Understanding Compelling Collections

Which of our collections best lends themselves to impulse sharing online?
Which of our collections are people most willing to talk about online?

These two questions have framed a series of small-scale trial projects in Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) over the past 6 months.

The trial I’ll be talking about focused on compelling historic photography (photographic collections that is, not photographs of objects). Highly visual and immediately powerful archive photographs.

Using our criteria below, photographic collections were carefully selected and shared in Flickr, Facebook and Historypin. I’ll only be referencing our findings from the first two sites. Historypin is well worth exploring but it doesn’t provide account holders with analytics tools as yet.

Try to Define Compelling

We wanted to share images in Flickr that immediately resonated with our audience on an emotional level and without context.

“Immediate emotional resonance” is of course, entirely subjective. But the point of this trial was to share visual content that didn’t require an explanation for it to provoke a response. Images that have historical significance but that are, above all, compelling. Immediately awe-inspiring. Instantly strange, beautiful or funny.

Captions were included to provide context and build on the image but they were secondary.

Well-meaning collections-based museum projects can lie stagnant in a social media platform like Facebook or Tumblr. Why? Often, because not enough attention has been paid to what is likely to compel a response. The source content does not inspire the interaction that defines the platform.

Take an image of a Roman urn. It bears cultural significance. The story behind the ashes inside the urn is fascinating and tragic. The intricacy of the craftsmanship on show appeals to some. But for most people on Tumblr or Facebook (especially those with no previous affiliation to your organisation), does this image immediately resonate or intrigue? Does it inspire the level of response the museum was hoping for?

Without immediacy, we lose the opportunity to communicate with our audience on these sites- however rich the content or however much we can prove it is relevant to their lives.

So what museum images are likely to compel in these online spaces?

The short answer, in my view, is anything that How To Be a Retronaut would share.

The site defines itself as a time machine with ‘capsules’ of historic image collections uploaded every day. The capsules are carefully curated. They are era-specific, event-specific, moment-specific. Abandoned New York movie theatres. Mug shots of destitute Victorian criminals. 1920s Egypt in colour. Yugoslav war memorials. The last surviving witness of the Abraham Lincoln assassination.

It’s a popular site averaging 30,000 visitors a day, and over a million a month. Each capsule is generally shared a thousand times by viewers. The likely reach for each capsule is beyond calculation.

These images are the stuff museums and archives have in abundance. So neatly sidestepping the interminable question of copyright, why are many museums reaching only a fraction of this audience with our collections online?

Chris Wild of How To Be a Retronaut suggests the following “(Museums and archives should) forget about history and think about imagination. (Focus on) the images that tap into magic and the sublime. The images that disrupt people’s model of time, fracture it, break it apart. Looking at these images, viewers should encounter eternity and their own mortality”.

You can watch his full presentation here (try to ignore the clacking marbles sound. That’s his goggles brushing against the lapel mic).

How To Be a Retronaut’s model is powerful because the capsules are immaculately presented. The images are cherry picked, the themes are ultra specific and thoughtfully pitched. Instead of a larger set of images which relate to a more generic theme, they’ve recognised that the strength of the content is in its laser-beam focused nicheness. Nicheness that is designed to arouse human intrigue. To stir your imagination, not demand prior knowledge or interest.

For example, ‘Abandoned Russian Gun Ship’ instead of ‘Russian Gun Ship in World War 2’. One is plainly historical, the other compels exploration. ‘Abandoned Russian Gun Ship’ conjures images of the people who worked on it, shrouds the images in mystery or sadness, encourages the viewer to ask questions about its past.

How can museums, libraries and archives be more creative when theming and presenting collections online?

Enable Impulse Sharing

Bloggers crave compelling photography. And we wanted them to use our images.

Micro-blogging platforms like Tumblr base themselves heavily on impulse sharing and spreadable content. The site makes it as straightforward as possible for users to “reblog” the posts of other users.

Impulse sharing requires very easily accessible content. The images which we’d uploaded to Flickr were downloadable and free to reuse as part of the Commons project. (Not so with our images in Facebook. We were less interested in seeing how the images from Facebook encourage reuse across the wider web. A future trial may well investigate the benefits of doing this).

We found that once a blogger had gone to the relatively small trouble of lifting an image from our Flickr site and dropping it in their blog (and almost always providing a credit and backlink to TWAM), this quickly seeded sharing activity within that platform. It worked especially well in Tumblr.

You’ll see this image has ‘930 notes’. A large number of these notes are ‘likes’ and comments from other Tumblr users. However, about 300-400 of the notes are ‘reblogs’. If we very conservatively estimate each Tumblr account has an average of 50 followers, we could reasonably approximate that this image has been viewed at least 20,000 times. That is just one image in one blogging platform. The likely overall reach for the 300 images we’ve shared on Flickr is inestimable.

How To Be a Retronaut became aware of our freely available images on Flickr and have so far posted up 3 capsules from our collections. The capsules have been shared over 2,000 times.

A key finding from our trial with Flickr Commons was that the mass sharing of images often only became possible when a user defined or redefined the context of the photograph. A context you’d otherwise never have applied to a photographic collection. The best and funniest example is My Daguerreotype Boyfriend Tumblr site- ‘Where early photography meets extreme hotness’. Tens of thousands of users visit this site.

Enabling reuse was not just about increasing the number of people who view our content. It was about letting our audience redefine the value of the content.

Explore the Immediately Personal

We really wanted to test Facebook’s potential for crowdsourcing stories and information about our photographic collections.

While both are powerful photo-sharing platforms, we realised the audiences for Flickr and Facebook are quite different. Flickr is more serious about photography. Facebook is more centred on the photograph’s connection to a user’s identity and relationships.

So, slightly tweaking our maxim on immediate emotional resonance, we opted to share museum images that were immediately personal to a defined audience.

Again, this is of course entirely subjective. All museum collections are personally relevant to somebody. Our take on ‘immediately personal’ was about significantly large and easily targeted audiences who would understand the image’s relevance to their identity on Facebook.

Nostalgia and a sense of place is a powerful focal point for many Facebook users. This was made obvious when we discovered the Facebook groups ‘Old Pictures of Newcastle East End’ (4,926 members) and ‘Old Pictures of Newcastle West End’ (5,204 members). Both are run by enthusiastic Facebook users and are not in any way affiliated with a cultural heritage organisation. A few hundred images were on each site alongside thousands of active conversations inspired by the photographs. (It’s worth mentioning that neither site is updated very regularly any more).

Clearly, there’s a very real appetite on Facebook for old photography that strongly connects to a person’s past.

We replicated the Newcastle photo sites and set up the Facebook page ‘Old Photographs of Sunderland’. Images of towns, buildings, streets, schools, places of works, iconic industries of Sunderland from the past 150 years. Photos we knew would resonate with a defined and potentially large audience (Sunderland was declared Facebook capital of the UK in 2010), and photos that would encourage them to share stories.

Generically branding the page ‘Old Photographs of Sunderland’ with no explicit reference to TWAM was intended to help seed its democracy. We set up a dedicated page instead of sharing the content as an album within a Sunderland museum Facebook profile. Concealing the content within a profile makes it less easily searchable, and without its own brand, not as immediately understandable.

A £300 Facebook advert was used to promote the site to anyone living within a 16km radius of Sunderland.

The response was positive, with 450 people liking the page within 6 months. Most importantly, hundreds of diverse conversations were initiated about the images (NB- not a single conversation took place on the ‘Discussions’ tab!).  Small communities emerged, with a core number of followers assuming an informal admin role. TWAM rarely needing to step in and respond to questions.

Many users spoke to friends and family offline to seek local knowledge which they’d then feed back to the site. Other followers only became aware of the site after they were spotted in pictures and notified by contacts. They arrived at the page to tag themselves in photographs and share information:

The photographs succeeded in engaging an audience on Facebook because they were immediate, personal and directly targeted at a defined and large community of users. They could understand why we wanted to share the content with them; it didn’t require a leap of imagination or understanding on their part.

What opportunities are there for serendipitous engagement with a museum collection on Facebook? Or if explicit personal relevance is key, what themes besides nostalgia and sense of place resonate with Facebook audiences who aren’t already following your museum?

To Android or Not to Android?

To Android or Not to Android? Should this really be the question? And yet it seems so!

