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We Have Met the Marketing/Promotion Enemy and He Is Us

November 19, 2012

cropped from a painting by Emma Connolly

Digital museums was the topic in our Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis this past Tuesday.  One of our readings was Carol Dunmore’s 2006 article “Museums and the Web” from the The Responsive Museum.   The article provides a historical perspective on digital media and museums and illustrates the British national model of museum presentation. For example, the Culture 24 website provides links to hundreds of museums and their activities throughout the UK.  The Show Me website focuses on cultural heritage from a child’s perspective in Britain.  The Cornucopia website provides access to information on over 6000 UK museum and gallery collection databases.

I challenged students to consider if such a system would work in the United States.  I noted the lack of a systematic cross-promotion/integration of US cultural heritage institutions.  For example, the Louisiana Division of Archaeology publishes a fantastic driving tour of the prehistoric mounds and earthworks in Louisiana.  The neighboring state of Mississippi publishes a digital Archaeology Trails but there is no weblink between the two.  Some US states do a good job of promoting within but not across their geopolitical borders.

The C.H. Nash Museum where I am the Director is located on the Mississippi River in Memphis Tennessee where east-west  Interstate 40 crosses north-south Interstate 55.  We routinely direct visitors to the Parkin Archaeological State Park 45 minutes west on I-40 in Arkansas, Wikcliffe Mounds 3 hours north on I-55 in Kentucky, the Winterville Mounds a couple of hours to the south in Mississippi, and Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park 90 minutes to the east on I-40 in Tennessee.  We also link to all of these archaeological sites on our web page.  For the first time this week, I realized that none of these sites link to our webpage.

My point is not to whine about a grievous injustice in that we promote others but they do not reciprocate.  However, my observation does point to a promotion or presentation problem for cultural heritage regionally in the US.  For example, the Tennessee Association of Museums lists 32 member museums in West Tennessee.  An interesting pattern quickly emerges when examining the member websites.  There is a reasonable probability that smaller museums will link to other museums in the region or those with similar topical interests.  There is very little probability larger venues will link to anyone other than themselves.

Or consider the presentation of archaeological venues in a region.  The Hopewell Culture Center (HCC) at the Mound City Site is operated by the National Park Service (NPS) in Chillicothe Ohio.  However, there is no listing for the HCC on the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) website that owns other archaeological sites and museums of the Hopewell Culture within 50 miles of the HCC.  Nor does the HCC list any of the OHS sites located as close as 50 miles from Mound City.  As well, the homepage for Fort Ancient a Hopewell Culture site in Ohio, owned by the OHS but operated by Boonshoft Museum of Discovery does not link to any of the other Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio whether operated by the OHS or the NPS.  In sum, depending on which website a visitor hits first, one might conclude there is one museum that interprets the Hopewell Culture in Ohio (NPS or Fort Ancient web sites) or many (the OHS).

A devil’s advocate reading the above paragraph can offer lots of “yeah but . . . if you go to this webpage and click here and then . . .” to my examples.  However, the point is finding relevant museums should not be that hard.  I am going to Leicester England in January for a conference where I will spend a few days roaming about the country.  To the extent I am interested in museums on prehistory for the area, I suspect the Culture 24 link will give me good direction.  Were someone from Leicester to visit Memphis, the same single source for information is not available.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” so sayeth Pogo.  In a time when many cultural heritage venues are seeing reduced visitation and tax-based revenues, we should strive to become easier not more difficult to access.  I have a set of books on all the places to stop between Lake Itasca, Minnesota where you can walk across the Mississippi River in two strides and New Orleans, Louisiana some 2000 miles downstream.  I keep the NPS brochure in my car for all of the cultural and natural stops along the 400-mile Natchez Trace that crosses three states from Natchez, Mississippi to just outside Nashville, Tennessee.  Developing a simple brochure or web presence for a Mississippi River archaeological trail between St. Louis, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi ala the Great River Road could provide a similar resource.  Consider applying for the $2000.00 Southeastern Archaeological Conference Public Outreach Grant by December 1 as seed money for this project!

What are your thoughts on the need for promoting cultural heritage institutions in the US?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. bkmeans K. Means permalink
    November 19, 2012 12:41 pm

    Interesting post. I’m currently involved in some DoD virtual curation efforts and this ties in with a direction that I am going with possible future work. Thinking globally and not locally does seem to be an issue in general with digital cultural heritage–which is ironic given the reach of the internet.

    • November 19, 2012 12:58 pm

      Good point. I am thinking this is less a conscious decision to exclude but a grappling with a new technology and reduced staffs. Most every museum has the obligatory stand of rack cards for all the other venues in the city. I am curious as to how long it took to institutionalize that process.

