Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Reaching out to younger audiences with n8

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Concerned, as they are, with history and permanence, museums are not generally in the business of shaking things up. The idea of new blood – a youthful, invigorating force that can re-imagine an organisation – is not usually high on the Trustee agenda at established and venerable institutions. Big changes are often slow, perhaps almost generational, yet these same institutions are perpetually charged with attracting new and different types of audiences.

In fact, one of the most consistent themes of the past decade or so of museum funding, at least in the UK, has been the push for audience development: how to reach groups that have been underrepresented amongst museum visitors. One such group is young adults and one network of people outside the UK, Amsterdam-based n8, has taken great strides to address this, bringing young adults closer to the city’s museums whilst remaining independent of the institutions themselves.

Building gradually from the success of a late night opening of Amsterdam museums in 2000 (in text vernacular n8 would be pronounced as ‘nacht’, the Dutch for ‘night’), n8 became a non-profit organisation in 2003. ‘The idea initially came from a board of directors from Amsterdam museums who decided it was a good idea to set up a group that could connect the museums with young people in the city,’ says Sarah Berckenkamp, n8’s current project manager.

Museum Night, n8’s flagship annual event, now attracts more than 25,000 visitors to its participating venues, including the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Museum and the Jewish Historical Museum. Almost 70 per cent of these visitors are under 35. This is no mean feat, if UK research by the Museums, Libraries & Archives council (MLA) is anything to go by. In 2004, the MLA reported that only 27 per cent of museum visitors in England were aged 35 or under. The same research showed that 16-34 year olds represented a smaller proportion of museum visitors than their proportion of the total population. In fact, it is only in the 35-plus age ranges where the proportion of museum visitors outstrips that age group’s proportion of the population as a whole: 27 per cent of museum visitors fell in the 35-44 age bracket, even though this group only represented 19 per cent of the population of England, according to the 2004 Renaissance Visitor Exit Survey.

Attracting this younger adult audience is tricky. Cultural awareness and reflection with a historical perspective – the kind presented by most museums – is something that tends to develop with age. Young people, particularly 16-24 year olds, typically inhabit a different cultural field from older generations, consuming and producing material in different modes and with different perspectives.

Recognising this, n8 has developed a range of platforms for engagement and interaction between Amsterdam’s museums and its younger citizens, targeting in particular the city’s creative sector. As well as the Museum Night, n8 programmes and promotes Nacht Salon, another late night event that takes place in just one museum – a different one each year – and features a specially selected programme of workshops, music, talks, tours, films and installations, all served up with a bar running into the small hours.

With its later night and culturally youthful programming, the Nacht Salon attracts an even younger audience than the main Museum Night, with an average visitor age of just 23. To make these events successful, the museums have to relinquish control of their spaces for the duration of the night, allowing n8 to use the museums in ways they think will appeal to their network of young people. ‘The museums have come to trust us to run these nights well – you have to be trusted to do something like this. But we do build the programme around the collections and exhibitions of the host museum, working with the curators on ideas,’ says Berckenkamp.

In another strand, called n8pro, the organisation offers Amsterdam’s museums 20 young professionals, aged 18-28 and drawn from outside the museum sector, as consultants on reaching younger audiences. This ‘cultural advice’ is richer than an ad hoc focus group, but remains drawn from outside the institutions themselves. With a keen awareness of the cultural make-up of Amsterdam’s young adults, the n8pro network can advise on things such as ​​communications, web strategy, programming and public outreach.

Online initiatives from n8 include regular blogging and Nachtgeluiden, or Night Sounds, an mp3-based platform allowing people to record their personal responses to museum objects and exhibitions and upload them for others to listen to and share. ‘We want the museums to get to know and understand the world of young people and we want to get these young people to get to know their museums,’ says Geer Oskam, n8’s previous project manager. ‘I ask my friends what they read or which websites they visit and we try to make a connection with [those media rather than] advertise. We don’t have a lot of money and we don’t read a lot of advertisements ourselves.’

Because no one at the foundation stays longer than three years, Oskam has now moved on from n8, replaced by Berckenkamp. New blood is built into the n8 personnel structure from the very beginning, with more experienced members handing over the reins to younger recruits. And although n8 staff and contributors are interested in and passionate about museums, they are not already museum professionals. In these ways, n8 ensures that its rolling programme of activities continues to be drawn from, and developed for, the young people that the group was set up to reach.


Forget apps and get responsive

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Technology has changed the expectations of arts audiences, they no longer want information broadcast at them, they want tailored experiences available where and when they want them and the revolution in smart phones offers a powerful tool to achieve this.

Since the advent of the iPhone in 2008, smart phone ownership has grown at a rapid pace, with 47% of the UK population now owning such a device. With the relatively short timescale which people keep mobile phones (2 years) this is set to continue rise.

