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Fostering Your Museum’s Online Community

As the digital output of the arts and culture sector has rapidly increased over the past two years, so too has the need to start making the digital space a platform for fostering a two-way conversation between museums and their community.

At the MuseumNext Digital Summit in June 2022 Kelly Cannon, Senior Content and Community Strategist at Gather Learning offered her advice on fostering a museum’s online community.  Having spent two years working with museums and education institutions through her work at Gather and previously managed online courses at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to drive digital engagement among over one million international enrolled learners, she is well placed to provide insights in this field.

Community Starts with Content

When describing the online community of a museum, Kelly refers to the group of people with shared interests that motivate them to engage with a museum online. They have a desire to learn and connect with others, including peers, artists, scientists, and staff.  They come to the museum because it’s where they find joy, inspiration, respite or solace. How a museum engages with this audience during digital output is really where community building starts.

Allowing discussion through chatrooms or live participation during virtual events is an important example of how to shape a community, but it’s important to acknowledge the drawbacks in the digital nature of these two-way discussions.

Kelly comments: “Before enabling audiences to unmute, you should ensure you have a plan for safety and harm reduction in place and are able to respond quickly and appropriately if necessary. The other barrier to inviting active participation during programmes, I suspect, is the vulnerability and sense of responsibility or authority that organisers have over the direction that the programme takes.”

Recognising the valuable role active participation can play in building an online community, Q&As can be a useful tactic for retaining order and structure in programme content. Q&As allow for participation and a loosening of a scripted structure – very much to the benefit of the community and the museum.

For example, at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the structure of virtual programmes and Q&As meant that the online community naturally moved in a more conversational direction.  This led to the museum holding events in a variety of formats, including book clubs, movie discussions and trivia. The digital output ended up being directed by the interests of the community. It perfectly illustrates that when you can expand from just asking the audience to make meaningful connections with a collection, you can start to understand how to make meaningful connections between people.

Community Value

Building a community isn’t just about in-content engagement.  How is it possible to enable online community members to connect before, after, and in between programmes?

Gather Conversations in My MODA

A simple tactic is to ask participants to submit questions in advance or ask participants to complete a post-programme survey. This is not only a way to ensure participation and inclusion but also a way to say that all-important ‘thank you’.  Providing a platform for post-programme discussion acknowledges there is value in the opinion, feedback and discussion of participants beyond viewing virtual content.

This is by no means a replication of social media. An online community should learn together over time, rather than seek multiple visits per day. The tactics of building an online community should create opportunities for an organisation to grow revenue or ticket sales and challenge where necessary. The key differentiator between an online community in the arts and cultural space versus social media, is that the goal should be building spaces where people are safe and can express themselves in a civil and enlightened discourse. It is, at its heart, a community of learners.

Kelly Cannon is a Senior Content and Community Strategist at Gather Learning. She spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in June 2022. Find out how you can watch all the presentations from this event on-demand here.

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