hear about these from a variety of sources and voices but rather than search the web for this information they want IMMA to deliver it to them via their website and social media channels.

Visitor comments:

**

‘Links to up and coming artists websites or exhibitions outside IMMA. Or you could possibly have a section where you can apply to have a blog or some other social thing eg: Twitter or something like that linked on the side page, perhaps this could be changed every month or so and be kind of like editors top 10 of the day/week/month. This could promote students work or ‘outside’ artists and maybe make the gallery feel like its not a locked door situation with regard to being a publically accepted artist and perhaps could give hope to young emerging artists and make it feel like a space for everyone regardless of who you are’

‘online collaborations with other museums and galleries’

‘More links to artists own websites (if living) or further study websites’ ‘Release info about artists currently showing. Not info about the show as such, but info about the individual’

‘Good but needs more activity’

‘Virtual link ups with other galleries and other art/cultural/fashion/heritage insitutions to make the art world more alive and tangible and interactive for the whole community not just artists’

‘I’d love to see more links to anything written about IMMA’

‘Reviews of exhibitions- art critics and man-in-the-street’

‘weekly debate’ ‘blog on events’ 

‘Greater online examples of work from the artists in residence scheme, links to other galleries with concurring shows by the same artists’

‘If I am bothered to follow someone on twitter or fan them on Facebook, I want to be rewarded for that. I’m not opting in to just get ads pushed out to me. I’m opting in to hear opinions I wouldn’t normally get to hear’

**

Having spoke to a number of museum staff at a range of institutions about the idea of aggregating content from external sources the issue of control has always been raised.

What if something on that external site is illegal or offensive? The Walker website however challenges this question and demonstrates that external content can be used successfully, this content is, after all curated and selected by museum staff so control of what visitors are directed to is maintained by the museum.

The positive feedback from a range of sources (The Atlantic , The Independent (uk)Art DailyIt’s That Nice), and social buzz generated when the site launched will perhaps encourage other museums and art galleries to embrace alternative voices and content as a means to generate a more engaging, welcoming and interactive web space for their museum or galleries visitors.

*The survey was distributed on IMMA’s website, Twitter, Facebook and two listings bulletins, 256 responses were collected. These are just a small selection of responses, I intend to publish an academic paper as an outcome of this research and this will include a more considered approach to methodology and data trends.

Do museums need a website to be online?

I would suggest not, and using a couple of examples from Poole Museum and Towner Gallery this blog post explores a number of effective alternative online platforms.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining where the idea for this post came from…Over the last year or so I’ve found my self having the same conversation over and over again. It goes something like this:

I tell someone about my research into online museum experiences. They respond with wow, that sounds so exciting have you seen what  (insert name of any large museum here) does, we’d love to do that but we don’t even have a website.

So I set out to find museums and galleries who use free online platforms that they edit in house to create an exciting online presence . I wanted to have some brilliant examples ready for the next time I get myself into this conversation. However I was surprised by how hard a task this was, it seems that if a museum doesn’t have a website, then it won’t have any social media presence.

Why is this? Well from conversations with staff in small museums it seems that there is a fear off the internet. Often people will use social media personally, but using it in work requires approval from senior management, risk assessment new policies and procedures. Indeed some council run museums noted that due to firewall restrictions they can’t even access social media, blogs or any non official sites. I’ve even heard a story of a museum employee who works at home one day a week so that they can do all the online stuff that the council firewall stops (from updating Facebook, to checking out relevant blogs).

Should museums push beyond these barriers and utilise social media when a website isn’t an option?

The following two case studies discuss this questions and highlight the possibilities and limitations provide by social media as a stand alone online presence.

Poole Museum 

Poole Museum has a few pages on a council website, but these are very cold and corporate. The pages list opening times, but do not portray the community nature of the museum, the diversity of their collection or prompt people to visit. Michael Spender, Museum Manager responded to this limited online web presence by creating a Twitter profile. Whilst Poole would love a shiny new website, time and money prevented this from happening and Twitter offered an exciting alternative platform.

Michael said ‘I aimed to target two audiences, the sector (stakeholders, museums, other institutions, regionally, nationally and internationally) – essentially advocacy – and the local community in Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset. So far this seems to be working fairly well, and tweets are deliberately aimed at these two audiences’.

Using culture hashtags such as those created by Culturethemes Poole Museum has been able to raise their profile with those that are culturally engaged.Poole have also utilised the community nature of social media to reach out to new audiences by tweeting about broader community issues. For example in response to heath fires @PooleMuseum retweeted tweets from the local fire service.

After just a year Poole Museum has the third highest museum following in the area (after Tate St Ives and the main hub service at Bristol)

Whilst Twitter has been a really useful platform for Poole , Michael points out ‘It is still an experiment, and we are only starting to feel an impact on things like attendance at events, volunteering and the like, but one which has the potential to have really measurable benefits’.

