Nina Simon on museum participation and curating a second life in the social space

Nina Simon Podcast Teaser

Nina Simon, the blogger behind the popular Museum 2.0 site, talks about why she believes social media is the key to helping museums and heritage groups connect their constituents with their content. Among the topics covered are the time investment required for social media as well as how to use social media philosophies to better visitor experiences without necessarily using the web tools.

Here’s the transcribed interview:

Welcome to the Voices of the Past Podcast. I’m Jeff Guin and today I’m talking to Nina Simon with the Blog Museum 2.0. Nina, I wonder if you’d just start by telling us the story of how you created museum 2.0 and also tell us what kind of impact your hoping to have in the field of cultural heritage.

N: Sure. I think that in late 2006, there were a lot of museum folks who started to be interested in this idea of what is the impact of web 2.0—wikis and of YouTube and all these things–on cultural institutions. But a lot of the people who were asking these things were not people who were in a position to be technically embedded in what was going on in that world. I was somebody who, because of the people in my peer group and also because my husband runs a web technology company, was heavily involved with people who were really on the fringe doing some pretty crazy stuff. You know, the first ones to Twitter, all that kind of stuff. So I felt like I was in this position to learn more about it and maybe to some demystifying about what all this stuff is and how it can really apply to our missions. I think that one of the problems is that we look at this new technology and we say, “Okay, this thing will slice penguins!” And then we say, “Great! Everybody needs this!” But nobody needs a thing that slices penguins. And certainly not zoos and aquariums!

But there is this question of ‘these are communication tools and they’re being used in some interesting ways and how can we use what’s going successfully about those, and apply them to our missions; not just by using those same technologies like blogs and podcasts, but also by looking at what’s going on in the web and saying, “How can we make a physical space that has the energy and the conversation around artifacts and content the same way we’re seeing that happen right now so intensely on the web?”

J: Now, I first found out about your blog through a post you wrote a while back called “How Much Time Does Web 2.0 Take?” And I know that the time versus benefit is question is still a big one for lots of folks. What do you have to say to someone who’s in heritage preservation who kind of sees the benefits of social media, but is still scared that it might be too big of a time sink?

N: I think that very reasonably our first approach to something like this is to say, “We need to understand the whole landscape so we can form a strategy.” But I think that that’s not the real appropriate starting point; that can be very overwhelming. I think the starting point is more, try one thing that doesn’t take too much time and can work for you. And so a great example is something like just looking at blogs just becoming a spectator in that world; joining LinkedIn or joining Facebook. LinkedIn is a perfect example of one that, I think a lot of people have joined LinkedIn and they’re not really sure why, and they’re sort of aggregating connections but there is this understanding that maybe one day I’m going to need this network, and every once in awhile I do get a message from somebody who says, “Hey, I’m looking for someone to fill this position,” whatever it is through that network. And I see it as having a very specific professional function, and I feel comfortable with it in that function.

I think that in the same way that a lot of museums, when we first started having interactive exhibits. Imagine if instead of ever touching a push button or flipping a flip chart, you would start it by saying, “We want to understand every kind of interactive we could ever make, before we make a decision about where we’re going to go.” And I think that instead what we know that we do, is we go museums, we experience interactive, we start getting a sense for ‘I like this; I don’t l like that.’ And I think that in the same way, we have to explore those new communication tools, just by engaging with them a little bit personally. And one thing I often recommend to people is if you are uncomfortable by starting with something visitor-facing, because maybe it won’t reflect your mission, maybe it will be overwhelming or too much, then start by creating something within your own staff. A lot of these tools have opportunities to be private, whether it’s making a wiki or having a Twitter feed, and I think that working within your staff can also help you understand where the people who might be great resources to be part of these initiatives. You may have a lot of young people in your organization who are already engaged and can give you a little bit of an introduction to this landscape. And you may find that there are certain services that are or aren’t going to work for your institutional culture. And working within your staff and volunteers is a great soft launch place to test that out.

J: Great advice, and also very in keeping with what you’re all about, because you’re not totally connected and wired all the time, as people would expect from bloggers. You actually off the grid out there in California, tell us about that. Does that help keep your life in balance and is it possible for someone to be too connected to the web?

N: I’m sure there is that possibility. I don’t know that I’ve ever been one of those people. I think that I am less connected than people would think. What I’m connected to is other people who are very connected to the web. I think that it is important from the perspective of the Museum 2.0 blog that I am always a learner alongside other people who are reading as well, and I am not an expert or a super-user. And I’m often in the same way everyone else is, looking at this stuff and saying, “Oh, another thing.” I can’t do that. But in regard to living off the grid, I love living off the grid and for me, living in the woods means that it’s so easy for me to unplug. I think when I was living in the city of Washington D.C., there was a more a sense of everybody—you could always be online. You could always be with your device, and I think that this is not a generational difference. You know, my mom–early cell phone adopter–she picks up her phone everywhere. We’re in a restaurant, she picks up the phone. I can’t believe it. I don’t think this is something that’s just ‘kids are always on their cells.’ I think that there are a lot of people who don’t have comfortable relationships with technology where we control it. And for me, part of living out here means it is so easy for me to say, “You know what? I do not have to be connected right now.” And granted, yes, it helps that sometimes I notice “Oh, we don’t have a lot of power right now. It’s been really cloudy. I guess I’m gonna spend some time with some books now.” Or “My cell phone doesn’t work up here,” kinds of thing. But I think also, you can do this everywhere. I think that it’s very legitimate and peaceful for us to all turn off every once in a while and that’s certainly something I use a lot in my own life, because otherwise you can’t get anything done.

J: Exactly. Now, you are someone who knows how to get things done though, and you’re not leading the conversation among museums, but really in the social media world as well. In fact, you had a post recently called “The Hierarchy of Social Participation” which was very popular; it was linked all over the blogosphere. Tell us how you came up on the concept and also how do people use it to connect better to their audiences.

N: Yeah, I think that a lot of people look at what’s going on in the web in terms of people socializing on the web, and they say, “Wow, there are these huge community spaces where all these people are talking to each other!” And I think that then, from a cultural heritage perspective, the analog would be to say, “Well, if we create the right kind of space, we’ll get a lot of people talking to each other.”

And there’s a more sophisticated problem here and what I did with that “Hierarchy of Participation” was really analyze ‘How did they get to that conversation space on the web?’ And it’s sort of surprising—I call it ‘Me to We Design’—that they don’t start by saying, “Hey, everybody get together and talk about books.” They start by saying, “Oh you? You like these books? Oh, this person likes those books and this person likes some of the same books as you.” And you start having these triangulating experiences, from my very personal interest to somebody else, through a shared interest, and then that compels me to talk to that person. So I think that what you see happening on the web in terms of these social interactions and relationships forming, are really mediated through technology and through content. So I’d love to see museums looking the same way for content and having ways for people to say, “I love this painting. He loves this painting. Now I’m more compelled to talk to that guy than I am to talk to talk to that guy than any other visitors in this place at the same time.

J: That’s a great insight, and you seem to be breaking ground on so many different levels, but I wanted to talk about your writing for a second. Most folks who read blogs or have attempted to blog have heard the rule ‘250, 300 words max.’ Keep it short and sweet; it’ll keep your readers coming back for more. Yet your posts are 700 and sometimes 1000 words long. And yet they’re still engaging and philosophical and deep even. Was that something that came naturally to you or was it the result of a process of you finding your voice as a blogger?

N: I can’t remember which writer it was who said, “It’s much harder to write 250 words than it is to write 1,000 words.” And it may be just that I’m sloppy, but no, I think that what I see—a lot of blogs are places that you go for aggregated content. I know if I go to Tree Hugger, that’s the only that’s the only place I need to go around environmental design because they’re connecting to everything. And they don’t need to put long posts because they’re not really doing analysis; they’re more saying, “Hey, look at this thing. We know our audience wants this aggregated stuff.”

And I think from the beginning what I was trying to do with Museum 2.0 was really to learn myself by figuring some of these things out and doing that in a public way. So I feel very grateful that other people have interest in these longer posts. I think that one lucky element is that because the museum audience–there aren’t many blogs in this world–I think that there’s not a set expectation for the posts to be short in the same way there is, say, in the tech world. And so I think of it more as a magazine kind of experience. I’m only putting up a couple of posts a week and so I feel like I spend time on them. Hopefully other people spend time on them. And that it’s a different sort of analytical experience.


J: Well it certainly is for me and it must be for other folks too because you have so many comments on your blog, which is kind of a rarity among blogs about heritage issues. How did you manage to build the sense of trust and community around Museum 2.0 that makes people feel comfortable enough to comment?

N: That has been a very slow growth and something I am so grateful for. It took me a while to realize that. Because when I go to other blogs I don’t always comment them. In fact, I rarely do. But now that I blog, I realize how desperately needy I am to hear from other people. And it makes me realize that there are probably other people out there who also would love to have more comments. But it’s interesting to think, when I talk to other people who read Museum 2.0, they never–unless it’s in sort of this marketing way of “Oh, how do you get comments?”–they really don’t care too much about the comments. And that is so interesting to me because, for me, what they’re getting is from me; what I’m getting is from them so I feel like I’m much more desirous of comments than they are. And I think that if you start a blog and you find that you don’t have a lot of comments, look at how many readers you have, because it’s okay. Think about it. Most of the things we read in this world we don’t comment on. That’s really okay. And it was not until Museum 2.0 got to getting about 1,000-2,000 people per week looking at it, that I really started to have a few comments. So now even, probably about two thousand people look at Museum 2.0 a week, and on the average week maybe there are ten comments on a great week. So it’s a pretty low percentage there. That’s fewer than 1%, and so I think that it takes a lot of eyes to get a few fingers moving and that’s something you see all over Web 2.0 that the number of spectators compared to the number of creators is really a huge percentage. And I think that’s something that when we do these initiatives with organizations we’re not aware of, and so sometimes we can end up in these sort of embarrassing situations you say, “Our museums going to have a video contest.” And then you only get three submissions and you wonder what happened, because YouTube is so popular. But of course, there are millions of people looking at YouTube videos and a very small percentage of those millions are actually posting videos. It’s still mostly an audience that wants to consume.

J: Well, let’s go a little bit deeper into your writing style then, because what I’m interested in finding out is when you sit down to write a post, do you consciously think about how to turn that consumer into a commenter?

N: Yeah, I think a lot of the posts start with a question and end with a question. And it’s important to me that most all of those questions—I don’t think I ever write a question just to have it there. This is a pet peeve of mine with museum labels, when you have a label that ends with a question like, “What do you think the girl is doing?” But of course, the person who wrote the label doesn’t care what you think. It’s just sort of there for you to work with. And I think a lot of the things I’m dealing with on the blog, I’m grappling to figure out ‘What are the situations where you want to talk to strangers?’ or ‘How could this tool be used?’ And I think that the more I can—and I’d love to hear from people about what they think works for them, but for my perspective–the more I put myself out there and honestly say, “Hey, I’m trying to figure this out. Let’s help each other figure this out. Help me figure this out,” that I really legitimately love reading those comments and learning from other people. I hope that honesty and that interest in them comes through. And that’s different than if I was just saying, “Here’s my thing. What do you think?”

J: Absolutely, and obviously you’re very skilled in developing that interpersonal communication through your blog, and I’m also curious to know if you use any social media platforms. And also, what those platforms allow you to do as far as furthering that relationship with your reader.

N: I love Twitter these days, but I think I fall in and out of love with different things. Certainly, I use a Google homepage, which I really recommend to anybody. It’s a very easy tool that just helps you, and on Museum 2.0 there is a post. If you search ‘Google homepage’ there’s a step-by-step of how to do it, but basically it means that whenever I open a web browser, I’m seeing feeds that I’m interested in, I’m seeing the weather where I am and I have a Wikipedia where I can search right from there. It’s a very useful thing where I can have a lot of content at my fingertips.

So, certainly I read several blogs, although one of the things I love about Twitter, which is what’s called a micro-blogging program, is that Twitter is a way that individuals can send out very short messages and you can choose to follow those individuals, in which case you receive their messages, and other people follow you. So, when you “tweet” something out, it goes to everybody who’s following you and vice-versa. So, often what will happen is, somebody will just put out a provocative question. I just got one from the Tacoma Art Museum where they just, in their tweet said, “When does public art not become public?” and it had a link to a Wall Street Journal article. So, I’m more likely to read this article now because it came with this interesting tag line of, “The art museum is interested in this; maybe I’ll check this out.” So, I use the web pretty informally in that way.

I love a program called Pandora, which is an online radio program. And actually it’s one that I know several organizations, stores, and I don’t know if any museums are using it as their background music, but is a one that’s safe to use and doesn’t have advertising, and it works in a really interesting way based on collaborative filtering, where you put in a song or an artist, and they have all this music tagged so they can figure out which music you might like because of the music you’ve put in. And it’s pretty sophisticated; it’s not just saying, “Oh, you like Paul Simon. You’ll like Art Garfunkel.” It’s saying, “Oh, you like Paul Simon. You’ll like other things with African drums and call and response, or whatever elements they’ve tagged as being part of that artist’s experience. So, but those are totally personal. I think that professionally, I don’t use Facebook that much, although I’m aware of it. I think mostly for me it’s about making sure I’m keeping track of the people, via mostly their blogs, that are really doing something interesting. Oh, and the other one that I use so much I forget that it’s Web 2.0 or social media is Flickr. Flickr is a photo sharing web site and I recommend this to any person who is planning an exhibition, a program, anything where you need source images. Flicker is all based on photos that people have uploaded themselves. So for example, when I was working on an exhibition where we knew we wanted to thematically have a Middle Eastern, Moroccan kind of feel. I could go on Flickr and look for things like “Moroccan hair dresser.’ And I could see exactly what a barber shop would look like in Morocco in a way I really couldn’t find on something like Getting Images or Google Images or any of the typical sources. So, I highly recommend Flickr in that way.

And then the last one I use, which I use personally and professionally is a site called Delicious. Delicious is a way to keep your web bookmarks, but it stores them online so that instead of them being in a folder on your computer, they are something you can access from any computer. And what that means is that if Jeff and I are working on a project together, I can create a delicious tag for Jeff and Nina’s project, and then Jeff knows at any time, he could go and look at the links that I have put in folder. So we can sort of share bookmarks in that way. And I find that pretty useful when you’re working on specifically research project with other people, where you want to be able to say, “Hey, check this out.” But you don’t want to have to constantly email links to people.

J: Yeah those are interesting.

N: What about you?

J: Well actually I use most all of those, and I’m glad you mentioned Flicker because it’s been a great help in putting together the Preservation Today Netcast. You can go on there and you can actually go to advanced search and search by creative commons licensing and that means you don’t have to go through the long copyright process for use of the photos. All you have to do is give attribution. So how can folks find you on these other social media platforms?

N: Yeah sure. I’m “ninaksimon” in all kinds of places on Facebook and Twitter. And I think if you go to the blog, under the contact area I think it lists all that kind of stuff, but also, one thing that I use and has become very popular in some areas and some people have no idea about it is a website called SlideShare. It’s a great way to very easily share PowerPoint presentations or Keynote presentations. Like, on my site, you can see a link to all of the presentations that I put up or download. So it’s a really useful way to let other people download your slides and talk about them.

Oh, and one other one that I just love, and I think that museums should be using all over the place, especially with education programs, is a website called VoiceThread. It is so wonderful. It’s like Slideshare in that it’s a way to share images with other people, but then you talk over them, and it’s really easy to have conversations around them. And so for example, I’ve used them in planning an exhibition where I would put up a bunch of images and say, “Here are some of the things we are thinking about for this exhibit. We are thinking about doing an exhibit on this with an image of that and talking and thinking about it, blah blah.” And then other people can go on and can also comment in voice.

And there is something about voice and having people talking to each other that really is neat. And I was surprised to find it was a vehicle that got a higher comment rate than blogging did. So, a much higher percentage of people who look at a voicethread will comment on it in voice. And I find that really interesting, so I think that that’s another element as you’re looking for social media strategies for your institution that maybe a variety of different strategies that may elicit different forms of visitor participation.

And you can really design that based on your own comfort. So, something like a podcast— that’s totally pushed content. You don’t have to receive anything back from visitors on that. So if that’s what you want to do, that’s okay. But if you want something that really elicits participation, I love following museums and libraries on Twitter, because that’s really a conversation going on and it is so neat to me to feel like, “Wow, the San Francisco Zoo is shearing a sheep this week,” or, “The library in Grand Rapids is talking about a favorite book that a visitor brought in today.” And it gives me a little slice of what’s going on in institutions that really increases my connection with them in a more personal way. And I a lot of that is what this is all about: getting away from our branded, museum-speak language that can really read in this day and age particularly, as kind of false, and getting to a place where we are having more personal relationships with each other and with visitors.

J: And that’s what it’s all about, really. Now I haven’t heard of VoiceThread before; this is a new one on me. Is it just found at www.voicethread.com?

N: Voicethread.com, that’s right. And let me check. I think my name there is Nina K. Simon, and I’ve a couple, if you want to check them out in a museum way, and it actually includes one where we failed to get comments and that was sort of an interesting situation I have some ideas about.  But it looks like I’m just ‘Nina Simon.’

J: Well, now you piqued my interest. Tell me a little bit more about the technology and what type of audience is it best suited for?

N: It’s great for students, because you can have all these kids that are so cute, where every kid is doing their presentation about their drawing and they’re talking about their drawing. And then other kids are commenting on their drawing. It is really great.


J: Okay, I’m gonna switch gears here just for a second and ask you my big question for the interview, and it is a question that is directly related to museums but is also very personal to me, and it actually entails a confession too. The confession is–pause for dramatic effect–I don’t particularly care to go to museums. And I like the idea of going to them and I realize that that statement kind of runs counter to everything that I’ve said about your blog and enjoying it and maybe even my stance as someone who values heritage. Is there a social media solution for someone like me,–and I hope I’m not the only one–who can’t see beyond the glass case to connect to the artifact or the museum contents?

N: Yeah, absolutely. Jeff, a lot of people share your problem. I have that problem in art museums. I always say to people in art museums who work there, “I feel like I am always going to an art museum hoping for an epiphanil experience and I always leave a little spiritually unfulfilled.” I think that there are some—well, I think that there are some things that are already happening in museums that we, as visitors, are bad at taking them up on. And they as museums are bad at really selling us on. I don’t know if you’ve ever done audio tours or gone on a tour with a guide in a museum. I tend not to do them, but in times when I do, I always have a better experience. So, that’s sort of an interesting problem, right? There is great additional content available, but for some reason it just isn’t appealing to us in the format that it is being presented. So, one thing I’m seeing happen at some museums now, for example, SFMOMA, San Francisco, they’ve hired somebody they’re calling a community producer, and that person is basically staging conversations in the museum. She reserves time with curators and she really creates a space that feels like, just sitting down on a couch with some people. Some are experts, some are visitors, and talk about this stuff.” And it’s not something you have to sign up for or you have to go with a guide to do. You just into a room and there it is.

And I think that there are these ‘lowering the barriers’ ways to connect people with experiences that are additional layering of information that can be very nonthreatening like that and don’t require a lot of planning. Also some great examples of places where they’ve either allowed visitors to write labels of their own or write questions directly on the labels where they find that—well the big argument against that is, “Well, visitors don’t know anything.” But what happens is, people spend so much more time with the artifact if they have to try and write a label about it or if they have to think of a question about it, that they are having a more valid, analytical experience with the artifact. And part of that is what museums are supposed to be about, is helping you figure out, “How do I learn about this stuff and how do I get engaged with this stuff?” So I think that sometimes giving up a little authority, even if it means losing that expert voice at the front end, doesn’t mean you lose it at the back end because what is those visitors then become very interested in learning more.

So, I think there are a lot of things that just have to do with how we host people and how we make that a friendly opportunity. And really connecting humans with humans. Because, overwhelmingly people who leave museums who have a positive experience, when asked what that positive experience was, they say the experience they had was another person, usually a staff member. And so I think that the more we can maximize that opportunity, not just between visitor and staff, but between visitors and visitors, the more it’s gonna be seen as a really positive experience. And then museums will be more fun because they’ll be thought of as somewhere social instead of somewhere where you have to whisper.


J: Exactly, and ultimately that’s what it’s supposed to be about, right? It’s about the people. It’s great to preserve the artifacts and the material culture, but ultimately it’s about the people who made it, I would think anyway.

N: Yeah, and on the flipside, some people would say, “No, no, it’s not about people, it’s about preserving these artifacts.” And I think that even in preservation, there are some places where they are starting to say, open up their preservation labs so people can watch how paintings are restored or the Smithsonian has a really interesting blog on their exhibit central, an interview with a model maker and stuff like that. And I think that that is great also in terms of the more the parts of the museum that are more visitor accessible, exposing the process. Everybody loves those ‘how things are made’ kinds of shows and I think that museums, when we put an artifact out on the floor and it looks all perfect, it’s also kind of dead. And it’s really the making and the decisions around that that are very exciting and we need to find new ways to be comfortable exposing those, I think.

J: Absolutely. Well, let me propose a scenario for you. Let’s say that there’s this very small university museum somewhere with an even smaller budget. The curator is very involved, but minimally involved with the web and social media. Occasional web browsing, email primarily. What could a person like that do to use the social media philosophies and even the tools to better connect with their visitors?

N: I think the first question–and anybody can answer this question–is “what do I want my relationship to be with visitors?” And I think that part of that is about what we’re already comfortable with, but part of that is aspiration. What could it be and where would I like to go with this? And I think that that really drives what you might like to do. So, some people might say, “The conversation I want to have with visitors is to share my expertise.” And that’s what they already do in exhibits and that’s certainly something you could continue to do in, say, a blog. And maybe then the voice would be a little more informal, or you’d cover things that aren’t covered in the exhibition. Everybody bemoans that they can’t get enough on the labels as they’d like to. So maybe a blog in that case would be appropriate if you want to share expertise.

Other people might say, “I want to have more conversations and understand more about what my visitors want from the museum.” And those people might want to look into something like Twitter or Facebook, putting yourself out there as an individual in a social network in forum that involves things like asking questions and getting answers. Now, you understand that I started by saying, “you want to have conversations with visitors, try out Facebook.” Not, “Try Facebook and try and convince people that you want to have conversations with them when really you’re just there because you feel like, “Oh I’m supposed to be there.” I think nobody is well served if you feel like you’re going into technology because you feel in some way like you ought to be doing it. I think that what you ought to be doing is examining the kinds of relationships you want to have with visitors and then I think a tool like that Museum 2.0 can help you refine what those possibilities might be and then search for the tools that are going to accommodate that.


J: Right, good stuff. Well Nina Simon, thanks so much for taking the time to visit with me today. I know that I learned a lot, and I just had a good time talking with you. I’ll see you on the blog.

N: Of course! Thanks, my pleasure, Jeff.

J: Well that’s it for the first episode of the Voices of the Past Podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. Now our mission here is to inspire connections to heritage values using new media. If you like, you can join the conversation at our shownotes site, and that’s voicesofthepast.org. Check out the heritage news and even contribute news of your own. I’m Jeff Guin, and until next time, I’ll see you online.

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