Should Museums be Media Organizations?

Museopunks’ podcast (now sadly discontinued) had a great discussion of whether or not museums should be media organizations. A quick overview/summary of the episode is available here.

Is the internet forcing museums to become media organizations? With guest Paul Schmelzer, web editor at the Walker Art Center.

The Walker Art Center has switched to almost entirely online content for their magazine. The storytelling is all online; their pulp magazine is now just for advertising events, etc. Regarding their new approach to online content, Paul says there’s “a multiplicity of voices instead of just one institutional voice” and that “instead of advertising content that’s limited to the people who can actually come here” they are “enabl[ing] art to be more relevant to peoples’ lives.” “Museums as a whole need to be more responsive,” he says, but not necessarily all in the same way, adding, “You need to be telling stories as opposed to always marketing. … It requires a lot of time and resources and the right person. … I think there’s capacity issues that a lot of institutions might not be able to meet if they’re trying to do the same thing [as the Walker].” The Walker has an audience communications and engagement team that includes everything from marketing and public relations to design and online content management. Their content strategy and editorial vision “transcends promoting events,” says Paul. It allows them to “talk to a broad audience about the stuff we all care about rather than just a local audience that might come in and buy tickets.”

On museums curating the internet

The Walker does do some of that. Paul’s is an editorial role; he doesn’t do all the writing. “[The Walker’s blog] is a platform that we created. … a platform is just a place where things can happen. … If we can bring others in to share in the collective… definition or makeup of the Walkers, that’s great.” They have a budget for freelance writers and bring in journalists and even people outside from the arts to contribute to their online content.

How can museums stay current with the larger media landscape?

“It certainly has been a learning process, some of which is building the airplane in flight. I think further down the road one thing I would like to do is have some content that is more removed from events at the Walker. … I’m really interested in thinking about these other audiences … that are all around the world … so I’m really trying to develop more series that can engage with the broader world of ideas while still making sure to … have a lot of content about what we’re doing on site.”

What can a chief digital officer do for a museum? With Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at the Met.

“The idea is that a chief digital officer can help an institution think about digital in ways that haven’t been part of the DNA of the institution or they haven’t had a chance in their regular structure to think about,” says Sree. “It’s more of a strategy planning role as well as a doing role in the sense that you gotta think about how do you actually connect what is happening at a place like a museum with the rest of the planet and I believe that the future of museums is really connected to this idea of bringing together the physical and the digital, the in person and the online.” Sree’s goal is to make people see the Met’s online content and want to come in person, and for in-person visitors to want to continue their experience online. “Things are changing and the museum world needs to change along with it,” he says, adding that “museum time’ has a place but how can museums balance that with “consumers” who want things faster?

Are museums media organizations?

“In some ways they absolutely are. I think of my job as storytelling. How do we tell the stories of these individual … pieces of art in compelling ways, in engaging ways? So in that sense my work as a journalist and media person certainly ties into it but at the same time, art is also not as quantifiable…”

How do you work out is the right tool for the job?

“One of my tasks for the next couple years is to think about that,” he explains, adding that he’s also the Met’s “chief listening officer.”

Suse Cairns, podcast host: “[The internet allows] a change of voice from the unidirectional broadcasting voice to something that allows people to speak back with social media in very public ways. Is that going to change the nature of the institution or is it just surface changes?” Good question!

Advice for museums that might recognize the need for a chief digital officer but don’t have the resources to add such a high level position:

“No one needs to think about adding this until you’ve got your other systems humming along,” including technology infrastructure and expertise. “A place like the MET can afford to have someone in this position. … I have seen since in the last couple of months some institutions creating roles like director of digital strategy. My only hesitation with some of those roles is that if you don’t have any operational work or responsibility then people might not take you as seriously or the people you want to attract may not be as interested [in the position if they feel they can’t actually accomplish anything].”

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