Social media and the museum: integrated social media at the Grant Museum

Published on: June 17th, 2013

Mark Carnall, Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, University College London

It’s taken a while, but the conservative museum sector is finally looking at and using social media in its work. You can tell it’s starting to take off as a number of ‘how to’ training courses are available and at the last Museums Association conference the session on social media  was wall to wall packed.  Of course when something like social media hits institutions like museums there are a lot of details that need to be ironed out. What are the risks? What policies and guidelines are needed? What are the terms of service for these platforms? What restrictions will the museum/council/university put on which platforms can be used and how? Will the assets we fail to exploit commercially ourselves all of a sudden be available to the fictional internet pirates who love stealing the content from museums and making millions of dollars from it?

All of these are important and need consideration but from talking to colleagues in museums by far the biggest hurdle, which is to be expected in a resource tight sector, are questions like; Who’s responsibility is it to do the social media? How much time does this take up per day/week/month?

I wanted to use this blog post to go through how a small University museum, the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at UCL, uses social media and how we integrate social media across all the work we do rather than have social media as something we do in and of itself. The museum is staffed by a small team of a manager, curator, learning and access officer, museum assistant and a part time visitor services assistant. Some  of the platforms we use are shared across the Museums and Public Engagement Department so there is a central UCL Museums blog, and a UCL Museums and Collections Facebook page which hosts content generated from across our department of museums and public engagement and could be from our public engagement unit, director, administrator or senior managers. We also receive support from  UCL Communications & Marketing, UCL Information Services Division and a part time digital media manager based within the department who do a lot of the organisation, maintenance and procuring of platforms and services on behalf of UCL that we can then use, without setting up.

I don’t want to get bogged down with the institutional hazards, that vary wildly between institutions suffice to say that if you work for an organisation that doesn’t allow for identification of individuals, or use of certain platforms or uploading of particular assets these are the constraints you have to work within (or flaunt in a number of cases). Some aspects of how the Grant Museum uses social media won’t scale to organisations or different shapes and sizes but I’m hoping that an examination of the approach and ethos will be of use to others embarking on using social media within their work.

The most important point to reiterate is that social media shouldn’t just be used in and of itself, it should be used to support activities that have already been strategically planned for and agreed as part of the organisations on-going work. This sounds obvious but returning to the questions I mentioned earlier, asking ‘Who’s responsibility is it to do the social media? How much time does this take up per day/week/month?’, imply that ‘doing social media’ is seen as a specific task that should/needs to be done in isolation. To get the most out of social media, our approach, is to use it through all of the activities we’re already doing and to help meet strategic goals that have already been set and to do this effectively, particularly for a small museum, using social media is a shared responsibility.

Pick your platform

Within the Grant Museum we tend to use Twitter, Facebook and a blog as the primary platforms for social media and websites like Youtube and Flickr as tools for hosting multimedia content which we embed and link to through the primary platforms. Twitter is transitory, with care can be irreverent, and is appropriate for reacting to topical news and discussions within minutes as well as being a direct line to the museum. For a museum, we use Facebook as another way to link to blog content but also treat each post as a kind of virtual badge or a postcard that our ‘visitors’ will share with their contacts. Blogs are ever increasingly being treated as a form of publication and are good for giving activities, events, debates and discussions a concrete presence for linking to in the future for content that may be too complex for a tweet but not quite the kind of content appropriate for a journal article or book. The important social aspect to social media also allows for direct feedback, critique discussion and sharing which can augment the kinds of outputs that typically don’t (i.e. exhibitions and events in museums). Thinking about the different strengths of each platform beforehand helps to filter what content should go where.

Integrated social media

A useful exercise is to examine the range of activities that make up your institution’s strategy and mission and to see how social media can augment these activities and outputs to reach a wider audience, spark discussion and demonstrate some of the day to day work that your audiences may not appreciate happens. One example in museums are exhibitions. Exhibitions are one of the primary ways that museums publish content and extraordinary amounts of work go into creating even the smallest amounts of work. However, exhibitions are time limited happenings and if you happen to miss them or are unavailable to get to them you miss out completely. Traditionally, unless there was a comprehensive catalogue, then all the work that went into creating that happening lives and dies between the opening and closing date. Social media can augment exhibitions, beyond widening the net with one way promotion and marketing. A blog article or two can give an exhibition a legacy so, to varying degrees, it continues to exist and be accessible long after the physical space has been uninstalled. All the research and content that didn’t make the final cut can easily be repurposed into content supporting an exhibition and generating content exploring the process of putting together an exhibition itself works to promote the exhibition, act as a historical record of the event, shows the juicy behind the scenes content that museum fans are keen to digest and can be a useful reference for teaching and sharing knowledge, tips and tricks. Thinking about what’s interesting to other people about your work and getting into the practice of tweeting thoughts, images or short videos about installing an exhibition (be it moving a walrus, unveiling an object for the first time, or an unfortunate but comical mistake) helps to generate a buzz around an exhibition but not in a sterile listing format. The content for all of this is largely already generated but with a concerted effort to  transform this content into appropriate social media you’re generating interest about it as well as demonstrating and answering questions about the range of work you do (in museums, everyone assumes you’re dusting objects).

A benefit of being part of a small team is that it has been relatively easy to make sure everyone is trained to use social media and that only improves the diversity and frequency of content and discussion. Another boon of working in museums is that everyone is very passionate about the work they do and this passion, enthusiasm and interest comes across. Participants in social media outside of the museum are very aware of when they’re being directly sold or coldly marketed something but the personality and individual voices, if you can use it, makes for more engaging content and shows that the institution is run by humans. A diversity of voices and a diversity of content, even disagreement within an institution is preferable to (and we all know when this happens) the intern or the volunteer being responsible for ‘doing social media’ and putting out five back to back dry tweets at 4.30 on a Friday afternoon.

Lastly, there’s a lot of discussion about striking a balance between broadcasting and engagement. Both are appropriate depending on what you want to get out of social media and again the ‘users’ or ‘participants’ know the difference. Consuming social media is as important as generating it and this is something you need to make sure is understood and communicated by all levels of the organisation. At best, consuming social media helps to shape ideas, garner feedback, inspire the work you do and help you to meet your institutional and personal aims. At worst, you could be perceived as wasting time on a pointless endeavour and in some institutions see yourself publicly named and shamed as a ‘top timewaster’ for spending time on twitter, Wikipedia and Facebook.

In summary we’ve found that having an integrated approach to using social media benefits all the activities you’ve committed to undertaking anyway as long as you have a clear idea of what you hope to get out of it. Think about the institutional context that your role functions within. At the Grant Museum our use of social media helped us to win an award, landed one of our staff a column in a major journal, generated national and international press about our exhibitions, helped us to crowd source important information about our collections, allows us to highlight what we do and why, brings attention to objects that otherwise wouldn’t be ‘used’ or deemed useless for display, shows how we don’t operate in a vacuum, shows we can laugh at ourselves and allows us to share information. Who’s responsibility is it to do the social media? It should be everyone’s responsibility. How much time does this take up per day/week/month? It depends on what you’re using it for and how important it is to delivering your mission.

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