Why I think small museums should have a web presence

I could have titled this post ‘why I think small museums should be online’ but there is increasingly a big difference between having a web presence and being online. These terms used to be pretty much interchangeable but just being there is not the same as having a presence . I see it in the student-teachers I teach: you can stand in a room of teenagers all you like but unless you assert your presence you aren’t going to get any respect, acknowledgement, or often even a glance.

So, a web presence is inserting yourself – your museum – into the conversations happening online everyday about museums, old stuff, science, the past, conservation, interesting facts and more that is relevant to the work of museums. And it is a conversation that is happening. Long gone are the days of static websites that provided opening hours and an address. That way of doing things is ‘being online’ and if your museum is already doing that you are half way there, but only half way.

I’m not going to address the usual technical issues that come up in response to all this stuff because I think it is more important to tell you why small museums should have a web presence. The ‘how’ is a process that can be stepped through, but no one will be interested unless they know why they are doing it.

When I was at the Museums Australia national conference this year I observed, in the sessions I went to, a growing excitement about the possibilities of technology and museum interpretation, learning and management. It sort of built into a crescendo that people got very excited about. But then, as is usually the case (and should be the case), people started to get critical about this stuff. Some needed questions were asked: ‘how are we supposed to do this with no money?’, ‘where do I find the time?’, ‘we haven’t even digitaized our photos yet – how are we supposed to think about this before doing that?’, and most importantly ‘won’t we just turn into the same thing as everything else if we do this – what is our point of difference?’.

I don’t remember who brought up the ‘point of difference’ idea first but I thought it was a very important one. It really stopped me in my tracks – if museums’ point of difference is objects (as was suggested at the time) then how important is all this technology/online stuff? If museums need to use surprise – in the sense that what you find in museums are surprisingly interesting objects – to get attention (as was also suggested) then wouldn’t a totally tech-free museum surprise the pants off visitors!?

Because I love working with and thinking about technology I really didn’t like these thoughts. Perhaps my ideas about the coolness of the future of museums wasn’t really what museums needed or wanted.

But then I remembered the other part about museums that dovetails so neatly into technology/internet it is like they were made for each other. The conversations. These conversations, traditionally had while standing in the museum, can be banal, fascinating, surprising and everything in between but they are the way we make sense of our world and the way we connect to the people around us. Often, with people we just happen to be standing near and sharing the experience of seeing something. Lynda Kelly, at the national conference, told us about an audience research moment when she watched two teenage boys stand in front of a tribal mask (I think) talking for ages . She got very excited about hearing the tape of what they were saying. When she listened to it they were talking about how they’d have a tribal theme for an upcoming party. I thought this was great! It doesn’t matter what they were talking about, that they didn’t take in the finer points of the object, they were connecting to it; bringing it into their world (rather than stepping into its world). And this is a completely legitimate response.

Yes, museums’ point of difference are objects but it is really the way these objects intersect with people’s lives that is important. The object itself has only the meanings we understand it to have (be them very, very important scientifically or historically or deeply individually personal). Museums are the custodians of the objects that make these connections possible. And if you could make these conversations easier to have, if you could expand the people able to have the conversations, if you could include yourself in the conversations, wouldn’t you want to?

So, why do small museums have to have a web presence? Because the audience is both in your museum and ‘out there’. Because the connections that are possible are both physical and digital. Because why would you choose to limit access to your collection if you can open it for everyone? Because – and this is the kicker – the connections between your collection and another small museum’s collection on the other side of the world are so exciting, challenging and useful that you are missing out on some of the best conversations and connections possible (and this really is the point of difference for small museums – but that’s a whole other post!).

Having a web presence means being part of the conversations. It means a dynamic, flexible website with changing content. It means getting onto Twitter and Facebook and whatever comes next. It means making connections with other small museums. It means collaborating with them. It means that your work – especially the work of volunteers who do it because they love it – can be shared in ways you can’t even begin to imagine if you aren’t out there in it.

And how do you get started on all this? You just jump in. Go on!