  2. November 19, 2012 1:11 pm

    Good points. Another key example of (another country’s) national infrastructure is the Virtual Museum of Canada. The U.S. lacks anything close to this, to our detriment.

  3. November 19, 2012 1:43 pm

    Robert – a nice post. I will assume that you’re attending SHA, and I’d like to invite you to our session about public archaeology and the web, all day Thursday. Seems like it would be right up your ally. https://www.conftool.com/sha2013/index.php?page=browseSessions&form_session=23&CTSID_SHA2013=ImQChoGjWJjpSwBgaJ–bKt-Jg2

    • November 19, 2012 4:40 pm

      Terry – look forward to meeting you at the SHA. Sounds like a fantastic session.

      • Sarah miller permalink
        November 20, 2012 3:33 am

        Reminds me of recent frustrations in not finding obvious links to educational materials we produced on heritage partner sites…but have to admit we (I) was not doing my best either to make sure we initiated links. I think it speaks to the panel topic too…how much can we share of public archaeology materials, and at what point do we hit saturation.

      • bkmeans K. Means permalink
        November 20, 2012 12:26 pm

        Saturation is a good point. I know people who don’t care for weekly blog blasts, but, alternatively, won’t look at a blog or web site that is not regularly updated.

  4. November 19, 2012 5:48 pm

    Along these same lines, I spent part of last week adding and updating links to archaeological websites for the public (such as the kind Robert describes for some of the the driving tours and archaeological trails) on the SAA Archaeology for the Public web pages (www.saa.org/public). When we created these pages we hoped they would form a clearinghouse of the sort you describe. We did a major marketing campaign to inform colleagues and ask for content contributions to flesh out each state/region and many other content areas. Although we have had many contributions over the years (see http://www.saa.org/publicftp/public/about/contributors.html) it never took off the way we expected–for many reasons, some of which my colleagues have written and presented about in a variety of venues. But one thing is clear –our colleagues expected “us” (volunteers + one part-time staff person) to find “their” information and put it on “our” web site (with their permission) . In a largely volunteer effort and with over 400 web pages, this is not possible and was never the intention with the clearinghouse. Occasionally I get emails saying in effect “how come my stuff is not on your web site? “, to which I reply, “I would love to have it! Write it up and send it to me!” . And even then I usually don’t get it. The point is we all have to be proactive about initiating these contacts and in creating, literally, these links. If you don’t like the M (marketing) word, then think of it as good collaborative practice and part of our ethical responsibility to share information with the public. So please if you have or know of public-friendly archaeology web sites or have other relevant content to share, shoot me an email and we will work together on adding it to our web pages!

    • November 19, 2012 6:28 pm

      Maureen – excellent points all. The SAA Archaeology for the Public webpage is truly an impressive resource! The longer I work in archaeology and museums the more I realize that the M (markerting) word, like the A (advocacy) word are crucial to the B (business) of what we do.

  5. November 25, 2012 9:11 pm

    This is interesting Robert. I agree that the US has some big opportunities in promoting museums and the rich exposure they provide for culture and historical exploration. Here in California, cross promotion is not prevalent unless the museums are part of ‘group’ , for example there is this group: http://www.tarpits.org/our-story/family-of-museums. Yet there are many other amazing museums in the city, and none cross reference to each other, which is a shame.

    When our family has traveled to London and Rome, we noticed a different approach, more collective. For example in Italy our family bought passes in one museum that admitted us to two others in the city. Also, promotion of the various museums was often on one website. I also noticed many more families attending museums while in Europe. Seeing children was the norm not the exception.

    I did find this one website, (after reading your post, I was curious and did some research), which appears to promote cultural heritage and history, censusfinder.com. I found a page with a very comprehensive listing of museums in California. Impressive. http://www.censusfinder.com/california-historical-museums.htm I am not sure who funds this site, but they certainly have done a fine job. It appears to be a great resource.

    Debbie

    • November 26, 2012 1:50 am

      Debbie,

      Thanks for your comments. You are right on complexes of Museums cross-promoting. Here in Memphis the Pink Palace Family of Museums that includes historic houses, a nature center, and the major city museum all cross-promote, but not across institutions. A bit frustrating, but I also have a good bit of confidence that if we are to move forward toward sustainable institutions, we will address this issue. I am pleased that the American Alliance of Museums (until a couple of months ago the 106 year old American Association of Museums) has restructured institutional memberships that should foster greater institutional collaboration.

  6. November 30, 2012 7:47 am

    Robert, I’ve found myself revisiting this post in light of a few comments I’ve heard from various people lately about how much tourism turns museums into competitors rather than collaborators. ie, museums are often competing for (seemingly) limited tourist visitation numbers and dollars, and that gets in the way of museums working together in this way. I also gather that the distribution of attention given to different institutions can actually be quite competitive. Does this reflect your experiences too?

