Coproducing the Museum


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A 45-minute presentation about how social media is changing the expectations of museum audiences.

Presented at Kom je Ook conference Amsterdam and the Museums Association Digital Conference London.

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  • The heart of what I am going to talk about today is change. Change in the internet, change in audiences and change in museums.

    Change in the internet has been clear for anyone to see, with the shift from static web pages to dynamic and sharable content and social networking. The internet is no longer just a place to find information; it is now a forum for collaboration, a place to create, curate and share content online. This has changed the way we work, influenced the way we think and adjusted our individual place in society forever.

    The most popular places on the internet are now mostly social media websites and as mobile technology gives us always-on access to information, the internet is changing the way that we live.

    This technological shift has placed power into the hands of the masses as never before; I can access countless books at the touch of a button, find thousands of pictures of the Parthanon in Athens with a quick search, create web pages, publish books, organise events and connect with niche groups with the same interest as me. Information is power and this power is shifting.

    The explosion in social media has created a socio-cultural shift; the way that people act is changing and audience expectations are snowballing both online and offline, and museums need to think beyond simply building a fan page on Facebook, writing a blog or starting to use Twitter to keep up with the change.

    This is John. John spends several hours everyday curating his content on Facebook. This is a big part of who he is; he’s hyper connected, always in touch with his friends online and via Facebook on his phone, but this activity isn’t just a social one, it’s also a creative space for him, a place where he can express who he is and share his creativity.

    Then John logs on to his local museum’s website and it’s full of great content, but he can’t do anything with it – it’s static and it offers no real way for them to engage with it on the terms that he is used to.

    How do you deal with this kind of changing expectation? Well, the answer that so many museums have ceir museum, that you can’t really engage with. That doesn’t interest John.

    This is Claire and she uses eBay, Amazon and iTunes and what these three brands all have in common is that they give her tailored information based on her interests. She’s noticing that more and more websites are starting to do that now, but not her local art gallery.

    They recently had an exhibition of cubist painting which really interested her, but she had to dig down into the gallery’s website to find anything about it. Why didn’t they know she likes modern art from the way that she’d used the website in the past? Why didn’t the website put the stuff that interests her most on the homepage like Amazon does?

    If your audiences are able get information tailored to their interests when they visit eBay, Amazon and iTunes then they will expect the same from your institution.

    This is David, and his iPhone. It gives him access to all the information found on the internet within a few clicks on the screen. He’s really into history and he indulges that passion both online and in the real world.

    Online he uses Wikipedia, which lets him drill down through information, he likes that he can always click on another link and find out more, it make it seems like there is always more to learn. He likes visiting history museums to see the real objects, but he finds the information disappointing – it’s very linear and the interpretation seems to be targeted at kids. Why can’t every visitor explore the collection in the same way that they would approach Wikipedia, so some people would just get the basic information, but he could learn more?

    This is Ben and he’s a keen gamer. He spends a lot of time on his X-Box playing games with friends online. In the games he is always at the centre of the story, he is the protaganist, and the narrative is driven by him. But when he visits a museum he is just a spectator, there is no way for him to engage with exhibitions in the same way he is used to. That doesn’t work for him.

    This example of Ben and his X-Box is actually inspired by a whitepaper from the Centre for the Future of Museums in the United States. In it, they say:

    For Americans under 30, there’s an emerging structural shift in which consumers increasingly drive narrative. Technology is fundamentally enabling and wiring expectations differently, particularly among younger audiences, this time when it comes to the concept of narrative.

    Over time, museum audiences are likely to expect to be part of the narrative experience at museums. While the overall story might not change, how it is presented may change to allow visitors to take on a role as a protagonist themselves.

    I don’t think this shifting expectation is limited to young people in the United States; a whole generation of young people have grown up on video games around the world.

    So looking at our four examples of changing expectations, each has been influenced by the changing landscape of the technology and the internet. They expect a more participatory experience from museums both online and in the real world.

    When I started talking about this change in expectations back in 2006, I used the term Generation Curator as I saw this as a generational change which would happen over time and it is fair to say that there is a perception that this technology is the realm of those aged under 25, but statistics tell me that this isn’t the case.

    Whilst under 25s may have grown up with the internet, every age group in engaged with social media websites and every age group is changing its expectations accordingly. The latest figures published earlier this month show that the average age of Facebook users is 33, Twitter 31 and MySpace 26.

    This is aIso supported by the latest information from Forrester Research in to how people participate on the web. Forrester have what they call a Technographic profiling tool, which you can find on their website : and this maps the different ways in which people participate in the social media space.

