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Audio Podcast: Jennifer Souers Chevraux on the role of museums on the social web

Coming up on this edition of the Voices of the Past podcast, we’ll explore the role of museums on the social web.

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Intro: And welcome to Voices of the Past. The podcast that helps you use the web to advocate for the preservation of cultural heritage. I’m Jeff Guin and today we’re going to join Bethany Frank as she interviews Jennifer Souers Chevraux of the blog MuseoBlogger. Now Jennifer helps museums and cultural organizations engage their audiences by developing compelling experiences and using new media to cultivate a new generation of patrons. Here’s that interview.

Frank: Hey Jennifer, thanks so much for joining us for the podcast.

Chevraux: Hi, glad to be here.

Frank: So, to go ahead and get started. How did you get involved with museums?

Chevraux: When I was in undergrad, I volunteered at a couple of museums because I was an art history and anthropology major, so it made sense to go to both of those museums. And that was the only access I had to artifacts and original artwork. So I volunteered there, and I thought that it may be something that I would want to do. And then my first job out of college, I worked for a traveling museum on a train. It’s called the Art Train, still in existence, and I worked with them. And being on the train and working there wasn’t exactly your typical museum experience. So then I thought maybe it wasn’t what I wanted to do. But I tried archeology, that’s what I went to graduate school in. And then I tried teaching, which I did like, but I kind of wanted everyday to be a little bit different. And so I went back to museum work. Kind of went through the back door deciding that this was a good way for me to work in a place where I got a little bit of education, a little bit of working with artifacts, a little bit of outreach and talking with the public and volunteer training. I got all of that, and everybody thought my job was really cool.

Frank: Wonderful. So could you go ahead and tell us some about Illumine Creative Solutions?

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Chevraux: Illumine Creative Solutions, that is my consulting business that I have. What happened is, I was on staff at several different museums. At the time that I founded Illumine Creative Solutions, I was on staff as the director of exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and I was pregnant with my first baby. And I was working about, I would say, averaging 50 hours a week, sometimes 60 hours a week. And realized that I didn’t really think that was going to jive so well with motherhood. So it came to pass that I had the opportunity to help another smaller museum here in Cleveland with a project they were doing while I was still on staff with the Natural History Museum. And it was really a great opportunity to come into a place that didn’t really have an exhibit instructor. They needed some new ideas and a fresh approach, and so they reached out to a colleague of mine who said, “You should talk to Jennifer.” And I was doing this project, and it really seemed that I could balance that with my job that I already had with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and so I thought that maybe I could balance some consulting work with being a mom too. And pretty soon, people started calling me. My phone was ringing for other projects saying, “Well now that you don’t work at the Natural History Museum, can you help us with this project? Would you have time to do this?” And so it kind of blossomed that way. So now, i do for museums what I used to do on staff. I do on a project basis.

Frank: You mentioned that you got into museums because you wanted each day to be different. So what all would a general week pertain for what you do?

Chevraux: I generally work about three days a week. I dedicate two days to my kids and going to museums and orchestra performances and fun things they want to do. Spending time being a museum consumer, and a consumer of cultural events and organizations and living history places. Because they love that, and that gives me the opportunity to see it from the visitors perspective. And then the other days, I am working on projects. Some of what I do is helping museums engage audiences, and I do some visitor evaluation and project/program evaluation. I’ve helped some nonprofit clients, who are not museums with grant support because they don’t have as large of a staff. Often they are only two people, and they get snowed under. And so I help them put together surveys and assessments and help them show that the programs that they are doing are reaching people in a meaningful way. And meeting their missions. And I do that with museums too. And so any given week, I could be putting together an exhibition working on developing a traveling exhibition program, which I am doing right now with a museum. I am working with an artist to put together a traveling retrospective exhibit of his work that’s going to go to museums. So I am reaching out to some of my museum clients and colleagues to see if we can form good partnerships for that. It’s very diverse, and it makes me feel like I still get to contribute to the field that means so much to me. And  I get to also balance that with enjoying museums and historical centers with my kids.