A smart phone app lets an arts organisation get into their audiences pockets, whether that is in the form of an exhibition guide, a promotional game or exclusive video of a new production, but this rush to be on mobile devices often seems to be done out of fear rather than for sound business reasons.

Many arts organisations feel under pressure to develop apps, worrying that they will fall behind the technological curve if they don’t offer a way to interact with them on the move and the result is poor apps and rich app developers.

Developing apps is an expensive business, with the average costing over £20,000. However the cost of reaching all smart phone users is far greater, as three main mobile operating systems exist (in November 2011 the three biggest players were iPhone with 30.9% of the UK market, Android 46.6% and BlackBerry 16.9%) and an app developed for one platform will not work on the other devices.

Faced with expensive development costs and fragmented smart phone platforms, I believe that arts organisations should take a step back from apps and first consider how their website is working on the smaller screen of these devices.

The mobile web isn’t as sexy as apps, but it has a vital role to play. Research suggests that while your existing audiences may download an app, those who are not already attending your exhibitions, productions or events are far more likely to end up on your website.

Over the past few years the amount of traffic to websites from smart phones has been steadily increasing, this isn’t seen by most as having reached a point where it is worth developing a website especially for smaller screen sizes, but I believe that doing this can increase traffic from these devices a huge amount.

In 2011 the English Heritage Picnic Concerts developed a mobile friendly website for the first time, the result was that half of the web traffic came from mobile devices, a much greater percentage than the usual 10% you would expect to see coming from smart phones.

Most websites don’t work well on smart phones, however responsive website design is changing that.

Traditionally, websites have been designed on a one size fits all basis. A website will be displayed the same on a large computer monitor as on a smart phone. Responsive website design changes this. The website is designed to be fluid, changing how and what it displays depending on the device.

This means for example that you are able to reduce the content shown on a mobile phone to focus more on the kind of information your audiences will need on the move, highlighting what’s on and how to find your venue while hiding less important information such as news and collections.

It is important with responsive websites to think about your content before the design, so that you can prioritise which information is essential for all users to see, and what can be hidden for those browsing on mobile devices.

Responsive website design is now the industry standard, and any cultural organisation looking at redeveloping their website should demand a solution that will work across devices ranging from large desktop computer monitors down to the smallest smart-phone.

Two recent responsive websites which we’ve launched at my agency will give you some idea of how responsive works, York Minster and Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives. Look at these two websites on different devices and you’ll quickly understand the benefits of responsive website design.

Social commerce and the museum

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Most cultural organisations now understand the value of social media, and big brand destinations like TATE, Guggenheim and MoMA have excelled at creating huge fan bases on Facebook and Twitter.

While promoting the museum offer as a whole and creating engaging posts or tweets has for many become standard practice, one area of the museum which doesn’t seem to have felt this social media impact is the museum shop.

Only a few institutions have Facebook pages or Twitter profiles for their retail operations. The MoMA design store has over 9000 fans, but this kind of success is the exception rather than the rule.

As social commerce becomes the norm for high street brands, are museum shops missing out on a vital channel to promote their offer and increase profits?

What is social commerce?

Social commerce is the integration of social media where people shop, and shopping where people are social.

This could mean selling items from your shop on your Facebook page, alongside a ticket to your latest blockbuster exhibition. Several brands are doing this, and tools like North Social make it easy for you to showcase what your shop sells on the social network.

North Social has a number of other tools which can help a museum to promote it’s retail offer. For example, you could offer exclusive discounts for fans with a ‘fan-gating’ page which requires people to like your institution to access the offer.

This not only promotes your retail offer, but also gives an incentive for people to become a fan.

As well as being active on websites like Facebook, museums shops can benefit greatly from adding ‘like’ buttons to the products in their online stores. Across the web, the Facebook ‘like’ button are clicked 1 million times per day, and this provides an easy way for people to share products that they like.

A recent survey found that 83% of UK consumers want to share information about purchases with friends and family, and people do this before, during and after buying.

Eventbrite, the ticketing company found that a Facebook like was worth on average $2.52 to those selling through their website, whilst a tweet was worth less than a fifth of that at just 43¢.

Another tool that museum shops might find useful is Facebook Connect. This uses information from an individuals Facebook profile to create personalized content. Amazon and Ebay use this to help their customers to select gifts for their Facebook friends, while MoMA used the same technology to create custom events programmes for their audiences.


Big brands see Facebook as a key battleground for the hearts and minds of consumers, but it doesn’t need to cost a fortune to use social media to benefit your museum shop.

Look at how you can add social sharing in to your online store and build from there. Track every click through to purchase with Google Analytics and learn what works and what doesn’t work for your unique audiences.