    This research challenges not only the idea that this change is only focused on those aged under 25, but also that we should concentrate on just the curator or creator instinct.

    Forrester categories six different types of activity which people are engaged in within the social media space. These are:

    Creators – Publish a blog / publish web pages / upload video they have created / upload audio or music they have created / write articles or stories and post them online.

    Critics – Post ratings / review products or services / comment on someone else’s blog / contribute to online forums / contribute to or edit articles in a wiki.

    Collectors – Use RSS feeds / add ‘tags’ to web pages or photos / ‘vote’ for web sites online.

    Joiners – Maintain profile on a social networking site / visit social networking sites

    Spectators – Read blogs / watch videos from others / listen to podcasts / read online forums / read customer ratings and reviews

    Inactives – None of the above.

    The Forrester Research tool allows us to look at different age groups and different countries and see which of these social media actives will appeal most to each group.

    So perhaps we need to forget about ‘generation curator’: this isn’t just about young people and it isn’t just about curating or creating content, it’s about how audiences can move from simply experiencing a programme to co-producing it.

    Museums are ideally placed to take advantage of the movement towards a more participatory experience for their audiences, both online and offline, because they hold such rich content and cover such interesting subjects and because they are already experts in assembling information and telling stories.

    This change is happening: a recent survey found that museums around the world are shifting towards a more participatory model, both online and offline and an explosion in interesting online projects are leading the way and demonstrating that when you give your audiences an opportunity to not just participate in your programme, but to lead it, the outcome can be amazing.

    So let’s look at some ways that museums are opening up to allow people to interact with them in new and interesting ways. I am going to use the Forrester Research framework to look at how different institutions are appealing to the different needs of their audiences, starting with the Creator motivation.

    TATE Tracks

    Tate Tracks aimed to get more people aged 16 – 24 in to the gallery, and it did so brilliantly through the medium which appeals most to this hard-to-reach audience segment; music.

    Musicians were invited to visit Tate Modern and select an artwork from the collection that inspired them as the basis of a new piece of music. The Chemical Brothers, Klaxons and Basement Jaxx were a few of the twelve artists who took part.

    They released the songs exclusively inside Tate Modern, These were played through listening posts so that visitors could listen to the track where it was originated. After a month of exclusivity, they also released the music on the Tate Tracks microsite.

    Though a nice marketing campaign, at this stage Tate Tracks was still using very much a top-down approach, with artists selected by the institution producing art which is then displayed within the gallery.

    But Tate Modern then opened up Tate Tracks to invite the public to participate. Once twelve tracks had been composed, a competition was launched through MySpace to search for a thirteenth track. This is estimated to have exposed the Tate brand to 2 million people.

    This competition invited unsigned musicians aged 16 – 24 to create a piece of music inspired by a work of art in Tate Modern, much in the same way that the professional musicians had.

    As well as entering tracks in the competition, the unsigned bands were also encouraged to drive their fan bases to vote for their track online, as a shortlist of twenty tracks would be based on the public vote.

    Once the online community had voted for twenty finalists, a judging panel selected a winner, UK indie band Kotki Dwa.

    This project was one of the first where I saw a cultural institution really using social networks to empower their audiences. It changes the concept of a gallery from a place that merely collects art to one that helps create it.


    Democracy is an exhibition my company has just produced in the UK as part a design festival.

    Our aim with Democracy was to create the most democractic exhibition possible.

    This started with a call for entries, which asked designers and illustrators to react to the concept of Democracy, and over a four week period we received 498 entries through our website

    As well as asking people to submit work to the competition, we also asked them to leave comments and to vote for what they felt deserved to be in the final exhibition. Unlike the Tate Tracks competition, there was no expert panel making final decisions, this was totally down to the public.

    Every designer who entered the competition was given the tools to share their work through social networks with the click of a button. This virally spread the word to thousands of people so in the final days of the competition, we were receiving a thousand visitors a day from Facebook, where hundreds of individuals were asking their friends to go and vote for them.

    The fifty one artworks with the most votes appeared in the exhibition when it opened last month, but we wanted to bring the interactivity that we’d seen on the website in to the gallery space, so the voting continued.

    The artworks were displayed digitally within the gallery, each sized depending on how many votes it had received. Visitors could vote from their mobile phone for the artworks they liked and when an artwork received more votes, it grew in size compared to the pieces displayed around it, so the exhibition was constantly changing hour-by-hour, day-by -day.

    For those who didn’t want to spend money on a text message, we had paper ballots and voting booths.

    As well continuing the voting in the gallery space, we also asked people to continue to comment. This was something that had proved very popular online, with thousands of comments left over the four weeks the online competition ran.

