The 'next' museum wave: is social media here

6 Mar 2008

Collections, audiences, distribution and access will continue to be the central concerns, writes ANGELINA RUSSO

AT THE recent Social Media and Cultural Communication Conference in Sydney thirteen speakers from Australia, Britain, the United States and Canada gave their insights into the use, value and sustainability of social media in cultural institutions. Social media such as blogs, podcasts and wikis have been increasingly present across the museum, library, archive and gallery sector. These social networking technologies have provided a platform and public face for conversations, collaborations and co-created content to be seen, accessed and distributed to a broad audience.

As the conference focused specifically on social media in cultural institutions, the focus tended to be on providing a roadmap of where and how social media initiatives have been used within the sector. The conference arose from research conducted through the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation where the New Literacy New Audiences project has explored the creation and distribution of digital cultural content. In conjunction with six Australian cultural institutions, the research has identified a number of issues related to user-generated content in relation to traditional approaches to communication within these organisations.

The conference provided a forum through which to discuss issues of authority, authenticity, access and engagement and brought with it lively debate surrounding the value and sustainability of new relationships between audiences and institutions. Speakers from the USA and Canada provided examples of successful initiatives connected to the dissemination of science and design. Caroline Payson from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, presented successful strategies for connecting formal education communities to museum education programs while Kevin Von Appen from the Ontario Science Centre demonstrated the value of social media in the dissemination of science.

Carolyn Royston, from the Victoria and Albert Museum, UK described the complexities of multi-institutional partnerships through the National Museums Online Learning Project which brings together 9 national UK museums to extend online collections into the realm of co-created content and educational materials.

Throughout the conference it became clear that the opportunities which social networking brings to the sector fundamentally challenge the way in which sector professionals see their role in relation to their audiences. It is interesting to note that while user-generated content is the flavour of the day, it is not so far away from the beginnings of the modern museum and library which, for the most part, were built on private collections, drawn together by amateur enthusiasts who saw the potential for a broader distribution and educational agenda which could arise from their expertise.

In 1989, Peter Vergo suggested that such collections were increasingly viewed within the context of ?a more recent sense of an obligation that museums should not merely display their treasures to the curious and make their collections accessible to those desirous of knowledge, but also actively engage in mass education??

This social agenda is not dissimilar to that which drives social networking and in particular, a number of social media initiatives within the sector. On the basis of providing greater access and enabling new collaborations and conversations between audiences and institutions, social media does what Vergo suggested the ?new? museology could be, that is:

Beyond the captions, the information panels, the accompanying catalogue, the press handout, there is a subtext comprising innumerable, diverse, often contradictory strands, woven from the wishes and ambitions, the intellectual or political or social or educational aspirations and preconceptions of the museum director, the curator, the scholar, the designer, the sponsor ? to say nothing of the society, the political or social or educational system which nurtured all these people and in so doing, left its stamp upon them.

In the ?next? museum wave, collections, audiences, distribution and access will continue to be prevalent. Perhaps this conference demonstrated most readily the willingness with which museum professionals are prepared to discuss the virtues and pitfalls of social networking within their organisations. For those interested in the conference sessions, visit ?

Angelina Russo is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, and Chief Investigator of the New Literacy, New Audiences program of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation.

Photo: Teun van den Dries/

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