Letting Go to Keep the Public Engaged

Without a doubt, my favorite book of 2011 is Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski.  The book liner notes read that ” Letting Go? investigates path-breaking public history practices at a time when the traditional expertise of museums seems challenged at every turn – by the Web and digital media, by community based programming, by new trends in oral history, and by contemporary artists.”   The book is divided into sections or themes, each containing a diverse set of thought pieces (method and theory), case studies, and conversations (application dialogues).  The authors are leading authorities actively engaged in their subject area.  Letting Go? is a very applied presentation.

The first theme Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web opens with an essay by Nina Simon that states the essence of her Participatory Museum model in a concise and convincing way, using several new examples to illustrate her points.  I found the brief essay fine-tuned some arguments in her published volume.  I suspect that for those new to Simon’s Participatory Museum, the essay will spur them on to read her book.  Simon’s thought piece is followed by Steve Zeitlin’s case study, City of Memory, based in New York City.  Next is a conversation with Bill Adair and Matthew Fisher that considers the problems and potentials with public engagement in online art museum projects and an oral history/video project in Philadelphia.  The final essay in the section by Matthew MacArthur takes up the role of objects in the digital contexts.  A strength of this section, and all the sections in the book is the reflective nature of the pieces.  In a most refreshing way, all the authors consider the shortcomings, problems, challenges, and opportunities of their own digital or participatory contexts in a user-generated world.

The second theme Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators features a provocative essay by Kathleen McLean on the multiple expert and visitor voices.  She concludes her essay with “We need to find way to bring the museum’s expert knowledge into conversation with the people who attend our museums – people who bring with them their own expert knowledge” (p. 79).  The section is rounded out with a conversation on the diologic museum, a multi-generational family film project in Minnesota, and a conversation based on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s efforts to have community curated exhibits.

The third theme of the volume addresses popular oral history projects such as Story Corps.  A thoughtful essay by Tom Satwicz and Kim Morrisey assesses the challenges, limitations, and potentials of the reality of public curation from trend to practice.  Perhaps one-third of the volume considers essays dealing with  fine and performance arts not related to the focus of this blog.  However, the essays and conversations provide much that is simply good to think about regardless of the specific field of application.

I found the volume particularly refreshing in that all the contributors accept that there are lots of unanswered questions, false starts, and simply wrong turns in the “sharing authority” process of this “user-generated world” in which we now all operate.  The authors do not take on Messianic tones in their presentations, rather, provide thoughtful discussions of their experience in engaging the public’s user-generated voice. If you are grappling with how to incorporate the authority of the many voices that your institution serves, Letting Go? will give you plenty of directions to consider.

In Defense of Wikipedia as a Research Tool

At the end of my graduate seminar this past semester, I suggested that while I did not as a whole consider Wikipedia a “scholarly” resource for citations today, it was certainly a good starting point to search out relevant references.  I proposed that five years from now, the next iteration of Wikipedia might prove to be a legitimate scholarly resource, citable in papers in the same way survey textbooks are today.

That class discussion prompted me to pull a book that had sat in my “to read” stack for the past couple of years – The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen.  His thesis is that Wikipedia, YouTube, etc. are the breeding grounds for amateurs to spread their misinformation, contrasted to the high standards of traditional professional journalism and scholarship.  I hoped the book would give an alternative to my classroom advocacy of such online venues as tools for engagement and dissemination of information. I read the Introduction and Chapter 1 and was greatly disappointed.  When I got to page 48 and read Keen’s rant against the “citizen journalist” reports from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I realized he writes from an elitist and Luddite perspective.

My interest in this discussion is from the perspective of whether such online resources are at least starting points for valid and reliable research information.    This week my Applied Archaeology and Museums class, will discuss plans for their first class project.  Students will prepare written papers on repatriation of the Elgin Marbles.  We will then have an in-class debate on the pros and cons of the Elgin Marbles repatriation.  I looked at the Wikipedia page for the Elgin Marbles.  After spending 15 minutes clicking through the various links on the page, I realized it would simply be stupid of me not to point students toward this as a first resource for the class project.  Check out the page.  I think you will agree.  The page simply is not the idiocy Mr. Keen rants against.

