The Indianapolis Museum of Art has its own video
channel on YouTube. The Oakland Museum of California reaches out to
online tastemakers to help push events. The Brooklyn Museum of Art has
built its own application on the social networking site Facebook,
allowing people to share images of museum artwork.
These and other museums have discovered social
media in a big way. It's no longer enough for a museum to put up a Web
site and hope that people find it. Many museums are discovering that the
Web 2.0 world lets them advance their mission online to bring in new
and often younger visitors and to educate a wider audience.
"We used to engage people through catalogs, but coffee tables aren't
where people are engaging anymore," said James G. Leventhal, director of
development and marketing at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley,
Calif., which is focused on Jewish life and culture. "Sincere social
engagement happens on computers now."
The Magnes started a Facebook group last year, and within five weeks,
more than 100 people joined. It uses the group to promote new shows,
encourage visitors to post photos taken at the museum and comment on
"Museums face a number of challenges in trying to make their collections
relevant and accessible to people, and a big one is the physical
barrier — in order to see it, you have to go to the museum," said
Jennifer Trant, a partner in Archives and Museums Informatics, a Toronto
consulting firm. "If you can take the work out of its physical context
and put it in a place where people can manipulate it, that helps the
Museums do not have to be large to use social networking technology.
Much of it is free and relatively easy to use. "Certain tools level the
playing field," Mr. Leventhal said. "We can do the same things as the
Adam R. Rozan, who wrote a master's thesis on social networking at
Harvard Extension School and is now a marketing manager at the Oakland
Museum of California, calls younger people "digital natives," saying
they grew up with the technology and spend a lot of time online.
"It's about engagement," Mr. Rozan said. "Here's your audience. Here is where they are. Go meet them there."
The College Group at the Met, for instance, plans activities at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art by advertising them online. On Flickr, you
can see photos of college students vamping in togas at an evening in the
Met's Greek and Roman galleries. Donna Williams, chief audience
development officer at the Met, coordinates the College Group, which has
25 members from universities in the tristate area. Its mission is "to
promote the museum's encyclopedic collection and programs to local
students, increasing students' attendance and engagement with the Met
and ultimately building interest in the visual arts among new
generations," Ms. Williams said.
Dave Evans, a vice president at Digital Voodoo, a social-media
consulting firm in Austin, Tex., said the online tools created ways for
museums to let people share their experiences, thereby increasing
attendance as well as distributing content at lower costs. Many museums
are blogging and podcasting, and now they are allowing visitors to bring
in cameras and hoping they will share their reactions online.
Such work often dovetails with a museum's mission. Unlike, say, a sports
team, which wants to put people in seats, a museum often exists to
educate or enlighten, a goal that can be accomplished offline or online.
Rather than discouraging museum admissions, putting works online can help attract visitors.
"The content is followed differently online," said Shelley Bernstein,
manager of information systems for the Brooklyn Museum of Art. "The more
you put out, the more likely people are to get interested and come in. I
don't think it's seen as a replacement. It's seen as a way to get
The Brooklyn Museum wants to avoid the appearance that these online
efforts are marketing, and it even gives away many images, Ms. Bernstein
said. The technical staff developed an application, ArtShare, which
Facebook members can use to put some images on their profile pages. The
museum then made the application free, meaning Facebook members can use
ArtShare to put pictures from participating museums, including the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Victoria
and Albert Museum in London, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and
the National Library of Australia, on their pages at no cost.
"We don't want to seem like we're trying to be overly viral or that
we're marketing," Ms. Bernstein said. "We just want to be nice community
Judging from a Facebook group that follows museum participation, an
estimated several dozen museums around the world are involved in social
networking. Ms. Bernstein said that museums had tried MySpace and didn't
like it, but that Facebook was gaining in acceptance.
Ms. Trant, the museum consultant, runs a conference called Museums and
the Web; the next one, scheduled for April in Montreal, will feature
social networking as a main theme.
"You can safely say most museums are interested," Ms. Trant said in an e-mail.
Not all the implications of putting art on the social Web are desirable.
Ms. Bernstein said the museum had 10,000 "friends" on MySpace and
shared its art there, but that it had wrestled with a huge volume of
Museums have long contended with issues regarding copyright,
inappropriate and even obscene use of their images and online
discussions that have degenerated into disrespectful commentary. Museums
have come up with many solutions, from establishing and trying to
enforce copyright policies to forming an Art Museum Image Consortium,
which allows educational use but cracks down on infringement. "In many
cases, the value of having your collection known outweighs the worry
about commercial use, particularly when the images being released on the
public Web really aren't large enough to do that much with," Ms. Trant
said in an e-mail.
The social-media world has a different language than more august
institutions. In Flickr's Commons project, for instance, the site
invites people to label or comment on the Library of Congress's photos
and adds, "This is for the good of humanity, dude!!"
Flickr members have responded. Some photos, for instance, feature women
working in factories during World War II. While the library classified
them as "women — employment," Flickr members have tagged them "Rosie the
The members' posts vary widely. More than 30 people have commented on a
1911 picture of the baseball player Germany Schaeffer holding an
enormous camera, with one person identifying the camera, another
offering biographical information on the player and another adding
cheekily, "That camera is going on my Amazon wish list right now."
Flickr's Commons project harnesses an important aspect of social networking, Ms. Trant said, which is the "power of the crowd."
"Everybody tags a couple of photos, and they can accomplish something
you never could do curatorially," she said. When it works well, the
amateurs complement the professionals.
When Web dialogue gets out of hand, Ms. Trant said, "Museums have to
have policy and procedures in place, so that they can act
appropriately." She added: "Debate is good, derision is not. Behavior in
a museum Web space should be no different than in a museum's other
But she said that once a museum makes its works available on sites like
Facebook, where users have their own pages, the institution can no
longer demand control.
By Dan Frost
For The New York Times