co-curating the museum brand

Museums are among my favorite things in the world. When I travel, that’s what I look for first: the museums.

While I’m intensively partial to the classic fine arts model, I also very much enjoy a good science museum, and am frankly plain nuts for historical homes and preserved sites.

I love museums because they are some of the most fascinating, complex, and revealing instruments we use to tell ourselves stories about ourselves. How we choose to tell those stories, and which stories we choose to tell, is endlessly interesting to me. (Also, this book basically spells out my central childhood fantasy for all to see.)

I spent some time this weekend at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it helped me pick up the threads of a conversation I’ve been having with myself since last fall, when I went to the Technology in the Arts conference in Pittsburgh and saw Jake Barton give a keynote on how he was working with museums to design truly interactive exhibits and exhibit space.

Some museums are in the forefront of exploring how social media can help make their storytelling more inclusive, more democratic, more reflective of the many voices rather than the few — all of which either leads to a richer and deeper story, or to a narrative that is confusing and nonlinear to the point of distraction, depending on how successfully it is executed.

Some are holding tightly to the traditional model of storytelling, keeping it in the hands of the few, the specialized, the elite.

So I’ve been thinking about branding, and how cultural institutions like museums go about creating and managing their brands, especially in the changing dynamics of today’s distributed, interactive, co-created world.

How does a museum, with a (presumably) carefully constructed brand, often based largely on its carefully curated collection (whatever that may be), invite its patrons to co-curate that brand? Is that even a desirable goal? Does it depend on the museum, or the type of museum?

How are other museums besides the ones I mentioned here going about answering, or not answering, these questions?

What do you think social media can, or should do, to transform how museums tell our collective story, how they hold their individual mirrors up to ourselves?

I am still having this conversation with myself, but I thought I’d open the floor for discussion. What do you think?

5 Thoughts.

  1. It’s a big question in the museum sector at the moment. I have a hunch it varies by type of museum, but I haven’t had a chance to do any research into it yet.

    I’ve blogged about some of my questions (below), I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    http://openobjects.blogspot.com/2008/02/resistance-to-participatory-web-from.html

    http://openobjects.blogspot.com/2008/02/more-on-cultural-heritage-and.html

    http://openobjects.blogspot.com/2008/04/museum-and-claytons-audience.html

    cheers, Mia

  2. I’m an advertising and marketing specialist for nonprofit museums in New England and I’m finding it particularly difficult to convince an “older yankee” client that branding an exhibition is VERY important. . . any thoughts on how to convince this curmudgeon? he thinks the concept is ridiculous, I think it’s crucial . . .

  3. This piece I wrote about creating a social media plan for a museum might be of interest :

    http://www.museummarketing.co.uk/?p=151

    You get a really diverse range of approaches across the sector, some places are outstanding and are way ahead of corporates, others are stuck in a pre-internet mindset.

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