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Film: Building An Audience For A New National Museum

Jasper Visser, Project Manager for new technology and media projects at the Museum of National History of the Netherlands spoke at MuseumNext conference in Edinburgh in May 2011 about how his museum was building audiences before it opened.

Way back in 2008 I had never heard of the Brooklyn Museum, and my own museum did not exist yet, so there is one thing that I take from Shelley’s story that I find really comforting. The first thoughts about your museum were in 1820 and the realization only came in 1890.

Our first physical thoughts are from 2006, so we’ve got a couple of years more ahead of us before we actually will be a museum, but there is hope, in another 70 years, maybe. Here today I’m going to talk about what we did in the past two years since I first met Jim at MuseumNext in 2009.

But first a bit about our museum. The Museum of National History is all about these three men basically. The one in the middle is a politician, and in 2006 he wrote a letter to government that people in the Netherlands know nothing about their history. The government agreed and they talked for a couple of years and finally they decided the answer to increase historical awareness of the Dutch people is a museum.

They hired the two men on the side, these are my directors. On the right, Erik Schilp, on the left, Valentijn Byvanck to build a museum that would increase the historical awareness of all Dutch people. I think that’s a very tough job. The first thing they did was they wrote a very good museum mission, a vision for a museum that could do a thing like that. It’s on the website, download it if you want to. And what they did is it’s not – if you want to teach everybody about history, you should not be talking about facts and figures, you should talk about historical imagination. So we are in the business of historical imagination, this is our vision, this is what we’ve been working on, ever since 2008. I, myself, got on board in 2009 to do the new media stuff, etc.

It’s not just – and this is, again, something I really enjoyed in Shelly’s talk, not just the historical imagination of somewhat older or somewhat richer, highly educated, white people? No. Everybody’s historical imagination. That means a couple of things, I think. One of the things it means is in the Netherlands we’ve got about 17 million people. If we want to get them all in a building and spark their imagination at least a couple of times a year. They’re never going to fit. You need a really big building.

So if we wanted to be a museum that sparks historical imagination, if we wanted to be that, we had to be more than a building. More than a physical place. In fact, we do not yet even have a building. We have a very beautiful church in the center of Amsterdam as our office, meaning it’s closed on the weekends. But for the past two years, and most of the things I’ll talk about today, happen outside of that building, outside of a physical space for a museum.

Another thing that we immediately understood is we have to be more than objects. We’re a new museum, in a country which has 1500 museums, I think the highest museum density in the world. Everything that is valuable as an artifact is already in a museum, or too big, such as a castle, to get into your building.

So we have to tell stories. We have to do more than just physical presentations. It’s only last week that we opened our first traditional exhibition with stuff on display that are on loan from other museums. So this is sort of like the background against which we started working in 2008, to build a museum of National History. And now we’re in for the creative 20 seconds of this.

I made a video about what we did. There is no sound, but it doesn’t really matter. We organised a lot of activities.

In the year 2010 we managed to reach over half a million people physically and many hundreds of thousands more digitally through the activities that we’ve done. I do believe that in that we did a lot with new media and new technology. There is a lot of lessons we learned. I spent a lot of time monitoring the things we did, monitoring the metrics, and today what I want to do with you is talk a bit about the really tangible stuff we learned. Not the visionary things, not the great things. And I also want to tell you about the mistakes we made. Hopefully, I can tell you some worst practices.

MuseumNext looks at this question: Using new media and technology, how do we activate and engage people, make them enthusiasts?

There is another question about money. I’m not going into that, I’ve seen other speakers who will do that. I cut out the word community, because after two years of working in a museum I’m not entirely sure you can talk about a community if you are a museum dealing with the entire Dutch history and the entire county. That’s 17 million people. Is that still a community? I don’t know. I want to share with you some lessons we learned.

The very first lesson, and it’s a lesson we already know, is what we need to do if you want to reach 17 million people and make them more enthusiastic about history, is we have to go to where they are, both physically and digitally. We can’t invite them in. We’d love to, but our office is just not big enough. We have to go to where they are, and online this means — and I made the logo really big to see how big a competitor they are — we have to be there where people go for historical imagination. And they go to Google. They don’t go to museums. I didn’t go to museums three years ago to find something about history. They go to Google, and from Google they go to – and I’ve heard somebody call this the Death Star for museums – Wikipedia. That’s where people go.