Instagram for museums

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Instagram is a photo sharing App for iPhone, which allows people to share real-time photos with their followers. Over 12 million people from all over the world are using the free App.

Instagram makes sharing photos, and looking at pictures from the people your following effortless, through an intuitive interface which delivers what could be described as a ‘visual Twitter’, a stream of pictures from around the world which give you a glimpse into people’s lives.

I feel that Instagram can offer museums a great platform to connect with the public, afterall museums are visual places and this makes it easy to capture and share pictures of events, objects and exhibitions in seconds.

Instagram also allows you to share your pictures in to Twitter and Facebook making it even more useful. Rather then seeing Instagram as yet another social media platform that you would need to create content for, you can use it as a tool to put pictures on your existing networks, and in doing so, also tip your toe into this new social arena.

Brooklyn Museum is one of the first institutions to use Instagram, and after posting just 111 photo’s they have 6595 followers. Followers are interacting with Brooklyn Museum by commenting on the images they post, or simply by liking them.

Getting started.

- Download the Instagram App (iPhone / iPod only)
- Secure your museums username
- Post a few pictures and experiment with the filters
- Share content into Facebook and Twitter
- Tell your followers in these networks that your now on Instagram
- Ask for feedback
- Interact with followers
- Show your museum in new and interesting ways
- Use hashtags
- Use the Instagram API to put the pictures on your website

Rethinking the Museum for the digital age

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The following presentation was made by MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson at the Gulf Arts and Cultural Leaders meeting in Qatar in November 2011.

Today I want to talk about a vision for the museum for the digital age that we now find ourselves to be living in. You are building the next generation of great museums here in the Gulf, and I think you have an incredible opportunity to move beyond your European and American counterparts by using technology to create a better museum.

I have been told that historically there is not a museum going culture in the Gulf and that this means that to a certain extent your local audiences lack an understanding of what a museum does and why they should visit.

Personally, I feel that this presents an incredible opportunity to move beyond traditional museum models and give audiences exceptional experiences.

In truth, the museum has always evolved. From its origins in Ancient Greece, through the private collections of European Aristocracy and wealthy merchants to the public galleries of the 18th and 19th centuries with their focus on educating the masses.

Today the museum must continue to change. This is in part both enabled and in response to technology in the world around us, and the changing expectations that our audiences have because of this technology.

Consumer technology has put incredibly powerful tools in to the hands of the masses. A cell phone can guide it’s owner around a city, a computer game can be controlled by the movements of a player and Google have put the knowledge of the world at everyone’s fingertips.

One of the biggest changes in technology has been the evolution of the internet from a place to find information into a forum for collaboration, a place to create, curate and share online and I think this could be a metaphor for a museum of the digital age.

Through this more social web, our audiences have found there voice, and I think that exciting possibilities exist in encouraging them to see the museum as another space in which to express themselves.

I am not suggesting that a member of the public can be more knowledgeable about a collection then a curator, nor are they a replacement for this expert. However, everyone can have a valid opinion on art, and even the most unexpected person can add important information to a collection. So perhaps it is naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.

Beyond the value of this kind of interaction to the institution, I feel that a more participatory experience based on personal observation better facilitates outcomes which are of value to the individual.

Lets look at three examples of digital engage from Brooklyn Museum, TATE and a group of smaller institutions from across Yorkshire in England.

Click! was a crowdsourced and crowd curated exhibition which took it’s inspiration from the critically acclaimed book The Wisdom of Crowds, which asserts that a diverse crowd is often wiser at making decisions than expert individuals.

Members of the public were asked to submit photographs on the theme “Changing Faces of Brooklyn,” along with an artist statement.

These pictures were uploaded through the museum’s website, where an online community scored the images.

The top ranked 20% of the images submitted were then displayed in the gallery according to their relative ranking from the juried process.

What is perhaps most interesting is that when a panel of experts ranked the images, there were a lot of similarities between their selection and those picked by the crowd.

I think this is a great example of a museum using technology to get audiences to participate in culture. This made people step beyond browsing an exhibition, and offered them perhaps a richer experience by asking them to think about what makes a good photograph, what makes one image more successful than another and whether they represent the “Changing faces of Brooklyn”.

TATE Modern in London also looked to engage audiences with ‘one-to-one with the artist’ a digital project which accompanied the Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds installation which ran from late 2010 till May 2011.

This invited members of the public to record videos in which they ask the artist questions about his art, his work and his life. Just under 23,000 questions were recorded, and Weiwei took the time to answer some of these with his own video responses.

