Professional development in museums

Note: This is a revision of an earlier version of this post.

As an adjunct professor in John F. Kennedy University’s graduate program in museum studies, professional development is frequently at the front of my mind.

By “professional development,” I mean helping students and emerging museum professionals become more thoughtful museum thinkers and makers. I’m talking about learning to think more critically and creatively about both one’s niche within the museum world and the larger system of the museum (or museums). Much of the writing on museum theory and practice can contribute, of course, to professional development, but no number of how-to articles or books contextualizing contemporary museum exhibitions and programming is sufficient in itself.

The difference between learning how to do something in a museum context and developing oneself professionally within the museum field is frequently vast. It’s the difference between reading an article on how to grow tomatoes (and subsequently planting tomatoes) and reading a book like Food Not Lawns and planning a suburban or urban garden that recycles resources via a system of ponds, swales, compost heaps, and seed preservation.

The most effective professional development takes place within systems and networks.  In my experience, the best professional development frequently happens spontaneously, in the form of “a learning community assembling itself on the fly.” I borrow this phrase from Gardner Campbell’s talk for the University Continuing Education Association’s 2009 conference.  Campbell emphasized the importance of catching a thought and pushing it along via conversations and networks–in Gardner’s example, by tweeting  and retweeting on Twitter. “It’s a very playful way to interact,” Campbell said. “It’s purposeful, too. And you can’t control it. You shouldn’t try to shape it too narrowly. There are other things we can do for that. The term paper is not going away. The research project is not going away. . . Pushing the thought along actually lends a kind of vividness, a kind of energy, a sense of shared purpose to whatever you’re doing in a learning situation. It’s quite remarkable.”

I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t directly addressed this topic in previously in a blog post. I spend 40+ hours a week in the University of California, Davis, teaching center, trying to get faculty to be, in my mentor Jon Wagner’s phrase, more thoughtful about teaching undergraduates. I also help graduate students be more effective instructors, and I’ve founded a professional development consultancy. In short: I “do” professional development. I also teach museum studies graduate students, inculcating them into the field via an introductory history and theory seminar and by overseeing their master’s theses. I have quite a bit of experience and expertise in what works and what doesn’t in professional development in academic and nonprofit contexts; I’ve just never synthesized those experiences in writing.

In this post, I’m going to look at some best practices in professional development as well as look at the learning communities that are sprouting organically or intentionally from various social media platforms.  By looking at these phenomena, I’m confident we can plot a more deliberate course–and yet one customized for each individual–for the professional development of our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.

Seven best practices in professional development

1. Professional development must be anchored to learning objectives.  Professional development is not about “training” or just being polished and well-informed.  A professional within the museum field is someone who can demonstrate knowledge of the field, yes, but also someone who is an experienced and open-minded learner, someone who

  • cultivates broad networks within and across institutions,
  • communicates well verbally or in writing,
  • is a savvy and generous collaborator,
  • exhibits an extraordinary degree of resourcefulness, and
  • balances critical and creative thinking.

The challenge comes when we try to specify the desired outcomes of these objectives, when we translate them into behavioral objectives on a professional development plan.  These behavioral objectives will vary depending on the individual’s interests, institutional needs, and the size, focus, and scope of the museum.

For example, specific and measurable learning objectives in a year-long professional development plan as stated by an emerging museum professional who is in education at a small textiles museum but who has an interest in moving into curation at some point in the future might include:

  • Determine which research emphases textiles are in demand (either at her museum or in the field more broadly), pick one, and read at least six books and exhibition catalogs, as well as multiple recent journal articles, on those textiles and the cultures producing them.
  • Contact relevant journal editors and volunteer to write reviews of recent books of interest.
  • Establish a collegial, and preferably a mentoring, relationship with an expert textile cleaner or restorer.
  • Start a blog that educates laypeople about specific textiles’ origins, significance, and/or conservation.  Curate a resource page of links to, and a bibliography of, materials on the subject.
  • Attend a museum conference that textiles specialists are likely to attend.
  • Join relevant associations or research groups in the museum field or textile industry.
  • Research undergraduate courses and/or graduate programs that offer hands-on experience with textiles.

2. Conversations are essential to professional development. If you’re working at a small museum, you may find yourself without many people to talk to about what you’re working on. So, for example, if you’re a museum educator who is looking to find more thoughtful methods to interpret a new exhibition, you should be talking to someone who has interpreted an exhibit in a way that intrigued or inspired you, and engaging with the teachers who will be bringing their students to the museum. These aren’t just sound practices in exhibition interpretation; they’re opportunities for you to learn more about what’s going on in other museums and what teachers feel their students aren’t able to get from a traditional classroom experience.