So if we want to engage people we have to be there. And if there’s one very tangible thing you can take away, and I know a lot of people do this already, this is what helped us spread our knowledge a lot of the time. And all our clients and our contents, everything we do has this. Copyright license. It made Wikipedia our top ten referrer for a long time, especially photos. We know that still this isn’t going to where the people are. This is allowing people to use your stuff.

So how do you go to where the people are? Imagine, and this is going to be a small part of history, your child comes home from school and is singing a song about the conquest of the Silver Fleet, which is a thing we stole from the Spaniards. They stole the World Cup, we stole their gold and silver. And you want to know more about the story. How does this work? How does this story work? People will go to Google and they’ll Google it. They’ll find a Wikipedia page because it’s always the first result they find. They might be distracted by the handsome looking guy who actually conquered the fleet. And because this person works in a museum, they know there’s Wikipedia, so maybe there they can find the original text of the song. They find it on the piano. They are from Holland, so they know there’s another website where they can go to and they can Google and look for it, and finally, with a bit of luck, after a long time Googling and a lot of knowledge, they will find the original text of the song, sing along, play it on the piano, and maybe even listen to it. Nobody is ever going to do that.

So, together with Mediamatic who will be talking tomorrow, we thought, “What are you going to do? If you want to be online how do you make sure you’re the glue of that story? You can tell that story?” We thought not about a website, but about a service. Of course, we had to build a physical website where you can go and you can see when we are open and when we’re not and where we’re located and what we’re doing, but way more than that, what we built was a network that connects these different dots you saw in the first story. So dots from Wikipedia and dots from all other communities all over the Netherlands that interact with history, and glue them together, which allows us to tell stories that are there were the people interact with the stories.

This is an example. We can take the pictures from an archive where people discuss pictures, add to their story and that way link and tell a complete narrative about history online. This was a very tricky project and we’re still working on it a lot. What I think is really good is that as it’s online we can measure stuff about it. So here’s what happens after we built this network and started telling our story there where people cared about the story. Our (average 0:8:48) visitor, you know the one that just comes to the website, spends about one minute and 44 seconds on our website, that’s barely enough to read one article, or if you divide it by six seconds, to look at a couple of paintings.

To compare it to the people who come in to our website through Twitter, they spend about the same amount of time, just a little bit less, which is to be expected. The percentage of people that actually spend more than a certain amount of time, three minutes, and more than a certain visit (depth) on a website. So these 26 and 23 percent are the people that I have the feeling we actually (read) Twitter or our website, and are not just Google people who leave within two seconds again.

If we look at the audiences who come to our website through these stories that we tell across different platforms, through our (N and L) network, you see that they spent almost a minute more on our website, and a much higher percentage of these people actually engaged with our content. I do believe this shows that if you go out and tell the story where people are, there might be some value in this.

Another thing that happened, and this is actually funny, if you only look at the percentage that spends a lot of time on our website, this 35% from the earlier slide. If you compare them with a regular visitor, you see they leave our website sooner as well. So if we go out and tell the story where people are located, not only do we engage them better, but they also leave sooner, which is obvious, because these people are used to finding their story wherever they please.

The second thing we learned is that if we want to build an engaging community, we’ve got to specifically target our potential audience. It’s almost the same as going to where the people are already located. If you just do a project and you say, “This is for everybody” nobody will come, at least in our case. If you say, “This is a project that is only for this small group of the people we want to address” maybe nobody else will come, but they have a much higher chance of coming and they will interact better with our content. That’s our experience.

Earlier this year we did an architecture project. As we don’t have a building, we were looking at what could a building look like if we had 200 million Euros to build it and a lot of space and no regulations? We asked a couple of architecture firms — here are some of the sketches they made — “What is your ultimate dream for a museum building?” We didn’t want to limit this discussion to people from the architecture world, we wanted to broaden this discussion with people who are interested in architecture in museums and a very specific target group.

We went on Facebook, we did a Facebook advert, it’s about 45,000 people in the Netherlands who might have interest in this topic. So it’s a small group of people, and we very specifically addressed them. We bought facebook ads. The facebook ads were only 200 Euros, but we directly targeted these people. We went on a couple of architecture blogs and we just only picked that audience, and what happened is – another metric. If you look at our average visitor to our website, about 60% of them actually spends a lot of time, comes back regularly, are people that I think they are okay, they are okay visitors and they are not just leaving, they came back, they type into our URL or they interact with us, about 8% of them come back regularly, post stuff on Facebook maybe once every while. Make an account. They are engaged with our content.

