The National Art Gallery of Denmark has a long and at times troubled history, it maintains tens of thousands masterpieces of Danish and international artists and it is the first museum in Denmark for importance and size.
What was it missing in order to feel fulfilled and satisfied? Apparently nothing, but it didn’t seem so to its head-manager, one who absolutely wanted to lead his museum into modernity with its new tools, who wanted to let the museum become a “modern” museum that produces modernity itself.
And so it begins the path of the National Art Gallery towards the internet and the online communication, towards social media and the open-culture philosophy as well as the need for a more democratic dialogue with its audience (if you don’t believe it, just know that this interview was prompted by a mere exchange of tweets!).
Despite being the largest museum in Denmark, the Staten Museum does not have great numbers when it comes to social network, but they have only been on Twitter since October 2011 (and have engaged so far 1.936 followers), while their Facebook page has been open since December 2008 and counts today 21.373 fans.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Merete Sanderhoff, Curator of digital museum practice and Researcher, and Sarah Grøn, Digital Editor, who have kindly agreed to answer a few questions that I believe – and I hope – will be most useful and informative for you all.
1. Avoiding compliments let’s focus on important issue, how many people work in your communication and social media department? And which kind of university formation they have?
M: Approximately 12 people. Their educational backgrounds include Digital Design & Communication from the IT University Copenhagen, Communication and History from Roskilde University Center, and Literary History at Copenhagen University.
2. Talking about social network, the museum is on different social platform. How is the SMK choosing and using its channels, and how is it making them appealing to its audience (also, what kind of audience do they reach to)?
The website aims at communicating with different target groups: The menu “Visit the museum” is for people planning a visit: families, couples, singles, teachers ect, while “Explore the Art” aims at giving users interested in the art all the museum’s content gathered in one place whether that be art works for free download, stories from the conservators or lists of our researchers’ publications. And finally, “About the museum” is aimed at the press, colleagues, job seekers ect.
We have conducted several user tests and keep making adjustments to the website.
The website is in many ways our most difficult digital channel, since we through that communicate with a lot of different users who all seek to complete a wide variety of tasks: The company who needs to find our billing information, a researcher from another museum wanting to find information about a colleague’s research and the tourist planning a visit. An example of something that has proven to work really well is our pages aimed directly at families: This is a target group which seek some very specific information and I think the praise we’ve gotten for these pages show how far understanding your users and their needs will take you in creating an amazing and functional website.
To create a website that works for all of our users though is a continuous job and we are in no way done but user tests have proven a must-have tool.
For us, Twitter is a way of communicating with colleagues and museum professionals. At the moment, few Danes are on Twitter and we therefore don’t write a lot of tweets aimed at people interested in paying us a visit. We keep a keen eye on the development but for the moment Twitter is where we tell about our blog posts, write about our experiences with creative commons and engage in dialogue with museum professionals. An example of this is SMK Conservators Twitter account where our conservators tweet about their work. With 390 followers they’re not the most followed, but they are followed by the right people: several conservators and institutions such as the Ohio Conservation Center follow them, re-tweet their posts and engage with them, which is of great value to us.
Our guideline for our Facebook presence is this: every update should be a gift and a gift that you would want to pass on to others. Generally, we have learned that updates about the museum doesn’t work well on Facebook.
People have liked us on Facebook, because of a shared interest in art and they see us as a credible and relevant resource when it comes to this interest. They want to know something new, funny or relevant about the art they are interested in – not read about a new publication on Italian drawings or our exhibitions being lend out to large international museums such as the Guggenheim, even though these might be highly interesting stories on other platforms. Furthermore, people are as a thumb rule (rule of thumb) not interested in our events. We have however one particular event which works excellent on Facebook: SMK Friday. However, events regarding jazz concerts, workshops for children and guided tour don’t work and we have stopped posting them on Facebook.
When it comes to posting art works and information about on Facebook, it’s important to let the update stand on its own: it might be fine to have a link in your update but it ought not to be a prerequisite in order to interact with the update. An example of an update that worked really well can be seen here. The update says in Danish: Today it’s150 years since Danish J.F. Willumsen was born. This is one of his most famous artworks The Mountain Climber. The modern emancipated woman is staring fearlessly into the future. In general, updates such as this one with images work really well on Facebook. Furthermore, updates on the weather and artists’ birthdays are often successful.
To be honest, our experience is that few users at the moment use Google+ to engage in content. It seems that many people have a profile but few use it daily.
However, having a Google+ page with many followers might optimize your place in Google and as the biggest Danish Google+ page we therefore use it for search engine optimization more than engagement and interaction.
More and more Danish users are joining Instagram and many of them seem interested in beautiful, funny or quirky photos from behind the scenes at the SMK. We have posted images from fashion shows, concerts and the view from the Director’s office on a snowy winter day.
At Pinterest, we let people interact with our art works. We have gathered many different art works in the so-called boards based on themes such as fashion, food and flowers and it’s definitely the art works within these boards that get the most impressions.
YouTube & Vimeo:
YouTube is a great platform for distributing our videos. Generally, we have learned that you ought to split your focus in two: production and distribution of your videos. Just producing great videos won’t get them out to your audience. It seems that on YouTube people are searching for the particular videos with relevant content for them rather than a brand such as the SMK.
