Museums face the challenge of the global audience

The conference Museums and the Web, which we have talked about on a number of occasions, is a privileged platform on which to discuss the use of the Internet and the new technologies in publicizing museums and their collections. The Museu Picasso took part in the conference for the first time in 2008, when we presented our new website, and since 2009 we have had a place on the International Program Committee. Thanks to this connection, we recently welcomed to the Museum two of the conference directors, David Bearman and Jennifer Trant, who came to give a talk on ‘Reaching a Global Audience. Engaging the Local Visitor’. This session, along with the talk and workshop given here by Nina Simon just a few days earlier, afforded museum professionals in Catalonia a wide-ranging first-hand vision of the most innovative developments worldwide in the field of participation and museums 2.0.

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant approached their talk from a practical perspective, illustrating points with numerous examples of good practice from different museums around the world. The two conference directors stressed the many virtues of museums being present on the web. According to Trant, the mere fact of having a website in itself obliges an institution to refresh and renew its image regularly, because the perception of digital users of changes much faster than that of traditional visitors. What’s more, it’s evident that the Internet offers wonderful opportunities for connecting with the public that should not be missed. In light of this they urged institutions to break down barriers and open their doors to users. One of Jennifer Trant’s key messages is very clear in this regard: ‘Museums cannot expect people to go search the contents of their website. It is the institutions’ responsibility to bring their collections to where people are and interact.’

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant

Museums have to stop being afraid of the active participation of Net users, who can actually enrich their collections with new data and interpretations. This idea is not as crazy as it may seem at first. Of course there will always be a gap between the way the public look at things and the more specialist vision of conservators and other experts. Here, for example, it has been shown that over 90% of the words used by the public to describe the pieces in certain museums do not appear in the reviews that are included in the online collections. But when the professionals are asked what they think of the tags suggested by the public, in more than 90% of cases they consider them appropriate as public descriptor terms. The sheer weight of this figure shows that the involvement of Internet users in generating a museum’s online content can be very rewarding and enriching, without implying any loss of rigour in the transmission of the data.

In the museum’s search for better interaction with the public, even with people who are not in principle interested in what it has to offer, David Bearman and Jennifer Trant presented a range of technological tools that can help showcase contents and make them more attractive. Of note among the various proposals is the Museum APIs system, which allows users outside the museum legally to embed online catalogue content on their own websites, in a way very similar to what is already being done very successfully with Google Maps. Other interesting tools include Open Exhibits, which lets you create your own virtual exhibition, the collections manager Collections Space or the ‘augmented reality’ system. Many of the new resources are hooked up to mobile devices, one of the communication channels with the greatest potential today. However, their development is still in its infancy. Another area in which there is still a lot of room for growth is online games.

reaching a global audience / engaging the local visitor

View more presentations from j trant.

Bearman and Trant encouraged museums to take full advantage of all the digital media platforms, because they are sufficiently different not only to pose no competition to one another, but have a multiplier effect on the network. At the same time they noted that museums are unable to control which channels their data are distributed on or how are interpreted. But rather than letting this trouble or obsess us, we should use it to look at how information is disseminated on the Internet, in order to make better use of its potential. On this point Bearman and Trant urged museums to join forces and build bridges with already established global projects such as Wikipedia.

By way of conclusion, the two experts outlined four basic strategies that museums must take into account if they want to position themselves properly in the digital environment:

  1. Personalize and humanize the contact with users.
  2. Look for the collaboration and involvement of the public.
  3. Evaluate how our resources are used and what impact our actions have on the network.
  4. Develop tools to help construct and consolidate an online community for the museum.

David Bearman pointed out that virtual reality is increasingly integrated and interwoven with our physical reality, erasing all boundaries. The challenge for museums lies in managing to connect the reality of their collections with the physical and virtual reality of the public.

Martí Casas
Internship in the Museu Picasso as part of his Master’s Degree in Cultural Heritage Management from the University of Barcelona

Other reviews of the lecture
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Video of the whole lecture

Do you know of any other good examples?
What do you see as the most appropriate uses of technology for museums?

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