Only a meagre 0.6% participate, so they write a comment or they do something else with the content. I do think this is not a very bad metric, and it doesn’t say a lot unless you compare it. If we compare it to the people we specifically targeted with our architecture project, what you see is that nearly a hundred per cent of these people actually visited, came back, spent a lot of time on the website. Which is not strange, because all the other people, the people that just stumbled upon it, they were not addressed in the campaign.

Much more interesting, I think, is way down on the right button, almost 5% of these people participated with the content. Why? Because we directly addressed them, I think, on their interests. So specifically target the people that you want to reach and you’ll get much higher participation, much higher engagement.

If you do that, we learned to ask the right questions. We learned this the hard way. I’m going to talk about a project now, again something we did with Mediamatic, you see how the relations are here, which is a National Vending Machine. You probably heard about it, it’s been all over a lot of blogs. Usually I tell a very good story about it, today I’m going to tell the tougher side of the story.

The National Vending Machine is, who knows it? Anyone who has seen it before? One person only? Two, three, cool. The National Vending Machine sells history. So we were thinking, “Alright, if you want to engage people with history, if you want to spark their historical imagination, are you going to do it with dates: 1600, 1722? People don’t like that. What people like is small, tangible stuff. Tourist stuff. They buy it. So we made a replica of one of the cheapest possible installations you can get in the Netherlands, which is a vending machine. Usually we use it to guy hot food when we’re really drunk. You know, the kind of food you regret the day afterwards. This is the lowest of the low you can get, and we sold historical objects from it. Fake replicas or originals, if there were 200 million of them.

Anyway, for one or two Euros people could buy an object. Every object would have a small label, and on the label there would be an explanation why this object is important and a URL. And the URL asked the question, only the URL, “Please go to our website and discuss this because we are curious to hear what you think.” To add to that, people could see wonderful movies, they could do a lot of stuff.

We really thought that by putting a URL out there and by telling some people, people would storm to our website and comment on it and say, “Yes, I want a cheese slicer as well. And I have very fond memories of the Volkswagen truck. And you know what you should sell from your museum. You should sell this and this and this. And yeah, this is a good project.” We had this website and people could write absolutely everything and then they didn’t.
We sold a lot of objects. I think this is two installations. This is a traveling exhibition that goes from one place to the other about every three months. We sold over 2,000 objects in Amsterdam, a lot less in the East of country where almost nobody lives. We had 30 people commenting. I think ten were people from our museum, which is even more shocking if you see that the vending machine is a conversation piece. Only 2% of the people interacting with the machine buy something, but nearly 60% spent considerable time with it.

I heard you talk about guards at the Amsterdam Museum who would say if people come they just love it. There’s old women who go by every single object and tell each other the story. There are school classes full of kids who just continue to tell stories, stories, stories, stories, stories. But they do not tell them to us, they just keep it within themselves.

So we though, “All right, what are we going to do?” Let’s try and see what kind of questions we should ask to get people to participate online. We went to a cultural fair. We spoke with hundreds of people. This is the most perfect audience you can get. We asked them a whole lot of different questions. “What is your favorite object?” “Why do you think this object is important?” “Which object do you remember from your youth?” We just tried all the questions we could possibly ask and over four of these activities and almost 500 interactions with people, we found questions that actually mattered and that people would be willing to respond to.

We collected hundreds of comments, all on paper, not online, but it’s a small step from paper to online and we’re now trying to take that step. And I think that’s a very important thing, if you are looking at designing tools, if you are looking at asking the right questions, why not take it offline? A pile of paper is almost free, designing a platform isn’t, unfortunately. And if you do that, you might find out what you actually have to ask. We became so good at it, that at our last installation in the (Iksaidc igarrik?) apart from a lot of tourists who came in there who every day almost robbed the machine empty, we got a lot more feedback. Not an enormous amount of feedback, but something like fifty or sixty people who would actually tell us an interesting story on paper, but it works.