Frank: So, what role does your blog play with all of this?

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Jennifer Chevraux and daughter

Chevraux: I started my blog not really knowing where it was going to lead. Once my daughter was born, I realized I wouldn’t do nearly as much writing as I did as director of exhibits, when I was putting together exhibits and having to write text and interpretive panels. And I wanted to keep my skills sharp, so I started a personal blog. And then I realized quickly that I didn’t have enough that I thought anybody would want to say. And about a year later, I thought, “Now I really want a place to say things that normally, on staff, I would say to colleagues.” Conversations we would have. Discussions we would have. Things that I would encounter with my work with clients. Things that would come up and I would have something that I wanted to say about that, but instead of coming home or coming back to an office with a museum where I had lots of colleagues were we could talk about that, I would come to my house and nobody really wanted to talk about my day job. So I needed a place that even when nobody was listening, I could pour out my perspective on certain issues that came up. So I started my job to sort of give me a place to not vent, but share. Because I had all these things in my head, and I no longer had a director of exhibits or director of education or a marketing director, where I could go in a say, “What do you think about this?” And the MuseoBlogger site that I have, gives me that opportunity. And then I realized that it didn’t take long before a lot of my clients and my former colleagues and people that I knew through the Ohio Museum Association were following me, and then I would get these emails from them saying, “Oh, I really liked your perspective about this, I really liked what you had to say.” And it was funny to me because I didn’t realize that they were reading it. It’s definitely allowed me to make new connections that I never would have expected.

Frank: What all goes into creating your blog?

Chevraux: My blog is not museum specific, I would say, although most of what I put in there has to do with museum work. Some of it has to do with just cultural organizations and the challenges that they face today. The world changes so quickly that I think sometimes museums have that institutional glacier effect, where we hear about something that we want to change…orchestras, operas, all those organizations, they are very traditional. And they have traditional boards and traditional constituencies, and so when all of a sudden something like Twitter comes along, “Ooo! Twitter! Ooo! What’s that? Let’s get on that!” And they don’t know who in their organization is going to be that person. Or “Oh! There is all this social media, we should have marketing do it!” And marketing says, “But we’re already doing so much. We don’t really have time for anything.” But I think my blog gave me an opportunity to say from the outside, some observations I thought would help them keep in touch with the average person. Because sometimes, I think, they are looking at a constituency that’s no longer average.

Frank: And so, in your blog you discuss the future of museums. Can you explain to me where you see museums going in the next so many years?

Chevraux: That’s a tough question because I think there’s the place that I would like to see them going, and then the place some of them are going to end up. I think museums are coming to a crossroads where they’ll have to decide who they are going to be in the future and is that who they’ve always been. I think some museums will dare to reinvent themselves the way they do their own business. in terms of the way they meet visitor expectations. They way they reach people. Maybe even the way that they staff museums. And then certainly the way that they find funding. I think some museums will resist the change and become more and more disconnect with their own communities. Because the community is changing. It is no longer just wealthy while industrialists who are looking for the Andrew Carnegie approach to funding a worthy adventure. We don’t have any of those people anymore. And when you look at what Bill Gates funds, he isn’t just making a museum anymore. He’s funding human rights projects or world health projects. And museums can’t be the ones who are missing out at the table. They need to look at their sustainability and find a way within their own communities to become sustainable. And I hope that that means they’re going to become more visitor focused. And it’s a delicate balance. When you have collections of historic artifacts, you have to be collections focused. You have an academic curatorial staff. You have to be focused on their needs and their important research. But all of that has to be balanced very carefully with what people in your community expect from you. What do they need from you. And if you are always answering that question the way that we answered it 20 to 25 years ago, pretty soon you become irrelevant to a large selection of your constituency.

Frank: How do you think social media plays into this and into museum’s futures?

