What's the Big Idea? 5 Key Takeaways from the Museums and the Web Conference

It's all about sharing knowledge.  Photo by Molly Hanse.
photo by Molly Hanse

Last week, Thomas highlighted some of the projects and sessions he found most interesting at the Museums and the Web Conference.  On Friday, we posted a series of links to a few of the coolest projects we saw presented at the conference.  In this post, I thought I’d try to “connect the dots” regarding key threads that seemed to come up frequently over the course of M&W2011.

Takeaway #1: The web can help you accomplish your mission in ways never before possible.

At their core, museums strive to provide improved accessibility to and deeper understanding of their collections and temporary exhibitions.  They are teaching institutions.  Many of the presenters at Museums and the Web 2011 demonstrated the power of Web 2.0 in providing fertile ground for museums to achieve these goals in ways that have never been possible before.

At M&W2011, I saw innovative web initiatives that breathe new life into collections that would otherwise spend most of their life in storage, unseen.  I saw museums harness the power of their audiences to help interpret and interact with their online collections.  And I saw the web used to provide direct interaction between artists and audiences.  These are just a few examples of how the web can provide a dynamic platform for rich, multifaceted learning.  And we see inspiring new examples of this emerge from the museum field all the time.

Check out: Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) GeneratorPhillyHistory, The Powerhouse Museum on Flickr, Tate Modern's One-to-One with Ai WeiWei

Takeaway #2: Online audience engagement is all about participation.

There is a sea change happening in audience engagement, and Web 2.0 is a powerful catalyst in this movement towards the participatory museum experience.  The traditional relationship between the museum and the audience is evolving into something entirely new, where the institution and the visitor become something closer to partners in the creation of shared experiences.

As Thomas pointed out in his blog post last week, the concept of crowdsourcing can be interpreted in a variety of ways.  We’ve seen museums use their audiences to help curate shows.  We’ve seen projects that use the crowd to contextualize collections about which we previously knew very little.  And, we’ve even seen museums tap the creativity of the crowd to generate and contribute artistic content.

The big idea here is to use the web to empower your audience. Get them actively involved, and give them a voice.  Put them in the driver’s seat, but make sure that you are facilitating that dialogue in a meaningful way.  Together, we can build richer understandings and more dynamic content.  How awesome is that?

Check out: oldWeather, the WALL, and Susan Cairn's paper Tag!  You're It! What Value Do Folksonomies Bring to the Online Museum Collection?

Takeaway #3: Simplicity is key.

Make your technology intuitive and easy to use.  The more complicated your design, the less accessible it becomes for your audience.  So always keep the end-user experience in mind when designing your web initiatives. While this seems like a simple idea, sometimes we can get so caught up in our own advanced understandings of technology that we can become out of touch with the average end-user.

So, know your audience.  Know how they interact online, and where they live on the web.  Meet them where they are, not where you think they should be.   And ask yourself if they could understand how to navigate your project on their own.

Check out: MOMA Learn, Wellesley College's ARTeMuse

Takeaway #4: Share, share, share!

I cannot count how many times the phrase “Let’s not reinvent the wheel” came up at M&W2011.  The conference itself is, of course, all about sharing ideas within the museum community – but let’s continue that culture of sharing beyond the conference walls.  Some of us do this already, but the field needs to push it even further.

Let’s engage in a continuous dialogue with each other about our successes and failures in our experiments with technology.  And, let’s look beyond the museum field and include other arts organizations, and even other industries, in this exchange.  Because the more we share, the faster innovation will happen.  Connect, connect, connect – both with your audiences and with each other.

Check out: Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy Wiki, The Heritage Innovators Network's paper on Organizational Change

Takeaway #5: Don’t be afraid of failure.

Technology changes rapidly, which makes embarking on new initiatives scary.  Another interesting discussion at M&W2011 revolved around the idea that social media has led to a shift away from more traditional models of organized structure to a new model of organized chaos.   We need to recognize that fluidity, change, experimentation and even failure are all part of this new digital landscape, and we cannot let the fear of failure paralyze us from trying new ideas.