As an ever-present Android user, I feel like a third world citizen in the market for museum-related applications; a sense reinforced by the fact that nearly 6 times as many apps exist for iOS devices – iPhone and iPad – as do for Android devices.

Many have said this is down to museum professionals, and their exposure to the iOS devices, as well as ease and simplicity surrounding development, deployment and monetisation on the Apple App Store compared to the Android Marketplace, but when the figures stack up in favour of Android, in terms of market share, some 50% as of mid-2011, aren’t museums simply spiting their nose?

Of course I shouldn’t tar all institutions with the same brush. Some have developed for a cross-platform world, the British Museum, Museum of London among them. Whilst others, the IMA, Walker Arts, Brooklyn Museum, to name but 3, have gone an opposing, but possibly more sensible route, and developed with existing and infinitely more accessible & cheaper web technologies.

Thus, it isn’t like the decision-makers hands are tied. Moreover, the discussion around #mtogo still rages on and is being developed within the museum community. But in the here-and-now, and as a third-party bystander, it would still seem that the effective choice is simply defined by the availability and quality of resources, the implied cost and a function of the advice forthcoming.

While the desktop PC has opened up so many creative opportunities across many industries, bringing power to the people, it seems as if some sectors remain closeted. In fact, in a day and age where it is even possible to cook-up & sell your own tour guides online, it seems
incongruous on the part of institutions to have a slanted distribution of apps to their expectant audience.

Perhaps institutions should be forgiven on the basis that the plethora of available options is so bewildering, and of course they can only act on the best available advice, and such advice may well fall short, but still, given the wider remit of institutions to provide complete access to all, it would seem odd. What kind of message does this lack of access send out? And who cares anyhow, It’s just an app right? If all the web traffic to a museum’s site is via iOS, should they still be beholden to the Android market share? All questions that swirl around this topic.

No doubt it sounds like I am throwing my handheld devices out of the pram, like a spoiled little child, but I think the argument still stands: that institutions need to think about, not just Android, but wider universal technological access as a whole. In fact, when was the last time you searched a museum website for the word “Android” and it actually returned results?

Vincent Roman is a freelance developer-designer based in Shoreditch, East London, helping businesses and institutions improve their tech offerings with 10+ years experience in the field of digital technologies. Needless to say he has an acute interest in the field of museum-tech and questions surrounding interlocution between the digital and physical worlds.

Developing a social media strategy

Strategy may sound rather grand for what you have in mind, after all is it a strategy to start a Twitter account? But however you take your first steps into social media, I’d recommend that you start small, concentrating on just one social media platform, until you find your feet.

Too often museums try too much to quickly, without the resources to back this up. The time you can dedicate to social media is a factor in deciding where to start. Having the time to get started with social media can be a major obstacle to museums, and in truth you’re likely to have to fit this around your regular responsibilities. But there will never be a perfect time to start and most people can, for example, fit in fifteen minutes a day to manage a Twitter account.

Twitter takes the least time, while creating content for YouTube can take considerably longer. You need to not only consider how you will manage your activity this week, or this month, but how sustainable what you’re starting will be over the long term. This again is a good reason for starting small.

Personally I believe that it is essential to have goals for your social media activity, these will give you a direction to work towards, and importantly provide a context for you to measure you success against.

Your social media strategy is where you should define you goals and I don’t mean measuring how many friends or followers you have attracted.

Social media is another tool to help your organisation to achieve it’s goals, what are those and how can you use this technology to help you to accomplish that?

Creating your own museums social media strategy

Use the following questions to help you to start to draft your own social media strategy.

What are you trying to achieve, what is your goal?
Who are you trying to reach?
What is the right social media platform to achieve your goal and reach your chosen audience?
Could you achieve this better within the museum’s website or traditional media?
How will you tie it into other things you and the rest of the organisation doing?
How much time and resources will this project take, and who will be responsible for ongoing maintenance?
How will you measure success?
How will you brand the content to ensure that it is credited as coming from the museum?
Does this fit with the overall goals of the museum?
What will happen with the project long term?
How will you stay in touch with the audiences it generates?
Is there something similar already set up which you could tap into rather than starting from scratch?


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of Europe’s major conference on social media for museums, MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, a creative agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.

Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.


QR codes and museums

The Internet of Things is a compelling idea, with its promise of a seamless link between objects in the physical world and associated media in the online world. The implications could be profound: an object will cease to be an isolated entity, but will become the focal point in a web of connected information. Take your dining table as an example. If the table carried a small identifying tag that linked to a central online database of ‘things’, reading the tag would open up the contents of this database revealing, perhaps, the table’s history; the manufacturer’s specifications and the materials used to construct it; its previous owners; the video of a family cat stealing food from a plate left on its top; the written memory of someone who as a child fell into its corner and broke a tooth – and so on.

All that is required to link this digital media – photographs, text, videos or sounds – to a real object is an identifier that can be read by an internet-connected device. One such system, developed in Japan as long ago as 1994, is the QR code. QR stands for Quick Response and the code itself is a square grid of black and white blocks, roughly equivalent to the barcode found on product packaging. But unlike a barcode, which links a product to a retailer’s stock database, a QR code links with a web page or some other online content. These codes are then read by the camera and QR reader software on a mobile phone or similar internet-connected device, allowing the device to open the link.

The appeal to museums of QR codes – and an internet of things – is immediately obvious: digital media can be ‘attached’ to physical objects by means of the small printout of a square code. Although QR codes themselves are essentially just web-address links, when connected to an online database of objects their possibilities become quite powerful. An object in the real world – a museum specimen – can be permanently linked with a growing and editable repository of online material, revealed to visitors through their smartphones or similar devices.

An early, beta version of such a system has been developed by the TOTem research consortium of Brunel University, University College London, University of Dundee, University of Edinburgh and the University of Salford. Tales of Things is a free QR based system that links an object with its ‘tales’ – media left by users who have something to say about the object in question. Tales of Things is being used on objects in the Tales of a Changing Nation gallery at the National Museum of Scotland, as well as in the QRator co-creation project at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology and The Petrie Museum of Egyptology.

‘Whilst there are a lot of QR code readers about and websites where you can generate codes to link to other sites, with the Tales of Things app the key element is the ability to add your own tale to the QR code, so that you are not just reading information but also writing back,’ says Jane MacDonald, administrator of TOTem.

In an age where co-creation and sharing – two tenets of any forward-looking museum – are all the rage, this type of system should be a sure fire hit. It permits people to record their personal reflections on museum objects and ‘attaches’ these reflections to the objects for others to see and respond to in turn. Certainly, Alison Taubman, principal curator of communications at National Museums Scotland, sees potential for QR codes to open up a new type of dialogue with museum visitors, breaking from the ‘usual one way traffic of information’. But she also acknowledges that such two-way dialogue has so far been scant in the Tales of a Changing Nation project.

It seems that despite the appeal, museums are finding that general take-up of QR codes is bedevilled by a few technological restrictions in implementation and, perhaps more significantly, a general lack of awareness. ‘I am not sure if enough people know what a QR code is or have their own device [to read one] for it to have mass appeal at this stage,’ says MacDonald. ‘We are expecting this to come, as they are slowly becoming more common. The more that museums and visitor attractions use QR codes, the more people will interact with them. I really see them as a brilliant way for museums to be able to create a truly democratic and interactive experience for visitors.’

Kathleen Tinworth, director of visitor research and program evaluation at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, presented a small number of visitors with a QR code to find out how many people could identify or explain it. Barely a third could and none of those had ever used one.

‘For those who didn’t recognize the QR code, we got responses that ranged from ‘Native American design’ to ‘puzzle’,’ says Tinworth. ‘So what does this mean for using QR or other identification software in museums and culturals? Is it futile? Worthless? Nope. Not at all. We may need to lay some groundwork with visitors, but the pay-off could be high. In time, perhaps there won’t be a need for an app download or a certain type of phone [to be used], but for now the learning curve may need to be built in to the design.’

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia has also experimented with QR codes. After finding that too few people had a suitable reader installed on their phones, the museum decided to build a reader into a bespoke mobile application that would serve as an object database and QR code reader in one. This app now supports the museum’s Love Lace exhibition by allowing visitors to access an object’s catalogue entry directly by scanning the QR code on the physical display.

