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.