ICOM CECA 2012
More or less - summary
Theodorus Meereboer - E30 Foundation
This paper, that accompanies both a workshop and my keynote, is -more or less- about using text and telling
stories in our museums, or even outside our museum, considering the almost infinite possibilities of new
media, internet and mobile devices. The process of writing for a museum is even more complicated since
everybody is enabled to write, share knowledge, thoughts and experiences, as Clay Shirky mentions in his
book Here comes Everybody (2009).
Now people come together on the internet, in networks and communities, change happens. Not the least to
the way we involve and engage our visitors. Writing museum texts can no longer be separated from all the
communication with our followers, friends and stakeholders on social media.
It is no longer just a matter of preserving, exhibiting and communicating about the objects. For us as
museum professionals, whether we are exhibition designer, curator, mediator, volunteer, marketeer or
commercial director, we have the task to accompany the visitor on a journey through all the marvelous
prestigious paraphernalia and themes the museum has to offer.
It realy is more than just objects, facts and meaning. Also a magnificent meal in the restaurant, a glimpse or
two into a brochure, an intriguing app that shows us the ropes, a visit to the store, the website, the Facebook
page, an attentive tweet or a special membership can all be part of this journey.
So how can we describe this journey? How can we attract and guide our audiences within and out of the
museum? How can we get involved into the conversations that take place, everywhere?
This makes us more of a conductor than a composer, rather a facilitator of a conversation or a discussion
leader than a curator. We need many specialists, because writing a gameplay differs from writing tweets as
much as preserving an ancient manuscript differs from managing a library with user generated content about
modern poetry from civilians we asked to cooperate with our museum. Next step for contemporary museums
is not just ubiquity with all possibilities of technology and digitization, but becoming a personalized museum.
And ‘as a personalized museum’, it is our obligation to repair the understanding in society. If not, we must
ask ourselves why we want to attract, educate and entertain an audience. Do we really love our audience,
are we interested in persons rather than in audiences and are we paying enough attention?
That means we have to question ourselves what the purpose of text is, how it can be used and which skills
‘More or less’ contains two parts. First part is a about the workshop, providing thoughts on writing as an act
of communicating in a different, highly engaged and connected way. But it also offers some tips and tools for
writing. The second part is some sort of manifesto, wherein I try to describe the personalized museum and
what this means for education and the way we interact with our audience.
ICOM CECA 2012: “MORE OR LESS” (final paper)
Theodorus Meereboer - E30 Foundation, the Netherlands
On Saturday October 20th 2012 I arrived in Yerevan for the ICOM CECA conference, where same afternoon
I facilitated a workshop on writing for digital media. The conference took place at the Matenadaran,
Armenia’s state repository of ancient manuscripts, where we received an exceptionally warm welcome. Even
though the conference was well organised, there were some minor technical issues when connecting my
laptop to the beautiful screen in the presentation room in the old building of the Matenadaran. I decided to
make a PDF of the presentation and show it via de computer which was already connected to the screen.
Then it turned out that the computer could not show a PDF (yet), therefore Adobe Acrobat was downloaded
and installed. Easy for me to watch this being installed, but if this website would have been in the Armenian
language I would have had a difficult time understanding how to proceed and where to click.
Why do I mention this? It illustrates perfectly that we cannot assume that all the same standards are being
used all the time throughout the world. When we talk about the use of digital media worldwide, we must
acknowledge the fact that we still have to deal with different standards, budgets, infrastructure, culture and
also language differences.
These differences surfaced again the moment we introduced ourselves to each other. We are all more or
less involved in digital media, but that may mean various things, for instance that we are creating an audio
tour, developing a game, designing a multi-touch table, that we want to use social media, augmented reality,
open data, or are involved in creating a virtual museum or an app for various smartphones. Those are
separate things that each require a different approach and specific technical knowledge. And of course all
these applications also require different usages of text. Before we can start writing for digital media, there are
many different challenges we have to face and overcome.
At the start of the workshop the attendees were invited to briefly introduce themselves by telling who they
are, where they are from, what their connection is to the subject, what their challenges are, what they expect
to learn that day and how we could learn from each other.”
We talked about the success factors, the obstacles and how this all fits (or doesn’t fit) within the organization.
Then we discussed a number of criteria that all such texts must meet and how taking the role of the educator
Given the diversity within the group, it took us quite a while to make this inventory. Though this was
instructive as there was a lot of valuable input from the group. Perhaps it would have been better to have
divided this topic into several sub-topics, and discuss each of them separately during several sessions. We
would have had more time to do some assignments (which I had conceived, but omitted due to time
constraints), so there would have been more time for reflection and exchange.