But even this simple system hides technological pitfalls. If the code squares are printed too small, phone cameras and reader software have trouble understanding them. If there are shadows, reflections or poor light on the codes the problem is compounded, as the Powerhouse discovered in earlier QR experiments. The provision of free public Wi-Fi throughout a museum space is another potential difficulty.

On the other hand, despite these relatively small technical issues QR codes are extremely straightforward to produce and equally easy to access assuming a visitor has a phone reader installed and there is a good (and ideally free) internet connection available in the exhibition space.

But as with the introduction of any technology to a museum or gallery, there have to be clear benefits to both visitors and museum departments of using QR codes. While the actual act of using a phone to ‘magically’ read a code may appeal to some (it does: to younger visitors to the Tales of a Changing Nation exhibition, according to Taubman), it is what the code is linking to that is the real issue. Even without referencing a co-created database of ‘things’, there are still plenty of appealing uses of QR codes for museums. They can provide quick and immediate links to material that supports interpretation, education or a marketing campaign, for example.

But as Tinworth notes, getting the content of these links right is vital, whether they are to third party sites or to material generated by a museum itself. ‘The QR code is just a vehicle,’ she says. ‘I believe that for QRs or similar technologies to succeed in museums we have to ensure they provide something of value and aren’t just gimmicky. Whether that’s the back story on an object or a video of an artist installing a sculpture is neither here nor there; it’s about the value added through that content. QR codes are simple to make and inexpensive, which has massive appeal to the cultural sector, [but] are we enhancing the visitor experience in the ways people want?’


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


Tate Movie Project

‘The Itch of the Golden Nit’ is a 30-minute animated film which has been created from ideas and drawings crowdsourced from children aged five to 13.

Children uploaded their ideas, drawings, animations and even sound effects, through the Tate Movie Project website and could even vote on what should make it into the final cut.

The website is quite brilliant encouraging children to sign up with their own custom avatar and giving them lots of different ways to get involved. For example Tate asked children to vote on which celebrities they would like to see play cameo roles of pirates, superheroes, mermaids and planets in the final feature.

The online studio received more than 500,000 visitors during a twelve month period and Tate ran workshops at galleries, schools and festivals across the UK to encourage children to use art as inspiration for their drawings and story ideas.

Around 2000 children’s work was pulled together by Aardman to make the final film, with multiple drawings making up each scene.

The project is beautifully executed, connecting a large number of children with art and Tate. As Nicholas Serota puts it, “What’s exciting about the Tate Movie Project is that we can see their flashes of imagination come to life in animation. This project has provoked some astonishing work by children of all backgrounds, some of whom may well be the artists and creatives of the future.”

The audience is dead – let’s talk participants instead

The audience is central to much of what a museum does, and visitor surveys and audience segmentation have over the past decade improved our understanding of the people who walk through our doors.

In terms of the audience being the receivers of a performance or service, ‘audience’ does not seem like the best way for us to describe the modern museum consumer. These are people who live increasingly digital lives, where they are not spectators, but active participants, positively engaged through outreach programmes and projects.

While it is unlikely that the use of the word ‘audiences’ will change, I think it is useful for us to think of the people who choose to interact with museums either digitally or by making a visit as ‘participants’.

Whether you are planning a new exhibition, website or marketing plan, thinking about how you can engage with your museum’s ‘participants’ rather than ‘audiences’ will give you a different mindset.

Marketing for participants

In February 2011, a group of museums and galleries in Yorkshire, England launched a marketing campaign to promote art collections on display in thirty-five venues across their county.

The campaign chose not to shout about how great the art in these museums and galleries was, but instead asked the pubic to participate in the campaign by sharing stories about their favourite painting.

The campaign Yorkshire’s Favourite Painting offered a unique prize, the opportunity to win a replica of a painting that you love, and in six weeks, over 400 people took the opportunity to enter the competition.

The stories about why people loved these paintings were diverse, from a moving account of a mother who had lost her son in the conflict in Afghanistan and was reminded of him by a Lowry painting, to a six year old boy who ‘liked the lovely ladies’ in a painting of mermaids and a lady who wanted to win a replica of an artwork by her famous artist father.

While 400 people wrote stories, many more participated in other ways, sharing stories through social media, leaving comments and voting for stories.

The website attracted tens of thousands of hits, but the campaign resonated further, with online participants becoming real world visitors.

Websites for participants

While museums are creating opportunities for the public to participate online though their use of Facebook and Twitter, most museum websites haven’t incorporated this kind of interaction into their own websites.

Teylers Museum, the Netherlands’ first and oldest museum is one such museum. Their website offers the public all the pre-visit information they might need, but doesn’t seem to give the public the chance to participate in any meaningful way.

However, the Teylers Museum has another website, built using the social networking tool NING which breaks down the boundaries and brings the museum to life in a way their main website doesn’t.

The website invites anyone to participate by joining this mini social network of curators, associates and friends of the museum.

Herman Voogd of the Teylers Museum explains ‘We started to use NING to give all Teylerfans and our staff the opportunity to leave pictures and messages about the museum.

‘We like the idea of having both a traditional museum website and something which is more open. A blog, a photo-album where every member of staff has more freedom. On our NING website it doesn’t matter that the picture is not crystal clear or that the movie is amateurish.

‘The rule is to not spend a lot of time but share a lot of knowledge about the museum or the collections’.

Using NING as a platform gives the public the opportunity to participate not only by commenting on content added to the website by the museum, but also by starting their own conversations and sharing their own perspective on the museum.

Ultimately, I see all museum websites giving audiences the chance to participate in this way. This approach takes more time and effort than a traditional website, and many may worry about the resources that such an online community would require. But if a museum does not have time to participate in conversations with its audiences (even online) then I think it needs to reassess its priorities.

Exhibitions for participants

Another way to involve our audiences as participants is through co-creating exhibitions. I think this is an exciting opportunity which we are only just starting to see museums explore.

This kind of co-creation can take many forms; it could be a history exhibition shaped by the contributions from people who lived through the event, a crowdsourced art exhibition created with the public or asking visitors to write new labels for paintings.

One recent example comes from CCCB in Barcelona, where an exhibition of photography by 20th century Spanish photographer Josep Brangulí is being partnered by a very 21st century project.

Contemporary photographers were asked to respond to the themes of the exhibition (and Josep Brangulí’s work) through an open call which tapped in to Barcelona’s thriving Flickr community to attract over 2,000 submissions in a month.

One picture reflecting each of the exhibitions themes will be displayed alongside the work of Josep Brangulí, while all submissions will be shown in a projection.

This isn’t social media for the sake of a trend, but using technology to make an exhibition better through public participation, and in doing so, CCCB are also making the individuals who are taking the time to get involved think deeper about the themes of the exhibition and the changing world captured in both the Brangulí and the contemporary images.

This kind of participation acknowledges that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute.

In Conclusion

What these forms of participation have in common is that they acknowledge that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute, often making the exhibition better than it could be without the public’s participation.

It is perhaps naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.

Our audiences are not passive spectators. They increasingly expect museums to offer them participatory experiences and that should be reflected by the way in which the modern museum approaches them.

Don’t think of the people who walk through your doors or interact with you online as audiences, think about what you can do for your participants.


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of
Europe’s major conference on social media for museums, MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, a creative agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.

Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.

Social sharing

Social media websites like Facebook and Twitter are essentially a person-to-person networks and while businesses and cultural institutions may try to leverage these for marketing, most are missing its full potential by treating this new media as they did the old.

In the real world, people share their opinions on the world around them, and this kind of conversation is the most powerful influence on the products we buy, and the way we choose to spend our free time.

Research shows that a recommendation from a friend is more powerful than broadcasting advertising messages, and on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter the same is true.

Personal recommendation isn’t new of course, ten years ago I might have told a handful of people about a new exhibition or a performance I’d enjoyed, but social media amplifies this ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing, so instead of me having to go and tell each person about an experience, in one click I can spread the word to hundreds, or thousands of people.

I think that cultural institutions need to rethink how they are approaching social media, moving from the perspective of ’what do we want to say?’ to ‘how do we get people to talk about us?’.

There are many ways that you can make it easier for people to advocate on your behalf or encourage them to talk about your cultural institution.

Get people to ‘like’ you.

Facebook and other social media websites make it easy for people to share things that interest them with their friends through ‘social sharing’ buttons.