Social media is not a quick fix, but if a museum is truly committed and is willing to experiment it can become a useful way to connect with museum audiences, and indeed to develop new audiences.

Towner Gallery

Towner opened 2 years ago in 2009, and relied heavily on Facebook and to some extent Twitter for these first two years. ‘We made a conscious decision that instead of feeling disadvantaged by lack of a dedicated website, we would use the opportunity to try and maximise our social media presence’.

To ensure that the Facebook page was truly engaging, reactive and up to date a broad range of staff and volunteers administered the page. Personality was important to Towner as a gallery and this extended to Towner’s Facebook page ‘communicating in a friendly and personable way, and responding to individual comments, felt right to us.  This in turn seemed to inspire more loyalty and love in our audience!’

The team approach to administering the page allowed the gallery to utilise skills that are not part of peoples job remit. Gilly noted that the success of their Facebook page is in part due to a dedicated member of the Front of House Team who did a lot of work on the Facebook page in their own time.

Towner launched a website in July of this year. Their new website has been heavily influenced by what they learnt about online engagement through their Facebook page. Furthermore their new website is a wordpress based site which they were able to build at a low cost. WordPress is a popular blogging platform, which can also be adapted to build websites. As  Towner were heavily involved in the development of their own website they know how it works and therefore have a large degree of control over how to manage its layout and edit its content.

Having a website provides Towner with new opportunities, and indeed combats some of the access and control issues of Facebook. However Gilly said ‘We hope that people will go to our website for more information, but will continue to interact with us through the primary medium they use on a daily basis – Facebook’.

So I guess in conclusion I think it is fair to say a really engaged Facebook, Twitter or Blog is far better than a dull out of date website or indeed no website at all.

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My blog is read by those that follow me on Twitter, often museum professionals who are already engaged in digital museum practice. I guess you could say I am  preaching to the converted. So please do email this article to colleagues not on Twitter.

Bite Size Culture

This chewing gum packet prompted me to have 4 pieces of chewing gum today, that’s more than I visit most museum websites in a year.

The text on the packaging cleverly positions this product, chewing gum into 4 different daily activities.

Museums could learn a lot from this approach, rather than being an occasional activity clear positioning of online museum experiences could make them central to a range of co-existing daily activities from breakfast, lunch and dinner to snack time.

The Joy of Discovery

Recently when visiting a friend’s house I noticed a beautifully bound book sitting on her bookshelf. I picked it up, opened the cover and simply could not put it down. It was a diary, but it did not only have the usual dates and contact details it was also pop up, pop out, interactive and directive. Whilst providing factual information like a diary should such as dates, public holidays, dialing codes it was also enticing and exciting.

Each page had something new to offer, sometimes you new to simply lift a flap or unfold a map. Other pages were more directive ‘lift here’ ‘pull here’.

I loved the combination of purpose, fun and excitement. I was also intrigued with the layers of engagement, readers are encouraged to stumble through the book, but at times directed how to interact, readers are also encouraged to play to experiment to try something new.

This book reinvent’s the concept of the date diary as a functional object and instead turns it into an experience.

Exploring this book felt like a unique cultural experience. It did not feel like I was one of no doubt 1000’s of people who had read this book. Instead I was caught in the moment, stumbling through, excited to see what I came across next. This book made me feel like I was walking around a museum, moving from exhibit to exhibit, gallery to gallery. All the time discovering new things, feeling like I was the first person in the world to discover a rare dinosaur or to get lost in a painting.

So the big question it seems is  ‘how can we embed that element of excitement, discovery, authenticity and cultural distinctiveness into online experiences?

Inspired by the M Restaurants Diary  I have begun to explore interactive children’s books as a way to understand how text and images can be used to shape online behavior.

Take for example the children’s classic ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ in this book a simple cut out in the centre of each page gets bigger and bigger as the lady eats more and more strange things. With each page turn there is an element of visual discovery, and it this combined with the text of the story that makes the book compelling. Young children can barely wait to turn to find out what is on the next page. An other classic that utilises the excitement of discovery is ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’

Whilst these books essentially represent a more traditional, static way to tell a story they prompt higher levels of interaction, engagement, fun and discovery than many multi-media websites.

I would love to hear recommendations of other books (children’s and adults) that provoke this type of engagement, or indeed of online experiences that feel like real ‘page turners’.

Feel free to comment on this blog post here or tweet me @OonaghTweets 

Thanks to @erinblasco for sharing the Three Little Pigs i-Pad book:

@KimberlyKowal Said that she likes the x-ray view element of the Three Little Pigs and wishes that Peter Rabbit had this option. Peter Rabbit is another example of how the traditional pop up book has been modified for i-pad: