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Museums & Web 2.0

The following are notes for a talk I gave in July 2008 at an event called Bits2Blogs. The talk focuses on innovative ways that museums are approaching Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 is a perceived second generation of websites, one where users are not just spectators browsing for information created for them, but can participate by adding, sharing and curating content.

Web 2.0 is more then a buzzword, websites like Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and You Tube have rapidly become some of the most popular websites on the internet.

More significant though is the changing expectation that Web 2.0 has created. The next generation of museum visitors and library users are no longer happy to just consume content curated for them by experts; they want an experience that is relevant to them and their interests. This approach has been dubbed ‘Generation C’ – the generation who want to create their own content.

This desire to create, curate and share has led millions of young people to build their own webpages on MySpace and Facebook to share pictures, music and film and with friends. While much is said about the social network and the desire of these people to be hyper-connected, the time that these individuals spend ‘curating’ their online space is often overlooked. It has become a new hobby and a seriously-considered creative outlet.

Museums and Libraries are well-placed to appeal to ‘Generation C’ because they are content rich and can be virtually ‘cut-up’ and stuck back together online in numerous different ways to reflect the individual taste of each participant.

Remixing, reinterpreting and sharing interesting content is the kind of engaging interaction that draws young people to sites like Bebo, and to really reach this target group, museums need to look beyond using social networks for marketing and embrace this ‘everyone is a curator’ culture both online and offline.

I am going to talk about some of the interesting things that museums and galleries are doing with web 2.0. The purpose of this is really to inspire you to think about how web 2.0 could work within your organisation.

I am going to start with photosharing and Flickr. Photosharing is a very popular activity on the web, with nearly half of the UK popular sharing pictures online  and nearly three quarters of them doing it more then once a month.

Flickr is a popular photo sharing website, anyone can set up an account free of charge and then add images. Flickr is a popular photo sharing website, anyone can set up an account free of charge and then add images.

Using Flickr within the Museum sector was really pioneered by the Brooklyn Museum in the United States. The museum first used Flickr with an exhibition called Graffiti in summer 2006, this exhibition invited members of the public to contribute to a crowd created mural using pens and pencils hanging from the gallery walls.

Anticipating that the mural would change significantly during the exhibition’s eight-week run the curators wanted a way that the public track the progress of the artwork on the museums website. Flickr offered a cheap and effective tool to do this.

Once the museum had a Flickr account, they started to think about other ways that they could use this. To accompany the Graffiti exhibition, they invited members of the public to contribute to a new Flickr group of images of Graffiti found around Brooklyn. 

Following the success of these first experiments, the Brooklyn Museum started to look at how it could utilise Flickr for each new exhibition. An exhibition of work by the artist Ron Mueck in late 2006 provided further success taking visitors behind the scenes with a series of images capturing the scale of Muecks work as it is installed in the Museum. Today the Brooklyn Museum continues to add a rich mix of content to Flickr, with events, behind the scenes and images from its archives.

The Tate started to use Flickr in 2007 with it’s exhibition How We Are Now. The exhibition was a unique journey through British photography, from the pioneers of early photography to today’s photographers who use new technology to make and display their imagery. The Tate invited members of the public to submit photographs via Flickr to illustrate one of the four themes of the exhibition: portrait, landscape, still life and documentary. 

The photographs submitted were displayed online and on screens in the gallery, giving anyone the chance to have their work exhibited in Tate Britain. Of the 5,750 images submitted to the competition, forty were selected by a panel of experts for display in the final exhibition, alongside high profile photographers like David bailey, William Fox Tolbert.

How We Are Now was followed in 2008 with Street or Studio, an exhibition at Tate Modern that celebrated photographic portraiture with over 350 works by some of the world’s most famous and important photographers. For the exhibition the gallery partnered with and to invite the public to contribute to a unique book.

Participants were invited to add up to two street or studio portraits to a Flickr group, in total 2480 images were added by members of the public, of these one hundred were chosen by three curators to be published in the Street or Studio book. These 100 images were also shown as part of the exhibition on slideshow in Tate Modern.

Waygood in Newcastle are very active on Flickr, using the website not only as a place to submit work for an exhibition, but also as a community where they are involving local artists through their Waygood Associates group.

Waygood’s Slow TV was influenced by the work Tate did with How We Are Now, they invited their studio holders, associates and members of the Flickr community to submit work which was displayed on four screens on High Bridge Street, the site of the new Waygood Art Centre. 656 images were submitted to Slow TV.

The development of an exhibition by Waygood using Flickr shows that it isn’t just the large national galleries such as Tate who can take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies, if anything they are more beneficial to smaller venues with limited budgets as they require little expenditure.

While the Waygood chose to exhibit all the images submitted to Slow TV and the Tate employed experts and curators to choose which images were worthy of display the Brooklyn Museum took the crowd sourced exhibition one step further in 2008 with their photographic exhibition Click.