We are used to thinking about in-situ and ex-situ. For the second option, we have developed tools to present
an object in a museum context, to provide texts and make accessible through various (educational)
resources. Then new media was introduced and nowadays everyone can use these media, where, when and
for whatever they want. This means that a text can no longer static, but constantly location, medium,
perspective and context will change. In that case, information and meaning are continuously on the move
and in transition. That is when I speak of trans-situ.
Many museums are strongly object-oriented, but there are also those that supply enormous amounts of text,
which almost hides the object. When they create a website, they do exactly the same thing: a (virtual)
building with objects in it, lots of explanation and hope for a lot of visitors. But why not think of a completely
new form? Why do we not make intensive use of the platforms that are exceptionally good at connecting
users, their everyday life, their interests and passions? Or if we do, how come our museum has difficulties
producing text? Why can we not just be present as co-users, conversing, giving attention? We could, if we
would rely on the skills we already had, even before we went to work in a museum ...
Example, when we implement multi-touch tables, screens intended to touch, we have to deal not only with
text, but also icons, imagery, animations, user interfaces. But in addition we are dealing with human
interaction. Do we want to steer that interaction, dialogue, or do we just want to make the collection
accessible in a playful manner?
How do you write for this? An exercise is to consider what text you can omit. You write as a copywriter does.
“Check your tyres. Save a life. Bridgestone.”
That kind of short, concise and engaging texts are what we need now more often than, good in itself, but
mostly informative texts as “Dunlop Mac’s Tyre Depot was the Brooklands headquarters of the Dunlop Tyre
Company’s racing manager, Norman Freeman. The Track was used extensively for testing tyres, as it was a
unique venue in this country where cars could be driven unhindered and at top speed for as long as
necessary. It was tyre-fitter David McDonald who supervised tyre changes at race meetings and was best
known among the Brooklands racing community - his name has therefore always been associated with the
building which became known as ‘Dunlop Mac’s’. Part of the building is now a Museum vehicle workshop.”
Do you notice the difference? Of course you do. With the advent of social media, much more has changed
than just the number of media that we can use to inform people. Through social media, everyone can join in
the conversation, thought process and decision making. This contributes to a democratization of the
curatorship, to a society that is becoming more horizontal in design. It also contributes to the scarcity of
attention and the need for more involvement and support. How else can your museum stand out in the
multitude of information? Why does your museum deserve continued attention of an audience? How do you
turn this audience into fans and even loyal friends? How can you continue your conversations with all these
people? This requires the aforementioned dialogue.
How do you write an incentive to a dialogue? How can you challenge your visitors? Which text encourages
commitment, involvement, participation? In some cases, the texts accompanying are not informative, but
mainly intended as teasers.
Look around you, look at advertising, look at what IKEA does, how Lego communicates and transfers
knowledge. Look actively for good examples in other museums, consult with each other, share the
experience together or start small, fast executable projects. And do not forget to share with visitors and ask
for input and feedback. This way of working brings us, together with the new possibilities of social media, to
a future that is based on thousands of years of what we are good at: converse, share experience, being
social in a society where people pay attention to each other.
Ask, invite, link, share...
It's like driving a car, just to know where the throttle is, is not enough to drive responsibly. You must know
everything and have control. So there is only one way to use social media: be very good at it. Actually you
can do that already, when you consider that the social part of social media is most important. What would it
take to write for social media? Exactly: analogue, social skills such as showing interest, asking questions,
attention, linking people and topics, share information and experiences. But how do you go about it, how do
you master this skill? Try, fail, analyze, improve, learn, improve again, which makes writing an iterative
process rather than a process in which the language and the message solidify into a fixed form. A solidified
message is much more difficult to pass on to others, because the message has become immutable and is
not so easy to adjust anymore.
Think of the most precious, famous or otherwise spectacular object in your museum / heritage site and write
a tweet about it in which you try to summarize the utmost essence in 140 characters... Do not ponder to long,
use both your imagination and intuition, ask your neighbour, start a conversation about it, use your passion
or your aversion, whatever you like or dislike.