And the last thing we learned over the past two years doing our projects is, we have to think beyond text. I don’t know if you recognise this, but this is kind of like our typical event life span. This is maybe even an optimistic version of it, slowly you build towards the event, and as soon as the event starts, the numbers of visitors to your website start to plummet, and in a couple of months, it depends on how great the event was, nobody visits the website anymore. Maybe ten, twenty people a day.

These are the metrics for a Night of History we host every year, where we invite a lot of people and they come and they dance and they debate and we stalk them with cameras and we take hundreds of photos of them and we video them. One of the things we immediately saw, and I think everybody here will recognise this, is that if you add that, if you put that online, you can lengthen the time people are engaged with your project significantly. Which is a logical thing, which is a thing we always do, and which is also something probably that works in advance, so if you do not only take photos at the event and use them to keep people’s interest after the event, you might also take the photos that gets peoples interests before the event.

This is the cute slide. Think of your visitor a little bit like this. Obviously if you just send out text, just your website, just the stats, he’s not going to like, it or she’s not going to like it. What people like is if you put stuff in their ears and eyes and maybe even if you touch their heart thorough their Facebook network. I’ve seen videos of this, there’s not yet social services for this, but there is stuff that you can — fake smell and taste. It’s very gross, but it works. In a couple of years it will be standard. If you address all these senses, if you address the five or six senses your visitor has, online, before the event, you actually reach more people than if you only focus on text or other stuff.

Of course we do this. We do this in our exhibitions. We all do this in our exhibitions, this is our exhibition, you’ve got the rabbit, the rabbit can read the levels, which are objects. It can see your interactive, it can touch maybe a part of your exhibition, we always give stuff away to touch. It can smell your exhibition, usually. And even if you do a little bit of nostalgic stuff in it, it can feel your exhibition. It can change this there.

So why not do that online? What we do is every project we do, before we start, we make something like this. I made it small enough so you can’t steal our ideas, but this our typical strategy, social and online media strategy for any given project. On the vertical axis you can see all projects, and all different aspects of a project. This can be sound, this can be video, this can be engagement, this can be reaching out to people in bars. Absolutely every small detail is detailed and on the horizontal axis you can see when we’re going to do in detail whatever we are going to do. Doing this and planning this straightforwardly, so using this full width of possibilities that we have, to address different senses of people way before events, actually increases the number of people that visit our activities.

Of course, this is maybe the second thing I want to give you to take away. At the end of the term you have to report on that. One of the most powerful tools, I’ve found, working on new media in my museum is this. Every three months I write a 15-20 page document detailing absolutely everything we did. I write this for the marketing department. I just tell them, “All right, we did an ad there and there. This many people we reached, and in comparison to a facebook ad, that means this ad sucked or was great, or worked in any way.” This document alone is I think the key decision maker by now in most of our communication strategies, and it’s really helping us put a focus on online, rather than just buying another ad in the newspaper for a lot of money that doesn’t get any interaction.

The things I tell you today are summarized in this report, it says, “Online photos and video have a positive influence on the total reach in activities in our museum.” That’s the kind of language I use for my CEO’s.

What I’d say is design holistic projects. We try to do that. Use all the senses, use all the things you learn from such reports, everything you’ve ever heard, and start planning all of this in advance from the beginning. Social media’s too long been something somebody does in a corner of an institution, or with the good fortune of a good CEO. In free time, with your own energy and your own guts, not something implemented in the core of your organisation. I firmly believe that the only way we can make this successful, and I think some of the stats have shown you we can make this successful, at least we in our museum, is if we combine all these departments and work from the ground up, thinking in these possibilities.
This is the only project I don’t have statistics on, but it’s going to be live in a couple of days so I definitely want to show it, how we use this way of thinking. It’s called “X Was Here” and it’s about historical imagination on locations. If you want to spark people’s imagination, you need to give them something tangible, and nothing is more tangible, look at this room around you, then physical stuff. I’m curious what was this before it became the MuseumNext venue? Anyone?

A church. Looks like it, yeah, so if you can get people to visit the actual places where history happened, they will be engaged with it, they will enjoy it. So we started a project which is basically about locations, 40-50 locations every year in the Netherlands where history happened, physical ones or sometimes hidden ones. A website where you can find them and an app where you can check in like you can do with FourSquare.