Taking its inspiration from the critically acclaimed book The Wisdom of Crowds, Click explores whether a diverse crowd can make better decisions than expert individuals, in this case the curator by inviting members of the public not only to submit photographs for the exhibition, but also to vote for what should be exhibited.

Click started with a open call which asked the public to electronically submit a photograph that reacts to the theme of “Changing faces of Brooklyn”, along with an artists statement. After the conclusion of the open call and online forum opened to allow members of the public to discuss, debate and vote for what merited display.

The chosen photography was installed in the Click exhibition according to their relative ranking from the public vote. When the exhibition opened it received praise for getting the public to interact with the Museum in a new and interesting way, but also some criticisim for the ‘mass market’ and in some cases ‘bland’ photographs chosen by the public. But as well as doing the public vote the Museum had asked expert curators to make their own selection and without seeing the photographs selected by the public they on the whole chose the same images as the public had.  

Next, I want to quickly touch on social bookmarking. Social bookmarking lets users bookmark your website or an individual web page, this is a bit like the bookmarks that you find in your web browser, but with social bookmarking the things that a user bookmarks are saved on the web, either through social bookmarking websites like Delicious which has 1.6 million monthly users, or even a Facebook profile page. Social bookmarking also lets the user share their bookmarks with friends.

Adding a social bookmarking toolbar to your website should take a web designer no more then a couple of hours, it lets people virally spread the word about your latest exhibition or share research with classmates. By joining yourself, you can see if your venue website has been bookmarked by anyone already, and what comments they have made about your venue. Social bookmarks are not the only place that you’ll find comments written online about your organisation, there are plenty of websites like TripAdvisor where people might be talking about their experience visiting your venue. 

Social Networks are probably the most common place that museums have started to look at the possibilities that Web 2.0 offers them. With no real cost to participate, setting up a Facebook or MySpace page and collecting friends or fans is an easy place to start. But you don’t need to look far to find poor examples of venues which has set up a page and then found that they do not have the time to update it properly.

Personally I feel that it is too easy to set up a Facebook page and too many venues are doing this without thinking about what they can do with a presense on a social network which they are not doing already.  

In 2007 Tate Modern invited twelve musicians including Basement Jaxx, the Chemical Brothers and the Klaxons to compose pieces of music in response to pieces of art in the gallery. The exercise aimed to use music to attract young people to the venue. The tracks were released one per month, and concluded with a competition which invited unsigned bands to submit their own tracks through MySpace, which with over 8 million members describing themselves as musicians seemed like the obvious place to run the competition.

Over 150 entries were received and out of these ten were shortlisted, and put to a public vote to pick the unsigned band who would provide the final track. The competition was featured on the MySpace homepage, giving the museum brand exposure to an estimated five million users per day. TateTracks let the Tate use the music as a way to access the power of social networks, with the unsigned bands mobilising their fan bases to vote for them, and in doing so, exposing them to the Tate.

In 2008 Penguin did the same thing as part of it’s marketing campaign for the new James Bond novel, teaming up with Myspace to search for a theme tune for the Devil May Care audiobook. As well as getting there track on the Audiobook, the winner also received press exposure and £1000 of music equipment.

I am not going to look at YouTube today, but I think it is worth noting that the same kind of competitions which we find museums doing with photography on flickr and with music on MySpace also exist on YouTube with video based initiatives.

While MySpace is still popular with bands, Facebook is now the most popular social network, and many Museums now have a Facebook profile. Though as I said earlier, unfortunately most do not make very good use of their presence their. One of the most interesting elements of Facebook is Facebook Apps. If you have been on Facebook, you’ll have seen things like Quizzes, Vampire bites etc, these are all applications developed by third parties to entertain and to advertise.

In 2008 the Brooklyn Museum created ArtShare, an application which Facebook users display works of art from some of the worlds most famous museums and galleries on their Facebook profile. The Artshare application functions like everything else on Facebook, allowing members of the community to get to know each other, but in this case it is through the art they choose to display on their profile. Browsing through the usres who have installed ArtShare, one begins to get a sense of the personal tastes and interests they have, just by looking at the works of art they’ve selected for their profiles. In the UK the Tate and the V&A signed up to share their collections through ArtShare and it is possible for any venue to get involved. 3,127 people used the Artshare application in January, if we multiply this by 70, the average number of friends someone has on Facebook that means that 218,890 were exposed to the Artshare application in January.

Closer to home, the ArtShare application was the inspiration for a picture of the day application which we developed for Tyne and Wear museums last summer. The Laing Art Gallery application displays a different image from the galleries collection on your Facebook profile every 24 hours. The application was launched through the Laing Art Galleries Facebook page and spread organically.

The really cool thing about Facebook is that you don’t have to attract a huge following to virally market to a huge number of people. In the month after we launched the Laing Art Gallery application, about 150 people added this to their Facebook profiles. While this does not seem like a lot of people, when you multiply that by the average number of friends a Facebook user has, then those 150 people exposed 10,500 friends to the Laing Art Gallery.