    In the gallery space we went for a low tech solution of stickers which people could fill in and stick to a series of large plinths. These comments ranged from seriously thought out comments on democracy through to famous quotes, through to insults and swearing. But all gave the public another chance to have their say and participate in the exhibition rather then just being spectators.

    - Time we MET campaign

    ‘It’s time we MET’ was an interesting project that used an existing social media platform to do something different.

    This was launched in February 2009 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They asked people visiting the gallery’s permanent collection to photograph their experience and through Flickr enter it in competition to star in the gallery’s new advertising campaign.

    [I think it’s worth noting that most galleries don’t allow photography, but this is totally out of sync with the changing expectations of an audience who are using their camera phones to record and share things that interest them. To me this sends all the wrong messages about the museum as an outdated institution.]

    The ‘It’s time we MET’ campaign capitalises brilliantly these shifting audience expectations and motivations to ask people not only to capture their experiences in the gallery, but also to share them with each other. The hundreds of pictures people posted on Flickr show the MET through other people’s eyes and show the different ways that people experience the museum and its permanent collection.

    Out of the 999 images entered in the ‘It’s Time we MET’ photo competition, a panel of judges selected two winners which were used in their advertising campaigns, and five runners up.

    The images are incredibly strong, more so because you know that they are real experiences from real people.

    While some cultural institutions focus on the Creator motivation, as we saw from the Forrester Research Technographic profiling tool, this is only one of the ways that audiences want to interact.

    A Critic motivation tends to be more pronounced in older audiences rather than younger people. Having said that, the first example I have of this is actually targeted at young people and comes from N8 in the Netherlands.

    N8 Audiotours

    This initiative which asked members of the public to create their own audio commentaries about items found in the venues around Amsterdam.

    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 these audio commentaries created by the public for N8 do not pretend to be by trusted experts; these are something different, giving young people the chance to start with a point of view that is more appealing to them than the official audio guide.

    Each artwork could have several audio commentaries, each from a different vantage point. All have been created by museum visitors who have been inspired to take the time to share their thoughts on the artworks.

    Of course as someone who speaks no Dutch, I can’t comment on the quality of the commentaries, but I really like the idea behind it and I’d like to see museums looking at how they can indulge the inner critic of their audiences.

    Penguin classics blog

    Another organization to use the critic motivation was Penguin books who created a readers community to promote their collection of classic fiction.

    The first 1,400 people to apply were each sent a randomly selected book free of charge, in return for a frank review which was posted online.

    The process was deliberately random, from the allocation of books, to the daily publication of uncensored reviews on the blog; guaranteeing that even obscure and forgotten titles were prominent from the very start and hinting at the full extent of the Penguin Classics Collection.

    This resulted in a great deal of buzz for the project; anticipation centred on which title participants would receive, the challenge for readers to blog about a title they otherwise might never have chosen and whose book review might be released next.

    The random allocation of titles also generated many polarised and often surprising reviews. This stimulated vibrant debate and created a more appealing platform for discussion than if reviewers had chosen their favourite title.

    With between one and three reviews still being released every day, this blog is set to run for a number of years and with the use of RSS feeds and email notifications, readers are encouraged to return again and again and continue their discussion.

    For the love of god was a piece of art by Damien Hirst which was displayed at The Rijksmuseum last year.

    The artist is very controversial and the publicity for the exhibition stated that ‘never before has a work of art provoked as much dialogue’. The way that they got the public to participate encouraged this dialogue to continue by asking people who had visited the artwork to record their thoughts on the piece.

    The combination of novelty and excellent, simplistic execution gave The Rijksmuseum great success on their ‘Damien Hirst with For the Love of God’ microsite in getting museum visitors to comment on the exhibition. They filmed the critics with their head through a curtain and then animated the ‘floating’ heads around the skull artwork.

    As a result, the museum had generated discussion; gained content for its site; amassed a collection of reviews most exhibitions could only hope for; created an additional reason to visit the exhibition; and spawned free publicity as interviewees showed the link to friends and family and fans of the site passed the link around.

    I just want to finish up on the Critic motivation with a quick mention of something nice I noticed at the Brooklyn Museum when I visited earlier this year. I noticed this notice in an exhibition, which encouraged visitors to tweet about the experience.

    When I mentioned this on my blog, someone at the museum pointed me in the direction of the community section of their website where they actually show all tweets, good and bad, live as people post them.

    It is brilliant to see a museum embrace the chaos and open themselves up to their audiences in this way.