In a recent blog post Jennifer Carey links to a list of 15 resources for free scholarly information.  I was particularly intrigued by the Wikimedia Foundation’s project Wikiversity that is “devoted to learning resources, learning projects, and research for use in all types and styles of education from pre-school to university, including professional training and informal learning.  We invite teachers, students, and researchers to join us in creating open educational resources and collaborative learning communities.”   Sounds exactly like the nightmare Mr. Keen wrote about.

Here is what I learned about Wikiversity in 15 minutes of clicking.  Wikiversity has some well-developed modules, principally in the hard sciences. I am preparing for a special course this coming fall flowing from Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  Through Wikiversity I found that this spring a module Political Simulations and Gaming is being created through the Department of Board Game Design  at the University of Westminster.  I will check back in a few months.  Seems a great potential resource.

The naysayers such as Keen are like the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1400s who issued a death sentence for those using the Gutenberg printing press.  (I got that info from a scholarly reference cited on a Wikipedia page.)  Wikipedia and other online user-generated resources have the same range of quality as the “professional” community.   As with the Gutenberg’s press in the 1400s, Wikipedia and other user-generated resources will continue to grow as new technologies.  In just a few years, Wikipedia has quite admirably raised the bar of their quality.  Such user-generated resources are effective tools for the types of engagement that archaeologists and museum professional strive in their outreach efforts to the broad public we serve.

Try this – go to Wikipedia and search your favorite archaeological or museum something – whether NAGPRA, Hopewell Culture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Field Museum of Natural History . . . Then ask yourself, is this good user-generated information for the public to have ready access?  If it is, that’s great.  If not, perhaps you should use some of your own expertise to user-generate some content!

How do you use Wikipedia or other online sources in your work?

Technology and Student Engagement

This week’s post is an interview with Jennifer Carey whose blog Indiana Jen focuses on the interface of Education, History, and Technology.  As an educator, Jennifer’s style is engaging and innovative.  She has taught on the collegiate level and in the Johns Hopkins program, the Center for Talented Youth.  Currently she teaches at an independent secondary school is Fort Worth Texas.  In the interview below, Jennifer provides insights on several key issues relevant to outreach and education.

Will you tell us a bit about yourself?  How you developed and meshed your interests in archaeology, education, and technology?

I have always been a history buff. As a child, we took vacations to Gettysburg or Yosemite or other areas of historical significance. When I went to college, I did a double major in History and Anthropology. My freshmen year, I did my first dig in Belize and while I knew Jungle Archaeology wasn’t for me, fieldwork had me hooked. I then went off to UCLA to study archaeology. Technology has always been important in archaeology – think about Evans introducing the “new technology” of photography at the turn of the last century.

My technology love developed separately – we had a home computer when most people didn’t own calculators. I was writing DOS before I could compose a paragraph. I’ve always had a habit for ‘gadgets,’ computers, software, etc. It’s an expensive habit 😉

A couple of years ago you were podcasting your Classical Archaeology class lectures to college students.  How were the podcasts received?

I started my podcasting as an experiment and the University largely supported me as they saw it as a potentially great marketing tool. I was primarily nervous that students would stop coming to class. I told my students that if attendance dropped off, I would stop. To my surprise, attendance didn’t drop. In fact, what happened was that my students stopped writing down every word on my PowerPoints, stopped taking so many notes, and focused more on what I was saying and engaging in a discussion – they could always go back to hear what I said. My experience was that there was more *learning*. The really, really good students would often tell me that they put the podcasts on their iPods and listened during their commute or at the gym. I also had a number of students with learning differences that told me that the podcasts helped them to perform better in the classroom.

You are now posting a regular blog Indiana Jen: History, Education, and Technology (not to be confused with another blog called Indiana Jenn).  Besides the obvious difference of lecture based podcasts and briefer topical blog posts, in terms of communication, how are the two different?

Blogging takes more time and planning than Podcasting did. My podcasts were literally just recording my lectures. My blog takes more planning and research. However, it’s also more interactive – which can be great fun (and sometimes a little frustrating). However, if I have a thought or idea as an academic or a teacher I now have a venue for sharing ideas and engaging in communication.