3. Effective professional development stimulates more creative and critical thinking
.  By critical thinking, I mean analytical thinking, the ability to break down a scenario or information into its constituent parts and immerse oneself in studying and critiquing the details. By creative thinking, I mean synthesizing information from diverse sources to create something new and interesting. That means, of course, that the best professional development opportunities offer specific case studies for participants to study and address as well as particular problems for them to solve.

4. Professional development allows individuals to create their own networks by introducing them to network nodes in their areas of interest.  A node is someone who is well-connected in their field or across disciplines or genres of museum participation. We all know people like this in our own workplaces, the people with 500 Facebook friends or 2,000 authentic followers on Twitter. These nodes draw on the expertise of their networks with a simple query via Twitter, blog, or e-mail, and connect individuals with one another.

5. The best professional development has both online and face-to-face components. Professional development is local and national and international. Museums should pool resources and collaborate with other institutions in their region for the mutual improvement of their staff members. We see this beginning to happen with the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership’s formation of the Balboa Park Learning Institute. Here’s a description of the project from the IMLS website:

The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a collaborative organization comprising 24 diverse museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, will establish the Balboa Park Learning Institute (BPLI).  Over the three year project period, BPLI will design a professional development program targeted to the 2,500 professional staff members, 500 trustees, and 7,000 volunteer staff members in the park’s museums.  As BPLI expands, the classes will be made available to museum colleagues and volunteers outside the park. BPLI will develop and present 66 workshops to build knowledge and skills in core museum competencies. Professional evaluation and assessment throughout the
project will prioritize learning needs and refine program delivery techniques. Three symposia will also be offered, bringing together
staff and volunteers from park institutions and beyond to learn about and discuss best practices in museum management and leadership.

Workshops and symposia should emphasize not just content coverage but conversations and connection. These connections and conversations can continue in an online forum, either one specifically set up to further the conversations started at the specific event or a more common tool like Twitter or Flickr.

The platform you choose is important. For example, in my experience, people aren’t going to contribute to a wiki set up for a one-time event, but they might visit a site that aggregates filtered content from their individual Twitter streams or blog feeds. (Select and promote a hashtag (e.g. #aam09) that people can use in their tweets or a tag to use in Flickr and on blogs.) If you have an ongoing project, a group blog or wiki (see, for example, the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy wiki) might be a better place for everyone to contribute. Or, you might partner with a forum like Museum Professionals to expand the learning that takes place at your professional development events beyond your institution(s) and encourage your participants to engage with professionals from outside your institution.

6. Professional development should be viral.
In addition to finding a space for conversations to take place via forums, photo streams, or microblogging, arange in advance with museum blogs to have your staff write about your professional development event in guest posts on others’ blogs. In this way diverse but informed voices can join the conversation.

Similarly, if you missed a conference–say, the American Association of Museums conference or Museums and the Web–be sure to search Twitter for the appropriate hashtag, for example the 2009 AAM hashtag, #aam09. In such conference microblogging streams, you’ll find a wealth of information about what’s going on at the conference, links to conference content, and discussions taking place among attendees–which you should feel free to join in, even if you aren’t at the conference. Many times I’ve been at conferences where the conversations were enriched by people “attending” remotely via Twitter.

7. The best professional development makes space for evaluation. Let’s look back at our hypothetical emerging museum textiles professional in #1.  How shall we go about evaluating the professional’s success in meeting her objectives?  Measuring collegiality, for example, is difficult.  This is a huge topic to address here, but you can expect to see it addressed in a future log post or in one of my museum professional development newsletters.

Ready for more professional development recommendations? Part II of this post, which will focus on social media, is coming soon.

Confluence, Context, and Community (Part II)

This post is the second in a series. Be sure to check out Part I for more explanation.

After September 11, there was much ado in the media about people not wanting to be out and about in public places and the resulting trend of “nesting” in one’s home by outfitting it with greater personal comforts. For many of us, one of these comforts was high-speed internet access, and with our faster browsing speeds, we discovered ever-greater numbers of virtual communities to which we might belong. One danger of this retreat to the Internet is the further withdrawal of individuals from their geographic, place-based communities. Through the establishment of her Centers for Community Digital Exploration (CCDE), Barbara Ganley seeks to use online social media to reinvigorate connections among people in their local communities.