Another example of dialogue around art comes from Yorkshires Favourite Painting, a project which asked members of the public to pick their favourite artwork from over 30 participating museums and galleries and say why you liked it and where they would like to hang a replica, the prize which was offered to those who took part.

Over 600 people participated, taking the time to think about what art meant to them and gave very personal responses to art. So one painting could feature in stories of mythology, marriage, beauty, childhood, home and even prompt someone to respond with a poem.

While these musings on art are far from a curatorial point of view, they give a different perspective on the paintings, and perhaps one which the public will find easier as a starting point from which to explore the collection.

I few this kind of participatory experience as the next step in the evolution of museums, which have in the past century transformed from being primarily focused on their own scholarly pursuits such as collecting and researching to becoming defined more by how it serves its audiences and how they can facilitate the experiences these people have in their institutions be they educational, social, emotional or even entertainment.

While these projects have on the whole proved successful, I think that this is just the start of a revolution that will create a museum with the buzz of the constantly changing social web, a place of exchange where people come together to be inspired, to be creative and learn from each other.

The idea of this museum for a digital age won’t appeal to everyone, and I think that highlights another exciting opportunity that technology provides. Today a museum creates one experience for all it’s audiences, but in our reimagined institution, every visitor could have an experience tailored for them.

Today I am going to look at three experiences of audiences interacting with a fictional museum of the future, our guides on this journey will be Akram, a 12 year old boy who is visiting with his family, Mohammad a student who is studying in a nearby city and Nina, an American academic with an interest in the museum’s collection.

Lets start our journey with Mohammad.

He is introduced to the museum through a smart phone application which he reads about in a newspaper. This app takes archive photographs from the museum and overlays these on the location where they were taken through augmented reality.

This takes the museum collection beyond it’s walls and makes it accessible to the public in a way which makes these old pictures seem more relevant to contemporary audiences. It generates conversations about local history and is perhaps the best kind of marketing, something which spreads virally and gets people talking about the museum.

This smart phone application also invites contributions from the public, so Mohammad can add information to a photograph about a shop in which his grandfather once worked.

This could be just a short note, or perhaps he would use his smart-phone to record a film of his grandfather speaking about working in this place and life during the period when the picture was taken and share this with the museum.

The app encourages Mohammad to visit an exhibition of these photographs at the museum, where he is able to appreciate the images both as large prints and through large interactive touch screens which allow him to zoom into archival photography on an interactive map.

During his visit, he learns that the museum wants to contrast these archival images with contemporary images, which they are asking members of the public to contribute through a competition. As a keen photographer, Mohammad is pleased to have the opportunity to have his images displayed within the museum.

Both the chance to contribute information about the historic images and to participate in capturing contemporary photography of the city give Mohammad the opportunity to feel part of the museum, this is an institution that values his opinion and contribution and therefore, he feels a sense of ownership.

I think this sense of ownership is key to building a community around an art institution.

A contemporary photography competition lets the museum reach out to a large niche audience, those interested in taking pictures. Museums around the world have used this kind of model to attract those interested in video, design, craft and art through similar calls for participation.

While Mohammad is experiencing the museums collections in person, at the other side of the world American academic Nina is browsing the collection online, having discovered it collection through a Google search.

Like most museums it’s website contains information about their collection, displaying a picture and description of each item, but this goes one step further by learning from how the visitor interacts with the data.

For example, as Nina browses the collection the website might learn that she is interested in modern Islamic art, and therefore, tailor the content she sees to suggest other items from the collection, upcoming exhibitions or events that might interest her.

This increases the time that she spends on the site and encourages her to come back.

This kind of feature was made popular by Amazon, and it’s ‘customers who bought this also bought’ feature. Why should a museum website not work in a similar way if it gives her a better experience and makes the museum seem more relevant to her?

The website also lets Nina bookmark items or build collections of items that interest her and invite others to view this and to comment on the items she has selected.

One of the collections that Nina has created has been shared with a group of her students, and she can log-in and join in with the conversation about the items.

This kind of dialogue is encouraged by the museum, and curators and other interested individuals have also engaged with the students, answering questions or discussing the merits of the items that Nina has selected.

The museum might give website visitors the chance to take this experience further, inviting someone like Nina not only to print out a picture of an item, but to print a photopolmer resin replica through a 3D printer.

This technology was recently used by an exhibition in the United States to print a replica of King Tuts mummy for an exhibition on ancient Egypt.

This would allow Nina and her class to look at items from the collection in detail, without ever stepping foot in the museum, it presents a new frontier in the concept of sharing a museum collection.

Meanwhile, back at the museum Akram and his family are arriving for their visit.

When they walk through the doors Akram, and his brothers are given handheld computer tablets which give them access to digital experiences to accompany their visit to the museum.