Your work is primarily focused in the academic setting.  Have you done much educational work in bringing archaeology to the broader community?

As I am now out of Academia and firmly in education (teaching history at a private school) my goal has definitely become more expansive. I really like to bring interesting topics to the ‘main-stream,’ which is why I’ll write up stories that I think will interest most people – child sacrifice in the Andes, the destruction of Pompeii, cannibalism of the Donnor party, etc. You’ll notice I don’t write a lot about syncretism in Roman Britain or dialectical exchange of colonial cultures. Ultimately, my goal is to make history less intimidating (it’s not about dates and names and $5 words) and to open people up to broader experiences.

In a recent article Insistent Questions in Our Learning Age (Journal of Museum Education Vol. 35, No. 3) Beverly Sheppard writes about the under utilization of museums by public schools. In archaeology and history, what role do you see museums playing in the classroom setting?

You know, I would wholly agree with this, especially in non-urban settings where museums are far away. “Field Trips” are expensive, stressful, and a logistical nightmare. For example, I teach AP Art History with 11 kids. Sounds like loading them all on a bus and taking them to a museum would be easy. However, I have to find the funds for the bus, track down another chaperone, arrange lunch, make sure our insurance covers it, get them out of their other five class (which could be things like AP Calculus and English), and keep track of them while they’re wandering. Because of these issues, a lot of teachers and administrators “just say no.” This is just a shame – my students experience so much more at the museum – they *see* the objects they’ve been studying, they *apply* what they have learned, and they are exposed to a broader spectrum of information.

I’m hoping that the recent trend of Museums putting their collections online and things like the Google Museum Project can help to bring the experience to the classroom. Still, there is no substitute to the ‘real experience.’

As an advocate for technology in the classroom, what are the new trends that you find exciting?

Here are a few examples that are of interest to me – Cell Phones in the Classroom (my current talk topic), 1:1 initiatives, 3D Tours of Museums and sites, Preservation of Archaeological sites (e.g. the 3D Rome Project with Google).

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirkey notes that technology does not create the behavior, rather technology enables a better implementation of an existing behavior.  How do you see that playing out in your classroom and beyond?

You can’t simply throw technology at people and say ‘go’ – you have to teach them to use it properly as well as a digital citizenship aspect.

I teach students from 9-12 grade. I lay down ground rules for behavior online and in the classroom with our tools. I believe that this is an evolutionary process – my younger students are much better at following the rules and listening to input. However, my older students (who have been using these tools for years) live by their own rules and are more resistant to what they see as restrictions.

I believe that educators should not only be saying “Use PowerPoint” or “Make a Video” or “Social Network,” but explain things like digital footprints, Learning Networks, and Digital Citizenship (cyber bullying is pervasive). It will be interesting to see where we are in five years in terms of our online behavior.

You have students create blogs in the classroom.  Has that process been successful in your teaching?

Right now, my student blogs are all set to private, so they do not get a ‘broader’ perspective. However, I have noticed that it gives them opportunities to write, write, write, and write some more – a skill that we all need to develop. They are writing for a public forum, which tends to make them more aware of their words. They also share this information with one another. In some of my classes, this plays out better than others. For example, in my AP Art History Class, my students blog a weekly report on a piece of art. At exam time, they all went back and reviewed one another’s work – so the collaborative aspect is immensely powerful.

What advice do you have to offer anyone interested meshing archaeology, education, and technology as you have done?

It’s all about experimentation – you won’t know if it will work until you try it. Things I thought would be an epic fail – like podcasting – turned out to be an amazing success. Other things that I thought would be amazing – Mind Mapping during lectures – turned out to be an epic fail. However, experiment, experiment, experiment. Also collaborate with your peers – few of my ideas are my own. I learn a lot from others and then implement them as I see fit (perhaps with some modification). Then share your ideas.

You can reach Jennifer via email or subscribe to her blog.