These share buttons can be added to any page on your website through a simple line of code and when someone clicks this, a link to the relevant content appears on the relevant social network, sharing this information with their friends.

The average Facebook user has 130 friends, but research shows that the people who click Facebook ‘Like’ buttons have on average twice as many friends on the social network.

Ultimately I think this technology will step beyond the internet, for example a museum could have a ‘Like’ button next to a painting, and when a visitor swipes their smart phone next to this, it instantly posts a link on your Facebook wall.

Ask people for reviews

One way that TATE get people to talk about their exhibitions is through a reviews section on their Facebook page. This is an incredibly powerful advert for their exhibitions with real people sharing their experiences of TATE.

TATE use a free Facebook app called ‘Reviews’ to power this functionality on their Facebook page, and any museum or gallery could add this to their own page in minutes.

If you do choose to add reviews to your Facebook page, you need to also consider how you are going to inform people about this. You could use signage in your venue to inform visitors that you would like them to leave a review or if people are buying tickets, take their email addresses and send them an invitation to leave a review the following day.

Take in a lodger

Another interesting way to get a member of the public to share their experiences of a cultural institution is to invite someone to live in it. That is what the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago did when they ran a contest to find someone to live in their museum for a month.

The museum received over 1500 applications to live in the museum, and they selected a woman called Kate as the winner.

She did experiments, spoke to visitors and shared her experience with members of the public through a blog, through videos and through Twitter. Having an individual who is one step removed from the institution gives this social content more credibility than if the museum had written it themselves.

While in this case it was a museum that took in a lodger, I could imagine that this could also work for other cultural institutions, imagine a theatre enthusiast sharing a behind-the-scenes look at a new play taking shape.

Treat bloggers like rockstars

You don’t have to go to the extreme of having someone live in your cultural institution to get them to write about you, just reach out to bloggers.

Blogger outreach is increasingly becoming common place. It takes a little research to build a ‘press list’ of bloggers who matter, either in your geographic area or in your field, but the results can be impressive.

For an exhibition which I developed two years ago, I made friends with four or five relevant blogs. Collectively they had a readership of over 100,000 each day, and that was a very targeted readership of individuals interested in the subject of my exhibition.

Once you have a list of bloggers who can be useful to your organisation, invite them to press previews and encourage them to write about your exhibitions, events or performances by giving them access to photography to illustrate a blog post.


Your social media activity should not just be focused on what you want to say, you should be constantly looking for opportunities to get others to talk about you.

How can you use social media to get people talking about your exhibition, performance or event?


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of
Europe’s major conference on social media for museums, MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, a creative agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.

Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.


What do people want from museums on Facebook?

During April 2011 MuseumNext ran an online survey about Facebook and the way that museums should use the world’s most popular social network. This survey was posted on the fan pages of several museums and we are grateful to those institutions for their help.

The research has some interesting results, especially when compared with the research into how museums should use Twitter which we published last week.

43% of respondents stated that they are aged 25 – 35. The over 65 age group is especially weak, with just 1% of those who responded to our survey stating that they were in this age group. This is despite our survey into UK social media usage stating that over 50% of over 65 year olds are using social media.

As with Twitter, those who interact with museums on Facebook are likely to be fans of a number of institutions, suggesting opportunities to work together to cross-promote activities.

When asked why they chose to ‘like’ a museum the majority of people did so in order to find out about upcoming exhibitions, while a large percentage also chose to do so in order to show support for the institution.

When asked what a museum should use Facebook for promoting exhibitions scored highly. We have linked to a PDF with the full answers we received below.

Finally, 83% of those questioned felt that they would be more likely to visit an exhibition if a friend recommended it. This is lower than the percentage we found in the Twitter Survey but still substantial.

To see the full data on how those who took our survey feel museums should use Facebook. Click to download a PDF of full responses.

What do museums think Twitter is for?

As part of MuseumNext’s continuing research in to social media, we asked 361 people who work for museums what they think the popular social media website Twitter should be used for, within the context of the sector.

The word cloud above gives a quick glimpse at the answers we received, these can be read in full below. I think these give a fascinating insight in to how museum professionals view Twitter and wider social media in 2011.

Read the rest of this entry »

Research – Museums on Twitter

During April 2011 MuseumNext ran an online survey about Twitter and the way that museums should use it. We were supported in this effort by hundreds of museums who asked their followers to help us with our research.

The segment shown here are people who identified themselves as not working for museums (we may publish those who did work in museums separately), over 1000 people took the time to answer these questions, giving us a significant sample.

79% of those who said they follow museums are over the age of 25, showing that this is probably not the best medium for reaching a youth audience.

So what do the public think that museums should use Twitter for? 98.9% of those who took the survey said Twitter should be used to inform them about exhibitions and events.

Over 21% of those taking the survey follow over 10 museums, and a further 19.5% follow more then five, suggesting real potential for museums to link up to help to promote each other.

Please note: Please credit MuseumNext should you wish to reproduce this survey.

View all answers to this question in this PDF

- To engage with people interested in that museum or gallery. To make people feel special. To have a conversation

- Advertise changes and events 

- To inform about work, exhibitions etc but also to listen and discuss plans and issues

- Promoting new exhibitions & events, news and info about the museum

- Extending the museum experience beyond the gallery walls, exhibit news, discounts, discussions

- Giving interesting or useful information

- To communicate and make young people feel closer to the museum institution

- No idea. Not marketing, that’s for sure

- Tell background stories and share information that will make you want to go and see an exhibition even more: enrich their programme

- Informing people about new exhibitons, news relating to the museum, talking to people about the exhibits if they have specific questions

- It’d be nice if they recognised their place in a wider ecology/community of interest and promoted what others are doing too.

- NOT for retweeting indiscriminate praise – if I follow an institution, I already approve of them

- To show background informations related to their daily work, to allow insights into their collections and archives, to communicate with their visitors, to answer questions

- Keeping me up to date with what’s on; and in the current climate telling me if things are changing/closing because of funding cuts. At least I can contact my MP

- Livetweeting events (sometimes), interacting with other institutions on twitter, participating in ongoing and relevant conversations, and giving behind-thescenes peeks (even if it’s as simple as tweeting a funny office quote or something). A balance of all of the above, plus whatever the tweeter thinks might be interesting to try. In short, they should use the twitter feed to experiment with different ways to talk to other people.

- Ignite enthusiasm, transparency, incentives for participation, establish personalities of people who work there to humanize the museum, listen and respond to museum visitors/online users.

- To keep their fans and members informed of museum events and art world happenings. Museums are missing an opp to reach parents on Twitter regarding family programs. I bookmark several NYC Museum family pages and subscribe to their newsletters, but I don’t have time to pursue so many sources to plan museum activities with my kids. A Thursday Tweet from museums regarding weekend family events or workshops would be helpful.

- Help further its brand — is it a fun place for families and kids? Then tweet funny facts based on the collection. Is it a gallery with amazing art? Tweet about commentary and opinion of that art. A lot of followers are not local, so don’t tweet exclusively about events. Point me in the direction of related topics, for instance, a nat hist museum could tweet about a recent paleo find in China.

- It completely depends on their goals as an organisation and their communication strategies. Keeping people updated about opening times etc is one thing – but there is a great opportunity to engage new audiences in collections and exhibitions in a different way, as long as it is faithful to the intentions of the artist or exhibit. Things like Samuel Pepys Diary being tweeted ’by the man himself’ are interesting examples of historical content being given new life, although that wasn’t by a museum. All museums have brands now anyway, their tweets should reflect the personalities and tone intended in their organisational brand.

- Twitter should not be an old fashioned advertisement – in my opinion twitter is a place to talk, to ask questions, to give answers, to tell, to listen (well, to listen means on twitter that you read …) – twitter should be used like a square where you can meet othersLetting people know what’s happening there, exhibitions, talks etc etc even though I do like it if I get a freebie, I don’t feel this is needed.

- Please post more about your exhibits. Trying to tie current events (Cubs game) or holidays to a painting that has nothing to do with the day is a long stretch and doesn’t really tell me about the museum.

- To engage with people interested in that museum or gallery. To make peoplefeel special. To have a conversation.Advertise changes and events To inform about work, exhibitions etc but also to listen and discuss plans and issues

Research: Social Media Audiences and the Museum

The following research was conducted on behalf of MuseumNext and Sumo in April 2011 by an independent market research company with a sample of 500 UK residents. This survey aims to provide some context for museums looking to use social media.