In the lobby of the museum projections update with the latest activity and comments from around the museum. Two visitors are discussing an object from the collection, one is standing in the gallery space with the object while the other is thousands of miles away in America, viewing the collection online.

Other activity includes visitors collecting objects for their virtual collections, adding addition information to the museum’s collection database and sharing objects with friends.

This shows visitors that the museum is alive and as constantly changing as the internet. This sets the museum very much in the present, rather than being an institution focused on the past.

As his brothers race in to the first gallery, Akram logs into his tablet computer using his log in from the Facebook social networking website, this allows the device to personalise the content for him. Another user can be looking at the same object, and be fed totally different information based on their age, interests and experience that they want from the museum.

Someone looking for a cognitive experience might get a video in which an artist speaks about their work, while someone is more interested in an emotional experience might get questions about how an artwork makes them feel.

For Akram, it has scanned his interests as recorded in his Facebook profile and it suggests a game which will let him compete against other visitors his age by finding facts about the objects in the gallery. He must collect objects and answer questions to unlock hidden information about the collection, giving him an incentive to go beyond the usual six seconds a visitor spends with an item.

Increasingly the way in which children learn is being influenced by computer games, and including games as part of the museums learning experience will appeal to those who enjoy learning in this way.

As Akram walks around the gallery the way he uses the tablet is tracked by the museums computer system, it feeds him content relevant to each object he looks at and learns from every interaction measuring how long each he spends with each item and which digital information is most popular.

This informs not only which information should be displayed to Akram, but also the design of future exhibitions based on how people are moving around the gallery spaces.

In addition to tracking through his tablet computer, some museums are starting to look to the world of retailing to build up data about how people are using their spaces. They run data from close circuit cameras through computer programmes to measure which areas have the most footfall and linger times.

In retail this measures which are the most valuable spaces within stores, and in museums it can do the same. This would allow curators to locate blockbuster items in the spaces where they can be most appreciated.

I was listening to a piece on the radio last week in the UK about a loyalty programme which the countries biggest supermarket chain runs. The person who developed this scheme which awards points which can be redeemed against future purchases for every product bought said that the value in the scheme was the knowledge it gave them about their customers. This knowledge gave them the power to stay relevant to their customers and I think museums could learn from this.

As Akram enters the second gallery, he notices the digital projections on one of the walls changing. This has been triggered by him entering the room and some of the objects this displays now reflect items he has ‘liked’ when browsing the museum’s website.

In other spaces in the museum, these digital projections might show items that will surprise him, challenge him, or intrigue him.

As Akram browses the collection the handheld tablet shows relevant information about each object, but also prompts him with questions, giving him the option to move his experience beyond a passive one, and leave his thoughts and opinions.

But do the opinions of a twelve year old really merit sharing, do they deserve a place within a museum? I believe that they do, because allowing Akram to have a say and validating this by sharing it in the museums digital space is going to encourage him to engage with the museum and strengthen his interest in their collections.

But this digital channel is not only the preserve of the visitors, it is also used extensively by museum staff. If Akram asks a question about an item in the collection, he will receive a video answer from an expert on the subject. This takes visitors virtually behind the scenes and gives the passionate experts working within the museum a voice in this digital space.

As Akram enters the next gallery, the handheld tablet tells him that a Facebook friend has bookmarked an item in this room. This displays the item and the comment that his friend left. This kind of personal recommendation allows visitors to turn the museum experience into a social one, even if they are visiting alone.

Akrams interaction with the museum reaches beyond it’s walls, broadcasting his thoughts and the relevant items to his friends on social networking websites.

When he returns home, perhaps Akram would receive something from the museum to reward his interaction with the collection. An example I like of this comes from the National Maritime Museum in London, where a visitor who uses their compass card to learn about and collect objects receives a personalised ebook, which references the items that they have interacted with on their visit.

In Conclusion

So in conclusion, I want to leave you with five points that I hope you will take away from this stroll through the museum of the digital age.

1. Technology: The scenarios that I’ve spoken about today aren’t science fiction. This technology is all very real and museums are making use of it, but nobody is yet using it to it’s full potential.

2. Expectations: People have access to incredible technology in their homes and I believe that this is changing their expectations of the world around them. If museums don’t do digital, then they risk seeming irrelevant in a digital world.

3. Participation: I believe that offering museum visitors participatory experiences is offering them better experiences. We should want our visitors the opportunity to step beyond passive visits and create new ways to encourage them to think about our collections and their individual place in the world.

4. Personalisation: We need to recognise that different people want different experiences from the museum, and create personalised experiences to appeal to the different motivations.

5. Future: By creating a more participatory culture in our museums, we can learn from our audiences. Giving us the knowledge to stay relevant in a constantly changing world.

What would your museum for the digital age look like?

