Museums and Second Life

What can Second Life do for your organization?

That’s the question that’s been floating around the blogosphere of late. I think, though, that the question needs to be asked in two ways.

1. What can your museum do for residents of Second Life?
2. What can participating in Second Life do for your museum?

Once you answer the first question, you can answer the second. I’ll attempt to answer these questions with some specificity after we consider more broadly the advantages and liabilities of participating in Second Life.

If you’re not familiar with Second Life, scroll down to the bottom of this post and explore some of the links in the “Second Life roundup.”

Learning curves and marketing budgets

I admit that I joined the world of Second Life (SL) only recently, and I’ve explored only about eight to ten hours “in world.” That said, I’ve spent far longer researching the possibilities within Second Life.

I haven’t spent more time in world because the learning curve is, in my opinion, rather steep for those of us who have no background in gaming. The learning curve is even steeper for organizations that want to have a “physical” presence in Second Life.

I’m highlighting this fact because whether you allocate time for someone on your staff to learn how to navigate Second Life, and then to create objects and buildings in world, or whether you hire someone to design your museum’s in-world environment for you, the cost of a Second Life presence can escalate rapidly. Before diving into Second Life, you’ll need, of course, to consider whether your marketing and PR dollars are best spent elsewhere.

Note: If you haven’t yet checked out Second Life, and you have some time on your hands, head on over and sign up for a free account. Depending on your personal comfort with virtual environments and your propensity for getting sucked into such activities, plan on spending an hour or two exploring the world. Having an idea of how people, as represented by avatars, navigate Second Life will help you better understand what follows.

What can your museum do for residents of Second Life?

To answer this question, turn to your museum’s mission statement, exhibition history, program guide, and curriculum. What does your institution do best?

Ask yourself if your institution’s capabilities and activities would translate well to this world.

Find out if someone else is already offering such activities. If so, don’t despair–there’s plenty of room for new participants, even if your offering overlaps with existing activities. However, you might consider collaborating with other institutions to create a single, multi-institution location for residents to visit.

For example, there are already galleries of art in Second Life. What will your art museum bring to the table that’s new? Will you innovate in interpretation?

As far as I know, no science centers have yet to build in Second Life. If your designer can replicate some of your real-world hands-on activities and exhibits, those would definitely be a novel addition. Remember, however, that adults are not allowed to participate on the mainland of the youth world on Second Life and vice versa. There are ways for educators to reach young people, but initially you’ll need to focus on either youth or adult patrons, not both.

If you represent a living history center or a historic house museum, your staff members’ avatars can be outfitted in period attire. Depending on the era on which your institution focuses, there may already be a logical place to build in Second Life. For example, there is a Victorian village in Second Life where avatars wear nineteenth-century garb and participate in role play.

You should also, however, take into account the kinds of things that are possible in Second Life that aren’t possible in the real world. You can animate paintings, for example, or provide bodily and mental experiences that the average person would not have in their daily lives. Take, for example, one doctor’s creation of a schizophrenia simulator.

In addition, be sure to check out the blog Second Life Library 2.0, as well as the libraries in-world, for more organizational and institutional inspiration.

Might you provide informal educational content in audio and visual formats? For example, the public radio show The Infinite Mind is broadcasting in Second Life and welcoming residents to participate in the broadcasts.

Will your institution have a physical presence in Second Life in the form of a building? If so, will you charge admission, ask for donations, or admit people for free? If you build, be sure to include a virtual store where residents can purchase fun, stylish, or elegant accessories for their avatars and their homes.

Once you have brainstormed a bit, you should ask residents of Second Life if they’d be interested in such activities or sites as you wish to provide. You can interview residents in world–an admittedly labor-intensive process–or survey participants in any number of Second Life forums on the web.

What can participating on Second Life do for your museum?

It’s hard to say. People participating in Second Life have leisure time, current computer technology, and high speed internet access, so it’s likely they have some disposable income as well.

But are they museumgoers and prospective donors? That much is unclear.

You can learn more about marketing to avatars at Brands in Games, which has published a transcript of an in-world panel on marketing to avatars in Second Life. The panel was convened by Harvard’s Berkman Center.

In addition, Clickable Culture offers some reflections on an article on marketing to avatars recently published in the (subscription-based) Harvard Business Review.

Second Life roundup

If you’re not familiar with Second Life, you can get the opinions of its fans and detractors by clicking on the links below.

Second Life resources and evangelists

College Web Editor provides a brief guide to resources on Second Life. She also considers whether Second Life might help institutions raise awareness and funds for their real-life construction projects.

A magazine on conducting business in Second Life made its debut today. While focused on entrepreneurs, it may provide museums with ideas, tips, and inspiration. Details on SL Business, “The Premiere Virtual Branding Magazine,” may be found here.

C.C. Chapman is a fan of Second Life. Browse the archive of his podcasts at Managing the Gray to learn more about the possibilities of Second Life.

