This is Part 5 of a five part conversation with Holly Sidford. Please see the Archive to access the first four parts.
Robin: Here’s a real world example of a museum actually soliciting ideas from its audience and acting on them.
The Brooklyn Historical Society started a project where they invite community groups to propose subjects for exhibitions, and then use material in the BHS collection to create those shows. They’re saying to the incredibly diverse population of Brooklyn, “It’s your history and your stories we want to tell” and people who never attended the museum before are coming. Right now there’s a show called Lost in Transition: South Brooklyn, Williamsburg & Coney Island, which includes pictures taken by teenagers in the Urban Memory Project.
Let’s not only capture your interest, but feed it!
Holly: Well, after collecting all this information about what web visitors are interested in, wouldn’t it be great if museums could respond by feeding their interests? Since you liked this, you may also want to know about that. Like Amazon and other vendors who lead customers from one purchase to others — how can museums tailor their information to the individual’s interests? The commercial world has set a standard for customer responsiveness that, for good or ill, museums must now meet.
Robin: Exactly – what Amazon and other sites use is called recommendation software. Museums could track visitors’ interests through the audio and video tour stops they select, for instance. For the moment though, it seems like visitors are feeding each others’ interests rather than waiting for museums to do it, and museums are offering blogs, and other platforms for them to do this. The New Museum’s new site, for example, has a Share link so you can share info from their site with your friends, either by email, or by adding the url to your del.icio.us account, or to a shared calendar, or to StumbleThis.
What’s happening is that the museum visitors are becoming the source of news – sharing information about common interests from myriad sources, rather than relying on one source.
Think about the relationship building that would occur if the museum’s experts also participated in these information-sharing networks. It will be great when museums figure out how to do that, and even how to position themselves as the go-to source for information about stuff that YOU are specifically interested in.
Holly: In the meantime, your stories – at the Cantor Art Center, and the Austrian Museum — are wonderful examples of the interaction between museum and visitor becoming a conversation instead of a one way broadcast. It doesn’t in any way denigrate the authority or the knowledge of the people who work in the museum. It only acknowledges that everybody has a chance to learn something, and that both the staff of the museum and its visitors are still learning. And that’s very much in keeping with what’s happening in the larger culture, where exchange is increasingly peer-to-peer-to-peer and hierarchies of all kinds are breaking down. Because people have access to so much information now and our confidence in authority figures has eroded, perhaps beyond repair.
Robin: The days of the museum as wunderkammer are gone but they still have absolutely unique content, and things that can inspire a state of wonder in visitors. Museums need to take that message out to places where people are, and make it available on technologies that people use – their computers, iPods and cell phones.
Holly: It’s a much more competitive environment now than even ten years ago, with so much more information and choices coming at people, all the more reason why cultural institutions have to get very clear about their real intentions regarding visitors as well as very savvy about their public relations and marketing. They have to seriously confront cultural change – demographic change, technological and economic change, global movements of population and money, even climate change. All these trends have an impact on museums, and if they’re not actively engaging these issues they’re going to be actively affected by them.
Robin: So we agree that while there are unprecedented opportunities for museums in using web 2.0 technologies, implementing them is a challenge. Museum leaders need the vision and commitment to genuinely open their doors wider on the web, but they also need a strategy for how to do it most effectively. Only then can they take charge of defining their presence on the internet, and engage on many levels with old and new audiences.