By Anna Darron
While the use of social media in larger museums is often relegated to marketing or communications departments, those of us who work in smaller museums may grapple with the question of whose responsibility the maintenance of our online presence should fall to – or perhaps whether or not it is even worth the trouble.
Earlier this year I took on the role of Learning and Events Officer at the Hunterian Museum, and being a huge proponent of the use of social media for public engagement, eagerly took on the role of managing the Hunterian’s Facebook profile.
Since then, I have actively focused on trialling new ways of making the Hunterian Museum’s online presence more visitor-oriented. In addition to communicating information about our collections, exhibitions and events to our followers, it was my intention to make our Facebook page a place that our audiences would feel comfortable communicating with us.
My experience has been extremely positive, and since I assumed this role in January, our Facebook following has risen from around 1,600 to over 4,400, and growing. I hope that my experience may help to encourage social-media sceptics to see how maintaining a social media presence can be a fun, informal, and increasingly essential way to engage with current and potential museum audiences.
Tuning in to visitors
By investigating other institutions’ methods of engaging with their online audiences, the most frequently employed tactic I observed was the posing of open ended questions that followers could reply to in the comments section (What’s your favourite object from x exhibition? What does x remind you of?). Often these questions seem rhetorical, for even when they do elicit a flurry of responses, it is unclear as to how the comments are then carried forward by the institution – and the conversation ends.
Rather than attempting to instigate these sorts of exchanges, my approach has been to listen to what our audiences are already saying online unprompted. Tapping into these conversations is easily done with a quick search on Twitter, Facebook, Google, or opinion sites such as Trip Advisor.
Earlier this year I had observed many visitors drawing in our galleries – and a quick search on Twitter revealed that just as I had suspected, this is one of the main ways that people engage with our collections.
I felt that it was important that we acknowledge some of the wonderful works that our collections inspire, and let visitors know that we see, appreciate and value their work. Since there is no photography permitted within our museum, I thought this might also be an effective way of sharing images of our collections with a wider audience.
There has long been a sign in our MacRae Room to Discover inviting visitors of all ages to share their artwork with us; promising to display any works left behind on a bulletin board display. I decided to expand on this idea by creating a digital display board, uploading these sketches in an album on Facebook called “Your Artwork”.
This proved to be very popular; we had a surge of comments and ‘likes’ from visitors, many of whom also shared the album with their friends on their own pages.
Inspired by the responses from visitors, I added a new worksheet called “What’s in that Jar” to our family friendly resources which would encourage more of our younger visitors to explore the collection through drawing. The number of responses surprised us, and I felt they deserved their own Facebook album as well:
These digital collections of drawings may seem a trivial bit of fun – but in fact they have proven to be one of our best evaluation tools. From these sketches we can tell what visitors are looking at, what they are fascinated by, and what they may want to know more about.
We can tell that contrary to some opinions, many young children are in fact comfortable with the collections of anatomical specimens. The detail on many of these drawings indicates that visitors of all ages have spent time carefully observing and studying the specimens, attempting to understand how the forms fit together. These observations re-affirm our decision to continue programming family half-term events, enabling children that do feel comfortable among the anatomical specimens that make up our collection to explore it further.
Although the Facebook albums of visitor artworks were successful, I had to upload and post the through the museum’s account on the visitor’s behalf, and was aiming to create a more interactive forum which would allow visitors to share their work with us directly. I decided to experiment with Tumblr, a user friendly and very visual micro blogging platform.
I created www.hunterianmuseum.tumblr.com, and enabled features which would allow people to submit their drawings to a dedicated online gallery of visitor artwork (subject to our approval). This would also allow us to re-blog any Hunterian Museum related images already posted within the Tumblr community on our own page.
I had no expectations for the site, nor was I sure whether visitors would even take notice. Since its set up in early 2013, we have had over 90 visitor submissions and over 100 followers on the site. By linking the Tumblr feed to our Facebook page, we are able to share the images with our Facebook followers as well.
It really has proven to be a fantastic way to capture the creativity of our audience, and to demonstrate that we recognise and value their work. It is a brilliant way to share our collection as seen through our visitors’ eyes.
We have had a great experience using social media at the Hunterian Museum, and would encourage all museums regardless of size to take the leap! Here are some tips for success that we have learned along the way:
- Your audiences will search for you on social media. Be sure you have a presence on at least one platform to avoid appearing out-dated and missing an opportunity to reach a growing audience of internet and social media users.
- Expect different things from different platforms. Different social media platforms are useful for different purposes. We have found Facebook an ideal way to market the museum and its events – as well as a establishing a dialogue with our audiences at a slow pace. We have also chosen to use Tumblr, as it provides a simple way of allowing visitors to submit content onto a public online gallery which we can easily moderate. Although we are not able to have a Twitter account at this time, many museums do find it an effective and fast paced marketing and engagement tool. There are of course many other social media platforms available – it is worth considering what you want from your social media platform, and experimenting with different options available.
- Think about capacity. This can be an issue for small museums where one person is often responsible for all the posting. What will happen when that person is away? Some platforms (such as Facebook) don’t need to be constantly monitored, as long as they are updated periodically. Others, such as Twitter, move at a much faster pace and require more attention on a regular basis to maintain a following. Factor this in when deciding which platforms are right for you.
- Don’t undervalue the aesthetics of you page. Whatever social media platform you do choose, be sure to set it up completely – fill in all the information in the ‘about’ section, and choose a profile picture and header that are eye-catching, but that also reflect the character and tone of your institution. This is the first impression online visitors get of your museum.
- When posting, think about what your visitors want to know – not just what you want them to hear.
- Posts with images get noticed, text based posts often get overlooked. Include images whenever you can – this also makes your page look more interesting.
- Social media is meant to be social. Interact with your visitors: answer their questions, respond to their comments, and use social media to show off your visitors, not just your collection.
- And remember – It’s supposed to be fun!
Anna Darron, Learning & Events Officer Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons. @adarron www.annadarron.com