Discussing the results:
1. How do you use twitter? To broadcast / inform everyone / ask something / share your thoughts?
2. Did you use it as a linking pin? For instance between website, Facebook, event (live report)
3. Did you use a hyperlink? An image?
4. Was the link to long?
5. Could it be shorter?
6. For whom did you use it, were you thinking about anyone in particular?
7. Did you mention anyone?
8. Was your tweet engaging? Why?
Consider your media, just like you can do with an exhibition or a seminar, as a meeting place and consider
writing as a part of the conversation. Before you start writing, start asking yourself where to meet your
audience, friends, partners, co-creators... Do not only invite them to visit your website, Facebook page, audio
tour or museum, but visit them where they are and ask whether you can join their conversation. Before you
start writing, it is better to start investigating who you need to engage, why, which conversations are going on
and how you can join.
Why do we use text? Successively we inform, entertain, challenge and engage. But most people do not have
a lot of time or attention when they are reading a text online or at any other screen. If I may be so bold to use
the imperative: write short, clear, (inter)active, in other words: be imaginative, be brief, be direct, be concise,
be quick (do not hesitate to much, start right now, answer as soon as possible), be smart (connect people,
relate subjects, think about opportunities). It is also important to dare to make a mistake; that is learning by
doing and we learn a lot from mistakes. Make sure you make it ‘more or less’ ready (make intermediates, not
just finished products), that you understand your audience. Thinking of the audience: where do you meet?
(places, media) and how would you describe your relation? Will it last? (make it sustainable, ask to engage,
Be sure to make use of headers and white spaces, (hyper) links and an active form of writing.
Who’s in charge?
It is not just you, writing for the museum. You will have to cooperate with the curators, marketeers, web
designers and the visitors. “Because the roles among museum staff are more varied than those in the
bookstore, there’s an opportunity to promote learning from multiple perspectives using staff picks.
Highlighting the unique perspectives of scientists, designers, and educators in cultural institutions can give
those individuals unique identities and offers visitors a more nuanced blend of interpretative material.”2 There
are many people out there, or even in your museum using their smartphones and tablets, sending
messages, updates, reviews, images, thoughts, opinions, etc. etc. Many people like to be involved and are
willing to help you collect stories and knowledge. Writing text will become facilitating, editing, managing
conversations. Nina Simon: “When staff members are encouraged to express themselves personally, it
models respect for diverse individual preferences and opinions. When front-line employees feel confident
sharing their personal thoughts on the institution and its content, it gives visitors permission to do the same.”
And your strategy may be based on the 4 R’s:
1. Research (audience, meeting place, topics)
2. Reach (media choice, timing)
3. Resources (content, creation, customers)
The three powers of a core text
First you create a ‘core text’ covering all major ingredients. Therein lies an inviting and visionary power, an
operating and explanatory power, and the third an appealing and engaging power. This corresponds
approximately to what Stan Boshouwers considers the three forces on which idea development is based 3. A
way to compose these core text, by using this mnemonic: Look! Because: And therefore …
Look! = visionary power, imagination (vision + ambition)
Because: = explanatory and operating power, how it works (mission + action)
And therefore… = engaging power, what it means to you / me / us, why anyone should join (relation +
This concept of three powers includes all values, functions and connecting factors: why, for whom, with
whom, how and finally ‘what’. Starting with the why question enables us to communicate all the things that
are really important to us and our museum, so our audience can join and give the same importance to the
same subjects. This is where we start to cooperate with our audience instead of just teaching... For this we
need stories that anyone can tell and share in their own way without the essence being lost, because these
stories are based on a core text that contains the above-mentioned three powers.
Your core text should not be longer than 5 lines maximum. After that, you add a specific goal, which
audience you want to reach and engage, not just for one moment, but maybe to build a relationship. Why?
Because your museum could learn from the people who come to visit, who read your texts, wherever these
texts may appear. Because that particular visitor may be your next ambassador, your greatest beneficent
and because in every network you get more connections the more people are involved and with every
connection there is a possibility for innovation, knowledge exchange, and sharing passion and pleasure.
Also think about the channel(s) and the moment you want to start each conversation.
If possible (and needed when telling a story or writing for a game, video or audio) it contains also an
indication of the narrative elements4 : the narrator, the point of view and (its) focalization, the space (stage)
with possibility of crossing borders and the duration of telling the story including the period being told. You
can add these narrative elements to the core text in few, separate lines.