One of these locations, and I didn’t pick this at random, I used to live here, is Kinderdijk which is known for the windmills. Kinderdijk gets a nice logo, like a (QR tech 25:28), you can check in, and this is your entry key to a whole lot of knowledge that is spread all over the internet and around the country about Kinderdijk. Kinderdijk is about windmills, about water management, about the 17th Century or 18th Century. About a lot of tourists.

A lot of things come together here. We picked Kinderdijk, there’s more windmills in the Netherlands, but Kinderdijk attracts 800,000 people every year, I guess. Kinderdijk has a very established online presence, it’s a world heritage site of UNESCO, so we could have picked a windmill that’s maybe more beautiful, but it’s not out there where people already go. And also this year is the Year of The Windmill, in case you wondered what year it was. Which means a lot of people hopefully are interacting with windmills. We go to where windmill people are.

What we do in advance, and this is a small trick we use, in our media campaign we started a couple of months ago, just telling about the places that we picked. Like Kinderdijk and then we would tweet “Kinderdijk is with the windmills.” People would re-tweet this. I made a list of everybody who re-tweeted this, because this is our potential future audience, so we’re going to target these people once the campaign really hits in. If you do that a couple of times, you get an enormous list of people who re-tweet you or blog about you, and you can use them for your future marketing purposes, because they are likely to like what you have to say.

Just a little bit of insight about the project, so there’s one page in English, which is New York, which used to be New Amsterdam before we sold it for a Euro, I guess. So what we do there is we try to tell a story that is not just the text, but we try to tell a story in video and in emotion. We try to tell a story that actually connects with the people that are listening. I want to show you some stuff so you learn a bit. I’ve got three minutes left, it should work out I guess.

About the origin of the name Manhattan. Who knows the origin of the name Manhattan? You will now.

Two years later, in 1626, something crucial happened. Peter (Menwei?), a German who had traveled to New Netherland and had been appointed to direct a general, purchase the right to use the Manahatta, or hilly island, from the American natives, or Indians. A capital was created at the Southern tip of the Peninsula, New Amsterdam.

So now you know where the name Manhattan comes from. This just attracts people to watch it. I’ve seen people interact with these movies when we just show them to random visitors. They love it, because it’s more than just text.

What they also like, and that’s the next part about us, is if you make nostalgic. This is about how Dutch Manhattan is, actually.

The Dutch origins of New York were short-lived, but vigorous. The Big Apple’s Dutch roots can be easily seen and even heard. Brooklyn, or Brooklyn. Harlem or (Harlem). Flushing or Fleishingam. Coleslaw or coleslaw. Wall Street or Wall Straat. Santa Claus or Santa Claus.
Now, I don’t know if we have to be proud of this legacy, but it’s ours. People love this. If you ask they will re-tweet this, “I didn’t know that that Wall Street was a Dutch name.” They love it. Of course, we connect this with stuff we find all over the internet, so it’s out there where people actually find it.

This is personally my favorite part, we try to reach peoples’ hearts by making – we’ve asked 45 cartoonists to draw images, cartoons about these places. We’ve put these online, I don’t know if you can see it very well, but this is I think the best one. It’s about historical imagination for a place that used to be an open sewer and now is a tourist attraction. We reward people by giving them badges and prizes.

The bottom line I want to say is you’re going to hear a lot of stuff these next couple of days. Some will be good, some will be less applicable to your institution. All of it will be good, some of it will be good, some of it will be less applicable. Try and combine all of this together. Not just pick one idea, but build projects that reach across the entire specter of all your possibilities. Connect everything with each other, because that’s the way you get the most results. That’s the way we get the most results. So using new media and technology, how do we activate and engage people and make them enthusiasts? I think by doing all of this together, by interconnecting your projects and making holistic strategies that really work, really specifically target people, really go out there and reach them with much more than just text but with emotion and by asking them to write questions so they will come back. Thank you.

Jasper Visser is Project Manager for new technology and media projects at the Museum of National History of the Netherlands. Together with the team, he’s responsible for their new media strategy, (online) participation, community building and online communication.

In this presentation Jasper shares dos and don’ts based on the experience of the Museum of National History of the Netherlands, sharing best practices for designing participatory projects that successfully engage audiences and make the online-onsite-offsite conversion really work.

Filmed at the MuseumNext Edinburgh 2011.


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