Engaging with Social Media in Museums

I apologise for being a bit slack with my posts lately. I’ll try to make up for it with this report from an event I attended at Swinburne yesterday with Dana.

The Engaging with Social Media in Museums seminar was run by the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, which investigates subjects as diverse as social policy, media, youth, gender, housing, citizenship, immigration and public administration.

The Presenter
Dr Angelina Russo
Queensland University of Technology and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation

Dr Russo and her colleague Jerry Watkins will both be jointly appointed to the Swinburne Faculty of Design and the Institute for Social Research in early 2008, where they will begin work on a new ARC Linkage Project designed to:

1. Investigate innovative connections to social media networks by museums, through digital content, multimedia design and communication strategies
2. Advance creative engagement between museums and learners, information searchers and content creators
3. Lead debate within museums through reference to design, audience evaluation and cultural communication

The Project
New Literacy, New Audiences and runs in partnership with Museum Victoria, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the Australian Museum and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum at the Smithsonian in the United States. The project looks into how social media can be used to facilitate cultural participation. Its main goal is to see user-generated content presented alongside more authoritative content in a way that suggests ordinary people have something worthwhile to contribute to their own cultural heritage. The project’s researchers want to challenge the notion that the plethora of user-generated content available on the web devalues the authoritative content produced by established educational and cultural institutions. For more information on this argument, you might like to have a look at Andrew Keen’s controversial text The cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture.

Social Media and Scholarly Research
The question was raised:
are cultural institutions losing ground to Web 2.0?
* The top 5 educational and reference sites in the US are not scholarly resources (Wikipedia, Answers.com, Dictionary.com, Yahoo! Answers)
* Google Scholar is Number 6
* Google Book Search is Number 7
* No educational institutions appear until Number 9

Web 2.0 Tools have Strategic Purposes
Through the 23 Things Project, we’re learning how to use Web 2.0 tools. Some of these have proved useful, and some (like Digg) relatively worthless. Some tools are appropriate for the library context, while others may be more useful for sharing personal anecdotes with family and friends. Most importantly, we’ve seen that we need to remain aware of when is appropriate to use them, and not try to replace perfectly effective channels of communication with Web 2.0 tools just for their novelty value.

Dr Russo and her team believe the following Web 2.0 tools might best fit each purpose:

Conversation Blogs, podcasts, vodcasts
Customisation Tags, bookmarks
Content Sharing Online audio, video, photo sharing
Co-creation Bespoke tools

We’ve seen through the 23 Things Project that blogging and commenting on others’ blogs can be a great way to spark discussion, as it allows readers to communicate both with the blog author and with other readers. The ARC Project is looking at this process with a view to how we can align scholarly content (blog posts from subject authorities) with user-generated content (comments left by users).

Dr Russo used this entry from the Sydney Observatory Blog as an example of how this might be beneficial in an educational context. In the post, a circulating email hoax about the planet Mars brushing too close to Earth is debunked by a leading Sydney Observatory astronomer. The 137 comments from users show how they responded favourably to the trustworthy information, and to each other. The same blog provides an example of how user-generated content might be presented alongside content created by a subject authority without emphasising the barrier between the two. Some of these photos of a lunar eclipse were taken by professional astronomers, while others were contributed by amateur star gazers who took photos on their handheld digital cameras and mobile phones. As all images appear together in the blog post, neither style is presented as more ‘valuable’ than the other.

Dr Russo used the Powerhouse Museum’s OPAC 2.0 Collection as an example of how user customisation might help develop a collection. According to Dr Russo, approximately 3% of a museum’s collection is on permanent display, leaving 97% rarely or never accessible to the public. To bridge this gap, the Powerhouse Museum has digitised their collection records and provided online access to most of their collection. The Museum published the OPAC 2.0 Collection without consulting curators, allowing them to assess the records after they were uploaded. A similar project at the Smithsonian where the curators were consulted first has failed to get off the ground. This example from the Powerhouse’s collection shows how users can add keywords to an object to help create a folksonomy. These user-generated subject keywords are designed to operate in conjunction with the more traditional museum collection taxonomy (see the numbered record list). Only 4% of users initially tagged items, but 50% of later hits came from these tags. This introduces the idea of a passive audience (the 96% who chose not to add tags) versus the active cultural participants who contributed to the database and helped other users find the content later.

Content Sharing
Museum Victoria ran the Biggest Family Album in Australia Project in 2004 to collect historical photos of everyday people doing everyday things. This was a unique opportunity for members of the community to contribute a piece of their own identity to the cultural record. Some of these photos were later digitised and made available online (here’s a charming example).

The example used was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s family history collection, which allows users to create a space for storing photos and ephemera related to their families. Arguably, a similar example is the Facebook Developers platform, which allows backyard programmers to create Facebook applications to share with their friends and the wider Facebook community.

More Information
If you’d like more information on this project, the blog is designed to keep project partners in touch with the community and each other, and to facilitate discussion. You can also read more about the grant or have a look at the plans for a workshop and conference in late February 2008.


One Response to Engaging with Social Media in Museums

  1. Sara Jervis says:


    This post almost makes me want to stay working, doing what I am doing indefinitely.
    This morning a small group met to discuss an exhibition to be mounted next year to display the original Swinburne Coat of Arms and the processes that brought these Swinburne family armorial bearings to Swinburne, the institution, in 1969.

    The beautful object – the Letters Patent which illustrates the Swinburne Coat of Arms on vellum, with the large seals attached, in a royal red box, has been hidden away for nearly 40 years. While our centenary is the catalyst for mounting the exhibition, there has been thought in the past about how to bring this precious item and special artefact of our history out of the past – archives- and into the present and future. The two designers on our team are developing a brief to create a digital exhibition, not one for the web but as a special display which will travel to all the campuses , including the Sarawak campus, in turn throughout next year. I had thought we would have a special cabinet created for the display, but here we are taking our illustrious past to a brand new audience, exhibited and designed digitally. Wow to that.

    Another feature of your post resonated with me particularly. I recall when we opearated in the pre refurbishment areas (before your time), there was a series of articles posted/pinned on a notice board, about lay person Google searches for research purposes Versus proper “librarian” research. Proper research and quality information are now available at the flick of a button, by a rank amateur. The snobbery about a google search is only displayed by the ignorant, not the knowledgeable; and so it is with social and intellectual snobbery. Because I am an experienced researcher I know what is dross and what is referenced or accurate material. It is my job to assist lay researchers to frame their query to best advantage and learn to distinguish what answers and information they can rely on. This is natural for any people guiding someone somewhere.
    Where I love google searches now, for me and my friends and family, is that I can get referenced material alongside people’s anecdotes: for example about excema in babies. There are the medical journal items and then there may be a comment from a mother in Nebraska or Nothcote saying to lighten baby’s clothing at night as they get overheated and this exacerbates the eczema. Then someone might comment on that and suggest a further remedy. This interaction, if picked up by the medical world, could lead the medic to offer more rounded advice than just the prescription pad. In fact, thinking about this, the comments and items posted by amateurs may be the village community passing their wisdom as was done in the not very recent past. What a turn up for commentaters to see the internet and Web 2.0 as the continuing manifestation of our desire for the community.

    Thank you for your wonderful report.

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