Nina Simon: The participatory Museum, 2010, chapter 2 - Participation Begins with Me - http://
Stan Boshouwers, Handboek voor Hemelbestormers (Handbook for revolutionaries), 2005, Part 1, chapter 1
workshop on Narrativity, Museum M Leuven Belgium, October 2011, http://www.slideshare.net/Erfgoed/narrativity
When using a Facebook page, look and listen first, read what others are writing, what they are looking for, try
to understand the dynamics of the medium. Same for Twitter. And remember: social media is 24/7, so be
prepared. Engagement and relevance are the most important ingredients in writing for digital media. Both
depend on the people involved. If you take a look at Facebook and Twitter to the people who get the most
response, how do they write? Which mix of text and image do they use? Which subjects are most appealing,
etc.. etc. Could you mimic that? This analysis will take some time and will ask you to get yourself involved.
But it can really help you to write for social media.
Then focus on connections between both media and people (connectivity). Identity (concept + values)
determines the course of your writing. Work process oriented and in permanent beta; use intermediates.
The 5 pillars of P.E.R.M.A. (Martin Seligman5) will enhance your social media approach:
- Positive emotions
- (positive) Relations
- Meaning and purpose
Combining all these recommendations, we can conclude that in everyone of them relationships are present
and they will be leading in our approach. Whatever text you might write, it must serve to strengthen relations
between the museum and the visitors, partners and sponsors.
Remember, when working with digital media, to act analogue (that is what we are good at) and to think
Authentic Happiness - Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania
“More or less”6
I would like to bring to everyone a museum that is not functioning as such, as far as I know, a museum on
which I spent more than five years to thinking of it and dreaming about it. Well all right, this museum exists
already in 'bits and pieces'. Nina Simon has written a great book about the Participatory Museum, which is
very close to achieving what I mean. In the Netherlands, Arnoud Odding has written a book about the
Disruptive Museum , where he shares some ideas about the big changes in museums. Arnoud and I like
talking about these topics, the networked museum and the importance of relations for instance. Since 2007 I
write about these topics on the (Dutch) Heritage 2.0 weblog8. I started this weblog together with students
from the Reinwardt Academy when I wanted them to experience sharing knowledge, managing interaction
and maintaining conversations. And this to-be museum is a subject that I think is incredibly important. Even if
I will never fully achieve it, I will muse on it.
That I often ponder about it, does not mean that I have the best idea in the world, or that I necessarily have
to make my dream a reality. I often think about vacations I have not yet made for example, dream of artwork
and books that I want world to know about, I also think about it to jump with a parachute which I do not dare
yet and there is an infinitive amount of things I want to learn, see and experience in my life. I wish I spoke
Armenian, or at least could read it and fully experience that rich culture. I would love to understand the
Armenian mentality in order to make it my own, as enrichment of the experience I have gained in my life thus
far. And if I still have so little knowledge about Armenia, how do I know whether it makes sense to want all
this? How do I know if it really suits me? Based on what future understanding can I determine how a
prospective museum will act and what it will look like?
The connection with Armenia is not entirely new to me. Only when I was preparing for my trip to Armenia did
I realise this. The first classical music as a child I really liked was the Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian.
But I only learned recently that Khachaturian was an Armenian composer. As an adolescent I saw the films of
Sergei Parajanov, or should I say "Sargis Paradzhanian" (in my pronunciation of Armenian both not
understandable). I enjoyed the Color of Pomegranates immensely, even though the symbolism and imagery
are so specifically Armenian, that as a Dutchman I probably do not do it justice. As a young adult, I read
"Journey to Armenia" (Puteshestviye v Armeniyu) by Osip Mandelstam, which made me determined to go to
Armenia. But that was impossible then.
In the meantime I was trained as an art teacher. And what does that bring a man? So I made art and wrote
poems. That suited me, but I was not rich enough to be able to travel to Armenia. Later I tried to earn some
money as a journalist, copywriter, web designer, art director, concept developer, editor and communications
consultant. To end up as museum and heritage expert on theory and strategy (again a strange combination),
communications and new media. Gradually I forgot that I ever wanted to travel to Armenia.
And now I have been there. And I understand suddenly, without me having an actual argument for it, why I
wanted to go.
I am telling this because there is an analogy with museum visits, the connection that a visitor can have with
the museum, what happens when a visitor begins to prepare for the visit. I will get to that later.
My story must go somewhere else first. Maybe a little bit about writing text - or just over a little - about the
rapidly expanding universe of new media and how we can let it speak for the museum. Or speak for others, if
they are helped by this. Each museum contains images that can help us to identify and deepen our identity:
“a reflection and expression of their constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions. It includes
all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places through time”9.
