What museums could learn from the National Geographic Society

The mission of the National Geographic Society is ’to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge while promoting the conservation of the world’s cultural, historical, and natural resources.’

This mission could easily be that of a museum, and the ambition of the National Geographic Society to take their message to the world is one which I think could be an example to museums.

Just nine months after the society was founded in 1888, the first National Geographic magazine was published. This publication with its iconic yellow frame delivered knowledge about places, animals and peoples which most of us would never see. 123 years later the magazine is published in thirty-four languages and had a global circulation of 8.2 million in 2011.

The success of the magazine is impressive, with the Louvre being the only museum in the world to attract more visitors annually than the National Geographic has readers. However, it is the societies expansion into television and film which really interests me.

In September 1997, National Geographic Channel was launched in the UK, Europe and Australia. Today the channel is available in 143 countries, in 160 million homes and in 25 languages.

Museums as broadcasters

The Walker Art Center relaunched their website in December 2011, and in doing so, they moved from a format which could be described as a traditional ’museum’ website which focused on the institutions programmes to offering a broader view of contemporary art.

The Walker Art Center describe this new website as an ’idea hub’, but it is really just a very interesting website for anyone interested in contemporary art, even those who might never visit their physical venue.

This concept of the museum as a publisher is perhaps nothing new, afterall the Walker Art Center has published a magazine for a number of years as do many other institutions, but while one suspects that most museum publications are more about revenue or giving members something which feels worth their annual fee, this feels more like the institution using online publishing as a tool to reach more people and to fulfill its mission.

The Walker Art Center website has become a destination for those interested in contemporary art and having increase their reach with a 40% increase in traffic to their website. I am sure that many other institutions are thinking about how they can use publishing to reach new audiences and fulfill their missions.

Personally I would love to see a science museum website which went beyond telling me about exhibitions and also got me interested in science. After all, is the mission of these institutions to grow their visitor figures or to educate people about the subjects which they cover.

Ultimately why isn’t their a museum which is doing what the National Geographic Society has done, taking the subject which they are passionate about beyond the walls of an institution and into the homes of millions of people?

With the convergence of television and the internet, the barrier to entry in launching a ’television channel’ is about to fall dramatically. I wonder which museum will be the first to grasp this great opportunity to go beyond their walls and fulfill their mission on a global scale?

6 Responses to “What museums could learn from the National Geographic Society”

  1. suse says:

    Jim, I’ve been thinking about similar questions since watching the keynote that Nate and Robin gave at MuseumNext. The WAC’s model of having a website editor is something I’ve found particularly interesting, given how much of the antagonism in the ongoing debate about the bastardisation of the term “curator” takes the position that what happens online is in making editorial, rather than curatorial, choices. Should museums, then, see their online function as being more like a magazine or more traditional news organisation with a very niche focus? Does the website then have a separate but parallel purpose to that of the physical museum?

  2. I very much take the view that the institutions digital activities should be led by the mission, goals and values of the organisation ( see the Digital Engagement Framework I developed with Jasper Visser: http://bit.ly/DigitalEngagement ) and I think that publishing fits perfectly with fulfilling the mission of many institutions.

    For example TATE’s mission is ‘to promote public understanding and enjoyment of British, modern and contemporary art.’ A website like that produced by Walker Art Center seems a perfect way to do this.

  3. Seb Chan says:

    Nick Poole said earlier this year “Underpinning all of this is the idea that museums have experienced a real paradigm shift in that the core functional model of a museum has expanded to incorporate publishing and broadcast as well as locative experience.” (see https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=mcg;3a6118.1108).

    And there’s been plenty of examples – BBC & British Museum, Tate etc at the big end of town. The Smithsonian even has its own cable TV channel – http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/. And plenty at the small end of town – I’m thinking here of the regional museum involvement in projects with public broadcasters like ABC Open (http://open.abc.net.au/)

    At the end of the day it gets back to Max Anderson’s ‘museums as a red ink business’ which is as instructive today as it was in 2007. See http://www.maxwellanderson.com/PrescriptionsforArtMuseums.htm

  4. charlotteshj says:

    Speaking of broadcasting, I am wondering what thoughts you have on heritage and the world of “add-ons” connected to TV.

    When IKEA is launching “it´s own” SMART-tv this could indicate that such will soon become mainstream. So shouldn´t museums and other heritage institutions consider this development? Is anyone working with apps or other setups designing heritage content for the new generation of broadcast ( – or perhaps “niche-broadcast”?)

    Also wondering, if anyone is experimenting with the combination of TV and realtime dialogue (as seen for instance in the use of Twitter related to large sportsevents etc.).

  5. Maya says:

    There are so many ways that NGS is a leader that museums could look to as an example. In addition to the above, I use their photo captions as an example of excellent museum label content: articulate, explanitory, and brief.

  6. We do a lot of the interactive media work for the National Geographic Museum. The currents ones are the BIrds of Paradise exhibit and a participatory media experience for their 125th Anniversary exhibit. So we know their models well.

    Many of the digital assets of museums and science centers are under utilized, with some exceptions, their online still assets as still being primarily utilized as part of their communication and PR programs. There are a lot of opportunities for using digital media that is more embedded in the ontology of an institution as part of their core programming and exhibits, and less as an adjunct as it is now. Part of this is generational and part is cost and fear of breakdowns with advanced technologies.

    We are starting to see programs, some of which we design and build, like StreetMuseum from London History Museum where the whole experience is in the street and on smart phones. Many of these technologies are mentioned in the Horizon Report.

    For science centers there needs to be a shift in their mission from providing just “hands-on learning” for young audiences to being more of an institution that provides and inspires innovation, communicates and interprets science for society in much larger forums and for a wider audience, and be more of laboratories for life and living.