Student profile: Nicole Beale
The changing role of the museum
Using qualitative research methods, this research examines the relationship between key approaches within museum curation and the Web, through a study of social web adoption across the broader sector.
Museums traditionally acquire, conserve, and communicate knowledge about objects to a multitude of audiences. They have traditionally used methods which rely on real world space, such as exhibitions, for dissemination.
The expectations of those audiences are changing. The majority of collections are not accessible to the public. Older modes used to collect and share knowledge about those collections, such as scheduled visits to stored collections or publications about particular aspects of collections, are no longer enough for evolving audiences’ requirements.
The role of the Web
The Web is providing new ways to experience collections held by museums. From these, new arenas for dialogue around museum collections are being created.
In the museums sector web technology is being used for technology’s sake. Common stratagems of increasing resources to improve impacts through technology are having little effect. The benefits to organisations’ key strategic aims of the implementation of resource-heavy technological modes of communication need to be identified. Equally, targets for take-up are not achieved, as organisations’ motivations need to be aligned to the purpose of the Web. Targets set need to be more realistic and aligned to targets for other initiatives that do not use the Web.
Necessary resources and support for implementation of these technologies is not being correctly identified by individual organisations. Consequently, uptake is sporadic and piecemeal. Movements in other sectors, such as citizen science and open government data, illustrate the possibilities for embedding the Web into practice. Evidence proving the benefits of the Web in the museums sector however is anecdotal. The body of research investigating the tangible benefits of the Web to museums is limited.
Identifying questions to answer
Central to readdressing the failure to embed the Web into practice is the idea of the museum as a content provider rather than content curator. This is leading to new questions for museums to answer:
- Is the Web changing the way that audiences engage with museums?
- How can museums use the Web to change the way that audiences engage with museums?
- How can museums utilise the Web to improve their collections?
- How can audiences use the Web to improve their collections?
Additional issues to examine
Museums in the UK and abroad are increasingly adopting social media for engagement with, and increased access to, their collections. Social media is generally used by museums for marketing and communication purposes.
Museums’ strategic approaches for adoption of social media are varied, and often do not align with overall strategic aims. The majority of museums adopt a scattergun approach, with little consideration of cost-benefit of use.
This research investigates the potential for social media to be used a part of collections management, interpretation and dissemination. An aspect of this is an examination of the trend in the use of the social web generally leading to large silos of User Generated Content (UGC). If museums are to embed social media into collections management strategies, the potential for UGC must be better understood. Much of collections related UGC is lost, as its relevance to the interpretation of collections is not recognised by museums, or is archived in inaccessible way.
Finding a way forwards for museums
New understanding of the role of the museum must be developed for it to survive. The notion of the ‘user as curator’ is impacting greatly on the ways that museums manage their collections, and the implications must be explored further.
Despite the current scattergun approach, motivations can be identified. A more structured approach, aligned with collections care as well as engagement aims of museums, to sourcing and then accessioning new user generated content, must be developed, to develop in richer knowledge about collections. Traditional methods for evaluating audience experiences of collections relies predominately on the review of cognitive experiences through exhibitions. An analysis of usual methods for evaluating engagement, such as visitor comments, surveys during visits, and videos of visits will result in improved mechanisms for understanding audience behaviours.
Sociocultural theory can contribute to better understanding how individuals and groups experience collections. However, prioritising cognitive over social aspects of the experience with the collection, impacts on the strategic engagement decisions that are made by museums. To understand experiences with collections that happen through the Web, do museums need to readjust the theoretical methodologies for measuring engagement?
The extent to which Actor Network Theory can contribute to understanding the impact of the Web on collections must be explored. Emerging archaeological theory examining the makeup of networks from a non-representational perspective could provide alternative models for understanding the limitations of ANT for social media adoption analysis. The process of adopting social media could prove to be more useful for strategic approaches than the construction and examination of networking through content analysis. ANT uses interactions to observe reality (defined as the effects of the networks). ANT methodology does not take into account user motivations, unlike the approach of action research, favoured by the museums sector.
In the museums sector emphasis is on user need analysis for development identification. New approaches in museums curation to merging knowledge creation with knowledge receiving can contribute to analysing the Web-based producer-consumer relationship. In the museums sector, the user determines the effects; simplification and punctualization are not possible. Individual and community-driven motivations for technology adoption must be incorporated into research of the Web.
Collections held in museums contribute to the construction of identity. The Web offers a platform for the restaging of identity in many arenas. Museums must make better use of the Web in order to participate in the large-scale management of identity online; if that is indeed the museum’s purpose. This research will explore how far the use of learning theory’s constructivism (popular with visitor studies) can identify individuals’ engagement with collections when it occurs online.
This research will explore how museums and service users can work together using the Web to improve collections data provisions. With a focus on how advice can be formulated using exemplar pilots to help museums to better use the Web to improve service provisions.
Using social web mechanisms, a series of museums and community-based pilot studies will investigate how the impacts of collections can be identified and strategically aligned to the purpose of the museum within society. Resulting frameworks will be applicable across the third sector, with anticipated use within galleries, libraries, and archives, as well as other charitable organisations.
Joining the conversation
Blogging here: http://theculturalheritageweb.wordpress.com
Profile here: http://www.linkedin.com/in/nicolebeale