Arnoud Odding, The Disruptive Museum, 2011
Heritage 2.0: www.erfgoed20.nl
Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society - http://conventions.coe.int/
Treaty/en/Treaties/Html/199.htm (2005 - 2009)
It is also about narrative, the characteristics, the knowledge about narrations, stories and anecdotes,
knowledge about storytelling and storytellers, about perspective and how this is subject to the context in time
given by the narrator, on the role a museum can (and should) fulfil in this field. But mostly it's about a
progressive museum that wants to know itself, to be able to share this with anyone interested or might be
Love and understanding
What purpose does text have for the museum, how is it used? To search for meaning, to share significance
and to explain? Or to make contact and have conversations? Both? Text is used to guide the visitor’s
journey? According to Martin Barden10, Head of Membership & Ticketing at Tate, we must realize that
someone who comes to the museum, basically already said Yes to that which the museum stands for. For us
as museum professionals, whether we are exhibition designer, curator, mediator, volunteer, marketeer or
commercial director, we have the task to accompany the visitor on a journey through all the marvelous
prestigious paraphernalia and themes the museum has to offer. I’m not kidding. It realy is more than just
objects, facts and meaning. Also a magnificent meal in the restaurant, a glimpse or two into a brochure, an
intriguing app that shows us the ropes, a visit to the store, the website, the Facebook page, an attentive
tweet or a special membership can all be part of this journey.
If we take this into consideration, we can once again wonder why the museum uses text. This is so diverse
and yet so connected to the core message of the museum that should be reflected throughout it, that the
writing of this text means that we more or less start a conversation with the visitor and give the visitor an
opportunity to speak, otherwise it would be our monologue.
The implication is that we need to manage our texts as a gardener. There follows a process in which we are
weeding, tying, fertilizing, pruning and spraying, working towards an optimal harvest which we are not 100%
sure of. It is a process that we cannot fully monitor and control. We have to let go and let nature take its
course sometimes. Just to remember it myself, I use the six times L checklist:
1. Loosen (let go of control)
2. Listen (and ask, instead of sending information)
3. Learn (lifelong learning, agile, adaptive, iterative, permanent beta)
4. Likewise (likeability, share together, creative commons, get rid of copyright issues)
5. L.A.T. relations (Loyalty And Trust, that means investing on friendship)
6. (be) Loved (built on passion, attractiveness, sustainability, social responsibility and track record)
That makes us more of a conductor than a composer, rather a facilitator of a conversation than a discussion
leader. As a museum, it is our obligation to repair the understanding in society. If not, we must ask ourselves
why we want to attract, educate and entertain an audience. Do we love our audience, are we paying enough
Browsing your way through the museum
Can we let the visitor browse through the museum, like we find our way in Wikipedia? Can we let a visitor
determine which links are clicked, which source is searched, or appreciated or liked, to whom authority is
attributed? And how do we influence this conduct with the texts we write? Writing text for digital media is not
so much about writing, not much about digital, it is about an attitude, agility, attention; the triple A status.
There is not one person who can do that. It requires teamwork, a team in which the curator, the marketer and
the visitor make contributions. Writing is initiating, directing, but above all: giving attention.
According to Paul Mertz11, famous Dutch copywriter and communication advisor, good advertisements do
justice to the contents of the exhibition, but they also grip the reader’s attention and entice them to make a
visit. He is always wondering where to find a turning point, an opening to intrigue the public. With his
profound knowledge of both advertisement and culture he knows that a truly fascinating story can make the
Martin Barden (by Jasper Visser “what I learned from Tate Members”), http://themuseumofthefuture.com/tag/martinbarden/
Paul Mertz: http://www.paulmertz.nl/
difference between an interested and very involved visitor. But with the same ease he is writing on his
weblog and I would not be surprised if he is on twitter as well. Why not? It is because he is interested in
people, their preferences, their behavior, their friendship. You just have to be intrigued by what he writes and
then go looking for the exhibition and the stories behind. It is because of his own amazement that he knows
how to write so well, I think.
We are talking about an 'imaginative' museum, a museum that appeals to the imagination, that lets us fully
experience our amazement. Such a museum is visionary, inviting and mediagenic. It makes a real-time
connection between social issues and information. It is connecting locations and periods with stories,
meetings and current conversations. An imaginative museum is a collection of thoughts, hope, emotions,
Brian Carroll mentions in his book "Writing for Digital Media" 12 “being imaginative” as one of the important
criteria. He quotes Victor Hugo describing a train. Writing for Digital Media is aimed at students and teaches
them how to write effectively for online audiences, whether it's a personal blog or an online newspaper, or
any multimedia environment also. It helps to build an understanding of the ways the Internet creates new
opportunities for dynamic storytelling. All digital media blurred the role of media producer, user, publisher and
reader. Therefore, Brian Carroll extols, we must not only know how to create content as a writer, but also as
a website manager, dealing with issues such as graphic design, site architecture and editorial consistency. In
the process, it means that we are dealing with "try, fail, analyze, adapt, improve: learn 'and that thereby we
should be prepared for the persistence of existing methods. We contribute to a transition, we are in the
centre of it and give it direction, but we do not have a simple manual available to us, we are the ones who
generate examples for future manuals.
