Since No One Knows Us, We Decided to Social-ize: the National Park Service Northeast Museum Services Center

NMSC-teaser

Some of you may not realize that the National Park Service (NPS) has “museums” or museum collections.  Many of you may not know what a Curator, an Archivist, an Archeologist or a Conservator actually does behind the scenes for any museum that you’ve been to. And most of you have probably never heard of the Northeast Museum Services Center – referred to by our initials (NMSC).  But, you undoubtedly know the power of social media to connect you and other readers with this type of information.

The NMSC is an NPS program that helps parks – primarily in the Northeast – with preserving, protecting and making accessible museum and archival collections. Our team of Curators, Archivists and Conservators are available for cataloging (both archeology and archives); museum research and planning; collections conservation and general technical assistance.  Think of us as museum consultants for the parks – we help parks to assess their collections management issues; to find funding to correct those problems and then to assist them with correcting those problems.

We were fairly late to the game, but we now realize the value of social media to any organization and have started additional public outreach through Twitter, Facebook and a blog of our own.

Is Tweeting Really for Us?

For at least a year or more, that was the question bouncing around our office about Twitter and other forms of social media.  Our office is a generational mix from 20 something volunteers, interns and technician that all want to be on the cutting edge of innovation to 40+ year old staff that are unsure of the value added by websites that our kids are using in their free time.  We are also like most entities nowadays, being asked to do more with less. Two of our full-time staff members left for other jobs in less than a year and we were unable to re-fill those positions.  In that time, the workload only increased.  With that in mind, should we be “wasting” valuable staff time on something “frivolous” like Facebook or Twitter?

I’ll admit that I’m one of the 40-somethings and I was on the fence about the value that we might get from putting any staff time towards social media.  But, I/we realized several things based on general observations, calls with our parks and an assessment of social media usage –

  1. Most people are unaware that NPS sites even have “museums” and/or museum collections. We hear the same thing that you may be thinking, “But, the NPS is Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. It does not have museums like Smithsonian.” You are correct that the NPS has very few traditional four-wall museums like the Smithsonian.  But, what we do have (and that we help to manage) are 26 million artifacts and archival documents in the Northeast alone in the real places that they were used or made.  That includes the landscape drawings of the Olmsteds at Frederick Law Olmsted NHS, the library of John Quincy Adams at Adams NHP, archeological collections from Jamestown at Colonial NHP, Civil War archival collections at Gettysburg NMP, and natural history specimens collected from Shenandoah NP.
  2. Since the NMSC is a behind-the-scenes group that even lacks a public domain name, most people (NPS staff included) are not aware of the services that we provide.  In many cases, the general public may have heard the title Curator, Archivist, Archeologist or Conservator, but may not really know what we do.  We all know the objects that we see on exhibit or the documents that we use for research, but collections care is also a critical component of the NPS mission that needs to be fostered.  Not to mention the fact that all cultural institutions need to help build and diversify the museum studies workforce.
  3. Social media has already become the information clearinghouse for the museum field. While we were blindly thinking that Twitter was just celebrity gossip or blogs are a dying form of communication, all forms of social media had become the accepted way of disseminating information for organizations such as Association of American Museums (AAM), Smithsonian Institution and most of our parks.  We had isolated ourselves and we were missing critical information.

So, in late 2010 with the relaxing of some NPS social media restrictions, we decided to join the rest of the world and test out a social media initiative for our office.

Now, Go Engage Your “Audience”

Giles Parker
Giles Parker, Museum Curator, Northeast Museum Services Center, National Park Service

Okay, so, we knew what we wanted to say about the museum collections in the National Park Service and about our work. Our goals were/are fairly simple: highlight the museum collections in the Northeast Region of the NPS; encourage the public (as well as NPS followers) to adopt an overall stewardship ethic; and connect (or re-connect) ourselves with non-NPS museum professionals in order to stay abreast of the latest curatorial trends.

