This is Part 4 of a five part conversation with Holly Sidford. Please see the Archives to access the other parts.
Robin: Museums are putting their videos on YouTube and creating a presence for themselves on other social networking sites to cultivate new communities of viewers. An excellent example of how to do this successfully is the Brooklyn Museum.
Why make the commitment to be on YouTube, FaceBook and Flickr? Because that’s where everybody else is – not only your potential visitors but also your competitors. Every other type of major entertainer / content provider – movies, games, sports teams, travel and tourism promoters, etc. – is using these vehicles for the same reason. They’re going to where people are, rather than waiting for audiences to come to them. The Warhol Museum is another example of a success story in this environment. They were so effective at creating an attractive profile on MySpace that 10,000 people wanted to become friends of the Museum, creating quite a backlog of people to respond to!
Holly: In the work we did at the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, we learned many things, but two “rules of thumb” emerged from that experience which are especially relevant here. First, in the matter of engaging audiences, you have to start where people are. You cannot expect the uninitiated to leap in one jump to your level of knowledge and engagement. A second “rule” is that you will be more successful if you cross the river where it’s narrowest – that is, reach out first to people who are most like your current audience. That is not to say that museums shouldn’t try to diversify their audiences culturally, economically, and in other ways, but it will cost a lot less in time, money and effort to reach people who are similar to the museum’s current demographic.
Robin: Yes and museums can use social networking technologies to engage their current audience, and through them bring in new visitors. SFMOMA’s use of a blog for the Olafur Eliasson show, which we talked about earlier, is an effective way of doing this.
And of course social events provide some of the best opportunities for reaching out to friends of friends. But I still think one of the most compelling experiences you can have at a museum is talking to the experts – going on a curator led tour, for example. Obviously I’m not the only person who thinks this is cool because often museums offer curator led tours and conversations as a perk for higher membership options – to the people who are already on the bus, so to speak….You know, when visitors get to talk with curators, and see how their passions can breathe life into art, history and science, this greatly enhances the chances they’ll have a positive experience, and come away with new things to think about. We’ve already talked about a few examples like this.
Holly: But I go back to where we started this conversation. Shouldn’t the basic motivation for a museum’s public programming be to get people to think – to engage with the strange, the unknown or maybe the very familiar, but basically to stimulate their minds? If that’s really the motivation, then shouldn’t these institutions be interested in what people are thinking as a result of their visit, isn’t that the logical next question? “Okay, we gave you our ideas, now what are your ideas?”
Robin: Yes, web 2.0 applications are all about that – encouraging people to share ideas. All of the content on Wikipedia, Flickr and YouTube, for example, comes from people contributing their expertise, opinions, experience, as well as pictures and videos. It’s experts and amateurs coming together. Del.icio.us and other sites allow people to collect and tag the web pages they’re interested in and share that with friends. FaceBook and MySpace allow users to present themselves, what they like and think, and find others with similar interests. And the museums that understand this phenomenon – the Walker Art Center, SFMOMA, the Brooklyn Museum – are inviting audiences to share their thoughts, pictures, and videos about exhibitions and events. The question is what happens as a result of all these comments? Museums are providing opportunities for people to share their thoughts, but then what? Are they taking action based on the comments? Have they figured out how to sustain an ongoing dialogue that deepens the connection and commitment to the museum? That’s definitely the next step. Our conversation concludes in Part 5: Sharing Content.