Facebook is more than a fad—and museums need to learn from it

museums should embrace the idea that 'everyone is a curator'

Social networks and blogs are the fastest growing online activities, according to a report published in March by research firm Nielsen Online. Almost 10% of all time spent on the internet is spent on these types of sites, which Nielsen describes as “member communities”, and they are visited by more than two-thirds of the world’s online users.

This has not gone unnoticed by museums and galleries, with many creating some kind of presence on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. But because this has primarily been done as a marketing tool, institutions are missing a far greater opportunity. By treading gently into the second generation of web development and design, known as Web 2.0, museums risk achieving little, and are effectively paying mere lip service to online social engagement. If they were to make a proper commitment to the enterprise, they could transform their relationship with audiences, change people’s perceptions of them and vastly expand the reach of their collections.

The Nielsen research shows that a major factor in the success of social networks is that they allow people to select and share content. This has become a hobby, even considered by some to be a serious creative outlet, with web users spending time “curating” their online space. Museums are well placed to appeal to this new generation of “curators” because they offer rich and interesting content that can be virtually “cut-up” and stuck back together online in numerous different ways to reflect the individual tastes of each user. If remixing, reinterpreting and sharing interesting content is, as Nielsen suggests, the kind of engaging interaction that draws people to social networks, then museums should embrace the idea that “everyone is a curator”, both online and offline.

Most of the institutions that are adapting their own websites with those facets of the social networks that so many people find attractive are in the US. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York relaunched its website in March. It now includes links to the museum’s online users on various social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Users can also create personal online accounts, which allow them to bookmark upcoming events, create online exhibitions and “collect” works of art via their mobile phone as they walk around the gallery and view them later on the website.

Victor Samra, digital media marketing manager at MoMA, says: “It's not enough just to broadcast information now. Sharing and participating in discussions are becoming normal activities on the web, so I think people are coming to expect it. People want to engage with content they are really passionate about, and museums have a great opportunity to provide this for them. This helps to change the perception of the museum as a building with four closed walls to an organisation with personality and a human face.”

One potential obstacle to museums sharing content online is the issue of copyright and how to protect images if they are put on the internet. Legal implications aside, from a practical point of view this approach is becoming outdated. For example, the Art Museum of Estonia has gone against convention by actively encouraging visitors to photograph its collection; the MoMA website helps users to co-create content and share these creations with friends.

All museums want to create a dialogue with their audiences, and most museum staff are well aware that the internet can be a useful tool for doing this. But museums such as MoMA that have wholeheartedly embraced the new digital environment are becoming part of the conversation, rather then just pushing content or questions at visitors and then sitting back.

Online activity such as MoMA’s requires investment, both in terms of web development costs and staff time, but if this is where people are and how they are communicating, then, one can argue, museums should be there too.

Curators pride themselves on using their collections to analyse issues, provoke reactions and ask difficult questions. But these questions are no longer just being debated over a coffee or in the galleries themselves; they are also being discussed online, whether it is on social network sites such as Facebook, online discussion forums or the many blogs, and the content prompting these responses is no longer restricted to the four walls it actually inhabits. This means museums and galleries need to expand the sites where they introduce, narrate and edit their programmes.

The writer is the managing director of Newcastle-based Sumo, a design consultancy specialising in arts and culture. He is a speaker at the conference, “Communicating the Museum”, in Malaga (24-27 June). www.communicatingthemuseum.com

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20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


I generally agree with the idea of creating online engagement with cultural heritage materials. Easy for me to say--I work for an online-only archive. We are, in fact, working on a tool that will enable visitors to mix and match our content, content from other websites, and content that they upload themselves into "media shows"--a lightweight replacement for powerpoint. But, despite the fact that Facebook is where many of our site visitors are, I am not convinced that it is the best medium for this kind of work. Facebook is closed--unless someone is sufficiently conscious of permissions, any mashups or sharing that they do is private to themselves and/or to their friends. As I type this, I find myself wondering if that is not the point--that instead of being all public (say, with flickr commons), or all private (the usual model for providing access to tools on institutional websites), people =are= more comfortable sharing only with those who they choose to trust. Hmmm.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


Great article! I couldn't agree with Jim more when he says, "... This means museums and galleries need to expand the sites where they introduce, narrate and edit their programmes." That's the idea behind Open Museum.org (of which I'm a co-founder), a not-for-profit exhibit space that permits any individual or organization -- regardless of location, technical skills and resources -- to create dynamic, online exhibits and member communities. It's in Alpha release now, with Beta planned by July 1. In keeping with our social commitment Open Museum will remain free to visitors and low or no-cost to organizations.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


I completely agree with Jim –especially concerning his comments on curators ‘using their collections to analyse issues, to provoke reactions and ask difficult questions’. The museum’s strength lies specifically at this juncture, and, when museums go online, they draw on these kinds of traditions – already familiar from the physical museum - to extend and augment their activities online. In addition, when museums cross over from the physical to the mediated, they bring to their online surrogates the very same sense of trust that is embedded in the bricks and mortar museum. Through well-structured websites, museums offer audiences rich and meaningful resources that has been authored to respond to these very same questions; this time beyond the museum walls. However, Jim reminds us how research has identified the ways that users are travelling the net. Without dovetailing into these pathways - Wikipedia, Flickr, and Facebook – museum content – as excellent as it is - could sit in deep silos - with users bypassing our resources for similar content (although far less rich, or structured) already at their fingertips. In order to remain relevant, these are spaces that museums must colonise. There are already some excellent examples of museums taking the lead in social network platforms, and opening their web spaces up to user-generated content - as noted in this persuasive article. Having said this, there is also resistance from the managers of memory institutions who are not too eager to shift the balance between those reading the museum, and those who might wish to actually write the museum; in a truly Web 2.0, read/write scenario. Clearly there have to be meeting places, where social networks of museum professionals and museum users can come to read and write together, and, it is up to the museum community to provide these public spaces for meaningful discussion in the museum tradition.

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