A thread in the tapestry – Museum stories as a choir of diverse values
November 19 2019
By Johan Lindblom
From our early history to the present tidal waves of information on digital platforms – storytelling is key when it comes to reaching out and grabbing your audience’s attention. Russell Dornan, Digital Content Editor at V&A Dundee (the relatively new, but already award-winning, design museum in Scotland), shares some thoughts on creating values from multilayered stories featuring national design icons to modern webcomics.
Russell Dornan (he/him) works with digital content across V&A Dundee’s website, social media and beyond. Not a fan of the singular, authoritarian museum voice, Russell aims to showcase the range of perspectives present in and around his organization. He’s interested in meaningfully building audiences across digital platforms and pushing what it means to be a museum on social media. Always looking for unexpected and challenging ways to explore a subject, he tries to find relatable and authentic ways to present museum stories.
You’ve been working with a concept called Scottish Design Icons, can you tell us a little bit about that and how you have worked on creating content within that subject?
The Scottish Design Icons article series started because I needed a way to unpack our permanent galleries online. I decided on monthly short-form pieces to offer a brief introduction to some of the objects, but I wanted to avoid a deep dive or in-depth monograph approach. My desire was for our audience, no matter where they were or if they’d ever visit, to get acquainted with the objects, as opposed to gain a fully comprehensive understanding of every aspect of them.
The unique part of the series, though, is that the individual articles aren’t actually about the objects. The objects feature in them almost like cameos in someone else’s story; a thread in the tapestry of their life. This came about because I wanted to launch the series the same week V&A Dundee opened for the very first time. Because it was such a busy time, I hadn’t managed to commission the first one so decided to write it myself.
But with limited information on the object I chose I had to think more creatively about how to create even a short article out of a few pieces of information. The object I chose was Lemmings, an iconic and hugely successful videogame created in Dundee. I used to play the game myself growing up and was a bit of a fan. And then it occurred to me: why not write the article as a personal reflection on the game? And so, the Scottish Design Icons series was born.
We’ve published 12 of them since and all offer the unique perspective of their writers, who focus much more on their own lives or stories in which the object is an important, but very much background or incidental, part. The writers of the articles have so far all been members of the wider museum team, from Learning to Fundraising, Press to Visitor Services. Each brings their own voice to their piece and it’s my job to make sure the series is coherent whilst maintaining the texture and personality of the writers. The range of objects, people, perspectives and surprising connections makes for a vibrant series and hopefully offers our readers different ways into the objects in our collection.
I’m so glad we can go some way to represent the chorus of voices that make the museum so powerful. The singular, authoritarian voice of The Museum is a thing of the past and this series showcases multiple varied perspectives in an accessible way.
And touching upon perspectives. Before joining V&A Dundee, Russell worked at Wellcome Collection where he creatively brought personality to their digital channels, a personality which sometimes provoked their audiences.
Social media has forced museums to be more personal when it comes to digital content. You wrote a blog post titled Should museums have a personality? a while back on museums and their tone of voice – can you elaborate a little on that?
It’s interesting to think of the role of social media in terms of “forcing museums to be more personal”. I agree that the tone of social media dictates a certain approach and refusal to join in often looks out of touch and strange. I think brands and organisations have shifted to this more personal approach as the wider world becomes more connected and people’s expectations of brands have changed.
Everything is more accessible and immediate now, so I think that plays a role; museums are no longer on a towering pedestal. With social media comes a level playing field: my museum has the same presence on Twitter (more or less) as a regular person. Anyone can reply to us and say whatever they want. The flipside of this is a huge desire for authenticity. We talk a lot about how trusted museums are, and that’s still important, but I also think we need to be more relatable and accessible than ever before.
Brands used to be untouchable in many ways, but they’re no longer only using channels
people generally can’t interact with such as television advertising; they’re also using channels that are more democratic (at least in theory), such as social media. Personally, I feel like if I’m using Twitter as my museum, I should use the channel the way it was designed and in the same way that everyone else does. To do that, you have to let go of the old-fashioned authoritative singular voice of The Museum. It’s just not right for social media and people see through it.
How do you choose and make use of the whole ecosystem of digital channels when aiming for impact on a storytelling theme or concept?
It’s about choosing the right platform for the content and then using the others to support or publicise that. So, a webcomic goes on our website and across social when it’s published, with a summary post on social after all parts are published; a video goes on YouTube and we post a snippet on social or sometimes the whole video. It’s a balance between what best serves the content and what you have time for.
We’re experimenting with this and I know that we’re not quite hitting it with some of the content we produce, but we also don’t have a benchmark to check against. With just over a years’ worth of content published across our platforms, we can start looking into this more and trying things out.
You’ve been working with co-creation both internally at the museum but also together with your audience. What’s the benefits and maybe challenges with inviting people to create content in the name of the institution?
I think the crucial thing about this is that I don’t see it as people creating content in the name of the institution. More, the institution is providing a platform for people to create content related to or inspired by the museum.
The difference is subtle but it’s important. I’m a big believer in museums showcasing a range of voices, like a choir. The power of organizations like ours comes from the different people, perspectives, objects, ideas, etc. The coming together of all of these elements makes for a far more interesting and exciting prospect for our audiences (and for me as the editor).
Each voice gets its moment, be it curator, learning person, visitor assistant or visitor. The challenge with this is keeping the tone of our content consistent. The voice changes, but the tone should be constant, so we don’t jar readers. But we don’t go so far as some other museums, where the only voice seems to be the “official” museum voice. This feels out of touch and old-fashioned now.
Another challenge can be who to approach for content and how to get the best from them. If I need an article about a specific type of design or object, then the person or people to commission kind of select themselves: I know where to look or who to ask. But for some articles, like the Scottish Design Icons series, I’m not looking for specialised knowledge.
Instead, I want a personal reflection on an object that puts the focus on the writer and their experience and personality; the object is almost incidental. Anyone can write these and I want a range of different people involved. So, I don’t have anyone specific to approach and I have to cast my net as wide as I can.
Instead of the subject matter, I’ve thought about the range of people and used that as a guide. We haven’t yet had anyone from Finance write for us, for example. So maybe I’ll target them next and ask them personally to contribute an article. Soon I’d like to branch out to visitors writing for us, but that’s even more difficult.
What are the main challenges from your horizon when it comes to participatory projects?
There are a few. What makes people participate? What’s in it for them? We can’t simply rely on folk to get involved “just because we’re a museum and everyone loves us”. There has to be a reason they want to take part.
Related to this, how easy is it for them to have a go? They might want to, but the format you’re using or the question you’re asking might act as a barrier. Try to limit the barriers you put in people’s way.
One of the most important I think is what do organisations do with their contribution? How do we turn whatever it is they submit into something greater? Sometimes that’s helped by how seeing some things en masse can be powerful or fascinating. But usually there needs to be an extra step where we as an organisation do something with the contributions that creates something special, and then in turn release that back into the world for everyone to see. A circular process where we clearly appreciate people taking time to have conversations with us and produce something valuable out of it.
Finally, why does anyone care? I’ve done a lot of participation projects and many have been great, some have been great ideas but not worked, others have been so-so ideas but have taken off. The ones that really work seem to have the right balance of easy entry points, good return for users and intriguing and relatable call to action. But it’s never easy.
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Johan Lindblom is digital content manager and copywriter at the Gothenburg Museums, which includes the Gothenburg Art Museum, The City Museum, Röhsska – Museum of Design and Craft and The Gothenburg Maritime Museum & Aquarium. He is also board member of IdeK – a Swedish hub on digital communication and heritage, who offers lectures, workshops and run inspirational education programs.
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