Chevraux: I think social media is a wonderful way for little expense. I say that accepting that you probably need to have a staffer these days just dedicated to it. But I think it’s relatively inexpensive compared to traditional media for having constant access to your potential visitors and your museum members and funding base. It’s like having your own TV station in your museum. You might not be able to constantly broadcast a visual image, but you can continuously broadcast events, upcoming activities and programs. You can tell your audience and your community and even your funders, if you’re here (I’m in Cleveland), the Cleveland Foundation is on Twitter. If you put something up there and they’re following you, which they do for most of the museums and nonprofit organizations that they support. They want to know that you’re out there. They hear about the good work you’re doing. How wonderful is that? You didn’t have to put a stamp on anything. They get it right away, and I think you’re constantly in touch. Now, they might not be watching at the very moment that you post that, and that happens. People turn off their TV too. But I think, in a general sense, it gives you a constant access to those people who could potentially be your visitors and patrons.

Frank: Speaking of patrons, in what ways do you use new media to cultivate the next generation of enthusiastic patrons?

BW meChevraux: The web has become the go-to resource for so many people in today’s culture that it’s a first stop for people. They no longer check their mail to see if they got a recent museum publication. They’re not looking for the museum magazine or the latest newsletter in their mail. If they want to know what’s going on with the museum, they click on the museum’s website and hope that there’s an updated calendar. This is a little note to all museums: make sure your calendar is up to date. Because that is where people go. And I think that today, helping museums understand their visitors behavior and propensities just by looking at their own. I was talking to a museum colleague a few weeks ago who works at a small decorative arts museum at an historic home, and we were talking about how we tend to go to Wikipedia. And sometimes that’s a bad thing because we go there first, and we take that information and we don’t want to internalize it too much. And how we were looking for an answer about when something was coming, and the first thing we went to was that particular website. And then she said, “You know, this makes me think that I need to make sure that our calendar is up to date.” And that’s one of those things, sometimes, that I think there’s a disconnect: between the way people use the web themselves and the way their websites for their museums or their cultural organizations are kept. If yours wouldn’t make sense to you or you were frustrated because it wasn’t up to date or it didn’t have enough content on it, then maybe you need to take a hard look at who else is using it. And maybe you need to make sure that it is giving you lots of good content, and that it is completely fresh.

Frank: You mentioned in your Lent post different things museums could do with their exhibits to make themselves become more relevant. What kind of things can they do?

Chevraux: I like to go to a museum and wander through the exhibits and feel like I’m not being bombarded by information all the time. It’s like a nice space where you feel comfortable and you can learn at your own pace. At the same time, if they’re doing a good job in an exhibition of getting your creative juices flowing or getting you to think about a particular topic. It also then seems logical to have someplace in the exhibition where you can tap into those creative juices or that stimulation you’ve created with your visitors. And allow them to share that. So, whether it’s just a suggestion box in the end or it’s something that’s using media or it’s encouraging them to tweet about what they’ve learned. Just giving visitors a way to feel that their impressions of the exhibition are relevant and important to the institution. People today have become very focused on themselves. Not in a negative way, but they want to know, “What does this mean to me? This Mastodon is very fascinating, but why should I care about it?” The exhibition needs to at first relate that somehow to the person’s own experience. Perhaps we talk about climate change and extinction, and relate that back to something that a person cares about in today’s world. Once you’ve made that connection, perhaps it would be nice to maybe share that meaning that you’ve created for them in a way back to the institution. Nina Simon does a great job in her recent book talking about how participatory experiences shouldn’t go just from the museum down to the individual, but the best experiences come back to the institution. And then they can even be shared with future visitors. That’s a wonderful way for the individual to feel important in a space where you are telling them that everything around them that belongs to the museum is important.

Frank: We can see in your blog ways that museums are engaging with new media and national events, like the Super Bowl and things like that. What other ways are people doing this and why is it beneficial?