Marketing Museums and Archaeology

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, we do a reasonably good job of marketing on a limited budget.  We have a monthly e-newsletter with a 1700 person buy-in circulation that includes 200 press contacts.  We receive consistent press coverage of our events.  Our Facebook page has grown to over 800 likes with a moderate level of engagement.  We have a good regional distribution network for our rack cards.  We are attentive to off-site events in which we can take part.  Also, we are fortunate that the University of Memphis administers and promotes our Museum.

But we still fall short in taking advantage of many opportunities.

Related, this week a very common event occurred at the Museum.  I was at the front desk chatting with two visitors in their late 50s headed toward California.  After learning their general route was along Interstate 40, that they had plenty of time and a strong interest in Native American culture, I recommended several stops along the way.  First, I told them about the Mississippian era Parkin Archaeological State Park about 45 minutes into Arkansas from Memphis.  Next, we talked about Spiro Mounds, just across the Oklahoma border and within 20 miles of the Interstate.  Finally, I highly recommended the complex of Chickasaw Nation of cultural heritage venues including museums and a new Cultural Center south of Oklahoma City centered in the Sulphur/Ada/Tishomingo area.  The two visitors were most appreciative as they were not aware of any of these venues.

Here is the punch line to that story.  Were I not standing at the front desk, did not engage the visitors, they possibly would not have found any of these museums and archaeological sites.  We had no brochures for the locations (our fault) but even more so, there is no website, brochure, or other resource that is a one stop shopping for, how to “plan your road trip west if you are interested in museums and archaeology”

What are some solutions?

  • Gozaic is a service that attempts to fill the void, but after two years, judging by their website they have not been very successful.  Neither Parkin, Spiro, or the Chickasaw Nation Cultural Center show up on their searches. Administered through Heritage Travel Inc., a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Gozaic has the potential of Culture 24 in the United Kingdom that hosts pages and links that direct the visitor to venues by type, such as prehistoric.
  • Trail guides, such as the Louisiana’s Indians Mounds of Northeast Louisiana, the Megalith Trail of the Morbihan region of France, or the Archaeological and Heritage Trails around Inverness, Scotland UK, are becoming increasingly popular as a means for cultural heritage travel.  However, most of these resources stop at modern state or county political boundaries.  The Great River Road website is an example of a tool that might be of more interest to the regional traveler as it traces cultural heritage venues along the entire Mississippi River corridor in the United States.
  • Perhaps most effective, but least efficient is for each cultural heritage venue to stock the rack cards and basic promotional information for everything within a few hundred mile radius of their site.
  • I wrote about Kent Vickery last week, a former professor of mine who retired to Woodland Park Colorado.  About one year ago, a couple stopped into our Museum.  Again, by coincidence I was at the front desk, asked where the couple were from and they said Woodland Park Colorado.  I asked if they knew Kent Vickery.  They replied they went to the same church as Kent, and he advised them on museums to visit during their trip.  This story and countless others, show that word of mouth seems one of our best promotional tools.
How do you market your site or museum to the cultural heritage traveler?

Upgrade Now or Become Obsolete!

I try to keep abreast of developments in social media as it relates to museums – the tag cloud on this blog reflects that interest.  There are several blogs and e-newsletters that offer insights on how we do social media at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. These resources include Nonprofit Tech 2.0,  Marketing Profs Today, and Tech Soup.  One of the most relevant social media blogs for museums is Coleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone.

“Upgrade Now or Become Obsolete” is a heading from Heather Mansfield’s newly published Social Media for Social Good: A How To Guide for Nonprofits.   The heading seems a dire warning.  With budget cuts and reduced staffs, how can the medium to small-sized museums be expected to take on the additional social media upgrade?  I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question.  However, Mansfield’s book provides a firm basis to assess a museum or other nonprofit institutions social media presence.  She notes in the Introduction that the book can form the basis of a social media strategic plan.  I agree.

For museums who are beginning to think about mobile apps (Web 3.0), but are still grappling with their social media (Web 2.0), and wondering if the upgrade means they are going to abandon their websites (Web 1.0), Mansfield’s book is ideal.  Mansfield divides the book into three parts based on the noted types of online communication methods.  She clearly demonstrates the interrelationship of the three types.  She argues that one is not better than the other, but serve different purposes.  For example after discussing the Web 1.0 static web page and e-newsletter, the subsequent Web 2.0 discussion of Social Media is viewed as a tool that also drives traffic back to the web page.  At the same time, the web page promotes and is tied to the Social Media.

