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.

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‘I felt like I won a Nobel prize!!’

The Void Gallery, Derry~Londonderry is an artist run, internationally significant gallery. Alongside its international exhibition programme the Void has strong local links, and is a gallery very much at the heart of the local community.

When looking at their Facebook page earlier this week I came across these letters of Thanks:

letter of thanks courtesy of the Void Facebook page

The letters provide a valuable insight into what makes a brilliant visitor experience. They also show what visitors (especially children) remember about their gallery visit. Whilst probably structured by a teacher, each letter discusses three areas of the visit with great enthusiasm and individual character.

1. VIEWING: The art in the gallery 

‘I remember looking at the most magnificent picture in the world’

‘The one I like was about the old run down building…yet it was so plain…it told a fascinating story’

‘The exhibitions are breathtaking… they are that good’

2. ENGAGING: Seeing their art on display in ‘a real gallery

‘I saw my picture on the wall I literally went ecstatic. I felt like I won a Nobel Prize’

‘I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked in and saw my own classes pictures and poems stuck up on the wall’

‘I was so proud of myself it was like a life long dream come true’

3. REFLECTING:  With juice and biscuits to finish 

‘The juice was Orange and the biscuits were cookies’

‘Even though I loved the tour I looked forward to the end because the staff gave us orange juice and cookies’

The children remembered in equal portions the art, their art and the juice.

These three elements created an engaging and memorable gallery experience that lead one child to say

‘I’m just literally telling you, this place would blow your socks off’

To see the rest of these letters, or to follow the work of the Void head over to their Facebook Page.

MuseumNext: can I have a year to process what just happened?

It’s taken a few days, but I think I’ve finally processed some of what I heard at MuseumNext. This post sums up a  few key themes and take aways.

National Museum of Scotland

1. Museums need to get over themselves!

Museums are vain, they act like politicians, and they love to have meetings. stop having so many meetings! These were the wise words of Geer Oskam from the Dutch organisation N8, the people who run the world famous Museum Night. Run by young people aged 26 and under, N8 ensures that it remains both relevant and innovative by changing its entire staff body every 3 years. N8’s human resource policy is in stark contrast to the wider museum sector which often attracts professionals who stay at 1 or 2 museums for their entire career.

Rich Mintz from Blue State Digital (the people that ran Obama’s digital campaign) stated the obvious, but often overlooked point ‘no body cares about museums as much as you do!’. Museum people think about museums all day every day, about new technology, about content and engagement…but so often we forget that our visitors don’t. Our visitors have real lives, they have real problems, they have jobs and children; their time is precious and we should remember this in everything we do.

Shelly Bernstein  reminded us all that ‘its not about ego’, she talked about Brooklyn museums work to add to or create Wikipedia files. Everything museums do is branded, so it’s a difficult ideological shift for museums to start carrying out development work on platforms that are totally distinct from the official museum platform. Taking this holistic approach can bring rewards back to a museum. The Brooklyn museum now have i-pads with access to Wikipedia in their galleries- the result visitors spend on average 7 minutes looking at these,  compared with 30-40 seconds spent looking at traditional interpretation panels.

Image: Wikipop iPads and Visitor Metrics Brooklyn Museum

2. Museums need to realise they only have 5 seconds to engage their visitors….

Rich Mintz outlined some great rules for 5 second engagement> Communication with visitors should be goal orientated and convey a sense of
* urgency: timeliness: relevance & continuity *

Visitors want to know: Why are you reaching out to them? What do you want me to do right now? What Will happen next?

In the context of meta data games, Mia Ridge talked about ways to lower barriers to facilitate visitor engagement. Her message was simple ‘make it easy for people to get involved’. Mia suggested getting people interested by providing a narrative that they can relate to, i.e.  ‘help, it’s this curators 1st day on the job but shes accidentally deleted all the collections data. Can you help her replace it?’

Nora Semel and Francesca Merlino from the Guggenheim talked about using established platforms as a means to lower institutional barriers to engagement. They discussed their project with Youtube, Youtube Play a biennial of creative video. When they started Youtube play they expected to receive around 6,000 entries, in actual fact they received over 23,000 submissions.

3. Museums need to value their followers

Know your followers, don’t rely solely on social media monitoring tools was the message from Jim Richardson. Your own eyes can be an excellent, reliable and cost effective way to analyse your online network. Klout will tell you about your followers who are influential online, but what about your followers who seldom use Twitter but are influential journalists, artists, politicians or teachers.

Find out who your followers are, engage with them and get them to talk about you. Go as far as helping them talk about you, make it easy for them by programming exciting events, have behind the scenes tweet ups,  integrate social media sharing buttons into your webpage. If you value them, they will value you.

For more ways to engage with your followers check out my article for Arts Professional on turning digital friends, fans and followers into real world visitors ‘From virtual to reality’

I’m sure I’ll blog again about MuseumNext but for now lets conclude with the wise words of Shelley Bernstein

‘Take risks, learn from them because without risks there is no reward’

If you want to read more about MuseumNext, or to check out other blogs head over to www.museumnext.com