A few things which stood out in this survey:
- Social media usage was higher than I expected, with even the least engaged group, those aged over 65 revealing that over half of them use social media.
- A large percentage of those surveyed follow brands on social media platforms.
- Gallery and museum attendance was high, but only 18% were aware that museums use social media.
- Only 10% of those asked, are fans or followers of a museum on social media platforms.
- A desire to ‘support’ the museum was stated as the most popular reason for following or liking a museum on social media platforms.
- Most people think their friends would be ‘indifferent’ about their decision to fan or follow a museum.
- 83% of people stated that they would be more likely to visit an exhibition if a friend recommended it.

Please note: Please credit MuseumNext should you wish to reproduce this survey.

Social Media Dialogue

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.

6 Arts Marketing Trends from the UK


This is a presentation given by MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson at the British Council Digital Creative Conference, Tokyo. (It is also available in Japanese here.)

The heart of what I am going to talk about today is how arts institutions in the UK are responding to the changing expectations of their audiences through their marketing.

The driving force behind this change has been the internet, which over the past decade has moved from a place where people go to find information, to a place to create, curate and share content online.

Our society has undergone a socio-cultural shift, with audiences moving from being passive consumers of information to active participants who want to have their say.

In this new reality, cultural institutions have had to move beyond traditional advertising campaigns, and relying on positive reviews from a few trusted critics. After all, now everyone is empowered to be a critic, with the ability to share their opinions with potentially millions of people through popular social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Today’s cultural consumers are perhaps more informed then ever before and with this shift, the arts are moving from untargeted advertising to focusing on engagement.
1. Going Social

Facebook is the most popular social network in the UK, with an estimated user-base of 24 million, and the starting point for many institutions has been to establish pages on this website.

This makes a lot of sense, taking content about the arts in to a space where a lot of people are spending time.

The vast majority of UK arts venues have a presence on Facebook, and TATE is perhaps the most successful of these with over 140,000 Facebook users choosing to show their affiliation with the gallery.

One of the advantages of taking an institution like TATE on to Facebook is that users of this website engage with them on a level which simply doesn’t happen on a traditional website. For example, content posted on TATE’s Facebook page regularly receives over 100 comments from members of the public.

The other major social media platform in the UK is Twitter. TATE are also very active on this website, with over 246,000 people signing up to subscribe to news from the gallery through this website. This makes TATE the most popular British brand on Twitter.

Marketing to arts audiences through Facebook and Twitter is quite different from traditional advertising. People spend a lot of time in these digital spaces and they don’t respond well to a stream of sales messages. Instead arts organisations need to build relationships and brand recognition, confident that research shows that those choosing to be affiliated with a brand on social networks are more likely to spend money with them.

TATE have walked the fine line between building a community and selling their product remarkably well, with discounts to Facebook fans proving a particularly successful route to create measurable ticket sales.

2. Starting conversations

While holding engaging conversations is key to social networks, we are increasingly seeing a desire from cultural consumers to continue this on the websites of arts institutions.

In response, museums are changing their approach to websites from places to find information to more personalized, engaging and social experiences.

One such example is Yorkshire’s Favourite Paintings, a website which brings together collections from 24 art galleries and museums. Like a traditional collection, this provides information about the artworks and the artists who painted them, but the central premise of the website is to ask the public for their opinion.

The public are encouraged to do this by an incentive of winning a replica painting, or as the website promises ‘Tell us about your favourite painting and you can take it home with you’.

While traditionally the Museum may have valued the what the curator or an art critic think about a painting, this website acknowledges that audiences also have an opinion on art.

One painting could be selected by several people as their favourite, each with their own story of what the artwork means to them. Often these stories are quite personal. For example, one person wrote about how his grandmother had told him that a portrait looked like her as a young woman, something which he didn’t believe until she showed him a photograph, and now he wished to win a copy of the painting to give to his grandmother.

The stories give people a different starting point when approaching the art and the galleries. The opinions may be different from those of the curators but are just as valid.

The website has generated positive buzz around the galleries that contain the 100 paintings featured on the website. Perhaps the perfect response comes from a Twitter user called @fletchthemonkey: ‘Blown away by the quality of the paintings hanging in @YorkshiresFav, I think the weekend plans are now revised to going to see some!’

Another example of an arts organization bringing lessons learnt from the social web into their own website is National Theatre Wales, an organization founded in 2008.

Perhaps because the theatre was born in the midst of the social media revolution, it has put an emphasis on building a community of theatre-makers and theatre-goers who together can create performances that change the way we look at the world.

The National Theatre Wales website is the platform for this exchange; a social network of over 2,500 people who have helped shape everything from the individual productions to the direction of the organisation as a whole.
National Theatre Wales states that theatre has always been about forming a relationship with audiences and not just selling tickets. But by forming a community around their work, they are encouraging conversation about their work and a sense of belonging, ownership or affiliation with the organisation.

This kind of positive word-of-mouth is incredibly powerful. This is because personal recommendations have always been more effective than traditional advertising and social media magnifies these conversations, broadcasting them to countless people.

3. Crowdsouring

The Royal Opera House is not perhaps the most obvious place to find innovative uses of technology; it is perhaps one of the more traditional arts institutions in London.

However, in 2009, the Royal Opera house turned to Twitter to ask members of the public to help them to compose a new libretto, one 140 characture tweet at a time, a so-called Twitter Opera.

This wasn’t really a serious attempt to create a masterpiece, but instead an exercise in reaching out to people who might not think that opera was for them.

The Twitter Opera caught the imagination of members of the public, 900 of whom enthusiastically made suggestions for the final piece. The suggestions were molded in to a 20 minute production by professional composers, and was performed at the Royal Opera House.

While critics had their knives out for the production, the finished result received positive reviews with one newspaper columnist describing it as “actually watchable, listenable and rather funny.”

The initiative attracted a large amount of press attention, generating publicity for the organization both in the UK and further afield, and this together with online buzz attracted 1,000 people to the Royal Opera House across four performances.

This idea of co-producing the arts with members of the public has been embraced by a broad range of institutions from the stage to the museum, changing these organisations from being places to see the arts to platforms for creativity.

This fulfills the changing expectations of British audiences who increasingly want more participatory experiences.

An arts project which took this to an extreme was an exhibition called Democracy that took place in the North of England in 2009.

This project aimed to create the most democratic exhibition in the world. It not only asked members of the public to submit artworks through an open call for entries, but also to select what should be exhibited by voting online.

340 artworks were submitted through the website over a five week period and the most popular 50 pieces were exhibited in a gallery.

The competition to gain enough votes to be shown in the exhibition meant that each participant began marketing the exhibition to their network of friends, spreading the word virally through Facebook and Twitter.

These two social networks were responsible for sending over 5000 visitors to the Democracy website over the five weeks that the project was open, making them an important source of publicity for the exhibition.

In the gallery, this concept of Democracy was continued where the fifty artworks were projected digitally and visitors could vote for their favourite artworks from their mobile phones. A vote would increase the size of the preferred artwork, and decrease the size of those around it, making the exhibition get better over time, in the eyes of the public (who were therefore the curators). This format of a constantly evolving exhibition encouraged visitors to keep coming back to the gallery.

Crowdsourcing is a particularly popular trend with UK arts institutions, and many are using this approach to reach out to their audiences by appealing to their creative side. And while the idea of an exhibition which has been curated by the public may run the risk of being accused of ‘dumbing down’, the trend shows no signs of disappearing.

4. Beyond the walls

With audiences struggling to find the time to experience the arts, technology is allowing arts organisations to find new ways to fit in to people’s busy schedules.

In May 2010 the Museum of London launched a free iPhone app which lets anyone experience a piece of history in over 200 sites across London.

Looking at the screen of your iPhone you can overlay moments from history across the scenes of the present day. These can be viewed as ghostly alignments, or the archive images can be brought up and explored in detail, along with information about Streetmuseum’s photographs and paintings.
The app itself was a marketing tool, launched just ahead of the museum opening new galleries, and it attracted a large amount of free publicity with large features about it in several British newspapers.