Chevraux: I would say that anytime a museum takes itself a little bit less seriously and can share that with their communities, it’s never a bad thing. And I think that one of the things that we need to understand about today is that so few people go to work in a three-piece suit anymore. Ladies don’t wear gloves, men don’t wear hats, and a lot of these museums were built and their programs were built during times when people did all of those very formal things. And museums are slow to come around to the idea that we don’t have to be so buttoned up and look quite so self important to be important. And in fact, when you let your guard down a little bit, and you make a bet like the New Orleans Museum of Art did with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which I think is what you are talking about, I put that on my blog. I thought it was wonderful. They tweeted about this and they got this wonderful bet going that they were going to basically two pieces of fine art were wagered, if you will, between these two institutions based on who would win the Super Bowl. All of a sudden it went viral, and everybody thought, “How fun is that?” And it’s art museum based. I mean, how many people who care so much about the NFL ever cared that much about those two fine arts institutions. Maybe a lot of them do, I love art museums myself, and I also happen to love NFL football, which maybe is why it struck me as so much fun. But I think that there were a lot of people on both sides of that coin who thought that was a really great way to show that they live in the same world as the rest of us. Here in Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Art is a very find institution with a remarkable collection, and when our Cleveland Cavaliers were in the NBA playoff, they put “Go Cavs” banners on the very front of their building where they usually have these beautiful banners that say, “free.” Because we are very lucky here that our institution is free and open to the public. But also, they took that opportunity to be a little less serious, and they took down those banners, and they put up these “Go Cavs” banners, huge banners, on the front of their building. Because I think that it gave them the opportunity to say to our community, “We live here too. We want them to win too.” And in fact the orchestra, which is very fine here, but of course plays to a very much higher brow crowd, they actually did a promotional web video for the Cavaliers as well. And it was great from my perspective to see that because it said, “We understand that not all of our people here in Cleveland are regular orchestra members. Some of them are just Cavs fans. Some of them love the Browns. And we live here too.”

Frank: So as you’ve said before, you have a presence on Facebook and Linkedin. Where else are you, and why did you chose to use those mediums?

flowerChevraux: I have a Facebook page for my business, Illumine Creative Solutions. Although I will say I don’t have a whole lot of really exciting content on it. And that’s my fault just because I’ve gotten busy with just the blog and other things. And usually what I do is I use it as one more venue to post what I recently put up on my blog. So, and every now and then I update it saying what I’m up to. But it’s nice because that let’s people that I know outside of my professional circle know what I’m doing in my work because they think that working for a museum must be the most fascinating thing. And I also have, of course I use LinkedIn, and I think most people do these days, which is great. At the very beginning when I had a LinkedIn account, I had no idea what I would use it for. But now I use it a lot. So it’s linked to my Twitter, so when I put something on there that I am working on professionally, it shows up on my Twitter account. And then I also, I have to admit, am a newbie on FourSquare. I have FourSquare, and I sometimes check in, but I have to say, a lot of times I forget. I’ve gone to a cool place, and I realize, “Oh! I’m in the parking lot. Oh! I should have checked in while I was at the art museum. Or I should have checked in when I was at the Cleveland Clinic doing something. Or Oh Man! I was just in a really cool place that does FourSquare, and I should have clicked.” So I have yet to really make that a part of my presence if you will. And as I said, I have website, and it’s just about to be redone and relaunched, and it will be up in the next couple of weeks.

Frank: What is FourSquare?

Chevraux: FourSquare is kind of Twitter meets your GPS. When you go somewhere, you have the application on your phone, and you click on it and you tell your followers and friends where you are. So if I go to Chipotle for a burrito, I can “check in.” And it says, “I’m here, and if anybody else in my circle is around and wants to have lunch, I’m here.” And it also keeps track of where you’ve gone. And so it sort of makes that human connection between Twitter, which is “let’s communicate with all these people out in cyberspace” to now “They are in our building, let’s engage them in a meaningful way.” You know that they are there because they’ve just checked in. And people can get badges and even become the mayor of the place. So for example, because I used to work at the Natural History Museum, I go there a lot with my kids. I enjoy it so much. And I could probably be the mayor of the Natural History Museum just if I checked in every time I went there. The person that checks in the most would get to become the mayor until someone else checked in more than they did. But I would certainly earn my badge. If museums or other heritage sites that are looking at this haven’t checked out FourSquare yet, I would say check it out. Because it is sort of that step between having people know you in the virtual world and bringing them into your world on site, which is what all of us are hoping social media will do for our organizations.