Beth Kanter is exploring the usefulness of Second Life to nonprofits. Check out these posts for ideas and inspiration:
Nonprofits in Second Life: Avatar Marketing, Fundraising, and TechSoup’s Plans
Reflections on Mixed Reality Events in Second Life
A Conversation with TechSoup’s Susan Tenby on Virtual Nonprofit Communities

TechSoup has put together a directory of nonprofits in Second Life. You can read about these groups’ activities and in many cases learn where to find them in-world. TechSoup also hosts a listserv for nonprofits in Second Life.

Second Life detractors and the unimpressed

Darren of Capulet Communications warns us not to jump into Second Life just because it’s the latest trend.

Branded Newb says Second Life is

a waste of time for marketers. When the real virtual world comes (and it will), the experiences in SL will provide little value (probably as valuable as logos on Pogs). I’m sure many marketers know this but until they stop looking good posing with the facade, they don’t care. For example, did American Apparel really open up a store in SL so they can market to the 300,000 registered users of SL? I doubt it, 300,000 nerds that never get out is a waste of time for a clothing company. What it is is good PR and that’s all that really matters to everyone involved.

Michelle Murrain asks

What’s the point? I spent about five hours in SL with a new account, exploring, talking to people, trying to figure out a good reason to keep going. Being in SL keeps me plastered in my chair, in front of my screen, when I’d rather be reading a book, or out walking on the beach, or taking to a real live human being, or if I’m going to be plastered in my chair, writing something interesting.

I think that the internet has created amazing opportunities to bring people together from disparate places so that they can work together in ways that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. I’d bet that the text based methods that we already have (IRC, IM, email) actually would be more efficient, because you wouldn’t have to spend that time flying around and futzing with your avatar.

Ethan Zuckerman elaborates on what he sees as the current failures of Second Life, as well as how organizations might better serve residents. He focuses on the virtual Darfur within Second Life:

It’s possible that simulations will be a valuable tool for communicating the reality of situations like Darfur… if and when they get the details right… which they can only do if data is coming from the places they’re trying to simulate. The creators of virtual Darfur – who I suspect are smart, well-meaning people – probably put in this firewood not because they thought it was authentic, but because it was an object easily available elsewhere in Second Life which they didn’t need to custom create. But it ends up masking one of the more powerful details about the conflict, which you’d get from any competent newspaper account or from looking at photos of refugee camps.

The problems of virtual Darfur doesn’t mean that Second Life and other metaverse spaces won’t have a social impact in the future. But asking a technology to rise to this social purpose as this stage of its development may be unfair and unwise. It’s possible that hundreds, possibly even thousands of Second Life users will encounter this space – James speculates that, for some, it will be the first time they’ve ever thought about Darfur. This worries me – if you’re so deeply disconnected from the reality I live in that a Second Life space is the first time you’ve encountered this issue, then we don’t have much common context. (Do such people exist? Do they vote?)

The reason Second Life bugs me is not the fact that it slows my computer to a crawl, that most of my fellow characters are impossibly thin girls with overinflated breasts, or that most of the activity of the world seems to rotate around real estate and sex. (It reminds me of Reagan’s America, without the cocaine.) No, it’s the cyberutopianism. What bothers me is the fact that every presentation I’ve heard from Linden Labs has focused on the social implications of the space, the ways interaction in these new spaces will change fundamental economic and social dynamics of people all around the world.

Of course, this post represents but a sampling of opinions and resources on nonprofits, marketing, and Second Life. A Google search on the keywords marketing, avatar, and Second Life or nonprofits and Second Life will provide you with further resources.

What do you think? Is your institution considering participating in Second Life? If so, why, and in what forms?


  1. Leslie,
    What a well-written post covering the advantages and disadvantages for museums in Second Life. I am one of the librarians working on the Second Life Library project. We want to see what role if any libraries have in a virtual world.

    More and more educators are moving into Second Life and investigating how teaching can be done. We have several exhibits – one on author Vachel Lindsay – we had one on 19th century Illinois women and are now working on one with material from the Library of Congress on the Declaration of Independence. I think museums have a wonderful role in Second Life – as a way to show their items that people may not ever be able to see in person – and as you said having programs and events around these topics.

    We have had great interest in our exhibits and we hope to make this an ongoing library service to share the wonderful digital collections many libraries have. This can also augment flat web-based images that are currently on the web.

    This fall, we have a museum joining us on Info Island. I don’t know what their experience will be, but from the feedback we have had, many people in Second Life are glad to have places to go and do things that don’t involve sex, gambling, and real estate. I think the increased interest and possibilities in education has been to some extent some of the rapid growth of Second Life.

    If you would like to come on a tour and see what we and some others are doing – for instance someone has created an immersive experience in Egyptian culture – someone is recreating the Globe Theater, and Caledon, the 19th century sim is a pure joy to explore, let me know. I think the possibilities are both endless and exciting.
    Lori Bell
    Alliance Library System

  2. Great post covering all the angles. Come join the TechSoup meetings on Friday at 8:30 a.m. PST – good to have first hand experience.

  3. Thought this was relevant to the discussion. There is a growing list of museums and galleries in Second Life that is published on Wikipedia.

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