Each discussion in the book concludes with a list of 5 Must Have and 11 Best Practices for topics such as Website Design, E-newsletters, and Donate Now campaigns.  In discussing Social Media projects Mansfield starts with 11 organizational points to consider before even setting up a Facebook page.  A pleasant addition to the book is that Mansfield provides time estimates that different tasks, such as blogging, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, will take for staff to complete each week.  Although only estimates, I found the numbers a bit on the high side and geared more toward larger institutions than the average museum with only a handful of employees.

Another asset to the book is that each section ends with a list of sites that are Examples of Excellence for the points discussed in the chapter.  “Google This” listings for further investigations are also included throughout the book.  The volume concludes with an appendix checklist to guide the reader through the entire social media process.  Mansfield writes that “To utilize every tool and best practice on this checklist could take 12 to 24 months.  Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by this.  As long as you have the will, you have the time” (p.xiv).  My takeaway is that if one expects to “do” social media in the next month and check it off their task list, they will be disappointed.  As well, Mansfield notes that one should not expect huge returns, whether in visitation or donations, after publishing the first few e-newsletters or fund-raising appeals.  Social media is a process not an event.

Mansfield’s book will be useful to the novice just launching an online social media presence and for those who have worked at it for a few years but need to review, fine-tune, revise, and update their process.  I suspect that the only folks who will find the book too simplistic are those on the caliber of Mansfield’s Examples of Excellence.  For the rest of us, Social Media for Social Good is an excellent resource.  For myself, I have a shopping list of tasks to get busy on.

What are the key resources that guide your social media process?

Museums, Archaeology & Mobile Apps

Got myself an iPad a couple of weeks ago so I am now learning about the mobile app business.  I have to confess that the biggest draw for me in taking the iPad plunge was to use a music/sound making app called Reactable.  At the same, I sufficiently rationalized the iPad’s portability and work applications as factors to justify the cost.  To dutifully follow-up on the rationalizations, I went to the App Store and searched on Anthropology, Archaeology, Museums to see what all was out there.  There is a good bit of cool stuff.  You can tour Roman-era London via the Londinium app produced by the Museum of London, explore the Please Touch the Exhibit app from the Melbourne Museum, view fine art in the Philips Collection multimedia app based in Washington D.C., and on and on . . .

There is a good bit of museum and archaeology app stuff out there.  But are these apps the latest fad, toys, or what?  As is often the case the American Association of Museum provides a good summary overview text on the subject.  Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy edited by Nancy Proctor is a good place to start investigating the applicability of these new mobile applications.  Proctor is the Smithsonian’s Head of New Media Initiatives.

In 100 pages, the volume contains 12 brief overview essays on almost all phases of mobile apps from the technical to practical considerations.  An additional 12-page glossary interprets the jargon inherent in any such discussion.  Although a careful read of the entire volume is worthwhile, several essays stood out to me:

  •  Robert Stein’s essay “Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability” deals with the compatibility of museum apps across time and space.  He reports on a paper he and Proctor co-authored at the 2011 Museums and the Web Conference that addresses this issue and references the TourML wiki as a source for ongoing dialogue.  The upshot of the article is recognizing the importance in the early stages of app development that there are industry standards to assure the production of quality and interactive products.
  • Kate Haley Goldman’s essay “Understanding Adoption of Mobile Technology with Museums” is an important first read for anyone considering mobile apps in museum settings.   Goldman astutely observes that “for institutions already using mobile interpretation, encouraging visitors to use the mobile interpretation was the largest challenge.  Yet for others – vendors and researchers, as well as those considering projects – attracting new visitors via mobile was a primary goal.  This disconnect represents a great opportunity for future research” (p. 67).  Goldman speculates that part of the disconnect comes from the validity and reliability of the visitor survey measures.  She argues for visitor based longitudinal studies to help clarify the issue.  This understanding echoes Clay Shirkey’s concern that internet technology must be relevant to existing behavior.
  • Jane Burton’s essay “Playful Apps” provides another layer of insights as the relationship of the museum user to museum apps. She notes that you can explore physics by playing Launchball from the Science Museum of London or learn about human origins by visiting Meanderthal from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  She cites Flurry, a San Francisco based smartphone analytics firm report, in noting that “studying the U.S. mobile gamer, we note that she earns over 50% more than the average American, is more than twice as likely to have earned a college bachelor’s degree, and is more like to be white or Asian” (p. 74).  Like Goldman, she finds that conventional wisdom on app adoption and use in museums might be suspect and counter the conventional wisdom of the typical app user.
The collection of essays provides an excellent starting point and balanced overview for anyone wishing to get beyond the immediate must have hype or the flip side of too quickly dismissing the use of mobile apps in museum or archaeology public engagement efforts.  However, except for an essay on mobile apps at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, no author in the volume considered in a substantive way whether the apps actually fit in with the mission of the museum or organization.  Proposals for adopting such new technology that are thoroughly enmeshed in the mission of the institution will allow justification of the high cost of app development and equipment often needed to operate the systems.  Otherwise, nay sayers (and funders) may argue that we are just jumping on to the latest interpretive fad.