When you consider that the Laing Art Gallery application took about a day for us to build and it simply selects images from a different image from an online database every 24 hours, meaning that it requires no mainatance, then this is a very low cost, low maintance way of reaching a lot of people.

I also came across this rather cool Facebook application for Beamish earlier this week. It is kind of a game where you receive points for sending parts of Beamish to friends. I like the way that it encourages you to virally distribute information about beamish. Over 171 Facebook users have used the Beamish Application in the past month, exposing nearly 12,000 Facebook users to the Beamish brand in Januray. 23% of social network users have installed an application on their profile.

Using existing social networks makes a lot of sense, these have massive user bases and it is easier to talk to people in a place where they are already spending time, rather then getting them to come to a new website. But there are downsides to sites like Facebook too, research shows that some young people see this site as their private space and they resent museums and galleries trying to market to them on this site.

An good example of an organisation trying something different is N8, this dutch organisation aims to get young people from the Amsterdam area to visit museums. In 2007 they launched a website which asked members of the public to create their own audio commentaries about items found in venues around the city. Audio commentaries about artworks found in prestigious collections may not seem like the most appropriate place to ask for public involvement, these are normally written by trusted experts and listeners expect these guides to be factually correct.

But the audio commentaries created by the public for N8 do not pretend to be by trusted experts; these are something different and additional, Rather then beginning with the formal, official explanation, young people can now start with something which may be more appealing to them. They can always decide to listen to the formal audio guide at the museum. Each artwork could have several audio commentaries, each from a different persons point of view. All have been created by museum visitors who have been inspired to take the time to create, curate and share.

In November the RjksMuseum in Amsterdam exhibited the Damien Hirst artwork ‘For the love of god’ a platinum cast skull encrusted with over 1100 carats of diamonds.

The exhibit was displayed in the centre of a dark room, with no interpretive content. When exiting, visitors who wished to provide feedback we directed to a temporary structure that served both as a For the Love of God giftshop and feedback environment. The feedback stations themselves were little closed booths where you could record a video with your opinion about the skull.

But the thing that makes this project stand out is the way these videos are shared on the Web. The  For the Love of God website lets users view the videos by country of origin, gender, age, and some key concepts (love it/hate it, think it’s art/think it’s hype). The videos were automatically masked so that each person appears as a floating head, which creates an eerie, appealing visual consistency.

Finally I want to touch on blogs, which I really feel are something that every museum should look at incorporating in to their online offering. I feel that there is so much interesting stuff going on behind the scenes at a Museum that this is a great way to show the public a different side to a venue. The blog on screen here is for York museums Trust, I think we added that to their site about a year and a half ago and it boosted their traffic by about 10%.

Penguin took the whole idea of a blog one step further with this blogging website for Penguin Classic, which asks members of the public to sign up to review their books.

Community Members are randomly selected to receive free copies of the 1,400 Penguin classics series, and whether the reviewer thinks the book is good or bad, the review is posted online for anyone to see.

In terms of web 2.0 capabilities, your standard blog like this one asks involves people in a number of ways. Firstly, and I think this is very important, the blog is not written by the marketing department, though they are one voice which speaks on the blog, but rather the contributors are a diverse group of volunteers from across the venue. The second way that people are involved is through comments, letteing people respond to exhibitions or ask questions.

One of the fastest growing websites in the United States at the minute is Twitter, and it has been getting a lot of buzz on Radio 1 over here.

Twitter is blogging, but micro blogging, you only have 140 charactures to type your message in. several museums in the states are using Twitter in a number of different ways, from advertising upcoming exhibitions, which is rather dull, to talking about cool behind the scenes stuff.

Someone can twitter from their mobile phone, so it is easy to update. The site shown here belongs to a friend of mine who has this cool online community tourism company, and you’ll see that he has twitter on the homepage, which allows him or his team to text messages about what they are doing on the island they live on in fiji.

Though I know a few museums in the states are using twitter, none have been brave enough to put this on their homepage yet, but I think it’s a really nice way to add something new to a website every day.

This is tribewanted’s twitter homepage, and you can see that they have 180 followers, people who subscribe to get updates from them, and that can be through rss or even through text messages.

Okay, finally, if your feeling inspired by any of these cool things which people are doing, can I suggest a couple of next steps. Firstly, step away from your computer and have a think about your audiences, it is far to easy to think we can use this cool technology and forget about your audiences.

This book, Groundswell which came out late last year also a good place to learn more about using web 2.0 well, and even if you don’t buy the book you can go online to the address shown here, and use their audience research, which shows which Web 2.0. activities work best for which age groups.

Has your Museums exploring Web 2.0 technology?

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has been writing, speaking and consulting on the future of museums and digital best practice for 20 years.

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