Yesterday I participated in the LGBTQ Wikipedia Editathon hosted at the National Archives. With the awful shooting in Orlando just days ago, it felt more urgent than ever to contribute to making the diversity of American history more public, more accessible, and more human.
While Medium has been around for a few years I get the sense that it has recently begun to pick up speed. Perhaps you recall January’s viral hit “A teenager’s view on social media (written by an actual teen)”? Or maybe you’ve been following the CODE | WORDS publication with contributors from the museum technology community like Rob Stein, Michael Edson, and Merete Sanderhoff?
I’m thrilled to be the latest writer featured in the “Meet a Museum Blogger” series on Jamie Glavic’s Museum Minute blog. In it, I give some background on why I started this blog, and how grateful I am to the online community of museum professionals for sharing your thoughts, experiences, and opinions in a public forum. Thank you for reading and for being a part of this effort!
My blog is called Engaging Museums, which conveys both my intention to help museums be engaging places for the public but also my belief that museum professionals must do the hard work of engaging our institutions in challenging discussions about the future of museums if we are to remain relevant.
Take a look at the piece to find out which Engaging Museums post is the most read by lovely readers like you, which museum-related blogs are on my must-read list, and a peek inside my not-so-secret Daily Squee side project.
While you’re on the Museum Minute blog, I recommend taking a look at the inspiring blogger profiles of Ed Rodley, Jasper Visser, Adrianne Russell, Paul Orselli, and Mar Dixon. And if you’ve been thinking about starting your own blog, here are my thoughts on the subject:
. . . the more we are free and open with our experiences, lessons learned, and perspectives on the issues that we face, the more we move the field as a whole forward. So if you’ve been thinking about starting a blog but aren’t sure what you’d write about or are concerned because you won’t have regular weekly content, I’m here to tell you: JUST DO IT.
Thanks again to Jamie for featuring this blog in her series!
Museums SHOULD be about enlightenment, inspiration, or quiet reflection.
Museums should NOT be about fun and entertainment.
Frankly, I’m a bit sick of these blanket pronouncements, from both sides of the aisle. While CNN’s opinion piece “Why I Hate Museums” laments how boring museums are, the New York Times bit “High Culture Goes Hands-On” rails against not just people having fun in museums but even people having a shred of “engagement” in museums. You can see more examples of black and white arguments about what museums should and shouldn’t be (and what “good” and “bad” visitors are) in the comments on the CNN article and in letters to the NYTimes editor.
Let’s meet halfway
Well, I for one think museums and their visitors exist in a much more fluid realm. We all—the people who work in museums and the people who visit—need to do a better job of meeting halfway. Clearly James Durston writes from the perspective of someone who thinks museums are important and wants them to succeed—he’s just disappointed that they aren’t living up to their potential.
Calling the author lazy, uncultured, vapid, or unintelligent is wildly unproductive, not to mention rude. Surely every person who has failed to be wowed in a museum is not categorically any of those things.
A little introspection on the part of people who love museums just as they are is required.
What (and how much) we say is important
Let’s talk a little bit about bringing museums to life, something Durston mentions more than once in an attempt to get at what might make museums more compelling. One way of doing this is through telling captivating stories. We’ve all had moments in life when someone’s narrative enthralled us. What is it that museums can do to make this style of conveying information more commonplace? I agree with Durston that “tombstone” labels with maker, date, and place of origin are inadequate for nearly all visitors.
On the other hand (and as one commenter pointed out) too much text (or audio or video) is off-putting to many visitors, who can feel overloaded or impatient with reading, particularly when they are visiting in a social group (which many museum visitors do). Museums know this from studying their visitors, observing their behaviors, and (yes!) asking them what they want. We know that some people like to be told why something is important; others at least want some better clues so they can connect the dots themselves.
Durston references today’s tough economic realities but chaffs at the idea of museums using funding problems as an excuse to bore people, especially since his taxpayer dollars seemingly support said dull experiences. At a minimum, nearly all museums have the budget to do some rewriting of their labels in order to provide more paths for engagement with objects. Here are ten excellent label writing tips from the V&A. Good label writing is truly an art, just as good storytelling is, but there are some great tidbits in these guidelines, such as:
We should be looking at the approach used in journalism, in which the ‘hook’ or the most important point comes first
Most visitors have no idea what ‘trope’ or ‘iconography’ mean.
