Not getting together? Museums and Social Networking in the Midlands

On February 4th 2009, at The Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry,  I co-ordinated a Renaissance West Midlands event all about museums and social networking. Part of a wider research project, the successful day opened out some discussions about how museums take part in our socialised, digital society. Here is an introductory post about the project, to be followed by more posts about the event itself.

It’s quite unsettling how I assume the world spins the same way as me; and for a journalist and culture sector consultant, not actually that good either. I’d assumed that other people in museums and galleries also used Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. We all use eBay, Amazon and stuff like online banking don’t we? We all muck about with RSS feeds and know our way round Google maps and things that help extend our horizons.

Well, actually, no we don’t, of course. In a user-centric world (which means, in plain English, real life) there’s lots of people who don’t know about newsfeeds, web 3.0 and Creative Commons.  And in fact, if you go round the corner to your local (regional English) museum and ask them if they have an online collection that is commentable by members of the public they’d look at you like you’re an alien.

The reality is that in our local backyard, many museums are run by volunteers. The venues themselves are often only just joining the web revolution, with perhaps, at most, a simple brochure website and an email account that’s checked less frequently than it could be. And one pc in the corner of the room.

In spite of ten + years of lottery-funded largesse that has successfully grown IT for the library sector and built the People’s Network Discovery Service, there’s not been much digital development in small local museums. As the editor (until August 2008 ) of the 24 Hour Museum since 2001, I had lots of contact with some smashing people all over the uk doing a great job running tiny museums, telling us their stories about great discoveries, plucky tales of resourcefulness and occasionally, funding battles for survival.

Clearly – there were, and still are, some splendid tales to tell about UK history and heritage. And yet, there seems to be an increasing gap between those who have digital tools to tell their stories, and those who don’t. Ironically, while post-1997 Labour cultural policy has been all about meeting the needs of users and politically-inspired audience targets for cultural creators, a major group of disenfranchised and under-represented people has emerged.

This group is us – people who make the exhibitions, curate collections, accession the objects, paint the pictures, run the loan box schemes. Curriculum Online passed us by. Culture Online flew over our heads. Lottery money from nof-Digi did come our way to a certain degree. But by and large, right now, there’s an underclass of cultural workers in museums and galleries, libraries and archives, across the whole country, who don’t have access to the means to make online content about our own work, our collections, our lectures or our events.

The recent debacle of the Cultural Olympiad, which saw major promises being made on the behalf of the museum and gallery sector, with no funding stream whatever, only re-inforces this thesis.

While it might seem negative to make these points, I’m merely setting the scene. There are now many, many, well tried and simple means to get presence online. As 2008 closed WordPress, the most popular, free and simple blogging software out there, is gradually morphing from a calendar-based blog tool into a versatile and customisable platform for all sort of publishing tasks.

And, while some in museums find a website of any sort unattainable, others are using free and well connected social networking systems like Facebook, Flickr and MySpace. They are doing this because sites like these are free, vastly popular, and easy to maintain.

So are there lessons we can learn from culture sector users of digital platforms like Facebook and Flickr? Are they the answer to the current lack of infrastructure, support and mentoring, resources and know-how that we are confronted with? What challenges to our traditional ways of working and values do social networks bring?

To begin examining some of the issues at ground level, Renaissance West Midlands commissioned me to carry out a programme of research centred on an event pulling together people from museums in the Midlands.  The event, held at The Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry on February 4th, 2009,  explored some of the issues that we were aware of, and opened out some more that need further enquiry.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sketching in issues discovered, resources contributed by participants at the event, and new directions for further work. A set of pages, links and other resources will be put together on the Renaissance West Midlands website as a record of what come out in our work. In the meantime, I’ll be pulling it out and posting it up on this site to keep the pot boiling.

Further outputs are likely, and may include suggested templates for Facebook use, ideas for advocacy within your museum to help win over unbelievers, and a systematic approach to local government network difficulties.

Thanks to everyone who has participated so far – and welcome ot anyone who wants to join in and help! There’s a Google Group (museums_midlands_network) to house our conversations and ideas, but of course, feel free to comment right down there – below these words.

Next report – the event itself at The Herbert Art Gallery


About Jon Pratty

Human - for now
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One Response to Not getting together? Museums and Social Networking in the Midlands

  1. Thank you for this post. Very Interesting.

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