The image is a collage of (L) a photo I took at Smirk’s Heritage Site and (R) an image from Józef Szalay Museum of the Pieniny Mountains in Szczawnica, Poland.

7 Responses to “Why I think small museums should have a web presence”
  1. Excellent post! I would like to add to your discussion and say that by helping to facilitate these connections, our museums, libraries and archives highlight and build communities.

    Last night, I began running a new workshop with a colleague that we call “A Life in Context: Telling Your Story” and I think it ties into your point beautifully. We discuss how a personal object is a jumping off point for thinking about who you are, what is important to you, and what is important to your communities. We discuss why people outside your family might have an interest in your object and story and what memory repositories can do to help you share (communicate) personal history and build connections.

    Museums have a unique opportunity at this time to connect with people, to show them how they are part of history and how their stories are important. I think all cultural heritage professionals are becoming more and more aware of the value of collaborating with our audiences to build better collections and to enhance access to materials. While we each as individuals have personal stories and personal history, cultural heritage institutions connect those stories and highlight our shared past. Such repositories should want to ensure that patrons understand that function and that they see our institutions as a vital part of their communities. As our patrons increasingly use computers in their daily lives, a web presence is imperative to help facilitate our role as safekeepers of objects and promoters of community conversations.

    • Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for the comment – you are so right that building communities is part of this. If you aren’t doing that then you are talking to yourself!

      I love the idea of your workshop – sounds like people would get some really rewarding layers of ideas/meanings/stories out of the approach. There are a few projects I’m working on at the moment that are amazingly similar. I run digital storytelling workshops for local communities which is collaborative community building and am also working on developing a temporary museum idea that allows people to donate the digital version of an object and their story which is then collected by the community.

      It’s really exciting to be working in this area!


  2. Paul Rowe says:

    Hi Jen,
    Our company organised some independent focus groups with small museum in New Zealand in the lead-up to our development of NZMuseums (which is managed by staff at the national museum, Te Papa). One thread which came through strongly in the focus groups was that small museums often don’t have the access to the same range of IT expertise. Setting up a good web presence can involve some complex steps (especially for web sites), so it’s no wonder that many small museums don’t have a great presence.

    We’ve built the world’s first hosted museum collection management system, eHive, to try and simplify the management of the software for a small museum and to reduce the number of steps to establishing a web presence. We already have quite a few museums in Australia using the system (as well as in NZ, USA and UK). A typical example in Australia is the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame. You can see their collection on eHive here: http://ehive.com/account/3492

    As you say, there are a lot more tools available now and small museums can now much more easily jump into this. It could be just updates about what the museum is doing through a Facebook or Twitter account, regular posted images related to the museum on Flickr account, or a basic website. Hosted websites are getting simpler to build as well, with WordPress being one established example with a simple process for creating and styling a hosted site.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the comment – it sums up nicely the technical issues faced by small museums. Yes it is all becoming easier, but support is still required.

      I wrote this post because anecdotally it seemed (to me) that it was all very well to explain how easy it is, or for that fact, to make it easier (and I do like eHive!), many small museums don’t understand why they should be thinking about these things. It is very difficult to get people excited about the technology if they can’t understand ‘why’ they should care in the first place.

      I’m planning on doing a follow up post on the tech stuff. I’d love to be able to contact you for some (attributed) information.


  3. schwenkfelder says:

    Your post is perfect timing as I’m having a meeting today with a member from a newly formed local historical organization that does not have a website at this time but is looking to establish/develop a web presence. I’ll be sharing this with them.
    At the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center we have the same problems you’ve highlighted in your post and repeated in the comments- although we’re on most major social networks, we have a blog, but our web platform is in need of change and what we choose to put out there of our collection is limited at best. The most difficult thing I find is being aware of what’s out there to take advantage of once your online goals are established. Of course establishing goals and benchmarks are other issues…
    I look forward to reading your follow up post! -Rebecca

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  1. […] this is a spectacular point. Museums should (and some do) build traps with their websites and online presence. Why leave the best bits for those who you get to walk in the door? Perhaps by giving away the best […]

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