Kelly Moffitt is a Mizzou journalism student. She is working with Joy Mayer this semester on what journalists can learn from other disciplines. She contributed this post to Joy’s blog.
Field trips, as a child, usually meant one of two things. You could be heading to an awesome, exciting place where you could touch things, get messy, run around, or make a craft or two. Or you could visit a place full of things you could not touch — nothing to get messy with, no running allowed, and you were expected to contemplate art. Which journeys did you remember most?
Today, museums are finding themselves at much of the same crossroads as news organizations. The recession hit. Funding is down. Cuts are being made. A 2010 report from Americans for the Arts states that 41% of art museums failed to created a balanced budget. At the same time, however, 3,000 new art organizations opened up between 2007 and 2009. Something must be different for the museums to want to enter the field again.
The answer is what Nina Simon, author of blog “Museum2.0,” has titled her book: “The Participatory Museum.” She defines it as “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.” In other words, getting “messy” = more connection = more involvement.
According to Simon’s book, there are five reasons museums fail in today’s world:
1. Museums are irrelevant to daily life.
2. Museums never change.
3. Museums’ voices are too omnipotent and don’t include room for the visitors’.
4. Museums aren’t a creative place for expression.
5. Museums aren’t a comfortable place to converse.
Basically, the same could be said for news organizations, which can seem too far from everyday people’s lives. Hence, Simon writes, museums have got to figure out how to get into the visitors’ lives. As she writes in her opening chapter:
“Cultural institutions are like volleyball courts. Expert visitors and staff already know how to play. They are confident about how to use the space, what’s available, and how to connect with content of interest. But there are many casual and infrequent visitors who would like to participate but don’t know how to start. These people need friendly hosts … who can respond to them personally and help them find the activities, information, and people who will be most relevant to their needs. By welcoming people personally and responding to their specific interests, you can foster an environment in which everyone will feel confident and energized about participating with your institution and with each other.”
There are many examples of how this is done really well. One example is Shelley Bernstein’s work at Brooklyn Museum. She has created 1stfans: A Social Networked Museum, which organizes meet-ups where discussion is facilitated about the museum’s art. These discussion are decided upon by the participants but facilitated by experts. Likewise, she is working on exhibits that are crowd-curated to connect more to users.
Simon also addresses this idea by giving examples of how art can be “tagged” so people can create a social network around art, or vote on what pieces they like best.
These two examples seek to solve the problem of the “irrelevance” of museums and try to make the institution a place where conversations can be held at patrons’ comfort levels. In the news world, social media like Twitter makes it easier to follow what users like, because they’re already sharing their preferences there. The key is enriching that conversation and adding to it, not just listening.
In the evolving world of museums, this means providing a docent. And not just in the traditional sense of a tour guide. It means getting information from the group about what they want to learn from the museum so the docent can specifically guide the patrons through and make the experience more interesting, make patrons more likely to contribute, and make them more likely to come back.
Places like the The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore do this well. In an exhibit about Greek mythology last year, before entering, visitors filled out information about themselves at a kiosk and were told which God/Goddess they were most like. Then, they were led on a personalized tour of the exhibit.
Maybe a docent-like approach could work for news organizations’ websites. We can’t just expect a person to jump onto a news site and know exactly what to do. By involving them and showing them around, they are more likely to stay on the page and delve in depth, much like a museum visitor shouldn’t have to have a Art History degree to enjoy a Monet’s “Water Lillies.”
We have analytics to show us what users read. Perhaps we could use that information to better facilitate easier news site viewing. Having users answer “about me” information and then proceeding to use that information to guide them around a news site could yield more engagement. How could we gather the information we need to provide a more customized experience?
Even using something like “staff picks” to introduce a little more authority to a news organization or “user picks” to show that user contribution is valued would be an upgrade to get users to participate. The Know Your Bone Blog has some great examples of how user content is valued in museums, especially the Denver Museum, which allows members to share flickr pictures and then displays them at the entrance. How cool!
For a perfectly participatory institution, another key is collaboration. Plenty of news organizations are combining their own content with user-contributed ideas and aggregated information to provide the most complete news coverage. Its done in museums, too. As Simon points out:
“In 2007, a collection of museums in North East England decided to take an audience-centric approach in a marketing campaign called I Like Museums. I Like Museums is an online directory of eighty-two museums in North East England that encourages visitors to explore museum trails — short lists of institutions — that are based on audience interests, not institutional content.”
Basically, the “trails” allowed you to find an experience that applied to you. There were trails to tell you if kids would like exhibits or if there was a good coffee shop. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an index of all news to find what applied to you at any given moment? How about a crowdsourced index of news stories?
The common theme here is audience first. Perhaps following the guidepost of museums, news organizations too could become the reading you don’t fall asleep over a cup of coffee in the morning, but rather the personalized trip you look forward to all day long.
Check out the next part of our museum musings tomorrow, when we’ll publish an interview with Ron Chew, veteran journalist, community organizer, and museum auteur.
— Kelly Moffitt