Frank: So what is your advice for folks wanting to get involved with new media to promote their heritage organization or communicate their own personal heritage ideas?

Chevraux: I have a couple of things. I would say, one of the easiest things to do if they haven’t yet done the Facebook page or if their Facebook page is lacking, is to just do that because I think that that’s the largest low-hanging fruit audience out there. People will “like” you virtually just to add you to their circle. Just because they want to see your updates. And then all of a sudden you’re getting all of these people who never really knew what you were about or just, “Oh! I went to that place. That living history site when I was in fourth grade. I haven’t been there since.” Click on them. Like them. Now they get all sorts of interesting information about what your organization does today, which we are all hoping is a lot different than somebody who’s 25 was in fourth grade. And that’s an easy one. I think the more that institutions do this, the more that they see the potential and the more that they may realize that they have to have someone in charge of maintaining it. Because I think that the best people I follow put up really great content. And for example, one of my favorites that I am happy to plug, is the Sue the T-Rex at the Field Museum. Now maybe people wouldn’t know that Sue the T-Rex tweets. But not only Sue tweet, but in the most incredible way. It’s funny. It’s new content. It meet their mission because it’s talking about paleontology and interesting dinosaur behavior. But it’s also smart and savvy and funny, and somebody, I’m sure, at the Field Museum is in charge of keeping it so. So if you want to be really good at it, you probably have to have somebody who’s dedicated to it. The other thing that I would say, is that if you’re a small organization, and you’re willing to let your guard down a little bit, you could always share it. You could make Twitter five different people’s responsibility, and you could get five different people’s input. And that’s fine. That’s a good way to start. But if you’re willing to let your director tweet, I think it’s awesome. Because I think that’s something that people really care about. The leader of an institution is somebody that’s usually respected and revered, and when they can share some of the insight about leading an organization or things that they find meaningful. For example, Max Anderson at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, he tweets. There are many directors that do. But it is great to know that that person who has a lot of professional experience and cache is sharing that not only to his colleagues, but also the museum consumers at large. I think it’s great.

Frank: Well Jennifer, it’s been so much fun talking with you today. Thank you so much!

Chevraux: Thank you so much for having me! It has really been an honor to be included in your webcast series. Thank you.

Outro: Now you can learn more about Jennifer and MuseoBlogger or Illumine Creative Solutions at our shownotes site. That’s Voices of the Past dot O-R-G. There you will find a transcript of this interview plus several others that we’ve done with other folks in the field of cultural heritage who are using social media to make a difference in their world. That’s it for this edition of the Voices of the Past podcast. And until next time, I’m Jeff Guin, and we’ll see you online.

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Podcast: Dale Jarvis on the art of storytelling on the World Wide Web

Dale Jarvis

Dale Jarvis is a member of a diminishing class: the storyteller. Yet, he is finding ways to share his art with whole new generation by reaching out to “use the media that they are using.” Whether it’s a podcast of traditional stories told by school children or telling stories 140 characters at a time on Twitter, Jarvis explores the web to find new ways to connect folks to their heritage. In episode of Voices of the Past, we talk to Dale about the online tools he uses and what kind of impact the Web will have on the preservation of cultural heritage.

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Jeff: Welcome to the Voices of the Past podcast. I’m Jeff Guin and today I will be talking with storyteller Dale Jarvis of Newfoundland, Canada.


Now, Dale is the Intangible Cultural Heritage development officer for Newfoundland. Dale, welcome to the podcast.


What do you do in your role in Newfoundland?


Dale: I help communities run community programs. So I go into communities, and I help them identify aspects of traditional culture or local heritage that they want to preserve. I mostly deal with things like community history, place names, traditional music–that type of thing–traditional skills like boat building. Those types of knowledge.