BUT – Who is our audience? How do we attract them to us? What are the best forms of social media to do that? And, what format should the content take?  Many books have been written about the use of social media by museums; workshops are available and the web is full of great websites that provide guidance.  None of those are focused on a behind-the-scenes program like ours that works with collections from many disparate sites and focuses on region-wide collection management issues.  We decided to turn to one of our 20-something Museum Specialists (Megan Lentz) as our de facto Social Media Consultant to develop a short-term and long-term social media strategy.

Megan reviewed existing uses of social media by museums and brought her own usage to the discussion.  We then decided to start our slow roll-out with two Twitter feeds (@NPS_NMSC and @NMSC_Volunteers ), a Facebook Page and a blog focused on our Archeological Collections Management team.  Generally speaking, we’ve engaged our varied audience in a number of different ways:

  • Setting up searches on the federal government’s official jobs site for Curator, Archives, Archeology and Conservator job announcements that need wider distribution;
  • Creating Google searches focused on issues such as “museum storage,” museum security and fire prevention that affect all of our sites;
  • Developing a calendar of key dates for our parks – such as birthdates for historical figures – as times to highlight images and facts about NPS museum collections associated with those sites;
  • Connecting with our parks and other cultural institutions through Twitter and Facebook to find collection management information that we feel should be shared and discussed;
  • Generating threads that focus on key collection management issue including the use of museum collections in social media campaigns;
  • Initiating a feed focused on the work of our volunteers and interns program (@NMSC_Volunteers) to help build the workforce and reinforce the types of museum opportunities that are available;
  • Blogging about the work of our Archeological Collections Management team.  Most people know the Indiana Jones and the excavating side of archeology, but are unaware of the curation involved after the dig.  Postings have included research and photos on bottles that may have been used by George Washington, the history of matches, and a spotlight on pipe stems.
  • Utilizing a third-party social media dashboard (Hootsuite) to plan and space out postings to all of our accounts.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In less than 6 months, we feel like we’ve made significant progress towards our goals with NPS and non-NPS followers from across the nation.  In many ways, the numbers speak for themselves. We primarily provide service to 76 sites in the Northeast, but @NPS_NMSC (190+ followers), @NMSC_Volunteers (80+ followers), NMSC on Facebook (70+ followers), and our blog (300+ readers per posting) are reaching a much broader audience.  Hootsuite also provides analytics and many of our postings get 10 to 30 additional clicks for more information. Are those numbers that you’d be interested in?

Additionally, the current NPS Director Jon Jarvis was appointed in 2009 with a set of priorities that focused on Workforce, Relevancy, Education and Stewardship.  Our early successes with social media are also helping us and thus the NPS as whole to make progress in each of these areas as well.  We’ve been able to re-connect with the museum workforce outside of our region and outside of the NPS; help parks with relevancy by focusing on the latest trends in the use of museum collections; discover some of the latest technologies such as the use of Google Maps and also QR codes that might improve access to museum collections for educational purposes; and find information on fire prevention and security needs for museum collections.  And, we feel like we’ve only just started to scratch the surface.

Based on these early successes, we will continue to support and improve upon our current social media outlets.  We plan on getting more of our staff involved and thus highlighting more of our work as well as the collections in the Northeast.  We are also considering other social media options including a blog for our entire office.  Megan continues as our de facto Social Media Consultant and monitors the latest trends in social media usage.  We are also advocating for other NPS parks and regional programs to use social media in a similiar way (with an emphasis even less on “us” and more on the actual resources).  These statistics and early successes may also help us to advocate for a public domain name to reinforce the NPS stewardship role to the general public.

Conclusion

If you or your organization does not have a social media strategy at this point, consider the tremendous benefits and get started.  If you don’t have a 20-something on staff to work with as your Social Media Consultant, consider bringing someone on board or contracting with someone to develop and implement that strategy.  If you are interested in connecting with more museum or NPS information, consider following some of our parks and other cultural institutions through social media.  And, if you want to know more about NPS museum collections, what a Curator does, or what the NMSC does, consider following us on Twitter, Facebook or through our blog.

For a very small time commitment, you will find that social-izing is worthwhile.

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