The videos at our channel with many impressions are quite different from one another: a speech with a Danish poet, the creation of a contemporary art work, an instruction in creating woodcuts in black and white and a hidden camera-video aimed at going viral where SMK – apparently – gave all our art works away for free.
Vimeo: Vimeo is a fairly recent channel for us so we haven’t so far settled on why and how we use it. Though we are still trying it out, we have a sensation that videos featuring interviews with artists, portraits ect. might find an interested audience at Vimeo.
From users to co-creators
3. One of the things that I have noticed following you during these months, it is that your institution gives a lot of importance to interaction and engagement with the audience. In this regard, which are your engagement strategies? (how do you think you will reach your goals: for example, how do you think to transform users to co-creators?)
S: When it comes to engaging the users, it’s again all about accepting the medium used for creating engagement. What might work for a guided tour within the gallery will never work on Twitter, if for no other reason you can’t tell the same things in a 140 characters as you might while walking through the gallery on a guided tour.
Another thing is to be there – no-one wants to keep calling someone who never picks up the phone and neither are they going to keep writing you on Facebook if you don’t bother with an answer.
M: An important prerequisite for turning users into co-creators is providing free and open access to the collections, and being ready to enter into democratic dialogue with our users. When people can search, find, share, reuse, remix and respond to the museum’s content there is a chance they will become co-creators.
The collaboration we did with the art pilots in SMK Art Labs, the Copenhagen Metro company and the citizens of Copenhagen has proven to us that when we share cultural heritage openly and encourage users to remix and create new things with the collections as their starting point, they can become amazing co-creators (if you want to find out more, visit http://openglam.org/2013/07/08/2353/).
In order for this to happen, the museum needs to not only let go of control over how our collections are perceived and used by the public, but also be ready to invest lots of time, space and resources in working with the users (things like facilitation, dialogue, iterations, equipment, physical meet up spaces etc.).
It’s a lot of work but extremely rewarding, and even small pilot projects can really help to demonstrate the tangible benefits of user engagement within an organization. Michael Edson’s “Think Big, Start Small, Move Fast” has also been our motto.
4. When I had to talk about storytelling, I mentioned your blog (“Stories from Conservators”) among the best practices. I am an admirer of this kind of work but we would like to know how do you manage it? Is it a commitment that complicates your work?
S: The curators are in charge of the blog. They write all the content and as the Department of Communication we only stand by in case they have questions or wishes for how we set up the blog. It takes time to create this sort of content for the conservators but as they are the ones who know their content, they are the best at creating it. As communicators, we could never create something like that.
From theory to practice: tips and tricks
5. This is the important part of our interview in which we invite you to suggest us direct advice. Imagine to have in front of you a director/curator/responsible of a small Italian museum. Which kind of tips and suggestions would you like to give to him/her to start a social media or an engagement strategy? (Must and must-not)
M: You must not do it if you are not going to do it wholeheartedly.
You have to be ready to talk with people in your own personal voice (while remaining true to your special knowledge and expertise) and to be equal with users in a democratic environment where you don’t set the rules or control the process.
Unexpected things may occur that are outside your control – so plan for the unexpected and be prepared to provide temporary answers that need follow up. It is real life conversation and exchange more than traditional one-way curation.
You must do it because it is a wonderful, rewarding way for you to learn about your own collections, artefacts, institution, and especially what it means to other people, what they know about it and what they want to do with it. You must do it because it is a unique opportunity to make your museum present where users already are, where they will get to know you and care for you, and where you can be part of discussions and sharing of ideas that are relevant to users, close to their hearts and everyday lives.
An example: Peter Soemers, a Dutch art lover and amateur in Scandinavian painting, in dialogue on Twitter with senior researcher Kasper Monrad of SMK. Peter has discovered relations between Scandinavian 19th century paintings which are new to Kasper despite his many years of scholarly research in the field. Kasper acknowledges Peter’s discovery, Peter feels connected to a passionate and open-minded human being at the museum. He feels that SMK is approachable, that we listen and welcome new insights.
S: This reaction also goes for people who post comments on social media about non-art related things such as a critical comment on the prices in the museum café.
We listen, acknowledge and respond to our users’ comments as fast as possible, and engaging in this dialogue have often meant that we have started long and warm relations with users who maybe started off with a critical mind and a lot of anger.
6. Giving that your openness to social media and web communication for Staten Museum is relatively recent, could you tell us how was the path you run through? Which was the hardest part? And which the fundamental step?
S: Honestly, we started off all wrong. It’s a difficult path for a museum such us SMK to change from being the “gods of knowledge” as we are so used to be, to becoming the “servants of knowledge”, as our former director Karsten Ohrt has phrased it.
One of the difficulties is to dare being open because this will inadvertently mean admitting all the errors you are going to commit and letting the users in on the “forever business” of being a digital museum.
Not an easy thing to do when you are used to being treated as the god who knows everything. Another difficult thing is our organization: we work on year-long deadlines, but engaging in dialogue on social media means working with completely different schedules. On social networks people expect answers within minutes.
Leading to the next difficulty: how are you going to be present when users are? Meaning in the weekends and in the evenings, not just from 9 to 5 as our usual work day. And how about the holidays? And the different time zones our users live in?
These are things to consider, because being social and open is time-consuming, but we fully believe it is worth every minute spent.