Google+ and the museum

Monday, November 14th, 2011

It has been five months since Google+ launched, and while the initial buzz around this new social network being a potential Facebook killer hasn’t proved correct, the service has ‘slowly’ built a user base of over 50 million.

This week Google+ added Pages, brand-specific accounts for businesses. Companies like Pepsi, GAP and McDonald’s have been quick to set up profiles for themselves, but is there a place for museums and galleries on this new social network, and for those struggling to keep up with their institutions profiles on Facebook and Twitter is it really worthwhile adding Google+ to the mix?

Here are a few reasons to consider it:

1. Landgrab
Google don’t verify that Google+ business page are being set up by someone authorised to do so by the organisation in question, so it is important for museums and galleries grab their pages before someone else does.

2. Google+ doesn’t have to be hard work
You don’t have to create unique content for this new social network. If your already producing posts for Facebook and Twitter, just replicate some of these for Google+ (Disclaimer: though in time you may find this audience does need different content).

3. Video
When Google+ launched earlier in the year it included a ‘video conferencing’ tool called ‘hangouts’. This is also available for business users, including museums and I feel that this has huge potential.

Imagine a curator hosting ‘hangout’ sessions and engaging in discussions with followers, I think that is an exciting prospect.

4. Less competition
While Facebook and Twitter have more users then Google+, they also have the disadvantage of a lot more competition for the attention of users.

Google+ lets you reach audiences through less cluttered newsfeeds.

5. Search
While Facebook uses a walled garden approach where content can only be accessed by members, Google+ is an open platform so someone doesn’t need to subscribe to your newsfeed to read them.

Search is Google’s big advantage over Facebook and you can guarantee that they will leverage this to make it worth businesses, and museums being on Google+.


It is early days and Google+ may thrive or struggle to survive, but I feel that it is worth museums and galleries reserving their Google+ profile and dipping a toes in the water.

Has your museum set up a profile on Google+, what response have you had so far?


Social Media Dialogue

Monday, April 4th, 2011

As the social media explosion rolls on, more and more talk centres around the possibilities – and realities – of interaction, collaboration and dialogue. Now we are all so easily connected, conversations may flow back and forth like never before; at least that’s the promise.

For museums, this is an enticing prospect: the offer of readymade channels through which to converse with the public, near and far, at relatively low cost. But have social media really brought about genuine dialogue between cultural heritage institutions and society at large? And what are the implications of trying to promote such two-way communication?

Many museums are no strangers to dialogue and debate with their visitors. Some of the larger institutions have already developed dedicated physical spaces in order to host and promote debating events. The Natural History Museum’s Nature Live Studio and the Science Museum’s Dana Centre are two high profile examples of science-based dialogue and discussion forums. In fact, the Dana Centre was specifically established, eight years ago, as a facility to engage adults in scientific dialogue away from the notionally kid-friendly main museum. Focus groups had revealed that this kind of two-way debate would appeal to adults and help draw them into the Science Museum.

Online social media would appear to offer an even simpler route to spark up conversation with anyone interested in the work of a museum. In particular, social media allow for ongoing, sustained conversations, as well as one-off themed events. Yet despite this promise, social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter are still predominantly used as marketing and public relations channels, occasionally providing question and answer type interactions between the public and the museum.

But do these question and answer exchanges necessarily connote conversation and dialogue? ‘Crucially, for communication to count as dialogue, it needs a third statement to be made in order to demonstrate that both parties are responsive,’ says Kevin Bacon, curator of photographs at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove. ‘It’s great, of course, that social media are being used for Q&A sessions and marketing, but these are essentially traditional activities that are using new media for much the same ends as before. I think we need to look at social media at a much more elemental level and consider how this can transform museums’ relationship to society.’

At their best, museums are fantastically rich repositories of knowledge and sites of investigation about the world and our lives within it. Because these subjects are so vast, museums arguably have as much to receive from the public as they do to give. Interpretation is often personal and it can be enriching for curators to hear about other people’s knowledge and experience of an object or collection. In a recent science fair at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, for example, I used a West African talking drum to demonstrate the properties of pitch in sound, but an African visitor to the event actually knew a lot more about how the drums were used indigenously than I did.

When it comes to dialogue, museums need to ask what they might want from conversations with the public and what social media can offer. ‘The best dialogue aims at reconstructing collections’ original contexts, enabling people to make new meanings and cultural works and applying this knowledge to the future,’ says Bridget McKenzie, director of Flow Associates. ‘The ultimate goals of the best kinds of practice involve wider social or cultural transformation, the creation of a learning society, for example. These are far more important than corporate goals, although bonus outcomes might be raised profile, participation and support for the organisation.’