I think that where the app really works is in making the Museum of London more accessible to an audience which may not traditionally visit the museum, when faced with the overwhelming cultural choices London has to offer.

Another UK arts initiative which is using modern technology to reach new audiences is National Theatre Live. This broadcasts theatre live to cinemas around the world.

On 25 June 2009, the first of these broadcasts carried Nicholas Hytner’s production of Racine’s Phèdre to 70 digital cinemas across the UK to an audience of 14,000 people and another 14,000 people saw it live in the rest of Europe or North America. The final audience figure for this one performance, when allowing for subsequent screenings, is estimated to be around 50,000 people.

Research carried out by the National Theatre in the UK found that NTLive reached new audiences. Most of those who attended the screenings found out about them through the cinemas showing the productions which indicated that the National Theatre was tapping into cinema audiences rather than losing its own audiences to this low cost alternative.

In fact 33.9% of those who saw the production in cinemas said that watching an NTLive screening had encouraged them to see a production at the National Theatre.
Many other UK arts institutions are also developing new ways for audiences to engage with them through technology, with iPhone applications being an especially popular way to do this.

Many, like NTLive, are discovering not only new ways to reach audiences but new revenue streams which can help support their core activities.

5. Collaboration

On the same day that the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was published to considerable media reaction and controversy, discussion of another topic entirely was topping the trend charts on Twitter.

A one–day event, called Ask a Curator harnessed the networked power of museums and galleries on Twitter to create a global dialogue between members of the public and curators.

340 curators from institutions around the world took part in an event which would have been impossible before the advent of social media technology. Over 10,000 messages were exchanged between museums and members of the public over the course of 1 September 2010.

By working together, these museums and galleries were able to shout above the noise of social media networks and get noticed both by press who picked up on the story around the world and by the public, many of whom were surprised by what they might have perceived as ‘stuffy’ institutions opening their doors to questions on Twitter.

One member of the public commented ‘At last, museums are doing something useful with Twitter, rather than just sending me marketing messages’.

However, Ask a Curator was a very effective marketing campaign. An evaluation found that the majority of those who asked questions said they intended to visit the museums who answered them.

The success of Ask a Curator has been emulated by Ask Shakespeare, Ask a Conductor and several other groups since it took place in September, showing that this form of collaboration can work across several art forms.
A Night Less Ordinary is another project which has brought together arts venues to reach new audiences, in this case young people who haven’t visited a theatre before.

Since February 2009, this government-funded initiative has offered people under 26 free theatre tickets for over 200 theatres across England, the simple premise being that cost is a major barrier to this group attending the theatre.

Young people signed up to get free theatre tickets through a website which brought together performances from across England, providing one easy-to-use website.

The initiative has given away over half a million theatre tickets, and addee these names to the mailing lists of participating theatres.

78% of those young people surveyed said that they were more likely to attend a theatre again after attending a free performance.

The kind of collaborative approach used by Ask a Curator and A Night Less Ordinary is becoming the normal way for UK arts organisations to operate, accelerated perhaps because of the recent financial recession.

Arts organisations are showing that by working together they can make their voice heard in a world overwhelmed by marketing messages.

6. Gamification

Another trend which seems to be taking off in UK museums is the gamification of experiences to reach out to audiences who perhaps don’t think that the arts are for them.

There has been a whole generation of young people who have been brought up playing computer games and this poses problems and opportunities for the arts.

A player of a computer game is the protagonist, placed at the centre of the story and this is increasingly the way in which young people prefer to learn. But this is quite different from the experience they get when they visit a museum or sit in a theatre.

Technology is, however, offering answers with mobile phone apps that turn museums into board games and offer both an experience which is perhaps more appealing to young people and also an educational tool to encourage this hard-to-reach group to learn about art.

TATE Trumps is one such example. This game is based on the popular children’s game Top Trumps and is played in TATE Modern using an iPhone.

Players are tasked with running around the gallery collecting the seven artworks which they believe will beat those collected by their friends and then reconvene to do battle.

I think this is an excellent example of a museum using an iPhone app as a marketing tool, extending a cultural experience to a group who may not think that the arts are for them.

Games seem to be an incredibly popular trend in the museum sector at the moment.


This is just a quick snapshot of how the arts in the UK are using technology to reach out to evolving audiences. Those who are innovating are thriving, whilst those who refuse to change are looking more and more out of touch.

Augmented Reality in the Museum

In October 2010, a pair of somewhat mischievous new media artists staged a wholly 21st century intervention at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It involved placing numerous extra artworks in the galleries and introducing a whole new floor – the seventh – at the top of the MoMA building. And all this without the institution’s permission or knowledge (at least at first).

If you haven’t guessed already, this seemingly impossible ruse was achieved using augmented reality (AR), the overlay of digital elements on a live view of a real space, as seen through a smartphone or similar device. The two artists were Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek and the We AR in MoMA guerrilla show was conceived as part of the wider Conflux festival of participatory art and technology that was taking place in New York at the time.

Using the special Layar augmented reality browser installed on a smartphone, visitors were able to look at the galleries through their phone’s built in camera, while the GPS location system and internet connection allowed the virtual art to be projected over the top of the camera’s image of the museum space.

Veenhof and Skwarek used the event to raise questions about the impact of AR on public and private spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the frontiers of new media art. According to Veenhof, MoMA has not made any response to the event, despite having large numbers of visitors conspicuously viewing the galleries through their phones.

Although We AR in MoMA was foisted upon a museum institution, augmented reality is something that museums and galleries are starting to experiment with themselves. Whether MoMA’s curators rate Veenhof and Skwarek’s work as a valid artistic intervention or not, it does offer some glimpses of how a gallery might use AR in order to give visitors additional interpretive content. AR guides bring a new dimension over traditional audio guides, whilst remaining personal to each visitor. They might include an artist standing ‘next’ to their work describing their working processes, for example. In fact, artist Jan Rothuizen has already collaborated with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s ARtours programme on an AR exhibition of his work.

Other cultural institutions are also starting to use AR to mesh digital content with the real world. A number of early experiments in this area have concentrated on city spaces, overlaying historical or proposed architectural imagery on a live city view. The Museum of London’s iPhone app, Streetmuseum, is an example of this, where the museum’s collection of archive photography of London is delivered to users’ phones according to their current location and orientation.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia offers a similar AR mobile app, drawing images from the museum’s Flickr collection and presenting them via the Layar platform. Virtual buildings also feature in the Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR (urban augmented reality) mobile app, designed by Dutch interaction consultancy IN10. This overlays pictures of what used to present, as well as images of what’s to come, in the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. There’s even a Layar ‘layer’ of the Berlin Wall and its imposing sentry towers, reinstating the barrier that once divided the now reunited halves of the city.

AR is clearly fun, sci-fi type stuff. Like many new technologies, it is alluring and captivating. But is it of real value to the museum sector or is it a mobile-based gimmick? Tristan Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, told a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite our best intentions technology too often ‘gets between us and the experience’. His comments came in a discussion about the forthcoming mobile app from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so in this case Gooley was referring to the experience of viewing the natural world unmediated by a screen. However, similar objections could be raised in relation to objects in a museum exhibition.

Does AR add something to a museum experience or does it becomes the experience itself? What do we gain from looking at a composite digital/real world through a mobile phone and what do we lose? In the case of archive photography there is a thrill to be had by looking down the barrel of history whilst standing in very same spot from which the original image was captured.

And perhaps AR can liberate objects too. The Stedelijk Museum’s head of collections Margriet Schavemaker noted at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference that objects in a museum collection are permanently removed from their original contexts and placed instead inside a ‘white cube’. But AR has the power to return them. In theory, the collection of the ‘augmented museum’ could be geographically and spatially boundless, with objects appearing at relevant locations in the real-world by using an AR overlay.

In this sense, maybe AR is the museum’s best technology tool yet. Objects came from the world and only subsequently were they indexed, filed, curated and exhibited by museums. Perhaps AR allows collected objects to be returned to the wild, but this time with a valuable augmentation of their own – the attachment of expert knowledge and interpretation by the museum professionals who study them and care for them.