Julia Noordegraaf, Professor of Heritage and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, describes how
in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries museums communicated with their audiences through their
presentations. She argues that museum presentations are based on a 'script' which, like the script of a film,
defines a framework of action within which the presentation, its designers and its users interact. 13
A dialogue with the museum
We also have a museum in the service of dialogue, a museum that is a continuous conversation.
Characteristics of such a museum is that it is distributed (inside out), connected (social), dispersed (loosely
joined 14). This museum is enabling (interaction, education), tempting (for visitors), learning (from everyone),
participating (the museum is) and building (relationships). It provides not only context, but also exchanges of
experience and above all relevance. Because anyone can participate in this conversation.
This calls for conversation managers, who understand text, of editing, of interaction, both as a journalist and
in the role of advocate and also understand museums and collections. The curator of the past, who knew
what was true and could be supported with facts, who knew how educational resources could effectively
work to make the public wiser, makes way for the much older philosopher who in a Socratic way can lead a
discussion, with questions may lead to multiple truths. He / she can commit people (not necessarily visitors)
by involving them in conversations about what inspires us. But this old philosopher makes use of the
possibilities of today, sees the Internet as the new agora, like Nina Simon also mentions in her book the
Participatory Museum . On memory and narrative she writes: “Narrative is one of the key modes of
remembering. To address the complexities of narrative and memory it is necessary to bring together the
expertise of (classical and postclassical) narratology with existent approaches to narrative in other
disciplines, such as psychology and Oral History. Social memory is unthinkable without media, which
express and disseminate contents of remembering.”
Writing for digital media, Brian Carrol (2010), ISBN-10: 041599201X | ISBN-13: 978-0415992015
Julia Noordegraaf - Strategies of display: museum presentation in nineteenth- and twentieth-century visual culture
Small pieces, loosely joined, a unified theory of the web; David Weinberger, Co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto http://www.smallpieces.com/index.php
Nina Simon - the Participatory Museum - http://www.participatorymuseum.org/
This approach requires (again) more than just text and writing. From the simplest label to an explanation of
an app and from managing metadata to game play, it actually asks for the inspiration and skill of a born
storyteller, the patience and impartiality of the mediator, the passion and inspiration of a curator, the business
leadership and the thoroughness of an entrepreneur.
Did we mention text already? Yes, there are some guidelines that give tips and tricks. Yet it has perhaps
more to do with personality and sincere attention. It is common sense and people among themselves. Let
that be the starting point.
In short, there is no formula. I am sorry. It ranges from the skills of a copywriter, who -with the appropriate
title- manages to cover it all, who can guide visitors to a richer world of thought by means of a gripping story,
who is able to conduct online discussions on current issues in the world politics, about scientific
breakthroughs, social innovation, or just about the small minutiae. It is informal, getting acquainted. Actually
we know how we should write to achieve that, right? How to write an email or a tweet to a friend? Or should
we not write but converse?
The conversation manager knows how to translate the philosophy of the Acropolis to common grounds and
commons sense, knows how to reach the individual visitor to the Pinterest board of the museum and interact
in conversation. This is also done with new friends: you are going to find a real common ground, you
deliberately make a connection, because you want to. Text Writing for new media has a lot to do with the way
we (want to) maintain friendships with the same loyalty, trust and attention.
Of course, making a game play is an art in itself. Writing dialogues as well. I am not talking about this. I am
trying to contain the purpose behind the use of text and describe how the approach changes. And that
means that the museum changes its position in society, where different connections are now possible. It is
necessary to understand this transition and to learn them before we get to writing the new way. But if we
have reached it, the writing is almost automatic. Action and reaction, interaction and editing, especially
keeping your own identity as a museum and being able to share this knowledge with others.