According to McKenzie, online interactions range widely. There is the ‘superficial and fragmentary’ testing of social media, as well as more focused corporate programmes that engage people in order to sell tickets, boost membership and generally increase visitor numbers. As we move toward educational dialogue, exchanges can become richer. Traditional ‘informative’ methods offer information about collections, ideas and histories, but at the far end of the spectrum there can also be transformative dialogic learning, ‘where the goal is to solve problems or create a shared horizon of understanding through activities ranging from conversation through to collaborative research or creative experiment,’ says McKenzie.

The depth of these kinds of objectives is a far cry from a few question and answer posts on a Facebook page. They are bound up in the definition of the role, purpose and even operational structure of a museum. Corporate and PR messages do not rely on dialogue, but effective transformative learning surely does. Nurturing this level of communication requires a concerted effort to promote a culture of conversation amongst all museum professionals, not just those who operate the Twitter account. But according to Nina Simon, a leading US consultant on museums and web 2.0, most museums ‘don’t have the resources or policies to support real dialogue with the public, even if they are present in social media-land.’

But the numbers are there: Facebook page ‘Likes’ for some of the bigger museums are well into the tens (or even hundreds) of thousands. The real question is what to do with them. For Bacon, using social media for dialogue and conversation could be a step towards embedding museums more directly into everyday life.

‘Museums have changed substantially in the last ten years or so, but I suspect that most people still perceive them as little more than a place where there are things to look at,’ he says. ‘Social media are a very good means of conveying what museums actually do and by showing what goes on behind the scenes there is much better chance of threading museums into the popular imagination. This can then provide a platform for developing new audiences, philanthropy and, perhaps most importantly at present, political support. None of that requires dialogue necessarily, but any conversations that we can hold will enormously enhance and strengthen these new relationships.’

Needless to say, cultivating any kind of ongoing dialogue requires commitment and an investment of time, resources and energy. If museums really want to set themselves up for deeper conversation – something beyond online events listing, status updates and 140-character Q&As – there’s doubtless plenty of work ahead.


Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.

Participatory design

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

A young woman is strolling down the street in a medium-sized British town. Rounding a corner she is confronted with an altercation between a white man and an Asian store-owner. It is not clear what has caused the confrontation, but the aggression has a palpable racial element. As the shouting and gesticulating heightens, the observer takes out her phone and grabs a couple of photographs, as well as a short, ten-second video, all the while making sure she is out of sight.

Later, as she comes into the city centre, the woman decides to pop in to the local museum to see what’s on and to pass half an hour before a meeting. As it turns out, the museum has just opened a temporary exhibition looking at the history of race relations in the city, offering oral histories, photographs and cultural objects imported to the town by its Asian immigrants. She notices that one section of the exhibition is soliciting visitor input, encouraging people to share their own stories, experiences and images. These contributions will be collected on a special microsite, built to accompany the exhibition, elements of which form part of a constantly updated digital display inside the museum.

Recalling the incident she witnessed in the street, the woman decides to upload the pictures to the museum’s Flickr group, set up especially for the exhibition, where she is able to geotag the exact location of the event using Google maps, as well as the time and date it took place. One of the pictures – a decisive photographic moment – captured the white man’s grimacing face, his first finger rigidly poking towards the anxious looking Asian shopkeeper. Shorn of context, the image could of course have any number of meanings; but the photographer is able to provide a firsthand account of the racist abuse she overheard and which she duly records in the image’s caption.

With this contribution the exhibition has become live and dynamic. The museum has taken a difficult subject, with historical and social dimensions, examined it and opened it to the public for further and ongoing discussion and interpretation. Although focused around the physical exhibition itself, much of this public participation is made possible using online services which are constructed along the social media principles of interconnection, sharing and collaboration – an approach to web-based services encapsulated in the term web 2.0.

But more than this, in planning for the exhibition the museum staff decided to engage people outside the organisation to work through the design process itself. This participatory design sought input from a small number of community groups, local businesses and residents. One of the outcomes of this ‘outside’ contribution was the decision that the microsite, while hosted and branded by the museum, would be maintained and moderated by two volunteers. One of these volunteers works for a community outreach programme which organises events promoting integration and positive interaction between different sections of the community. The experiences and learning derived from these events continues to be fed into the microsite in the form of a blog.

And so on. This fictional scenario, presenting a museum operating on the tricky frontiers of social debate, begins to illustrate some of the possibilities of incorporating participation – by design – into the processes of creating exhibitions, as well as the way those exhibitions engage the public. Of course, engagement and collaboration may well form the backbone of many existing museum programmes without the term participatory design (or indeed design for participation) ever being mentioned. But a conscious decision to build participation into the design process itself and/or into the way users will interact with exhibitions once they are installed is an approach which may yield benefits for the institution and visitors alike.

