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In conversation with Boudewien Chalmers Hoynck van Papendrecht

Few museum professionals have been responsible for engaging with a global online audience on quite the same scale as Boudewien Chalmers Hoynck van Papendrecht. Ahead of her presentation at November’s Digital Marketing Summit, we caught up with the former Head of Social Media at the world famous Van Gogh Museum to find out more about her approach to handling global digital communities with millions of members, and how she hopes to help other cultural institutions advance their digital reach and engagement through her new venture, Bubble Shooters Network.

After early experiences in consumer marketing and advertising with the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi, Boudewien says that finding a role within the museum world “was like coming home”.

Over a five-year period at the Van Gogh Museum, she built an admirable international reputation for creating impactful social media campaigns, driving engagement across the museum’s platforms and helping the institution deal with the many challenges presented by the Coronavirus pandemic through 2020 and 2021.

While the Van Gogh Museum already had a sizeable social following and had “the most famous artist in the world to talk about”, Boudewien’s arrival served to significantly advance the effectiveness and impact of the institution’s social media accounts.

By the time Boudewien left the Van Gogh Museum in August 2021, she was responsible for managing digital communities with over 9.5 million users – an audience renowned for being one of the most engaged fanbases in the museum world.

She says, “I’m an Applied Psychologist who spent my early academic years studying consumer behaviour. When I first moved into museum marketing it wasn’t perhaps as evident to those within institutions that applied psychology was relevant to social media management.

“When I took up my post with the Van Gogh Museum, I think people were excited about the potential of these channels but not everybody really understood how they should be utilised or how they fit into the museum’s ecosystem.

“The advantage of this was that it enabled me to find what worked so quickly. There weren’t that many processes and procedures in place and I could take a lot of liberty to learn, grow, experiment and apply what I thought would work based on my psychology background.

“Today, I believe that my work has helped to create a culture shift and make people much more aware of how important it is to understand online behaviours when working in social media.

Van Gogh Museum / Photographer: Tomek Dersu Aaron

Having recently established her own digital engagement and activation agency, Bubble Shooters Network, Boudewien is working together with cultural organisations to help them grow and realise their potential – serving her mission and passion to reach and engage more people with art through her knowledge.

She believes that developing effective and impactful social media accounts isn’t just about what you do with the community itself, it also relies on internal communications and reporting in order to gain engagement from other teams within the museum: “It’s important to be an ambassador for the social channels within an organization. That involves creating videos and internal documents, as well as sharing some of the things that the online community are doing. As I found at the Van Gogh Museum, building awareness slowly but surely serves to help museum teams understand that there is a power and an importance to what happens in the digital space.

“I have to say that we are still learning and understanding how these online communities interact; it is always changing and the job is never done. But by the end of my time at the Van Gogh Museum I think we had got to the point where social media was no longer an island; it wasn’t standing apart from the rest of the museum.”

Understanding what it means to be social

In appraising the work carried out by her team at the Van Gogh Museum, Boudewien says,

“While museums have spent many years growing to understand how people use spaces within the walls of a museum, understanding the digital space and how people interact and are social within them is still new. The real secret to our success in the Van Gogh, I believe, was focusing on the behaviours within the global community.”

In her talk at November’s Digital Summit, Boudewien will share some of the most engaging campaigns she worked on during her time at the Van Gogh Museum, including book clubs, a Van Gogh birthday cake bake-off and the sharing of works from the Van Gogh Inspires Facebook group. She comments: “My little secret is that the very best performing posts I ever shared to social media didn’t come from me or the rest of the team. Really, they came from fans of Van Gogh who had contributed within the community. I think that is an important message to share.

The Van Gogh Museum shows the power of social media and the potential for museums to build global communities outside of their physical institutions. That’s what we are trying to achieve now through Bubble Shooters: exploring what being social in the digital space means.”

Digital platforms for accessibility and growth

According to Boudewien, the Van Gogh Museum was the perfect institution to benefit from digital expansion. Almost permanently sold out for physical visitors throughout the year, there is a limit to the number of people able to enjoy the great artist’s works in person each year – 2.2 million people in total.

Yet online, art lovers are able to repeatedly and regularly engage in a “social” way with the subject matter. There is no limit in space or access within the online world – something that is particularly relevant at a time when museums are placing greater emphasis on inclusivity and accessibility, as well as encouraging people to reduce their carbon footprint.

“Art has a vital message to convey and it is important that as many people as possible have access to different ideas and artworks. However, we know it’s not possible or responsible for everyone to visit every gallery or museum in person. What I hope we’ll see over the coming years is that digital contributes to art becoming more accessible to a bigger and broader audience.

“Museums really need to realise that reaching  and inspiring a new and broader audience online is a vital factor in achieving their mission, not just through Covid but for the future.”

And what about other speakers she’s keen to hear from at the upcoming summit?

“I’m really interested to hear more from Chris Cloud. I caught his talk for MuseumNext earlier in the year and I’m fascinated to see him share more of his own insights.

Hear more from Boudewien, Chris and an exceptional range of other museum marketing professionals at November’s Digital Marketing Summit running 22nd–24th November 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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