    • November 30, 2012 1:13 pm

      Suse,

      Interesting point that has gotten me to thinking. In terms of volume, from what we might define as tourism as including non-student, community based or service based visitation – then tourism is perhaps one-third or less of our total. A few years ago we intentionally put a couple of our traditionally big tourist draw events on hiatus because we found they were becoming less successful, a strain on our limited resources, and operated outside or at the margins of our mission. In the region, although individual entities do not cross promote, there are regional and city-wide venues for doing so. For example, the Great River Road web that I note in the post does an admirable job on their web page and FB page of cross promoting all venues. The Downtowner Magazine here in Memphis is distributed at area hotels and promotes all museums and actually treats our msueum very well. As I also noted in my post the the smaller museums in the West Tennessee Association of Museums cross promote.

      On an institutional basis though the promotion breaks down in tourism and in other types of visitation. My colleagues at the Wickliffe Mounds in Kentucky commented to me about my original post saying that although they promote other venues via word of mouth and rack card distributions, they cannot link on their websites or FB pages because of state controls – that is, they are state agencies and cannot promote entities outside of their state. In Tennessee that logic would have it that I could not promote a museum comparable to our own that is 45 minutes away in Arkansas but I could promote one that is 7 hours drive in Manchester Tennessee. To me that speaks to an institutionalized notion of commodification of the museum experience to obtain a limited pool of resources.

      There is a more significant breakdown in cross promotion when it comes to visiting school groups. These groups in many ways are the prized visitation of many museums in at least the US. In terms of hard data, they are a means of dramatically increasing visitation numbers and dollars. For example, in November at our small museum, our visitation has ranged between 300 – 450 per week with 2/3 of that visitation coming from group visits. These group visits can also be argued as more fully living into the educational missions for a given museum. I find that the least collaboration among musuesm falls in this area. The perceived limited available resource argument is paramount.

      What I find frustrating is that the above lack of cross-promoting impacts unrelated areas. At our museum we are quite intentional about developing our niche – what services do we offer that other museums in the area do not. For example, we have the only “hands-on” archaeology lab of which I am aware in the entire Midsouth US – in fact, I am unaware of any museum that offers the type of tactile interaction with prehistory for every visitor who walks through the door. We also offer programming with prehistoric cultural materials for youth groups on a regular basis that are similarly unique. We intentionally have not developed traveling trunks because we do not want to compete with the large city museum that has a corner on this market. However, we do offer onsite educational programs on Native American prehistory to classrooms and residential care facilities alike as we see this as part of our mission mandate and no one else in the area is doing so. In our staff meeting yesterday we discussed that we receive an excellent response from special needs groups because our hands-on activities and engaging crafts are ideal for tactile learners. We considered being more intentional in developing these programs as part of our “niche” along with some of our more recent environmental programs.

      We continue to do well in these programs. Despite the fact that several years ago we eliminated our biggest events because they grew to be something outside of our mission, we have made up for this in other attendance increases. However, I remain frustrated that as a small museum we end up duplicating so much effort in our promotions that could be handled much more effectively if coordinated on a regional or broader scale. I believe that the entire museum field suffers if we cannot present a robust picture of the totality of what museums in any area have to offer. For example, we are not in competition with Graceland. We have never tried to figure out or make-up an urban legend that Elvis Presely used to come to our prehistoric earthworks for inspiration even though we are located about 3 miles away (meant as humor). But I also believe that the total museum visitor experience to Memphis is enhanced by highlighting the options at both venues.

      Finally, at the C.H. Nash Museum, we have the luxury of being able to muse and carefully work through these processes. As part of the University of Memphis system, although we certainly operate within a budget, we are less obsessed than many about bottom line dollar figures. We are more organically tied into the educational mission of higher education and part of our service includes internships and a whole range of educational opportunities for students at the U of M.

      • December 3, 2012 9:01 am

        Robert, this is fascinating. Is there any central organisation that could coordinate regional marketing efforts for museums in your area? I worry that again politics would get in the way, and some museums would get more attention than others, but it certainly raises some interesting questions in terms of duplication of efforts that could maybe be shared or centralised. Are there other things that would seem to have commonalities across small museums that could potentially be centralised?

  7. December 5, 2012 2:57 pm

    Suse, what experience seems to be teaching me is that for the time and effort expended in moving through traditional channels, thinking outside of the box, and creating new channels is more effective on this issue. That certainly is a valuable lesson I have learned through blogging – simply put, through traditional channels, I likely would never come into contact with you you in Australia! Or perhaps, part of the issue is that the traditional channels worked for the traditional past but not the present day. I do see the seeds of discussions arising by region and subject that will likely be the movers in the future.

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