    The Collector motivation is one that I have struggled with a little, looking at the way that Forrester describe this, it is closer to ‘curating’ then any other category so I would have expected to find many good examples from Museums.

    Fill the gap! is a really simple project that used Flickr to get people to curate online. It was developed by The Luce Foundation Centre for American Art which is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s storage facility. It houses over 3,300 works of art in 64 secure glass cases.

    Artworks often leave the Luce Foundation Center to go on view elsewhere in the museum or to go out on loan. If an artwork will be gone for more than twelve months, they need to replace it from the collections of the Smithsonian.

    Georgina Goodlander Manager of the Luce Foundation Center described how the project came about in an interview earlier this year, “The last year or so has been very busy, with over 40 paintings and objects departing long-term for a variety of reasons. As a result, there are some gaps that we don’t have the time to give the attention that they deserve, or we have tried to find replacements and have been unable to come up with anything with which we are happy.”

    The team at the Luce Foundation Centre decided that the perfect solution to this problem was to ask the public to help them to curate the spaces, or ‘Fill the Gap’ and Flickr provided a low cost way of doing this.

    When the Luce Foundation Center has a gap that they need to fill they post a photo on Flickr and asks the public to search through its online catalogue and select appropriate items from the 41,000 pieces in their collection.

    The suggestions are then debated by the small but very active community who have chosen to take part in the project. This crowd-sourced approach to curating is now moving in to the real venue with a plan to ask visitors to the Luce Foundation Center to vote on which item should fill a gap, based on a shortlist of twenty selected by staff at the venue.

    Using Flickr for the project meant that it’s cost was virtually zero and this also allowed the institution to access a ready-made community on the photo sharing website. While this makes a lot of sense, bringing these kind of community interactions into your own website is where I’d personally like to see museums heading.

    Earlier this year MoMA launched its new website, and for me this is as close as any institution I have seen has got to addressing the needs of these evolving audiences through a venue website by taking the elements that work so well in social networks and incorporating them in to their own website.

    Looking at the different motivations outlined by Forrester Research, this website ticks lots of boxes including the ‘Collector’. When I land on the website I can select which point of view I’d like to approach the institution from, so for example if I say my interest in MoMA is as a Filmgoer, then the website will tailor content to me based on that point of view.

    That’s quite a nice touch, but to access the best tools on the website you need to take sixty seconds to sign up as a member. This costs nothing, but means that you can save events which interest you to your account or share them with friends, you can also save artworks that you like and create your own online exhibitions and share these with friends, this can be done by collecting works that you like on the gallery’s website or from your mobile phone as you’re looking round the gallery.

    Everything on the website can be shared through popular social networks and all in all, it’s just a really well thought out website from an organisation which obviously has a good understanding of the expectations of their evolving audiences.

    We touched on the ‘Joiner’ motivation with MoMA and in the past few weeks we have seen the Whitney Museum in the states also launch a new website that offers added functionality to people who sign up to the website, but I have three projects which encourage people to join in totally different ways to go through next.

    Brooklyn Museum First Fans

    1stfans is an interesting take on museum membership launched by the Brooklyn Museum at the end of last year. While the organization had a large and varied membership base, they felt that this wasn’t appealing to a segment of their visitors, and in keeping with the institution’s inclusive and community-focused objectives, they looked at a new type of membership.

    A 1stfan membership is an interactive relationship with the museum that takes place online and in the museum. Part of this relationship is through websites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr where private members’ areas contain content for 1stfan members. The content in these areas includes artists composing tweets, members sharing pictures, exclusive videos and access to an active online community.

    In the real venue, 1stfan members have exclusive meet-ups which have included talks, tours and other live events. This is all creating a deeper relationship with visitors and all for just $20 per year.

    The people who run the 1stfan membership are incredibly focused on their community. As a 1stfan who joined from the UK primarily because I was interested in learning more about the idea of the membership, I don’t go to the events they have for 1stfans, but when they do events they do cool things like record videos with someone saying hello to me as a far away 1stfan.

    That’s pretty cool and at just $20 I’ll renew my membership even if I don’t go to any of the members event in the next year.

    - Twitter Opera

    The Twitter Opera is an initiative from the Royal Opera House in London. Earlier this year they invited the public to join with them in a experiment to create a libretto, one 140-character Twitter message at a time.

    An Opera performance is not normally that accessible a medium, it’s audience is graying and in looking for new audiences, a project that appeals to creative individuals was an interesting approach.

    The Royal Opera House invited people to tweet contributions to the plot to @youropera. They provided a starting point of: “One morning, very early, a man and a woman were standing, arm-in-arm, in London’s Covent Garden. The man turned to the woman and he sang…”

    Over 900 individuals composed the final piece which took abstract turns as different groups tried to sway the story in the direction that they thought it should go.

