Museums and Social Software

I am delighted to welcome this post by Lena Maculan, PhD Student at the Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. In her PhD research, Lena has been studying various types of web-based technologies and the notion of user-generated content in order to explore new ways in the production and presentation of knowledge in museums.

I would like to thank her for taking the time to write this thought-provoking post on ‘Museums and Social Software’, which I am sure will stimulate much discussion both in the blog and in class next week (week 10).

Lena has kindly accepted to follow this post for any comments and will respond to questions/remarks.


Museums and social software
by Lena Maculan

Some critics argue that ‘older’ types of online forums also count as social software; most, however, refer with this term to more recent services such as podcasts, weblogs, wikis, folksonomy and social tagging.

It seems that in a museum context, there is one big question that goes with all of those applications and services:

Are museums employing social software for the sake of it, or are they really allowing users a new type of engagement with cultural content online?

Hooper-Greenhill has argued that changes in museum practice are not limited to the way how content is delivered to audiences. Change has also taken place in the manner or style of communication.

In the context of museums’ use of social software, the question I want to ask is: Are museums exploring new styles of communicating cultural content? Or, are they transferring traditional museum style content onto a new medium?

Let’s look at an example: The recent Velazquez exhibition at the National Gallery was featured in their podcast. The Sunday Times Culture has also published a podcast on the same show. (You can find it on YouTube)

Comparing the two shows that, yes, the NG is exploring new ways of delivering content to audiences – and that’s great! And even if Antenna Audio’s moderator is reading out a script, instead of speaking freely, the programme clearly aims to create a light-hearted atmosphere, which is far removed from the traditional scholarly tone of the museum. So, in much generalized terms, one could say that the NG’s podcast has produced something which is very different to conventional museum publications.

Yet, upon a closer look, it seems that the subjects they address and the manner of talking about them is very much old school. A listener to this programme, who is not so familiar with museums in general and old master paintings in particular, would be left quite confused what this show is about.

Januszack, in the Sunday Times’ programme in comparison is a lot more at ease, as he walks around the gallery whilst talking about the works in very passionate terms. His style of talking is very engaging, and, at the same time he manages to transport his message very clearly: Whether you are an art expert or not, he tells you what the show is about, what you can expect, and why you should go and see it.

Museums are just coming to grips with podcasting and related Web 2.0 applications. Maybe we should therefore not be too harsh with critique. However, it seems fair to say that if museums want to use podcasting or indeed any other type of social software, the question is not only about how social software offers new ways of delivering content, but more importantly in what kind of style one should communicate it – especially if museums want to reach for new audiences.