Can Museums Survive in a YouTube World?

August 13, 2007

Dave Shirlaw recently posted the following article on the MARHST-L list. It’s an interesting comment about the impact of the Internet on museums. Our comments follow.


NEW YORK, Aug. 9 /PRNewswire/ — That’s not simply a rhetorical
question. With diminished government funding, dwindling audiences and a
tenuous connection to the next generation of patrons, museums are facing
a challenging 21st Century. To attract new audiences, museums have
mounted blockbuster exhibitions, enlisted starchitects to build
expensive additions/expansions and introduced hip evening events with
DJs and cocktails.

But the real problem may well be the museum experience itself. And for
many younger targets — particularly the under-30s who grew up with the
instant gratification of the Web — it remains as didactic and passive
as it has been since the 19th century.

Ed Schlossberg, founder of ESI Design, strongly believes that museums
need to invite visitors and other constituents to actively participate
in the experience if they want to reclaim their relevance. Schlossberg
sees the change from passive to active participant as the key to
understanding how to make an experience — cultural or otherwise —
current and relevant.

Schlossberg recommends the following initiatives to attract and engage
new audiences:

— Introduce new communication tools — From cell phones and PDAs, to
blogs and wikis, communication tools offer opportunities to create
connections with new audiences. The Walker Art Museum and The Steve
Museum project are examples of institutions using communications tools
in a positive way.
— Empower the audience to customize the experience — Online collections
are a great starting point for personalization programs. The Getty
offers digital “bookmarks” that enable visitors to collect information
about items of interest and print customized gallery tours of the
Getty Center and the Getty Villa prior to their visit.
— Create holistic ties to the community — Create programs — after
school programs, mobile exhibits, walking tours — that extend the
experience outside museum walls and nurture roots in the community.
— Segment your audience — Reach new audiences by developing programs
for specific segments — kids, teens, adults, seniors, experts — and
deliver targeted content when they arrive. The Museum of Modern Art in
New York is collaborating with teens to develop programming and
interpretation specifically for high school students.
— Train audiences for tomorrow — Museums are no longer professional
training grounds for connoisseurs as they were in the 19th Century.
Today, audiences need to be trained to be art appreciators and
enthusiasts and given tools that can help them use art as a lens
through which to explore the world, and then share what they’ve
learned with others.



Our organization is approaching this from the other direction. We’re an online museum that feels that to survive we must branch out into the physical world. Rather than compete with bricks and mortar museums or start our own we want to embrace existing groups and leverage our strengths with theirs. We’re promoting the concept of the distributed museum wherein we help create physical exhibits in other museums so that our physical presence is distributed around the world. In this way we help attract visitors to the physical exhibit and those who can’t travel there to our online version.

I think that part of the issue is that many museums see themselves as separate from the Internet rather than it being an extension of their current operations, in other words something they’re forced to acknowledge and interact with rather than it becoming a core part of their mission. Schlossberg’s first two suggestions are really the ones that address this most directly. By using the Internet as a two way communication empowerment device rather than just as another advertising outlet you can actively engage the public and make them a part of the museum operation. Other websites are experimenting with tools that allow the public to help build collections online. Images and oral histories such as the September 11th digital archive (http://911digitalarchive.org/) not only gather data otherwise not easily accessible to researchers but might also foster a sense of ownership by the public as well as encourage visitation and donations.

No matter which direction you approach it from there are opportunities here.

Kurt Knoerl
The Museum of Underwater Archaeology


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