In the meantime, keep your eye on new media artists for suggestions of what’s to come. At the 2011 Venice Biennial International Art Exhibition there are plans for a whole uninvited pavilion, thanks to Veenhof and Skwarek…

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

Incomplete Manifesto

This is an ‘Incomplete Manifesto for the MuseumNext’ as presented by Jim Richardson at the Join to Create conference in Amsterdam on 19 January 2010. This brings together thoughts on how museums and galleries can use technology to create more engaging experiences for visitors:

1. We will evolve
Technology has caused a cultural shift; the way that people act is changing. Museums must evolve to meet these changing audience expectations.

2. We will shift from the didactic to dialogue
Museums should be platforms for exchange, accepting that everyone can have something valid to contribute.

3. We will be open
We should use technology to take people behind-the-scenes and to give them direct access to our staff and expertise.

4. We will empower our audiences to make us better
We will use technology to create new opportunities for our audiences to volunteer their time to help make our museums better.

5. We will build personalised experiences
Museums need to look beyond delivering the same experience to all their visitors and use technology to give personalised experiences.

6. We will be social
Technology should be used by museums to bring people together and extend the reach of our community projects.

7. We will put the audience in to the story
We should give our audiences the opportunity to be the protagonist in the museum experience or story, acknowledging that many people prefer this way of learning.

8. We will be platforms for creativity
A museum should not only be a place to see other people’s creativity, it should be a platform to encourage everyone to be creative.

9. We will exist beyond the physical museum
Technology enables a museum to engage with people outside of its physical location, increasing geographic reach and the impact which it can have.

10. ?
This tenth point has deliberately been left blank, what do you think it should be? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Donations on Facebook

Guest post by Diane Drubay

The Boston Museum of Science has launched a campaign to raise $ 2,500 needed for the reopening of the planetarium by asking it’s Facebook fans to donate to attend a fundraiser through the application Fundrazr .

This quick and effective tool, launched by Paypal (the most used international payment method) allows you to manage donations, making fund-raising campaigns, but also sell tickets and manage membership fees.

This use of Facebook to raise donations can promote philanthropy among the younger audiences. With its low cost and simplicity, it is a really interesting method of raising micro-donations.

The Boston Museum of Science on Fundrazr accepts donations of $5 to $100. In exchange for their generosity, donors will receive tickets for shows at the planetarium, can attend ‘VIP’ events and a will be named on a plaque in the planetarium.

Diane Drubay is an expert in communication, online and new media for the cultural sector, she is the founder of Paris based agency Buzzeum.

10 tips for online museum shops

With funding cuts biting, many museums are developing or redeveloping online shops to compliment their onsite retail offer. How do you get the most out of e-commerce for the museum?

1. Don’t let your online shop seem detached
Too often online shops on museum websites feel separate from the rest of the website. Try and integrate the shop seamlessly with the same look and feel as the rest of the site.

2. Cross selling
Take the opportunity to promote your online shop throughout your website. John Stack, Head of TATE Online told me ‘One of the things that has been very successful for us is featuring the shop products around the site. We believe that most pieces of content on the site could be cross-selling some kind of related product (shop, membership, magazine subscription, donation, etc.) and this is what we’re working towards’.

3. A picture is worth 1000 words
High street stores know the importance of using beautiful product photography, but this lesson seems to have been lost on many museums. Taking the time to write proper product descriptions is equally important, and remember that these also help you to rank more highly on search engines.

Don’t forget social media
Most museums have been quick to integrate social media sharing tools into the events, exhibitions and collections sections of their websites, but potential to increase shop revenue by allowing website visitors to share the products that you sell online through social networks is often overlooked.

Call to action
‘Simple, obvious wording and buttons can make a big difference’ Hugh Wallace, Head of Digital at National Museums Scotland told me.

Don’t underestimate the need for good signposting to show visitors where to click to add something to a shopping basket or to make a purchase.

Test, test, and test again
Getting your shop design right cannot be done in isolation. You should test your shop with members of the public from the earliest design through to the finished product. This can be done by giving people simple tasks to perform, such as buying a product, is it as easy as you thought?

Off-the-shelf or bespoke
There are many off the shelf solutions for online shops. These can be cheaper than a bespoke design, but you should consider whether something built to your specification could bring in more money in the long run when picking the right solution for your museum.

Email marketing
Collect email addresses from your customers and keep them up-to-date on your latest products and offers with monthly emails. It is easy to track how many recipients are clicking through to the store and to measure which messages resonate the most with your customers.

Personalise content
Amazon.com personalises the products it displays to each visitor based on the items which they have looked at before and this is something which museums are also starting to think about.

‘We’re looking at personalisation technologies that will tailor content and products to user’s interests, although we aren’t implementing this yet’. John Stack, Head of TATE Online told me.

Track, analyse and evolve
Designing your online shop doesn’t end when it launches. This is merely the start of the next phase of your work. Use a stats package like Google Analytics to track the progress of your customers through your online shop and tweak the design of any areas where a bottleneck of incomplete purchases is occurring.

Have you built an online shop for your institution? Please share your tips in the comments below.


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, an agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.

Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.

Museums like Facebook

Facebook offers museums a way to connect with over 500 million people, and it is not surprising that many institutions have taken steps to make it easy for the public to show their appreciation or affiliation by adding a Facebook Like button to their museum websites since Facebook launched them in April 2010.

The Facebook Like button provides an easy way to spread the word about your institution virally, and with the average Facebook user having over 130 friends, you can quickly gain a lot of attention through this simple tool.

When clicked on, a Facebook Like button posts information about the website, exhibition, painting etc that the user ‘likes’ on their Facebook where their friends can see it and share it with their friends too.

Research suggests that the people who click Facebook Like buttons are more ‘social’, having on average twice as many Facebook friends as the typical Facebook user, so this is a valuable group to appeal too.

Jasper Visser, Project Manager for new media and innovative technology at the Nationaal Historisch Museum in the Netherlands wrote about his experience with Facebook Like buttons in a recent blog post ‘I’ve been adding Like Buttons to many of our websites and the results are significant. Conversion is high and traffic from Facebook increased.’

This experience isn’t rare, and Facebook itself quotes statistics suggesting a large increase in referrals from the social network is the likely outcome of adding Facebook Like buttons to your website.

However while museums may note that they have a Facebook fan page on their homepage or in a website footer, most are not applying the Facebook Like buttons to the extend that they could to leverage the maximum exposure for there institution.

A Facebook Like button works best when it links to specific content rather then say a website or an organisation as a whole, so making it possible for a visitor to your website to ‘like’ individual items in your collection or individual events will be more effective then encouraging them to ‘like’ your museum.

Ultimately technology may take this kind of sharing into the gallery.

A prototype developed at a workshop run by MediaMatic in Amsterdam lets visitors swipe an RFID tag next to a real world Facebook Like button to make it appear on their Facebook page, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this technology to start to appear in museums over the next 12 months.

If you have added Facebook Like buttons to your museum website I hope that you will share your experience in the comments below, if you are interested in adding this to your website you can find out how to on the Social Plug-in section of Facebook.


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, an agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.

RFID and the museum

Technology is often used by museums and galleries to create moments of interaction that encourage a deeper consideration of a collection or subject. At the same time, using hardware and software can bring an element of theatre and magic to exhibition spaces. But choosing and developing interactive technologies can be fraught with pitfalls: What is available? Is it too expensive? Is it reliable? Will people understand it? And the most important question of all, is it appropriate?

One option for building visitor interaction into an exhibition space is to use an RFID system. RFID stands for radio frequency identification, which perhaps sounds complex, but it is a simple, relatively inexpensive and reliable method of making connections between visitors and installations or exhibits.

If you have ever used the Oyster card travel system in London, you have used an RFID card and reader. Handling thousands of passengers every day, Oyster offers a robust, quick and seamless communication between your personal account and the network of transport connections.

The beauty of radio is its invisibility. Passing a card near a reader, which can be embedded in another object or ‘prop’, creates a direct and instant communication with computer software, without the need for any other physical input from the user. In a museum environment, RFID tags and readers can be used to trace an individual visitor’s path through an exhibition, perhaps building up a record of responses to themed questions, or a record of achievement in interactive games.

In the Amsterdams Historisch Museum’s A’DAM, man & fashion exhibition, which runs until 1 February, an RFID-based interactive element runs throughout the space. At the start of the exhibition visitors create a personal profile which is then linked to their A’DAM ID card. At various points in the exhibition this RFID card is used to register personal preferences relating to clothing, self-image and fashion, including choice of brands for things such as beer, shoes, jeans and underwear. Each selection is logged, just like a journey across London on the Oyster system, and at the end of the exhibition the data are used to reveal a profile of the participant, showing how his or her self-image compares with other visitors. As the museum says, ‘the visitors themselves become part of the exhibition’.