On being welcoming and being open
Successful museum visits require give and take. Museums need to give visitors not just more information but more information that is shared in a compelling way and sounds like the voice of a human being, including that oft-avoided element: emotion. In return, visitors will get the most out of their visits when they are willing to take some time with an object, think about its history/beauty/innovativeness, make connections between this object and our lives today, and offer their own thoughts and feelings on the subject. Involving the body (beyond shuffling along from object to object) can help too. When is the last time you mimicked the pose of a sculpture in an art gallery?
The technology-supported museum interactive pictured above is a lovely example of encouraging kinetic engagement. But such technology can be expensive or hard to maintain. A written or verbal prompt plus a visitor’s own camera can also do the trick (but first museums have to stop yelling at people for taking photos!). Museums must also create platforms for visitors to ask questions, share their experiences and opinions, and interact as fully as possible (and yes, of course, while protecting the artifacts for future generations). In exchange, visitors who are otherwise bored by museums (*ahem*) might be surprised by how much they enjoy the experience when they are willing to give a little too.
The thing about “WOW!” is…
Think of a time when you discovered something. Remember that “wow!” sensation you experienced? It probably didn’t come from simply watching or listening to someone explain something or try to entertain you. It probably came from active participation in a process of discovery; perhaps something that involved multiple senses?
In his response to the New York Times piece, the ever-eloquent Ed Rodley reminisces about a visit he once made to a meteorite collection, in which the person leading the tour:
picked up a vial with some meteorite fragments in it and said, “Want to know what another world smells like?” Um, yes? I can’t remember anything else about that visit, but just writing about that moment triggered a strong memory of it. I smelled another world once.
Museums can create more fertile ground for the process of discovery by asking provocative questions, offering up the transformative power of objects, and providing experiences that visitors can’t get anywhere else. But visitors must also come with the energy and interest in actively participating. (Yes, you want to smell another world!)
For those who simply want to view and reflect, you’ve already got “Vase: Iran; circa 15th century.” For everyone else, let’s work TOGETHER to make museums a little more “wow.”
Isolated Striated Cube Photo Credit: Natural History Museum London by Flickr user kevandotorg
Before we can measure social media success, we must first be able to answer the question: Why is social media important for museums and what are we hoping to achieve? On April 23, 2013, the museum technology community gathered for a #musesocial chat to discuss connecting our social media efforts to broader strategies and goals. The chat was hosted by me (@danamuses) and Vicki Portway (@sluggernova) with help from Erin Blasco (@erinblasco).
With more than 1,200 fascinating tweets sent in the span of less than 2 hours, the Storify archive was a challenge to put together. Make sure to find the bit about SPARKLE MAGIC under question 7. It was the highlight of the chat for me. (I even designed a t-shirt to commemorate it.) Enjoy!
What outcomes are you hoping to achieve with social media?
Are your social media practices engaging online communities to their greatest potential?
How do you know if you are achieving your goals?
How can you take your social media initiatives to the next level?
These four key questions were explored during the “Engaging Visitors with Social Media” workshop I presented at the IMLS WebWise Conference (March 6, 2013).
Participants saw and heard about:
[li]Inspirational case studies from inside and outside the museum and library sectors[/li]
[li]Pursuing marketing, education, crowdsourcing, and advocacy goals through social media[/li]
[li]Organizational models for social media management[/li]
[li]Optimizing social content through data analysis[/li]
[li]Taking your efforts to the next level with a paid-earned-owned mix of activities[/li]
We discussed and brainstormed about:
[li]Defining the value and goals of social media for your organization[/li]
[li]Identifying desired outcomes[/li]
[li]Setting the right tone and voice for your organization[/li]
[li]Overcoming fear and risk-aversion[/li]
Hands-on activities helped us explore:
[li]How content goes viral[/li]
[li]Connecting social tools to organizational strategy and capabilities[/li]
[li]Determining which social media platforms are right for your target audiences and goals[/li]
Platforms covered included: