Tuesday 6 May 2008

Can you get a curator to blog?

A few weeks ago, Tyler Green pointed out in a two part post that he felt that he was the ideal audience for most museum blogs: a "web-aware, art-loving, institution-approving, hetero-WASP-atheist".

The problem with this, Green noted, is that museums "tend to think my ilk is their audience when their audience ought to merely start with me, and grow outward from there". In the second part of his post he suggested that getting curators to blog (rather than marketing or web team staff, who often bear the brunt of these initiatives) was crucial to widening the audience.

I've talked recently to a number of people (mostly in museums/galleries, mostly in the web/'interpretation' areas) about this idea. By and large, curators are the 'most wanted' of writers, yet they also seem to be the hardest to get on board. [As an example - and I'm not picking on the AAG here, because good on them for doing what no-one else is doing - Outpost has 24 posts, 2 of them by curatorial staff].

Part of this, as Seb Chan of the Powerhouse Museum has noted, is to do with the exhibition development process. Curators' involvement in an exhibition usually starts to tail off soon after it opens, as they move on to the next project. But for an exhibition blog to work, it has to build up to the opening, and then really kick in once the public starts coming through the doors.

Seb has an interesting interview today with Mal Booth of the Australian War Memorial about curator-blogging. The AWM started out with exhibition-specific blogs, like Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse: the road to Damascus, but have since decided to consolidate efforts into a single blog, using the categories function to help readers zero in on content that's of interest to them.

Seb's interview covers the creation of the blogs, the staff time spent on them, how success is measured/thought about, and whether the AWM has had to change the way it works to accommodate blogging. He also points to this useful post by Nina Simon, How much time does Web 2.0 take?, which gives some ideas for what you can accomplish online in 30 minutes or 3 hours or a day a week.

But for a quick primer, I think Tyler's pointers (summarised below) are a good place to start if you're thinking of getting your museum/gallery blogging:

-- Get curators, conservators, etc. to contribute

-- Follow the well-established blog 'rules'

-- Write with verve

-- Recognize that it takes a while to build audience

-- Try things that might fail

-- Write about art

To which I'd add

-- Don't write blogs if you don't read blogs

-- Trust your staff to be sensible

-- Forget about the 'institutional voice'.


Anonymous said...

I really hope more galleries start blogging. The ideas you have summarised here cover it, but I would add/emphasis its something that takes a while to get "into" or warm to - eg you don't know all the rules taright off [BTW what are they? :-)]. For me, gallery websites (and hopefully blogs)are a real connection that overcomes distance and entices me to get out and add them to my "must see" list

Courtney Johnston said...

I think there are two sets of rules:

1. Internal - who in your institution gets to say what to whom and how (many institutions have rules or at least assumptions about who is allowed to speak publicly about internal goings-on, including exhibitions).

2. The blogging 'rules': Link! Be interesting! Respond to comments! Leave comments on other people's blogs! Post pictures! (Hey - we all break these ones sometimes, but still, either your heart's in it or it's not).

But I know exactly what you mean. I need a bit more than an image and a paragraph of text on a website to haul my ass to an exhibition in Tauranga or Gore - I want to know what's in the show, and why, and what the curator was thinking, and what other people have thought. And given that the web is (a) faster and (b) cheaper and (c) more interactive than print publications, you would think that more galleries would throw caution to the wind and say to that staff member who's been bugging then about it for 12 months 'Yeah! Go ahead! Blog! What's the worst that can happen?'.

Anonymous said...

I think its something smaller galleries should get into big time - they are the ones with most of the distance issues. I am hoping to get this message through (gently)at a meeting tomorrow

Sarah Eades said...

Great post. I'm going to take on the challenge. I think direct encouragement on a specific subject for a specific post is the way to go. Keep your eyes open, ill get a curator blogging soon!

Sarah Eades said...

I think that this also highlights the skills of people who are blogging. I underestimated how easy i find it to write on a blog, to be a bit looser with the information i publish and to learn from my mistakes and comments of others. This is not necessarily easy for those used to 5 or 6 proofs of each printed essay. It's easy to forget that it's a different world on the web for many people to head their head round getting involved in.

Nina Simon said...

I keep pushing for non-web staff in museums to be blogging etc. After all, it's fundamentally about content, not technology. I wrote a post a while back looking at the different "types" of institutional blogs to help people sort themselves out in terms of comfort with alternate voices, need for editorial review, goals of the blog, etc.

It is amazing to hear the story behind the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Eye Level blog, which is very rigorous about institutional voice and has complicated editing structures. It's a whole different story when you have a place that supports (or ignores) irreverence. Both can work, and in some cases, the Eye Level model is all that's possible. Of course, I still push for free-wheeling, but that's a question of changing overall institutional culture.

Nina Simon said...

I'm a big advocate for blogging living in the content side of museums/galleries, since functionally these are venues for content distribution no different from exhibits or programs. I wrote a post awhile back looking at different models for institutional blogs, ranging from the irreverent to the highly sculpted. I (and you?) may personally prefer more honest, subjective material, but in many cases it comes down to institutional culture to determine what is and isn't possible.

Courtney Johnston said...

Thanks Sarah and Nina - I feel like part of an international conversation!

Nina, we actually looked at your models awhile ago, a short time after I led a project to launch 2 blogs in my workplace (which I keep separate from my blogging here). I think you're utterly right that the culture (personality?) of an institution will determine what is and isn't possible, and also what kind of content appears on a galery/museum blog and how it's expressed.

From my own work experience, I have three pieces of advice when thinking od starting a blog (well, I have many, but these really are the three most important):

1. Make sure you have a group of people who are keen to be involved in the blog (I've talked to people who are full of fear because management has said 'we want a blog'. Make sure these people - and their managers - understand that blogging will require a chunk of their time each week (say, 30 minutes to put together a post: a time/word limit probably helps people mentally balance how much effort should go into a post: one person I talked to about a potential blog said they thought it would take them a week to research a single post - I didn't think that was good ROI).

2. Have one person whose job it is to jolly other people along, teach them the basics of the platform (or load their posts for them) moderate comments, and go forth into the web and spread the word about the blog. You could share this all out, but I think you need a steady presence at the centre.

3. Trust your staff to be sensible (I take the attitude of 'if I wouldn't say this in a workshop session at a conference, I probably shouldn't say it on the blog) and learn by doing, rather than mire yourself down by trying to risk manage and plan for every possible eventuality before launch.

A question I'd throw out there now is: writing posts is one thing, and you can always sanity-check what you're saying with a colleague to make sure you're not going to put any noses out of joint. But how about when you get an inflammatory - but entirely valid - comment or challenge?

Sarah Eades said...

I think it is a good point that you have to "trust your staff". When starting our blog and encouraging others to write on it (still not quite encouraged enough) i found this quote on a blog about the Yahoo employee blog guidelines by Jeremy Zawodny:

"Basically, just about anyone can and will read what you publish. So keep that in mind. If you're worried about what your Mom, manager, ex-co-worker,or Terry Semel would think, listen to that instinct. And realise that once a cat is out of the bag, you can never get it back in. The blog world is incredibly efficient at spreading rumours, secrets, rants, hyperbole, and your mistakes."

This seemed to get the point across. People are not stupid they just seem afraid to get started. i'll let you know how my experimenting goes.

David Cauchi said...

The fundamental rule of successful writing (in any form) is to think about your reader's needs (I use the singular because I find individualising them helps). This discussion seems to be more about the writer's needs.

The first thing is to identify your audience and the purpose of your writing. What do you want the reader to know and/or do after reading what you've written? What does your reader want to know?

Once you've done that, you can then identify the best way of bringing this about and write accordingly. Be wary of applying rules generally to all cases. They need to fit your purpose and be appropriate for your audience.

For a museum or art gallery, these questions should be fairly easy to answer. I don't think you can assume that your audience is potential visitors to your institution. If your purpose is to be 'venues for content distribution[,] no different from exhibits or programs', then your audience is wider than that.

I'm not a potential visitor to the Tate Modern, for example, but I am very interested in their Picabia show (well, there're a couple of other guys in it as well, but they're minor artists of little interest).

However, because they didn't consider me as part of their audience, their website doesn't meet my needs. It's designed to supplement a physical visit. Tsk tsk.

In terms of institutional blogs, you'll obviously approach it very differently depending on whether your audience is other curators/museum professionals or whether it is (a subset of) the general public.

Courtney Johnston said...

Thanks David.

I guess the conversation here about the writer has to do with institutions & the need to 'get permission' to start writing - essential to getting readers.

But I do agree with you - and I think that was Tyler's original point. Museum/gallery blogs are often of interest to a professional (by which I mean people who work or operate in the sector) reader, but not to a 'general' reader (or the general punter, if you will). Thus his call for more curators to blog, and more of the blogging to be about art: that being the point of galleries and curators, I s'pose, to connect art with an audience and vice versa.

Your point about the Tate Mod is interesting too. I don't think museums/galleries have figured out how to 'value' web visitors (or even better, web engagement) the way they value warm bodies walking through the physical doors - or even if they should. If galleries were willing to value engagement from people who may never physically visit them, maybe they'd put more effort into their presence online.