    You could argue that this is a primarily using the creator motivation, but I think the fact that people opt in and join the conversation is really interesting too.

    1,000 people turned up to view the final 20 minute opera. Among those spectators were many critics who had warned that this was an accident waiting to happen, but the end result received a better then expected reception. “actually watchable, listenable and rather funny,” reported the Opera critic at the Daily Telegraph.

    What I really like about the Twitter Opera project is that it uses Twitter in a creative way and gives me a real reason to join in and follow the organisation, rather then just seeing it as a platform to spam people with cheap ticket offers, which is what I see a lot of cultural organisations doing on Twitter. This shows some imagination and I applaud them for stepping out of their comfort zone and doing something different.

    One thing I did find funny about this was that the final Opera was performed in the lobby of the Royal Opera House rather then on a stage, which I believe was done deliberately to demonstrate the difference between high art and this crowd-produced piece.

    V&A Cold War exhibition

    7thsyndikate is another attempt to get people to join, but in this case it was a select group of 75 influential design bloggers who the V&A in London wanted to get excited about a new exhibition.

    The theme of the exhibition, Cold War Modern gave the perfect inspiration for a campaign which targeted these individuals. It all started with a cryptic email which could have come out of a spy movie.

    At the bottom of this email was a web address which led those interested in learning more to a webpage that looked like this, it didn’t seem to provide much information but the word ‘bright’ in the line ‘You’re not very bright’ led to a hidden page.

    The bloggers received further cryptic messages over the next few weeks and 7thsyndikate also entered their real lives with grafitti planted near their homes and adverts placed in newspapers.

    This all ended with an instruction to dress in a hat and sunglasses, and with a newspaper under the left arm, these spies were to meet a man wearing a tan mac, bowler hat and dark shoes at the Albert Memorial in London.

    From here he marched them single file to the entrance of the V&A and the exhibition Cold War Modern. In total, 35 bloggers made it to the special preview.

    I think this is interesting both in the way that they got the bloggers to join them for the preview and in the V&A seeing these people as an important group to target. The result was a lot of good word-of-mouth promotion and many reviews of the event in the blogisphere.

    The Spectator driver could really apply to any of the case studies that I have shown here, because while lots of people want to engage as Creators, Joiners, Critics etc., lots of other people will be happier just browsing. That doesn’t mean that they want to go back to a static website though.

    Looking at the statistics for the Democracy project that we did in October, throughout the four weeks the project was live, we had 14,297 unique visitors, of whom only 1767 people joined the website so that they could leave comments and vote on work, and of those only 308 members entered artwork in to the competition.

    So you can see that the website offered people the chance to participate in many different ways, but the majority of visitors did so as spectators. Comparing these stats to those of the Design festival’s main website, Democracy attracted seven times the amount of traffic that the central source of information about the festival did, because even if people didn’t actively participate by entering work, commenting or voting, they still liked the fact that every time they checked back on the website there was new user-generated content for them to see.

    There isn’t a huge amount to say about inactives, other than the number of people in this category is falling. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid social media as it takes over the web and enters our lives through mobile phones.

    So in conclusion…

    I started with four personas to demonstrate the changing expectations of your audiences and I would like to finish with one more.

    This is Jessie and unlike the other personas, she’s a real person. She is my one year old daughter.

    Right now she watches her favorite children’s television programme on demand through our digital TV or on my laptop. She has a toy mobile phone and she loves to play with my iPhone.

    When we go to a museum she likes to see big stuff: giant crabs, dinosaurs, elephants and she is used to having somewhere to play and explore. But then she is just one year old. What are her expectations going to be in five years time? In ten years time? Or twenty years?

    If you set out now to predict this and ‘future proof’ your organisation, considering the pace of change of current society and technology, I think you are likely to be wrong.

    If, instead, you involve Jessie in the process, then not only will you be absolutely on track in understanding your audience, but the outcome is likely to be the collective result of multiple minds and multiple opinions which, if managed well, will be bigger, better and smarter than it would have been if engineered by the organisation on its own, looking out.

    There is a move in software described as the ‘Cathedral’ to the ‘Bazaar’ – changing your approach from producing things and distributing them to exchanging, sharing and mutually benefitting.

    If you want John, Claire, Jessie and their friends to feel that museums are a relevant part of their lives then museums need to become an active part of their lives. And if you want to know how to do that, then ask them and they’ll tell you, or even do it for you!
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Coproducing the Museum

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