One liability of this project is that it might be tempting to take the simpler route of establishing centers in communities according to a general blueprint, almost on a franchise model, where any outsider trained in the protocols of the CCDE’s operations and mission could go into a community, set up camp, and get the ball rolling. In reality, however, every community is different–in terms of cultural diversity, socioeconomic class, and even Internet access–so there is a danger similar to that faced by Glenn Wharton in his restoration of the statue of Kamehameha in the king’s hometown and by countless ethnographers: outsiders come in, stir up resentment because they don’t understand the community, and then the social experiment fails.

Barbara’s approach is different. Already she is negotiating a contract with a foundation interested in community planning. Barbara wants to persuade community members in four geographically diverse, small rural towns to tell stories both face to face and using various digital media. Through talking with them about the stories and through the sharing of these stories throughout the community–and perhaps through the establishment of CCDEs in each community–Barbara will help communities identify their core values and their specific desires for features of their communities. She will, in short, be turning story into action, which is, after all, the goal of so many contemporary museum exhibitions (and particularly science exhibitions that promote better living through, say, the embrace of local foodways, a reduced carbon footprint, or conscientious attention to and eradication of invasive plant species).

There’s a lot museums can learn, I think, from Barbara’s own conscientiousness about community, from her contemplative slow blogging, and from her fierce independence from models of educational practice that are less than democratic, that constrain individuals and communities, and that always privilege critical over creative thinking.

Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites, Part V

Note: This is part V of a series. Read part I, part II, part III, and part IV.

All right. . . Now that we’ve taken a whirlwind tour of some of the web’s most popular social networking sites, let’s take a moment, sit back, and enjoy a cup of a favorite beverage. (In the 100+ degree heat we’ve been experiencing here lately, I assure you that for me, it’s not coffee.) Let’s pretend I’m a good hostess and for those of you in cooler climes, I’ve put on a pot of coffee to, well, percolate.

As I said in part I of this series, museums’ participation in social networking sites should allow museum content to percolate, to recirculate and gain flavor as that content is passed among Internet users and, we hope, among visitors to museums, who then return to the Web to post their thoughts–and thus museum content persists. Which of the sites I’ve discussed are most successful in allowing for percolation?

1. Flickr: Flickr is a flexible site who usefulness to museums is limited only by museum professionals’ imagination. Best of all, museums’ Flickr projects may be driven by users rather than by museum staff.

2. Twitter: Twitter is labor-intensive in that it requires staff to post frequent “tweets.” But it doesn’t take a lot of staff time, and there’s no learning curve to speak of. And if you did take the time to plan out a marketing campaign, Twitter would allow for a good deal of creativity–and keep your institution in front of Twitter users. Imagine, for example, the tweets of a charismatic and quirky (or, even better, well-recognized) historical figure. Robert E. Lee posts from Gettysburg. Harriet Tubman from the Underground Railroad. (Who wouldn’t add Harriet Tubman as a friend?) The folks at Plimoth Plantation share their daily trials and joys, all in their particular dialect.

3. YouTube: YouTube is fun, and used properly–for contests, to hype exhibits, to add extend exhibit content and concepts–it could be a useful tool. Look around to see what other museums are doing–and then call their marketing departments to gauge their understanding of their YouTube campaigns’ success–before you invest in the hardware and staff training (or expensive video consultants’ fees) necessary to produce quality serialized video.

4. MySpace: Edgier than Facebook, MySpace can give museums an online presence among a younger crowd. But it’s not clear to me how MySpace will keep your institution’s name regularly in front of MySpace users.

5. Facebook: Facebook is a good way to connect with existing communities–for example, to pull together a group of docents–but it’s probably not the place where your museum is going to take off among the younger set.

6. LinkedIn: Little percolation here, but lots of possibility for back-room dealings among donors and muckety-mucks who, used strategically, might raise the profile of your museum. I’d use LinkedIn to open a dialogue with key players in museum- or technology-related fields.

So. . . the salon is open in the comments. What are your thoughts?

Additional Resources

There’s a ton of good writing and thinking out there about museums and the social web, including social teworking sites and mashups. Here are a few that deserve further mention, along with some quotes from each article or post.

There’s an International Museum Professionals group on Facebook. (h/t: fresh + new)

electronic museum’s thoughts on Facebook:

So….should museums be on Facebook? Yes, probably, if that presence does something interesting and motivating for users. Should museums be on Facebook just because it’s there? Obviously not.