What is your experience with mobile apps?

Museums: Online, Real-Time, or Both?

A couple of years ago there seemed to be a sharp divide between proponents of online vs. real-time museum experiences.  Now the online museum experience is accepted as here to stay.  I was surprised at the lack of hostility from the museum world toward the Google Art Project.  Having gotten past the knee-jerk position of taking sides in the online vs real-time debate, the discussion now focuses on how the two experiences complement each other.  Such is focus of All Together Now: Museums and Online Collaborative Learning by William B. Crow and Herminia Wei-hsin Din, published this year by the American Association of Museums (AAM).

The volume is typical of the AAM publications that offer a general introduction to an area, coupled with an abundance of resources for further study.  The basic premise is laid out in the Preface that states:

We see these changes and innovations as terrifically exciting – not as a celebration of the new media and technologies themselves, but for the possibilities they offer people.  As we shift from the Information Age to the Collaboration Age, these new technologies offer people the ability to work together in ways that simply weren’t possible even 15 years ago.  And, although museums draw strength from their unique physical collections and locations, they also now see themselves as digital collections and communities, located in an increasingly global world (p. 6).

The authors organize the presentation in four parts:

  • A basic discussion of online collaborative learning – the underlying theory, types, resources, and challenges
  • the conditions necessary for implementing online collaborative learning
  • the roles individuals play in the process
  • the tools for building the online collaborative community of practice
A highlight of the book is the substantive case studies that review the methods, successes, and challenges of the online collaborative process.  The case studies include the Smithsonian Commons project, San Diego’s Balboa Park Cultural Partnership of 26 institutions, and other projects both large and small.  The case studies are particularly valuable in that they give equal balance to what worked, what did not work, and future directions.

The message of All Together Now is consistent with that of Clay Shirkey who notes that it is not the media or technology that drives the behavior but rather enables existing interests.  A distinct value of the book takes the collaborative process beyond the online experience to consider collaboration on an inter-institutional basis as well.

Those who are just beginning to explore collaborative online learning will find All Together Now a useful model within which to start their discussions.  For those who have already ventured down this road, the volume contains a framework to assess the efficiency of existing programs.  For all readers, the book has a wealth of online resources to investigate additional online collaborative opportunities.

The authors and case study contributors leave behind the debate of online vs real-time and instead embrace the collaborative reality that marks the current and future phase of museum outreach to the public we serve.  This focus is consistent with the AAM theme for the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Creative Community.

How are you moving your institution or practice toward online collaborative learning?

Are Museums Missing Out on Social Media?

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C., USA

At the American Association of Museum meetings last month, multiple sessions made clear the growing use and importance of social media in museums’ day-to-day functioning and outreach efforts.  Many institutions are investing considerable resources in their social and virtual media presences.  My recent visit to Smithsonian Institution venues in Washington D.C. affirmed this direction.  For example, at the National Museum of American History website, one can spend hours blogging, interacting, and virtually roaming through collections not on exhibit in real-time.  The same is true of the National Museum of the American Indian’s website.