Jeff: Now Dale, you seem to be everywhere online, you contribute to a lot of different sites. How many sites do you actually contribute to?


Dale: I have different blogs for different organizations that I am involved with or different projects that I’m running. The most active one is the blog that I run for the heritage foundation for Newfoundland and Labrador, the Intangible Cultural Heritage blog. And that’s where I put a lot of information about the projects that I am involved with or community based projects that are starting up, workshops that we are offering, that type of thing. Just to keep people knowledgeable about what we are doing on a day to day basis.


Jeff: Well there are an awful lot of opportunities to have a conversation online, why did you choose Blogger for your blogs?


Dale: Blogger was free and easy. That was the main reason we do it. We do a lot of community based work, we do on pretty shoe-string budgets. So Blogger is a good tool for community groups and for myself to use.


Jeff: Absolutely, there are a lot of heritage organizations experiencing a budget crunch right now, and that is the great thing about social media, I guess, all of it is free, and there are different ways to communicate with it. Why did you choose to become so involved with social media?


Dale: It’s one more way of keeping in touch with people. I find that these days the first place people go when they are looking for information is online, and social media allows me to maintain contacts with people in a disparate area.


So I do a lot of work in the rural part of the province, and so it is just a way to create a network of people working in rural areas. So people that I might have a difficulty driving out to see, might be hours and hours of drive or a flight away can keep in touch using social media. And I like that it is very easy to update. So if I am doing something new on a particular day, I can very easily go in and make a very quick update. In a way that is more difficult with just a static website, and people can subscribe or not subscribe to what I do. So they can sort of choose to follow particular items that I am involved with.


Jeff: Now your use of online tools goes way beyond just the blogs. You are actually involved in quite a few social media outlets, what tools do you use?


Dale: I use a variety of stuff, and they are all sort of interconnected in some way. I use Blogger a lot. I use Twitter. I am constantly twittering about little things that I am doing. If I am running a new coarse or developing a new workshop, I will put a little Twitter update about that.


And I use Facebook a lot as well. I have Facebook groups for some of the organizations or some of the projects I am involved with. For Newfoundland and Labrador, there is an Intangible Heritage Facebook group.


This morning actually, I was updating some stuff about traditional wooden boatbuilding. We are developing a documentation coarse for people wanting to record traditional wooden boats. So it is a combination of photo documentation, drawing and oral history. So we are going to be teaching a coarse.


So I blogged about that using Blogger, and then I put a status update on my Twitter page, and then that’s all linked into Facebook. And I posted the event on Facebook as well because different people follow different things.


So it is a little bit of work. I find that I am updating a lot. I would love it if there was one, if I could do one thing and it would update all my different social media aspects. It would be great. But I do find that it is a great way of reaching out to people, and I do find that it reaches sort of a different audience.

When I am doing local history and working with community groups, the average age is sort of an older population. For boatbuilding, for example, the boatbuilders in the provence are generally older men, and they are not on Facebook. They are not following Twitter.


But there is a whole other generation of younger people who are interested in these issues, and it is a great way to reach out to them. And to get younger people involved in heritage and museum work, is to reach out to them and to use the media that they are using. So we are finding that we are getting folklore students, we are getting university students, college students who want to learn more about some of the programs we are running, and I think it is directly because of the fact we are using social media that is aimed toward that younger group.


To reach out to those older people, the people who aren’t computer savvy, I still to rely on the telephone and ads in the paper and that sort of thing, but it is a great way of reaching a broader spectrum of people and people who might not have been interested in heritage in the sort of traditional sense.


Jeff: All of this is great in communicating, but you still have a job to do. You are actually a professional folklorist, and how do you do your field work in the digital age?


Dale: I still rely on sort of old-fashioned methods of doing field work and documentation. If I am going out to sort of interview people, I still have to go knocking on doors and finding people to interview the old fashioned way.

I do use digital technology when I am doing my fieldwork. I use all digital photography, and I record digitally now. All my sound recordings are done digitally. I have a little hand-held digital recorder I use an mp3 wave recorder when I am doing my field work, which allows me to take field work and put it online pretty quickly in some ways.