Via the above post at electronic museum, we learned about a discussion on Facebook on the Museums and Computer Network listserv. Here’s an excerpt from a posting by Mike Ellis:

Maybe museums would be better off developing some simple Facebook apps –
for example to let users search (and use) their images. See Photobubbles
as one simple idea ( – if you let
users add captions and bubbles to a selection of images from your
collection you’d be immediately capturing a young and viral audience.Just creating a group “Museum of ****” probably wouldn’t cut it, except
with the same old audience you already had, or people you already work

At roots.lab, there’s an excellent post that claims to be “Social Web 101 for Nonprofits, Or, How the ‘Live’ Read/Write Web Can Help Your Organization Achieve Amazing Things.” An excerpt:

The social web is about:expressing identity. The social web allows individuals to share aspects of their lives with friends, family, or anyone at all, via easy-to-use online tools. It allows people, whatever their motives — and the motives of a MySpacer, a business blogger, a “wikipedian” and so forth are surely very different — to reveal a tangible sense of who they are and what they’re interested in.

relationships and trust. The social web makes it easy to find and start talking with others who share your interests, whose ideas you like, who make pictures, videos, writings that you find appealing. Enjoy a few positive interactions with this sympatico person you’ve found, and trust will begin to ensue. People develop authentic bonds with others through the social web.

user-driven websites. The social web makes the little guy important — anyone can post videos to YouTube, engage in back-and-forth with the authors of widely read blogs, or help write and monitor wikipedia. It also makes the online behavior of the little guy important — each click matters, when giving the thumbs-up to an article on Digg, watching YouTube videos, or even using Google, and figures into these sites’ ranking of content. The social web allows users to be active, empowered participants in the production and distribution of media, the word-of-mouth reputation of a business, the grassroots support for a political candidate, and other tides that course through our culture.

From ProjectsETC, information on user-generated content and cultural activity:

Allowing users to generate their own content can also benefit those with different social, cultural and digital experience or expectations. With hard-to-reach groups, learning how to use these resources can be as important as the end result. At a time when museums and galleries are challenged to demonstrate their social relevance and inclusiveness, such content can be particularly helpful.

Ideum posts on Flickr mashups and interestingness and Mashup of the day and other thoughts.

At Past Thinking, news of Historyscape, a heritage mashup.

At 24 Hour Museum, a post by Nick Poole, “Are Museums Doing it Right?” An excerpt:

The first market for museum websites is the direct user community. These are the people who regularly visit both museums and museum websites, and who make use of their online databases to carry out detailed research into the objects in their collections.The second, much larger group, is the indirect community of millions upon millions of people for whom the Internet is both an information resource and a kind of hyper-connected valet, able to cater to their whims, needs and wishes 24 hours a day.

So far, the majority of our services have been targeted at the former. But who are these people? Do they really exist outside a small number of academic research institutions? Ask the majority of people about the information they want from a museum and they are likely to want to know things like where it is, when it’s open, and whether there’s somewhere for them to have a picnic with the kids. So why is it that we have spent so much time and effort delivering complex searchable databases of catalogue records?

As always, feel free to share your own links to resources in the comments.

(Original percolator-lamp photo by Gary A. K., and used under a Creative Commons license)

Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites, Part III

Note: This is part III in a series. Read part I and part II.

When it comes to museums and social networking, Flickr is where the action is and should continue to be. Unlike Facebook and MySpace, where visitors can leave notes or comments, Flickr allows people to actively create the core content in what Flickr calls a “photostream” or “set.” And besides, people like pictures! Some people may feel intimidated by new media terms like blogs, Facebook, and MySpace (as well as our attempts to define them), but “photo sharing” is, in the industrialized world at least, just about universally understandable.

To say museumfolk have been thinking about Flickr is an understatement. We’re crazy about it, it seems, and there’s a ton of good writing about using Flickr. Accordingly, I’m going to create a handy-dandy link list here, and you can visit those articles and Flickr pages that most interest you, ‘K?

Meditations on Flickr

Bath Kanter reported in March 2007 about some recent projects by museums in Flickr.

Francesca of Making Conversation with Museums reports on Tate’s use of Flickr. You can read more about the How We Are Now: Photographing Britain project at the Tate’s website.

Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 gives us five reasons museums should use Flickr.

Jim Spadaccini writes about Flickr mashups as well as about one of Ideum’s Flickr-based projects.

Musematic asks whether museums might use Flickr to track potential donors’ collecting habits and points us to an article at Evil Mad Science Laboratories on organizing a collection in Flickr.

Random Connections reflects on the Pickens County Library System’s use of Flickr.

