Having just gotten out of a day of meetings about a single blog that we’re hoping to post in conjunction with a loaned exhibit, I decided I’d make a few things (that I totally just made up) clear about Museums and The Internet. It’s a dreadful topic, I know. We’ve got the archetypal wood bench and artist-plaque-on-frame museums that will have none of that techno-nonsense on one hand and the good-spirited ‘look what I can do!’ museums that abuse their IT guy and his five interns with a new blog, social media account, phone app, and whatever else they deem Tweetable every few days. I could spend this whole post telling you why both of these approaches just don’t work, but instead I thought I’d share my opinions on what actually does!
Here for your reading pleasure are Colleen’s 5 Golden Rules for the Museum in the Techno-Age:
1. Content, content, content! The number one rule of the internet in the museum is: never forget that the internet is no longer a novelty, an attraction, or a testament to how ‘in touch’ your museum is; it is a tool. One small, unpublicised (or worse, content-less) WordPress blog, facebook page, or twitter account isn’t going to help your image simply because you have it. If the content of your online activity, whether it is a blog recording the process of putting up an exhibit or a kid-friendly game about the life of Gauguin, doesn’t directly resonate with and give something back to the viewer, they aren’t going to bother with it. In essence: no one cares that you have a guy who knows how to use a computer anymore. It’s how you use the computer and the internet to aid and enhance the learning process that matters.
2. Hire a guy or don’t bother. There are so many facets to having an ‘internet presence’ that it can’t be simply a side-project. The “face of the internet” changes so often that if you aren’t completely, religiously on top of it, you run the risk of becoming like your childhood friend’s mom who always tried just that bit too hard to fit in (“I just L-O-Led so hard! I was getting funky with some sweet new jambeatz when I tripped on my swagger! YOLO!”). Don’t be that guy. Be creative with the internet and use the limitless boundaries to your advantage to reach previously uninterested audiences, but be aware of the wreck that can ensue if you try to jump on an internet fad. Unless, of course, you are so in-tune with the internet, the specific community you are trying to reach, and are absolutely confident in your fluency in Meta-Internet-Speak (that is, attracting specific internet communities by intentionally referencing extremely old and hackneyed jokes) that you can get away with riding the trends. The only time I have ever seen this successfully employed was on a 65+ docent badge at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles that read something along the lines of: “I can haz art? Ask me about cats!” with a picture of the keyboard cat on it, I believe. To this day, I don’t know why they did this and I could kick myself that I didn’t have the time to ask. Hint: Cats and socially aware museum docents are good for the next 10 years. Probably.3. Utilise the internet to catch new audiences – and not just the ones you might think. We tend to associate the internet with teenyboppers and those youngsters who play on The Facebook, but it is 2013 and there are in fact very few age , gender, and social groups that aren’t represented. That being said, ‘The Internet’ is not a catchall community that we can just tap into and expect people to pay attention to us; it is an umbrella over a million smaller communities and your web presence has to be specific enough to catch at least one of those communities’ attention without alienating the rest. That is not to mention that the trends of the internet – the sites and forums used, particularly in the social media – change at an extremely rapid rate, so who is to say that a brilliantly laid out Flickr account won’t be obsolete tomorrow? If you’ve got the full manpower to commit, by all means, invade the internet by force and use the tools it gives you to access a new audience, but don’t go in unprepared. The key here is to engage the community with interactive – and community building – content that won’t simply be a one-off exercise for the casual browser. We want repeat visitors and heated discussions and new perspectives, don’t we? Then we need to make a venue for it.
4. ‘Engaging’ is different than ‘interactive’ and that slight distinction is crucial. You can make any topic interactive by putting information on some form of technological interface and adding a few clicky buttons, but, to the average 21st century museum-goer, that’s going to be fun for about 20 seconds. Yes, even for kids. Every ten year old has a smartphone or tablet these days, so your average click-through slide show isn’t going to leave much of an impression. Of course, the primary way to make something engaging harkens back to my number one rule: content, content, content! As far as the interface goes, however, the key is to make the viewer feel (and be!) involved. This means looking beyond the basic fact-vomiting system of teaching and into the multi-disciplinary, obscure, unique ways to teach. One of my favourites that is being utilised more and more is the three-dimensional walk-through to give the viewer an impression of a work’s original context. This is obviously useful only in certain contexts (antiquities; outdoor statues; anything that was once in a palace, cathedral, etcetera), but the extra layer of exploratory knowledge – letting the viewer discover for him/herself the world in which this work of art was made – is one way to engage. Another way to really bring them in is to ask them a question and let them respond. Now, this raises a very important discussion of moderating and control, but this again brings us to a previously discussed rule: hire a guy. Moderated open-source blogs are easy to set up and can be released and taken down to correspond to individual exhibits without hassle. Not only does this type of ‘educational tool’ force the viewers to really think about the exhibit, works of art, and question being asked as well as giving them a public outlet for their thoughts, but it also allows us on the receiving end to see what our guests honestly think and feel about what we do! I’m a huge fan of this particular branch of educating, as it were, but the possibilities are endless.
5. I can’t say this enough. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: The internet needs to work for you and your collection, not the other way around. It is so easy to allow web and technology-based elements lord over an exhibit – or even a whole museum – in the name of ‘public engagement,’ but it simply doesn’t work like that. If your technological tool is distracting the viewer from actually looking at the work of art, you’re doing it wrong. We need to always remember that art museums are about the art, not the way it is packaged.