Recently I had a conversation with Holly Sidford, President of Helicon Collaborative, a cultural development company.* Holly and I are, to use Salman Rushdie’s term, “museum brats,” growing up near the Mint Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively. We are both very interested in how new technologies have begun to impact cultural institutions, as they try to sustain and expand audiences. Our conversation ranged over a number of themes, including the benefits of using web 2.0 applications.
Robin: The traditional experience of going to a museum was kind of a silent, private affair where you went to appreciate the artworks or objects, mostly because you were already interested in them. You didn’t need to be convinced of their value or meaning. But that way of thinking has really lost currency in the last decade. These days it seems visitors want to be engaged rather than left to contemplate, and they expect museums to support their particular interests – with audio-video tours, computer interactives and opportunities to share their thoughts.
Holly: It seems to me the vast majority of visitors to museums are sampling, they’re after pleasurable experiences. More and more, people come to museums with expectations shaped by their experience in commercial venues so they expect things to be highly mediated, tailored to their individual interests; they expect things to be very fast moving and stimulating. They expect their opinions to be valued – or at least they expect to be able to share their opinions at some point in their visit.
Robin: They expect a lot more from museums than they used to!
Holly: A good example of this is the video talk-back program that was part of the New York Historical Society’s exhibit, Slavery and New York. The exhibit designers, Richard Rabinowitz and Lynda Kaplan, made it possible for people who attended to share their thoughts about the show, and about slavery itself, about race and racism and other issues, on video – to talk back to the museum and reflect on their experiences. Thousands of people took advantage of that invitation. That’s just one demonstration of people’s hunger to have their own opinions validated and to have some sort of interaction with the material on the wall.
Robin: And not only were the video talkbacks available at the Historical Society, they were also posted to YouTube for everybody to see! This is a really good example of using social networking media – YouTube – to link the museum and its exhibition to a broader audience. Most of those clips on YouTube received fewer than 100 views but one of the shorter ones has over 1,000 views. The Historical Society’s new exhibition on the Marquis De Lafayette, by the same curators, continues with video talk-backs so they are demonstrating their commitment to hearing from visitors. In the process N-YHS wlll learn a lot about what their visitors think, and if they continue to post them to YouTube, they’ll carve a niche for themselves with a larger audience and attract new visitors to their galleries. YouTube and other video sharing services will be the focus of another report coming soon.
It seems like a win-win situation, but many institutions don’t see it that way. They’re reluctant to give visitors a chance to voice their opinions. Perhaps they don’t really want to know what visitors think; perhaps they’re afraid to yield some of the power they have to control the exhibition narrative and define the meaning of the objects. It’s understandable, but how can museum staff overcome that resistance? How do curators keep the scholarship bar high, while making visitors feel engaged and respected? The conversation continues in Part 2: Using Blogs, Part 3: Using Podcasts, Part 4: Using FaceBook, and Part 5: Sharing Content.