The internationally based New Media Consortium website contains Horizon Project reports on emerging technologies. One report is a 2010 shortlist for Museums that provides a good overview of potential of social media in museums along with case studies.

Museums increasingly rely on social media and other digital resources to deliver on their mission of public outreach and education.  The web abounds with evaluation tools including simple Facebook insights, Google analytics, and many more to assess the demographics and experiences of those who use the social media resources.

But are museums successful in actually reaching their intended audiences with social media tools?  A survey published by Museum Next provides some interesting data on this question.  I was particularly intrigued when looking at the results broken down by user age.  The table below draws on data from the Museum Next website.

Social Media Use Relative to Museum

Here is some of what stands out to me.  The breakdown by age of those individuals who use social media is not surprising, only confirming conventional wisdom: Young folks use social media a lot but older people do to.  The percentage of individuals who are actually fans, subscribe to, or “like” social media pages declines dramatically with increased age.  But here is where things get interesting.  A solid 70% or greater of all age categories report visiting museums or galleries, but only a small percentage of those people are aware of museums that have social media pages and even fewer follow those pages.  If all those individuals who

  • subscribe/like social media in general and also attend museums
  • were aware of museum specific social media pages
  • and subscribed at the same rate to museum social media pages as they do other social media pages
  • then the followers of museum social media pages would instantly increase by 400%.

I am not a statistician (nor do I play one on TV) and I realize that my assertion relies on a couple of assumptions, but the clear sign is that museums do not presently maximize the potential of social media for individuals who both now follow social media and visit museums.

We have a lot of work to do in connecting social media using visitors who come through our museum doors with the social media and virtual presence in which we are currently investing our resources.

How do you promote your social media resources to your visitors?

Evaluating Social Media and Museums

Along with a reported 5000 other individuals, this week I am attending the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums in Houston Texas.  The impact of social media in Outreach efforts is evident by the number of sessions devoted to the topic.

If the first session I attended on Sunday is any indication, then the Annual Meeting will prove well worth the 10-hour drive from the flooded Mississippi Delta at Memphis to the furnace of hot winds blowing in southeast Texas.  The session was We have 10,000 followers . . . Now What?  Evaluating Social Media’s Impact.  I suspect this title resonates with many folks in Museum and other nonprofit institutions.  For many, the aggressive Facebook or Twitter campaigns were launched, likes and followers signed on, and then came the “so what do we do now?”  Web tutorials on building social media platforms abound but there is considerably less discussion on the hows and whys of sustaining the presence.  The AAM session provided some great insights in filling this void.

The presenters were Elizabeth Bolander from the Cleveland Museum of Art,  Sarah Elizabeth Banks from the National Museum of Natural Hisotry (NMNH) at the Smithonian, Jay Geneske from Echo Green, and Ryan French from the Walker Art Center.

The discussion opened by challenging institutions to define their goals in using social media.  Too often museums only conceptualize social media as a seemingly cheap form of marketing to drive visitation to a museum or event.  Sarah Elizabeth Banks provided an alternative approach from the Smithsonian.  Social media at the NMNH is also viewed as a tool for engaging the public directly in research and then disseminating the research results.  For example, when NMNH scientists in Africa needed immediate assistance to identify  fish species.  They announced the project on Facebook, uploaded the images of the fish to Flickr, and via email sent out a call for participation.  As well, the Smithsonian blog reported the project that was also featured on the Smithsonian website. Ultimately the fish identification was a “Facebook Story of the Week for the NMNH.  With support from the virtual community the NMNH scientists completed the identifications in record time.  Instead of viewing social media as a marketing tool to drive visitation, the fish identification project demonstrated how a research project can be assisted through social media.

The session speakers all agreed that social media must flow from the museum’s mission.  As such, institutions need to incorporate social media into the forefront of activities and not as an afterthought.

The Walker Art Center uses YouTube videos to take visitors behind the scenes in exhibit construction.  The speakers also pointed to the power of memory when posting photographs to Flickr of past events and visitors.  Both the Walker Art Center and the Smithsonian actively invite the public to upload their photographs to these projects.