Stephen Downes wants to create a Canadian Art photostream on Flickr, but has been stymied by museums’ photography policies on regarding works in the public domain. e-artcasting reflects on a similar issue.

Ruth Graham writes at the New York Sun about museum visitors’ surreptitious snapshots, some of which end up on Flickr.

Museum projects on Flickr

You can find a ton of museum photo groups, some initiated by museums but most not, by doing a search for “museum” in Flickr groups.

East Lothian Museum shares artifacts on Flickr. An example:

Fisher girl’s costume from the East Lothian Museum collection on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The Brooklyn Museum has a Flickr page with a lot of public groups.

The Walker Art Center also has a number of photo sets as well as two groups.

Stajichlog alerts us to theMoMAProject[NYC] on Flickr. It’s a group photo pool with more than 17,000 photos.

National Museums Liverpool asked photographers to post photos to Flickr that replicate photos in the museum’s collection of Stewart Bale photographs.

Special mention needs to be made of e-artcasting, which is increasingly becoming a hotspot for discussions of, and projects related to, sociable technologies in museums. Their most recent project is Museums in Libya, in which lamusediffuse has harnessed Flickr users to create a map of museums in Libya, complete with photos. Other e-artcasting projects include the e-artcasting Flickr page, the e-artcasting Listible page, the e-artcasting wiki, and the e-artcasting page.

On to part IV. . . YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites, Part II

Note: This is part II of a series. Be sure to check out part I as well.


Museums appear to be colonizing MySpace at a much faster pace than they are participating in Facebook. It’s not surprising that MySpace is so popular with museum marketers, as it’s not only among the most-trafficked social networking sites, but also may be number six on the list of the world’s most popular English-language websites. MySpace also attracts the participation of a young audience that most museums would love to capture as lifelong patrons.

Museums have approached MySpace in a variety of ways. See, for example, the Henry Art Gallery on MySpace (598 friends) and the MOCA (LA) MySpace profile (9016 friends). The MOCA profile looks much more polished and approximates a more traditional website. The Henry profile embraces the cluttered, haphazard aesthetic of the typical MySpace page. The Brooklyn Museum (9181 friends) combines elements of both approaches.

Other institutions on MySpace (by no means a definitive list): Tate Gallery, the Tate Modern Shop, Ohio Historical Society”, American Museum of Natural History”, Walker Art Center, Andy Warhol Museum, Hammer Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Children’s Museum in Easton, MA, the Exploratorim, The New Jersey Historical Society, The Milwaukee Public Museum, American Folk Art Museum, Claifornia Historical Society, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Autry National Center/Institute for the Study of the American West, LACMA, Orange County Museum of Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. You can find even more museums in the friends page of lamusediffuse.

There’s also a small MySpace page called “I like museums,”, which seeks to make museum-going in the northeast UK more appealing to teens through cross-marketing efforts by a number of museums. Thus far it has fewer than 40 friends, but the comments section could prove to be an interesting place for fans to rave about their favorite museum and exhibits–as seems to already be happening, albeit in a very small way.

As a field, we need more research on how museums define and measure a successful MySpace presence.

MySpace vs. Facebook

Danah Boyd recently shared some reflections on the class differences between the typical Facebook and MySpace users. Her observations include these:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

If Boyd is correct in her observations–and as you can see from the comments on this blog post a lot of people think she’s on to something–institutions need to be thinking about which venue is a more appropriate place to connect with constituents. Are you looking to connect with Facebook’s more conventionally/traditionally cultured/educated “hegemonic” users or MySpace’s “subaltern” participants? (I’m borrowing Boyd’s terminology here.)

As Boyd’s commenters discuss, Facebook allows for more controlled, tighter-knit connections. Users can specify how and when they met each of their Facebook friends, and it appears (from my observations anyway) that Facebook replicates offline patterns of friendship and acquaintance. MySpace, on the other hand, provides a less tightly networked approach, with hundreds, if not thousands, of complete strangers befriending the same user.

Why not use both Facebook and MySpace?

Don’t be fooled into thinking social networking sites take the guesswork out of outreach.

Jim Spadaccini of Ideum offers some answers:

There are some serious challenges for those institutions brave enough enter these spaces. First of all there are serious identity issues, ads (some of which might be considered inappropriate), and the issue of resources in maintaining multiple web identities. The fact that many of these sites may be short-lived is also a concern. In looking beyond the more established spaces, how much time would you want to invest in start-up social networking site?There are copyright issues: who owns the content that is posted on these sites? Finally, there is the persistent issue of measuring success. I think the museum field does a fairly lousy job of measuring the impact of our various websites and online exhibits. How do we measure the success of a presence in Flickr, YouTube, or MySpace?