Nina Simon of US consultancy Museum 2.0 explains: ‘Participatory design can help museums deliver on the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated desire for museums to become essential civic spaces, social environments that encourage the democratic process.’

Participation can be as complicated or as simple as deemed necessary, depending on resources, experience and objectives. Engaging and organising people (the public, experts from areas outside the museum, community groups and so on) to take part in a truly collaborative design process is certainly an undertaking, as is inviting visitor contributions and dialogue with the exhibitions themselves. But at its simplest level, participation might be encouraged by asking visitors to caption or comment on objects by sticking Post-It notes around exhibition displays.

An example cited by Simon is The Post-It Project, conducted at Sweden’s Västernorrlands Läns Museum a few years ago, ‘in which visitors were solicited to write down comments – about anything in the museum – and post them wherever they wanted.’ As she suggests, the value and goal here are perhaps too vague to be genuinely useful, but the ‘open-endedness also makes this kind of project a great starting point for a museum to explore the inclusion of visitor content. Start-up costs and development time are minimal, and the project can be aborted at any time.’

But for many museums, the catalyst for building visitor contributions into their activities has been the proliferation and mass uptake of online social media services – sites such as Flickr, Facebook and, more recently, Twitter. Flickr in particular is well known, easy to use and allows museums to garner relevant photographic material from the public, not just locally, but anywhere in the world. An event-based extension of this might be to organise a scavenger hunt, as the London Transport Museum has done, sending teams of people into the city to locate and photograph various London Transport related objects. All the pictures were uploaded to Flickr, allowing a vote for the best image to be thrown open to the public and in turn utilising Flickr’s social network aspects to build awareness of the museum’s brand amongst online ‘communities’.

Similarly, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s World Beach Project, devised by artist Sue Lawty, asks people worldwide to create sculptures and images on beaches using gathered stones, recording the process and finished art in up to three photographs.

Rather than using Flickr, the images are uploaded to the museum’s dedicated web page and embedded Google world map. Again, the project is conceived specifically to create participation, engaging visitors and non-visitors alike in content generation, while marketing the V&A online at the same time.

These last two examples are competition and art project respectively, so arguably outside a museum’s core public-facing activities, which are delivered via exhibitions, collections and interpretation. But participation can seed exhibitions too.

The Minnesota History Society’s MN150 exhibition and book invited public submissions of the key people, places or things that have shaped the state’s history. This engagement was partly conducted online, but the bulk of submissions came from community outreach, demonstrating that participatory design need not be technology-led – it is mostly about approach and intent. The result was an exhibition populated with content gathered directly through public input, albeit curated by the museum.

A nice example of design for participation is the National Maritime Museum’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, set up this year so that entries are submitted via Flickr, where they are held in the public domain, while a partnership with allows each image is ‘astrotagged’ so that they can all be combined and compared in a growing photographic chart of the night sky. The collaborative nature of this project – along with the content created by the public – is its strength. And again, it builds awareness of the museum’s activities farther and wider than could have been achieved otherwise. It is competition, exhibition, research and marketing all in one, but would not be possible without public input, professional collaboration and web-based services.

Yet another example is Brooklyn Museum’s Click! exhibition, an investigation of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in which artists’ photographic responses to the theme of the ‘changing faces of Brooklyn’ were assessed by the public online. At the final exhibition, held in the museum last summer, the artworks were installed according to their relative ranking from this public jury process.

Participatory design, then, can take many flavours. Naturally, not everything will be appropriate for every institution, exhibition or subject theme.

Traditionally, museums have delivered knowledge and learning in one direction: from institution to the public. Although it adds another dimension, participation need not supplant this model. Of course, it is valid to ask whether participation – and by extension participatory design – is actually necessary or beneficial at all. Perhaps one way to answer that is to consider changing expectations. As cultural sector consultant and Flow Associates director Bridget McKenzie notes, a recent flurry of events centred on participatory culture seem to indicate that ‘the public expects to participate’.


Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.

The fastest UK marathon races

Tuesday, December 16th, 2003

The fastest UK marathon races

Marathon runners know that with the time and preparation needed to train and prepare for a marathon, finding the right marathon is important, and for many, this means finding the marathon with the best PB potential.

Which are the fastest UK marathon races?
Race Day asked their community of runners which races have the best PB potential and they came up with these five flat and fast UK marathons.

Click to discover what are the fastest UK marathon races?


Best marathons in the USA?

Sunday, December 16th, 2001

Best marathon races in the USA

Thousands of British runners travel to the United States to participate in running events every year, and marathons count amongst the most popular races.

Race Day asked it’s members what are the best marathons in the USA?