The centrifugal force of a museum
A museum that not only allows visitors to participate (in what anyway?) but also participates itself, in society,
in the conversations of people in the places where they meet, where such conversations relate to the
museum and where it stands, provides valuable contributions to important developments, meeting places for
people and opinions, to existing and new initiatives. This requires the museum to step outside, become less
self-centered, beyond the walls within which the collection is stored and exhibited. Outside, where the people
This museum focuses not only on its own existence, is not the shining star in its own universe, but knows
where it happens, where the developments takes place, and that is not always in its own museum. It is a
museum that is ubiquitous, distributed everywhere in society, opens its senses, that thinks and sympathizes.
This is an eccentric museum that dares to be a little eccentric. Who is eccentric, outspoken, makes choices
and thus offers others the choice to accept that or not.
In the world of big commercial companies like Starbucks it is called Societal (Social) Marketing “The societal
marketing concept is an enlightened marketing concept that holds that a company should make good
marketing decisions by considering consumers' wants, the company's requirements, and society's long-term
interests. It is closely linked with the principles of corporate social responsibility and of sustainable
development.”16 That is where a museum can be distinctive and where a social role may be combined with
good entrepreneurship. Identifying social changes, engaging in social innovation perhaps, reveal it, while
linking it with our history, our culture and identity and show leadership in the debate on this.
In modern society, many ancient relationships became broken, partly by art and partly by ideology, partly
because we simply do not evolve in a static society. Our museums and other heritage institutions should
jointly restore the relationship between humans and technology, man and culture, man and mankind.
Therefore is it important for them to think outside their (own) museum frames and be of service to the greater
It's okay if there are visitors who cannot make this connection, or not at that time. Perhaps there is too little
connection there? We will not become friends with the entire world. We can be quite eccentric and based on
our eccentricity form a relationship. It means that we make choices and if we do that, we can also have
accountability. And many followers. This discussion is often more interesting than the actual knowledge of an
object. In relation to science, research, experience, explanation, news and opinion, imagination, perception
and context, experts, enthusiasts, and students (other) stakeholders constitute together a knowledge
ecology. This is a dynamic system that is agile, that is interconnected, that can evolve as a whole and thus
responds to developments in society.
What do visitors actually do in our museum? What should a museum do to have every visitor make such a
connection? That goes beyond what we are used to in education, which usually still offers tailored solutions
to a target audience, full of learning styles and informal learning. In addition, the museum focuses too much
on itself, or on a defined target group. In high school I learned: le français moyen n'existe pas, the average
Frenchman does not exist. And then came a list of traits. The average user does not exist. We can define
him or her, we can tailor our education, but that average visitor does and will not exist. Especially in this age
of new media, online profiles, of globalization, of niches and 'Long Tail' (Chris Anderson17), we can endlessly
differentiate and respect each visitor. In fact, we may be of added value, especially if we make it personal.
Which art museum allows the visitors themselves to draw or paint? Who is interested in the history of art if
that is told by a curator? We have Wikipedia, YouTube, Google Art Project, the Commons Flickr, Twitter,
Facebook and Pinterest? Is that what we have to think about? Or entrench ourselves in the thought that all
these trends and fads are transient? Like the train, the telephone, the Internet...
Since new media and online networks enable us to discuss various important subjects with colleagues, even
from different countries and each with their own practice and specific challenges, without the need to
organize an official meeting, we discover that all the digital media help us to innovate, to learn, by sharing
our knowledge and thus accelerating the quest for new insights. It also changes our workflow and the way
our institutions are organized. We definitely need a shift from writing to facilitating and that means a whole lot
of text every day everywhere, different purposes, different goals, different audiences, different media. We
need a conversation manager!
But we can easily use the same analogue skills we have been using for ages. So we proceed to our future,
based on best practices of the past.
The museum which I think about, is a personal museum. A museum with an eccentric personality perhaps,
but a museum that I personally know how to approach. I can moderate it, modify it, make it my own and let it
help to develop myself. And everything I do or experience is available on demand as knowledge and
experience to others. Is the first outdated and the latter a little strange? No way, we do it all along in social
media, through our smartphone or tablet. We have been media producer and consumer simultaneously for a
long time and a museum is a cross media concept par excellence, where we fit in seamlessly as prosumer18 .
We talk not only with the people in our neighbourhood. We can create a text before they leave. We can call,
make movies and listen to each other on the radio. But that's nothing compared to what a museum can do!
The Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, lets visitors first create a profile. Every visitor of the
experience gets a ring equipped with RFID. At each exhibit, the visitor is recognized and he or she is shown
clips of series, shows and news of television when he or she was a child. A similar idea I developed for
museum and science centre Continium in Kerkrade (formerly known as Industrion Kerkrade). When we
devised a new museum concept in 2007, with a nice mix of experience, hands-on activities, challenging
exhibits, a Hall of Fame with the core collection where true stories play a big role, preceded by an impressive
introduction to the theme of the museum, we determined that the individual and his relationship to society
Chris Anderson, The Long Tail (2004), http://www.thelongtail.com/about.html
would be a central issue. As an individual you have influence on the developments in your direct and indirect
environment that result from the interaction between science, industry and society. You have influence on the
future and viability thereof. That was at least the prevailing paradigm. And our team that conceived and
elaborated the new concept, wanted the look beyond the nearest future.
At that time, social media was burgeoning. Twitter had just launched, YouTube was two years ago, Facebook
was on the verge of a worldwide breakthrough after three years, but already had over 100,000 business
pages that enabled companies to bind potential customers. Wikipedia was widely known and appreciated as
a source of collective knowledge. This was the model I wanted to introduce to the museum. And the best
thing would be if we could extend the theme of putting the visitor as focus point in the name of the museum:
IK (“I”). IK as an abbreviation for Industrion Kerkrade. But IK also I in Dutch, so if you visit the museum, you
go to yourself, your interests, your environment, your future. It's about you, but within the context of
developments in society, science and industry. You go within the context of heritage and history, your history
It brings you into contact with new ideas, with creativity, with interviews of others, scientists, producers of the
stuff you use at home and let you think about your role in it. However modest it (you) may be. By the
centralisation of the individual in this way, we would immediately incorporate the social side of society.
Because every individual is part of a social network.
In this museum, the visitor can create a profile at home in advance, it can link to other social media and
already share it with friends. In this museum visitors can get a wristband with RFID, so that he or she is
recognized at each exhibit, but also can make contact with other visitors with a similar (or confronting)
The museum visit, the interest shown and encounters there all enriche this profile. Once home, the visitor
can then follow the route, complete with new insights and links to other sources (and people). This creates
an interaction between visitor, fellow visitor, other interested parties and the museum. And if you're lucky,
located in this community are universities, schools, companies that offer new products. Especially if the
visitor is tempted to deviate from the route, search for more depth, if through the combination of thematic
pathways the visitor will see linkages.
In a cross-media approach I compared the museum with the metro lines of Barcelona and with Wikipedia.
Several lines that sometimes are parallel and sometimes intersecting, different distribution channels while
also meeting places and how they can reinforce each other, how they contribute to the stratification of a
story. The squares where travellers make a stopover, where infrastructure, public space, commerce, industry
and culture meet, but especially where people meet, where the traveller is tempted to linger to have a look
around, change of pace, something new see, to wonder, where you might have a confrontation and the
traveller is challenged to form other relationships. In such a 'square' (agora), the traveller based on their own
capacity, interest and motivation decides a different route and creates new connections to explore. All that is
registered by the strap of the visitor. Note that, in 2007, we did have not smartphones or tablets or apps...
This museum has been realized, but in the way we already knew. Yet it is successful. A children's jury
declared it to be the best museum in the Netherlands. In 2007 (and beyond), no budget was reserved to
connect the museum with social media. Maybe I had my eye on a too distant future. A future that already
existed for me, but for others it was still uncertain. And I still had no idea how I could describe it better.
This brings us back to language. The way we use language in and for the museum is subject to the period in
which we live. We understand the language of today. The language of the future often causes confusion.
Many museums, however, use the language of yesterday and the day before yesterday. That fits with a
museum, they think, because many museums are in fact retrospective.
Nevertheless the visitors live in the here and now and they are talking and moving toward the future. If we
want an optimal relationship with the visitors, we need to speak (and write) the language of today and
tomorrow and avail ourselves of the media associated. In the language of today, it is important that we
communicate as people do among themselves.
The museum that touches on my love for Armenian composers, that can discuss the boundless
astonishment at seeing a film of Paradjanov, my astonishment but also the wonder of the mediator, the
educator, curator, that museum I can give a place in my heart. A museum that knows how to use my travel
experiences, bookmarks or photos as enrichment of the personality a museum, that although they know a lot
about me and I know a lot about the museum manages to surprise me, to move me, that is the museum I
love to travel with. We go on a journey. Now, next time, whenever. And we share our travel experiences.
Sometimes the museum is a guide, sometimes I show the museum something new.
This museum has existed for a long time already, in many shapes and forms. I do not need to dream or
desire. But I would like to correspond with that museum. Therefore it is important that the museum learns
how to write as a person, as a fellow human.