We are confident that the majority of you already knows – or has heard the names of – MuseumMix UK, Teens in Museums, Museum Camp, Culture Themes, and has taken part to and used the #MuseumWeek and #AskACurator hashtags at least once. But did you also know that there is only one mind behind all these projects? That of Mar Dixon.
Mar faces everyday some of the most pressing issues and trending topics in the museum sector: from professional development to innovation, from the use of social media and digital communication tools to thinking about the meaning making in museums. Whom better than her to talk about strategy and to outline a direction for museums to follow?
And if we really felt the need to frame her in a role, trying to give a name to her work and what she does, we could define her as an Audience Developer and Social Media Specialist, as she herself wrote on her personal website. It would be an oversimplification, though, one that does not justice to the numerous activities she carries on, and the amount of interaction and involvement with the audience she produces.
CultureThemes, for example, is a platform that brings together museum professionals from all over the world; it is a meeting point for exchanges, thoughts and discussions. As it is shown clearly in the group mission, “We exist because of our passion for promoting and preserving museums, libraries, galleries, and heritage properties worldwide”.
Whereas MuseumMix UK stems from MuseoMix France, bringing together experts from different professional fields (from lab technicians to software developers, from visitors assistants to the museums’ directors) in order to create, design and test new approaches using both digital and traditional resources.
Another “unconventional” project is that of Museum Camp, an informal and unpretentious meeting in which different interested people talk about and discuss topics that are relevant to them and that are not usually given enough space or time during conferences and official seminars.
And what about Teens in Museums? A beautiful and extremely interesting initiative focused on trying to reach and engage a key sector of museums’ audience, but one that can be very difficult to involve, excite and thrill.
As it is highlighted on the website, “Being a teenager is difficult; you’re finding your feet. You’re not a child anymore, but you’re not quite an adult. You don’t want to be patronised, but you still need guidance while you establish yourself and gain confidence”. Don’t we all have been through this?
Much pondering has been done on the topic, resulting in the publication of an International Teens in Museum Manifesto, the first line of which recites: “Listen to what Teens are saying. Answer their questions, question them, and work together to find answers and solutions”.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Mar and ask her a few questions. As usual, we hope the answers will be of help and an inspiration to many.
The Essential Skills
Q: What do you feel are the essential skills for the contemporary digital museum professional?
M: We’re living in a digital world which is not going to go away. All contemporary museum professional should, at the very least, be aware of the social and digital media that the public is using. In Russia, they have their own social media but many also use Facebook and Twitter to ensure they can open their collection to the public. The curators do not have to tweet (with the exception of Ask a Curator Day September 17th of course) but need to be aware that this is a vessel that is available to use.
Q: Some of the projects you have been working on are particularly innovative. MuseoMix, for example, drew together people from different fields to reinvent tools and languages. What do you think it takes, for an institution “rooted” in long traditional approaches, to be “brave enough” and experiment with something radically new?
M: That’s a hard one. The willingness to want a real change has to come from within (sounds so philosophical!).
Usually it takes an internal nod to notice that the ‘traditional’ way of thinking just isn’t working anymore. There is also the recognition that they might be left behind if they don’t make changes. The changes could be subtle (social media, pictures in areas) or more radical (MuseomixUK or MuseumCamp).
What Recipe For a First-rate Digital Strategy
Q: What do you feel are the necessary components of a good digital strategy?
M: To be honest with what your audience wants to use, not what YOU feel is best. Also look at your staff to see where the strengths are. Digital should cross departments.
Q: How do you think is possible to connect the activities that a museum conducts on its digital channels with the on-site experience and vice-versa (e.g. social media)? Is there any example that you know of, of a program or a campaign, that has been particularly successful in this sense?
M: The good news is there are too many to choose from!
Many museums are now understanding the power of social media to bring the on-site experience to life. There is a negative view that sharing too much online would negate the need for an in-real-life visit which simply isn’t true. Having signs up around the museums with your social media channels and specific hashtags to guide the public. For examples, just look at CultureThemes and the creative ways museums bring their collections to the public.
Q: For the last question, I would ask you to give some small tips to a museum starting from scratches with digital communication. We have a bunch of very small Italian institutions that struggle in getting started and finding orientation. What would you say is the best approach to kickstart a digital strategy, often characterized by lack of staff and budget? What are the main difficulties in your opinion, and how would you advise a museum to overcome them?
M: Just do it! Many of the best social media accounts were created by one person who didn’t wait for things to be perfect when starting.
The digital strategy is a living document, a guidance. It’s flexibility should reflect the key elements of the museum, it’s mission and the staff with the heart being the visitors. Start with a few key questions: – Platforms to use; – Tone/voice to use; – What to share (not just marketing and PR!); – When to share; – When to respond and then let’s start.