Community Engagement For Museums

In The Age Of The Digital Mess

Carl Bloch, In a Roman Osteria, 1866

Making one’s resources available online changes much, but not everything. As a museum geek and a Community Builder by profession I have over time gathered a few insights into digital community engagement strategies. They are inspired by, but not limited to the SMK Open Project I am observing closely.


I like to think that working on user engagement is like hosting an enjoyable party. You know your guests and you plan it with them in mind. There is a rough plan to the evening and an implicit expectation that people want to come. No matter the quality of the food and drinks, things happen and someone can end up upset. What is more, your guests might drive the party somewhere you would not expect…

False Starts

As an anthropologist turned geek, I have expected that digitising data would change the world, let alone museums and the way people look at art. In 2011 Michael Peter Edson wrote in the preface to the SMK’s publication Sharing is Caring “Boom. The future is here” and what he meant was that the GLAM sector was falling behind. The way I read it implied that museums would, finally, catch up with the world and join the revolution. Today I feel that these expectations (and the revolution itself) were a bit exaggerated.

First of all, for many cultural institutions, the heritage objects they store are a means to an end, e.g. promoting public understanding of art (Tate, UK), linking individuals with art and history (the Rijksmuseum, Netherlands), archiving and storing data about a city (the Museum of Warsaw, Poland) or igniting shared experiences and unexpected connections (the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the US). In the broader sense, technology is there not to change what museums do, just how.

Secondly, the process of digitising cultural heritage and making it available is complex and lengthy. It is just about now that many notable institutions such as the MET, the Barnes Foundation Collection or the SMK fully “open up” in the sense that their collections are easily findable and up for grabs in high resolutions (also via API). Change takes time and the feeling of being a couple of years late doesn’t make any debut very spectacular.

First Things First: Integrity

My reason for citing museums’ missions is I find it very useful to know who you want to be. Your mission is there to guide you. When in doubt, it is a good practice to check in and embrace your identity. Studies show that people actually expect museums to recommend certain behaviours or ways for the general public to support their causes and missions.

In other words: it is to your advantage not only to have an opinion, but also share it. It is hard to please everyone and establishing a clear identity can help.
Elin Kleopatra Danielson-Gambogi, After Breakfast (1890) turned into a meme

No One Size Fits All

An inseperable part of who you are is a relationship you have with your audience. Who are they? What are they looking for? What are you there to provide? Your choices very much depend on the context, namely: your current position and resources available. Where are you failing and where are you successful? A simple SWOT analysis can provide you with insights on how to move forward.

To give you an example of how diverse engagement strategies can be, let’s compare the small but famous Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and the National Museum of the Netherlands in Europe. Nina Simone is successfully building her community through renting the Museum’s venue out to the local crowd. The events are branded “Community Rentals” and their attendees include local poets, salsa fans and the DIY enthusiasts. Rijksmuseum, the 19th most visited art museum in the world (as of 2014) on the other hand, has recently printed out their Collection’s highlights on the airport baggage collection belts. It’s a great way to promote Dutch national culture to the international tourists landing in Amsterdam.

Curate Your Online Presence

It is a good practice to make your online strategy align with everything else you choose to do. What I want to say is that you might not need a new website, Facebook page, Medium, Twitter, Instagram and Snap accounts. Your choices depend on who you want to reach, what is your message and how much manpower you have on your disposal. Not every museum can hire a full-time social media manager and even then, one can’t do it all.

What helps your visibility is to have a customised strategy and create channel-specific content. By “channel-specific” I mean especially curated in terms of sizes, formats and language. Human perception while consuming content in social media differs from channel to channel. Your content will include images and videos not to mention well written articles if you want to have a blog. It’s important to be able to translate a museum’s experience into smaller digital pieces, but these pieces still need to be attractive and attention-grabbing.