Bingo. . . As I said above, we don’t as a field have clear metrics as to whether the investment of staff time into maintaining such virtual profiles pays off in visits, contributions, gift store purchases, and whatever else it is institutions desire.

Onto part III. . . Flickr.

(Vintage coffee maker ad courtesy of Gabe Angel, and used under a Creative Commons license.)

Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites

(Note: This post is part I of a series.)

Percolating. That’s what numberless posts on museums and social networking sites have been doing in the mind of this particular blog curator. The addled perfectionist in me wanted to create an entire series of posts looking at individual instances of museums using social networking sites well or ill.

Instead, I’m going to bring together a lot of that material into this One Big Post.

And so: percolations.

Wikipedia explains that “Percolation is properly a type of drip-brew process in which steam pressure recirculates hot water for multiple brewing passes. In percolation, water moves passively (percolates) down through the coffee due to gravity and is recirculated.”

And isn’t that, in the end, what we want museum content–in the museum and online–to do? To brew, to make several passes, to recirculate because it’s hot hot hot?

That’s what the blogosphere does well, albeit in the museum blogosphere largely among professionals. The social networking sites also accomplish this percolation to some extent, I think–a bit less well than the blogosphere might–but the advantage these sites have is their sheer numbers of users. If museums approach these sites thoughtfully and courageously, museum “content”–by which I mean such information as construction updates, new exhibition announcements, mashup applications that draw on museum collections, and more–can circulate through key constituencies on these sites.

Many people who climb Everest because it’s a popular challenge end up dead. Similarly, museums that venture haphazardly into the wilderness of social networking sites may end up looking stiff and frozen. Institutions need to enter these spaces with firm answers to these questions:

  • What audience(s) are we trying to reach, and why?
  • What information do we want to convey to these people?
  • What actions do we want them to take?
  • Demographically, where do these constituents congregate online?
  • Do these virtual spaces provide the tools that will allow us to circulate our message?
  • Do the sites then provide ways for users to circulate our message without too much futher effort from us–that is, do the sites allow for percolation, or will our message merely appear for a moment and then pass quickly from users’ radar?

I think, used well and targeted toward niche audiences, many social networking sites will allow museums to meet their goals.

Don’t let your institution become lured into social networking sites just because they’re new! beautiful! and modern!

Let’s take a look at some of the more popular English-language sites:


Facebook began as a site for college students, and required a .edu e-mail address for registration. Facebook has since opened itself up to all comers and, more recently, shared its API so that people could tweak existing applications (or develop new ones) to help Facebook users share content.

I think the best feature of Facebook, as far as museums are concerned, is the news feed. Every time you update your profile with a sentence about what you are doing, all of your “friends” receive the update on their Facebook home pages.

You can also start a group dedicated to your institution. Groups built around institutions work a little bit differently, allowing you to provide news updates. But, based on my experience on Facebook, there doesn’t seem to be a way for groups to feed their updates into individual users’ news feeds. Instead, users learn when their friends join or leave groups. In fact, this feed is the primary way I learn about new or existing groups–my friends join them and I check them out. I’d feel more confident about the usefulness of groups in Facebook if I received updates about them in my news feed.

Here’s a sample group on Facebook, the Public Library of Science (PLoS):

Members of the group can exchange messages, but in order to see these messages, members must visit the group page–the messages aren’t fed onto individual users’ home pages. And unless your group makes very clear what action you want users to take, you may get questions like this one posted at PLoS:

While it’s terrific that group members want to support the project, users shouldn’t have to ask such questions. And Facebook, in my opinion, doesn’t make it particularly easy for institutions to share their messages or to recruit members to their groups.

A much more effective way to put your institution in front of its constituents is to create an account for an especially wired and charismatic member of your staff (someone who would, of course, appeal to your target demographic) who will befriend users and keep them updated on your museum’s activities through pithy news updates, e.g. for a maritime museum, “Lucy is bound to her chair by old sailors’ knots:” with a TinyURL link to relevant content. The downside? I believe users will have to copy and paste the TinyURL (or whatever other short link you generate) into their browsers–it won’t be a live link, and the updates form won’t accept HTML tags for links.

Onto part II. . . MySpace.

(Vintage percolator advertisement courtesy of Gabe Angel, and used under a Creative Commons license)