The A’DAM ID concept was developed from a workshop between the museum’s curators, graphic designers, education staff and marketers, along with design group Buro Koos. According to Hester Gersonius, the museum’s head of social media and web, there were a number of elements which everyone wanted in the exhibition, including a personal ‘questionnaire’, a photograph and profile of participants and something for people to receive via email after their visit.

‘We have used the RFID system as a kind of prototype test for future exhibitions,’ says Gersonius. ‘One thing we have learnt is that you have to keep things very simple for people to understand – some visitors were swiping their cards over the screens with the instructions on, rather than over the pillars where the readers are embedded, for example. But now people have got used to it I think they will expect something similar in future exhibition. We have invested in the hardware and will be using it again in our upcoming permanent exhibition.’

A similar use of RFID featured in the Science of Survival, a touring exhibition created by The Science Of…, where installations asked visitors to make various lifestyle choices relating to the content of the exhibition (including zones on eating and drinking, and transport and building). Again, each decision was recorded and compiled into the final display, Future City, which forecast the environmental impact of these lifestyle choices on a community in 2050.

In both these examples, the RFID card and reader are used as a simple way of embedding the visitor’s responses in the content of the exhibition itself. This helps promote a cognitive interaction with the ideas at hand by making thematic connections between different areas in the exhibitions.

Other input technologies, such as keyboard and mouse, physical buttons, touch-screen devices or barcode scanners, could have been used to gather the same information, but for a simple tracking of responses RFID is probably the most elegant. As a bonus for the museum, the RFID readers can be used to record anonymous, but nonetheless individualised,  visitor usage and dwell times for later analysis. Similarly, at the British Music Experience at the O2 in London, visitors may use the RFID tags in their tickets to ‘collect’ the objects and exhibits they are interested in so that they can view them at leisure online after their visit.

Another benefit of RFID is its relatively low cost, especially when the cards are bought in bulk. Cards and readers operate over different ranges, with the shortest range usually being the cheapest, so it is worth choosing carefully, depending on the needs of the installations.

But the magic of RFID really comes to the fore when the readers are embedded inside (or near) other objects. A good example is iTea, a teacup reader created by a collaborative team of Amsterdam-based designers and programmers at an RFID workshop hosted by Mediamatic. Drop your ID card into the cup and information about you, sourced from the internet, is projected onto the tabletop before you.

A ‘hidden’ RFID system is also used at the Nobel Peace Center exhibition in Oslo, Norway, which features interactive technologies designed by US-based Small Design Firm. In the centre’s Nobel Chamber, a ‘book’ of Alfred Nobel’s life uses projections to create its pages and infrared sensors to detect where on the page people are pointing. RFID chips are embedded in each page to tell the computer which page is open and therefore which to project.

As with any technology in a museum environment, careful consideration of the exhibition’s aims and requirements, content, objects and stories, project budgets, design plans and the physical environment itself will all determine what interactive approach, if any, is most suitable. But as the examples here show, RFID can offer a simple and often enchanting interface between people and digital installations.


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

What can the iPad do for museums?

Even though it is still only a few short years since the introduction of multi-touch technology in the first iPhones, already we have become familiar with the way that communications devices seamlessly integrate the internet’s vast information resources and social media networks. High-end interaction technologies are now so commonplace that many of us carry them around in our pockets all day long. And with the rise of smartphone apps, we now routinely expect these products to be endlessly adaptable and updatable.

For museums and galleries looking for new and inspiring ways to generate interactions between visitors and collections, this democratisation of technology is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, visitors are no longer wowed by touch-screen and computer software installations per se. On the other hand, the availability of adaptable, mass-market products gives museums easy access to cleverer hardware for less money. At the same time, visitors will often be familiar with the hardware platform already and may even be able to use their own personal devices to access or interact with multimedia exhibition content.

The latest consumer products to lend themselves to museum and gallery use – and probably the most suitable so far – are the tablet devices such as the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy. Apple’s iPad is obviously the leader and major player here and already there are examples of museums harnessing the device to deliver content and interaction to visitors, despite it being less than a year old.

In some cases, iPads are being used by museums to deliver richer and expanded versions of their existing iPhone apps. The American Museum of Natural History has launched an iPad version of its Dinosaurs app and SFMoMA’s Rooftop Garden iPhone app, which provides a tour of its sculpture garden, has also been enhanced for the iPad.

But Melbourne Museum decided to build a dedicated iPad app as part of its tenth birthday celebrations. The free Please Touch the Exhibit app makes use of the iPad’s large, book-sized screen and shake functions, allowing users to explore the museum’s collection through ten specially curated science and social history themes. Similarly, highlights from MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist New York show are only available on the iPad. The AB EX NY app offers high-resolution images of selected works, videos and deeper information about the art and artists. It also includes an NYC history featuring a multimedia map of studios, galleries, bars and other points of interest.

One of the key appeals about apps like these is that they offer people a rich, tour-like experience away from the institutions themselves – before, after or indeed instead of, a physical visit. ‘One of the uses that we’ve realised people have really come to enjoy [about our app tours] is the takeaway,’ said Dallas Museum of Art multimedia producer Ted Forbes at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference. ‘Maybe they participate in some of the tour while they are in front of the objects, but they can also go home and preview tours after their visit. It has a lot of application in the those areas, so it’s really important for us to be able to [offer these] tours.’

One of the questions that emerged at the Museums Association’s All in Hand: Working with Handheld Devices conference, held at the Royal College of Surgeons in July 2010, was whether a cultural institution can afford to develop mobile applications and whether the organisation might hope to recover its investment. In short, do mobile guides generate revenues?

There are no simple answers to these questions because every project and museum has its own requirements, target audience and budgets, but it is interesting to note that iPad apps have a higher average price point than iPhone apps, perhaps implying a higher user expectation for the iPad. Although most museum iPad apps have so far been offered for free, there is the possibility of using Apple’s App Store as a mechanism for generating revenue from multimedia content, something that would have been all but impossible with traditional gallery kiosk applications.

The success of the Guardian’s photojournalism iPad app, Eyewitness, has led to plans for an enhanced but paid-for version in the future, according to New Media Age. Whilst Eyewitness sits outside the museum sector, it is not hard to see how the evident appeal of high production quality multimedia content might also be a source of revenue and brand building for museums and galleries.

Exhibition-related games in particular might deliver a source of revenue, if they can be sold as standalone gaming apps in the App Store. As Jason DaPonte, former managing editor of BBC Mobile, told the Tate Handheld Conference: ‘You might not think about the games world and gaming as being that important to museums, but I challenge you to think about it very, very seriously. If you look at the app stores, typically the most popular apps – eight or nine of the top ten – are always games. So go where your audiences are, see what they are doing and see how you can get in there.’

At the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, an in-gallery game called WaterWorx was delivered via eight iPads in the exhibition space. This is where larger tablet devices differ from smartphone based multimedia content – they are big enough to operate as gallery based ‘kiosks’. At the same time, the app or game can be used by iPad owners at home. According to Seb Chan, head of digital, social and emerging technologies at the Powerhouse Museum, the WaterWorx game may now be augmented for commercial release on the App Store, creating revenue for the museum.

So perhaps the loss of technology’s wow factor is no curse at all. It may just mean that interactive installations are developed on the basis of relevance and content and not because of a perceived obligation to include a technology element in an exhibition space. As Silvia Filippini Fantoni, senior producer at digital media consultancy Cogapp, says on the group’s blog : ‘Mobile interpretation is not about the technology. It is about the user experience and particularly the content. Museums should focus on telling a story that answers questions, creates emotions, inspires a response, rather than using the technology for the sake of it.’

Chan echoes this, while also noting the new role of consumer technology in museum multimedia development. ‘[WaterWorx] brings with it an explicit acknowledgement that the entertainment and computing gear that visitors can get their hands on outside of the museum is always going to be better [than], or at least on a par with, what museums can themselves deploy. So rather than continue the arms race, the iPad deployment is a means to refocus both visitor attention and development resources on content and engagement – not display technologies.’


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