Another useful exercise might be to ask your-muesum-self a couple of questions: why are people looking you up online? what would you like to change in their experience? Try to step into your (online) visitors’ shoes. One obvious thing they might be looking for is the collection. If they are looking for a particular piece, they might simply… google it. Your job as a museum might be to make sure what comes up in the search is the corresponding piece with an adequate description. Beware of the Yellow Milkmaid Syndrome. If you don’t take owenrship over curating the life of your collection online, the invisible hand of the internet will. Creating and updating Wikipedia pages pose some challenges, but could beyond starting place. Another useful tip is to make sure your location and opening hours on Facebook and Google Maps are up to date.

Alessandro Casolani, Young Women Contemplating a Skull (1540–1623)turned into a meme

Many thought that given the global (we also used to consider it democratic) nature of the internet, it will only become easier to attract the attention of countless users. Personal data leaks or misuse, lack of proper regulations, easily spread misinformation and aggressive advertising are just a few threats you need to keep in mind when dealing with the online. If you are an organisation that collects private and personal data, I recommend to do it responsibly. I found it very helpful to consult the engine room materials.

Go Where Your Audience Is

There are a few things to museums’ advantage in the post-truth era. One of them is the socially acclaimed value of their “product” and the proven ability to facilitate shared experiences. The other one is that Museums are perceived as highly credible sources of information and are more trusted than the daily newspapers. Otherwise, the GLAM sector is competing for people’s attention just as everyone else does.

Coming back to the long overdue revolution: the key to being online is to be findable, a job uneasy in the era of the great web monopolies. When writing, check the Search Engine Optimisation of your posts, consider using Adwords, and in case of Facebook definitely boost your posts. A study from Edgerank Checker found that the organic reach for the average Facebook Page is estimated at 6,5%. Your content might be therefore only visible to a few precent of the people who already like your page.

What I consider important is to make use of trends and existing interests and treat them as a leverage. How about targeting pre-existing communities that express interest in learning about and using cultural resources. Design experiences where people’s activities overlap with your offer. Defining this sweet spot explains why Wikimedia communities work so well with GLAM. This is also why museums invest in engaging with creative professionals. The prime examples are Rijsskstudio Awards and the recent SMK’s Jewelry Contest.

The sweet spots work in the real world, but also online. Check your hashtags and make your memes. See what others talk about and join their conversation. It doesn’t have to drive you, but might come up handy and attract attention of those, who would otherwise miss your message.

Measure, But Don’t Overmeasure

The result of practically every community management activity can be measured with numbers — they help obtain precise, actionable insights. However, be careful to avoid the McNamara Fallacy and make sure to measure what is important and don’t just make important what you can measure. Numbers are misleading. It is definitely easier to claim impact when you have a substantial audience but a high clickbait score doesn’t need to mean you achieved what you intended.

In addition to the metrics commonly used by Web advertisers — page views, unique visitors, and so on — some outlets consider “attention minutes,” a variable that measures the amount of time that readers spend with an article or view. Try to understand what are your most important KPIs and learn about what different metrics can actually tell you.

As a museum you might want to consider measuring and communicating your social impact (and not just the number of visits). Good news are, for the past year Europeana has been working the guidelines which might help. One of another efforts in progress is Creative Common’s idea to define the CC standards that GLAM institutions and projects could be measured against. There is a plethora of data to be collected and numbers we can juggle with. They hold a promise of complex realms becoming understandable and comparable. This is not always true. My experience shows that it is important to keep your KPIs simple and to the point. The more specific your findings, the easier it will be to spin them off to your communications advantage.


Same Old, Same Old

Computing technologies allow us to process information way faster and often give us an illusion that things will happen easily and immediately, with one click. However, the tempo of technical processes is not the same as the one of social and cultural change. Essentially, community engagement online and offline are the same thing. Yes, there are different languages to them, different tools. But unfortunately, no magic. I would recommend being sceptical of technology inspired placebo solutions (and watching the video embedded above). “Focusing just on technology or just on innovation actually prefers transformation”. There is no way around learning, strategising, testing and facing the socio-economics that museums operate within.

To go back to the dinner metaphor from the introduction: real community engagement (like friendship) takes time and nurturing, online and offline alike.