Social Media and Museums: What’s Going On


Why social media and museums?

Since their first appearance in antiquitymuseums have distinguished themselves for a certain cultural exclusivity with respect to the “common” masses, and by an elitist profile of “silent” guardians of our civilization. Things have certainly changed over the years, and today the museum is, according to its ICOM definition, “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

One of the main goals for a museum should thus be a double interaction with its public, intended as the creation of a dialogue with its most loyal enthusiasts, and as an engagement of all those who don’t know it yet. And if the target is an interaction with as many individuals as possible, the most immediate and adequate tools are social networks and the web, as obvious as it can sound to still having to write it down in 2013.

As for what concerns the point of view of the patron towards the museum, social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest allow to simplify most of the current communication dynamics – e.g by overcoming geographical and procedural limits. With a tweet, I can instantly interact with the curator of, let’s say, an American museum, and just by sitting at my desk, without having to buy a plane ticket, or worrying about being officially introduced, or anything of that sort. By following a board on Pinterest I can see most of the works of art  on display in a museum in Tokyo, and I can even create my own board with the ideal tour I would take were I physically there.

In the way museums are approaching their patrons, social networks are turning more and more into highly precise and efficient tools of communication. Information can be transmitted to the public in a targeted manner, with the almost certainty of reaching out to individuals who are truly interested in what is being said. As a matter of fact, “horizontal” platforms, such as Facebook, enable to reach a very specific and outlined audience, thanks to the possibility of setting geographical, demographical and lifestyle variables into the target definition of a communication campaign. For example, it is possible to set  that all the communications concerning the Pollock exhibition in Palazzo Reale (Milan) should reach exclusively young people in their 30’s, who live in the Milan area and are known to appreciate the expressionist avant-gardes of the twentieth century.  This approach not only guarantees a significant saving of time and resources, it also yields better results when compared to traditional methods of communication.

Today’s situation

When discussing social media and museums, though, it is necessary to make a distinction between cultural institutions that already are, one hundred per cent, “social”, the ones that have just started heading in this direction, and those that are not even taking it into consideration. In the Anglo-Saxon cultural scenario – as well as in that of Spain, the Netherlands or of Northern Europe – almost every museum and cultural institution have an online presence, and manage their social media communication through a professional, innovative and often creative approach. This choice is due to socio-economic needs that in  2013 can no longer be ignored, nor by companies or private and cultural entities. Particularly the  latter, often dependent on public money, need more than anyone else to interact successfully with their public, their main source of income, and, therefore, of survival.

Nonetheless, when analyzing a random sample of Italian museums with an online presence, and comparing it to another random sample of American museums (as we did), the difference in percentages is significant and alarming. What we observe today in the world of museum and online communication is therefore an intermediate situation, but the path ahead is clear.

What’s going to happen in 5 years?


According to sector studiesthe museums of the future will become more and more social, more open to the public and to content customization and co-production. They will be “beyond the venue” museums, where the visitor experience will be enhanced beyond the physical confines through augmented reality technologies, which are becoming increasingly common and advanced. These museums will also have to be prepared to deal with digital analytics.

Luckily for us, even a quick online search can tell us that, in many ways, the museum of the future is already here.

Many museums around the world are active on Facebook, some of them with millions of followers, others with only few hundreds. Some of them are so famous to be worthy the journey of a lifetime, others are so small and unexpected that their existence had passed unnoticed.

And if museums are using Facebook mostly to promote their exhibitions, events and initiatives, curators use Twitter to introduce themselves, to meet other curators and exchange opinions, links, congratulations and condolences. It is possible to interact with them, take part to their initiatives, and contribute to spread their hashtags or simply read them – it is  a 140 characters peek into a world that not until long ago remained unknown and mysterious.

Some museums are also very active on Pinterest, present projects on Instagram, and promote social initiatives with their own hashtag. Their goal is to raise and keep up the awareness towards this world. Some of them – some that I was not even expecting – put QRcodes in their fliers, and some installed Bluetooth access points next to their artwork labels.  Digital performance monitoring websites are forming, and for some years now experts (and experts-to-be) have been meeting in conferences devoted to the museums 2.0.

In conclusion, a firm trend has been developing over the past few years. The signs are clear that the museum of the future is on its way, if not there already. And even if Italy is out of the picture for now, we are working on it: #svegliamuseo! Let’s wake it up!


Translated by @Fedi_reds