Museums are placing higher priority on engagement. With the social media revolution upon us and nonprofits’ growing reputations for utilizing social media to build connections and share stories, it’s no wonder museums are turning into community centers. Nearly every museum has a link to Twitter or Facebook these days, but museums are actually doing much more to engage their audiences online.
To illustrate the growing importance of social media as a mechanism for creating connections and increasing community engagement, I’ve taken screen shots of the websites of three of America’s most visited and successful museums. I am highlighting not just traditional social media, but also media that is social (online collaboration, sharing of resources, technology in strengthening the community, etc).
– Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, or the most visited museum of 2009. (Washington D.C.)
- Social media comes first: Links to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and podcasts are accessible via the Natural History Museum’s homepage. In fact, this was the single most visited museum in the United States last year, and it is also one of the only museums in the top 25 most visited museums that gives social media such a prominent space on its homepage. This is most likely a case of correlation over causation, but if the most frequently visited museum in the country doesn’t put social media icons below the fold, why do so many museums make visitors scroll to the bottom of the page to see them?
- Mobile applications are front and center: The most prominent item featured on the museum’s homepage is the announcement of a mobile application, MEanderthal, for iPhone and Android that highlights the museum’s Hall of Human Origins. The application is engaging, as it allows you to morph back in time to see what you might have looked like. Not only that, iPhone users can use iSmithsonian for free to get updates on museum happenings. This museum is successful, and places a strong emphasis on both engagement, and keeping up with the times.
- Engaging community events that educate: This isn’t new for museums; there’s always interaction taking place. The museum is currently celebrating Savoring Sustainable Seafood, which features events that are open to the public and aim to engage the community. The Natural History Museum’s website is devoted to personal connections and accessibility.
– The Getty (Los Angeles, CA)
- Community building through resource sharing: The Getty’s website doesn’t just supply museum information, it also serves as an online resource in education for parents and teachers. The website has ideas for art activities and lesson plans. Through these efforts, the museum shares it resources and strengthens the community.
- Collaborative content: It might seem natural for art museums to view one another as competitors for visitors and donors- and perhaps they are- but Southern California’s art museums put their missions to inspire and educate first in the creation of a virtual exhibition. In this case (like the one above), the museum uses technology to build bridges and generally strengthen the community.
- Blogs as a space for interaction: This popular museum understands the importance of allowing visitors to interact with the museum through blog comments. Moreover, the blog provides readers the opportunity to see what happens behind-the-scenes at the museum. Allowing folks to take a peek behind the curtain make The Getty more transparent, accessible, inviting, and gives a sense of trustworthiness.
- Calendar of public programs: The inclusion of the calendar reminds website visitors that all the good stuff isn’t just online. In fact, the best stuff takes place within the museum. The calendar is an important inclusion here, as it puts a focus on experience and interaction.
– The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
- INTERACT and creative engagement: The Art Institute of Chicago puts the bulk of its interaction in one place– on its own page off of a tab on the homepage between members and shop. And this page really does include many links to social media, and media that is social. There’s even a My Collections feature that allows users to log-in (a great measurement for engagement) and build their own virtual art collections. Curious Corner features fun and educational online games for kids. A person could spend hours on this interact tab of the website (Truth be told, I may have gotten caught up in it a time or two…)
- Microblogging may be worth fitting on the page: The museum’s twitter stream is shown on the site. Not only that, the Twitter stream shows pictures of the folks/organizations with which the Art Institute is communicating. Like the blog at The Getty, the use of this social media tool puts a voice to the institution and makes it appear more personable, trustworthy, and transparent.
- A way to learn more: It’s not new to highlight a sign-up for an organization’s e-newsletter on a site, but the simple act asks the visitor for engagement and lets them know that the organization is an evolving entity with more to say!
If the best of the best museums place a high priority on engaging audiences through media and technology, then there may be a lesson here for smaller museums struggling with whether or not to delve into social media. The key may be to start thinking about the internet as a flexible medium through which to connect with visitors.