Speakers noted the tremendous resource drain social media can have on a staff.  For example, the Walker Art Center runs 10 separate Facebook pages, blogs, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and more.   Out of the 150 attending this AAM session only one individual’s job responsibilities were full-time in social media.  Most attendees performed social media tasks as an added assignment.  The speakers expressed considerable variation in how their institutions controlled social media output.  However, the need for radical trust was a theme in all the presentations.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, over the past couple of years, we have thrown a lot of virtual spaghetti at the social media wall.  A good bit has stuck.  We, like many or most other institutions now must sit back and soberly assess the impact, and strategically plan our next steps.  My ultimate takeaway from the session is that social media is moving to the forefront of all that we do in Museums and Outreach.  We need to be fully engaged, intentional, and mission driven with this tool as we move forward.

How are you evaluating your social media experiences as you plan for the future?

FaceBook & Radical Trust

Mississippi River source, Lake Itasca, Minnesota

How do you respond to challenging posts on your Facebook (FB) page?  I had a couple of interesting discussions about this in the past week.  First, here is an exchange from our C.H. Nash Museum FB page on the current flooding of the Mississippi River in Memphis Tennessee where we are located:

FB Post:  Is Chucalissa going to flood?

Us: We certainly hope not! We are all keeping a very close eye on the surrounding areas and taking necessary precautions, just in case!

FB Post: what happened in 1937?

One day goes by and we do not respond . . .

FB Post: This too tough of a question?

Us:  We are still researching that question.

I get an email from the staff somewhat frantic feeling they must definitely respond to the question about the 1937 Flood. Instead, we post the following response:

Us:  We routinely receive flash flood warnings during heavy rains primarily from the areas leading up to the bluff on which Chucalissa is located. Don’t know about 1937 and a cursory Google search does not suggest a direct impact on this bluff top. Sounds like an interesting research question though. Have at it!

FB Post:  Oh well shows what I know – I thought Chuckalissa was in the flood plain as like a seasonal fishing camp – and that the other 2 villages located east of their were more permanent.

Here is my takeaway on this experience.  FB pages are meant as social media and that requires an engagement.  FB does not require us to have encyclopedic knowledge, but does require a dialogue.  “Fans” of our page who might have the required knowledge to answer the question.  Could that spark a bit of a research project on their part?  Turns out the person who posted the initial inquiry was in error about our actual location.  But my experience with FB is that the dialogue is key.

I had an interesting experience on the essential interactive nature of FB when we started our FB page a couple of years ago.  I once removed an individual’s post that I considered as somewhat inflammatory and controversial.  The individual then emailed me rather incensed about my action.  We had a brief backchannel discussion where we worked out the issue.  I regretted deleting the post, realizing I could have addressed the issue on-line.  Six months later the same person made a similar type of post.  We immediately responded online in a proactive and engaged way.  The individual has ceased such practices.  Ultimately, our experience shows that if there is accountability on both sides of the equation, the FB dialogue works.

Related, I was speaking to a friend from a large professional organization who lamented that all of their social media posts needed the Director’s approval.  Based solely on my experience at a small museum with a limited staff, to meaningfully take advantage of social media, I needed to give up the control.  Since doing so two years ago, I have cringed a couple of times at our staff posts, provided some corrective yet supportive and encouraging feedback to staff, but we continue to move forward in a good direction.  Importantly, I have learned a great deal about social media from my predominately 20-something staff.

There are many online resources that discuss these issues.  The Museums Social Media wiki has links to lots of social media policies, plans, and resources including those from the Smithsonian, Getty Museum, and National Public Radio.  From the Radical Trust website is a very cool article The Social Media Stage by Collin Douma that “is a practical guide for brand marketers who are just getting their feet wet in social media. With a focus on the community management realm, this paper is loaded with tools, best practices, response protocols, content filters, job descriptions, effort assessments, etc.”

Social media is messy.  Social media is not linear.  Social media is not a monologue.  But, social media is phenomenal tool for engagement, and outreach to a wide diversity of audiences.  And as our demographics below show, FB has certainly moved well beyond the original concept where you needed a college student ID to get in!

What is your experience with radical trust and FB?

Demographic of C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa FB page, May 2011