One of the projects I am involved with with the university library is call “The Digital Archives Initiative,” and that’s a program to digitize material and put it online. They have digitized a lot of print material, but we are encouraging them to do more and more fieldwork documentation. So to take oral history interviews, interviews with traditional crafts people and put those digital interviews on line.


So the field work is still done the same way it has been done for 100 years, I have to go out and I have to sit down and talk to people. And that’s part of the job I love, but I am using new technology to make the processing of that information a little bit easier and putting that stuff online a lot faster.


Jeff: What’s your specialty in folklore?


Dale: My real interest is in Vernacular Architecture. That’s what I did all my MA work on, but I have a real interest in traditional knowledge and narrative and place-based narrative. So stories about place are really the sort of things I am passionate about.


Jeff: Do you focus primarily just on the folklore of Newfoundland or do you look at other countries as well?


Dale: I am really interested in collecting local stories. I am really interested in collecting local legend, and a lot of these things are migratory, like everything comes from somewhere else in some ways, and so I am really interested in how traditions blend and synchronize. And how stories from one place are adapted by people to a local condition and a local culture.


I think one of the great benefits of social media is that it allows me to keep in touch with people that are doing similar research in other locations. So if I have an interest in sharing stories digitally, it is very easy for me to find people who are interested in those sorts of things.


So for example, I am on several different listservs, public sector listservs and oral history listservs. So I know that people are doing similar work to what I am doing in India and in Hong Kong, and I have contacts with people I keep up with in Norway and in Switzerland.


Because we are all doing similar things, and the approaches and techniques are similar. We are all interested in our own local situation, but it is a real great way of sharing information and technical information.


So if someone is looking for information on how to record a Skype conversation, they put that request out on the listserve and almost instantaneously someone, somewhere in the world can get that information to them.


So it is a great way for professionals to keep in touch with one another. Whether or not that will impact how field work is done, I don’t know. Some people are starting to do field work in sort of digital worlds, and people are starting to study how societies online interact.


I think that is a fascinating field, but for me I still like traditional culture. I still like going out and interviewing the old men, you know, hanging out with the boat builders.


Jeff: Now you’re also involved with a professional storytellers’ Ning site, which Ning is a ready-made social network anyone can build. Tell us about that. Do you still have that sense of community in an online setting that you would in real life?


Dale: The Ning sites are good for sort of special interest type groups. So the professional storytellers‘ Ning group is a great way for keeping in touch with people that I might not have met in other ways.


I live on an island in Canada, so it is sort of difficult for me to met people face to face. And the storytelling community is sort of small in a way, there is not a lot of professional storytellers in the world really. And so sites like professional storyteller on Ning are a great way for me to meet sort of storytellers and find out what other storytellers are doing to keep abreast of what’s happening with the regional and national organizations.


Jeff: Tell me about your thesis work.


Dale: I did my thesis work on Vernacular architecture up in Labrador, northern Labrador, on a series of churches that were built by the Moravian Church out of Germany in the 17 and 18 hundreds. And they set up sites, pretty well-known American sites like Bethlehem, Penn., but they had also set up sites in the Caribbean and South America and in the Canadian North.


So they built these amazing Germanic churches way up in the middle of no where, these prefabricated in Sascha and then shipped over in pieces to North America. Fascinating, little-known aspect of Canadian architectural history.


And so I was studying how the architecture changed over time and how as the society changed and the local inductee population got more control over the church, how the architecture changed to sort of reflect more local concerns rather than this grandiose European style type architecture.


Jeff: That’s fascinating research Dale, and you actually contribute a lot to online media. You’re a prolific poster, you actually tell some of your stories on YouTube. Now, I imagine by now you are actually starting to get feedback on some of that content. Tell us about that.


Dale: I do get some feedback. I find that posting to sites like YouTube, and I also post video to a website called TeacherTube, which is sort of an education-friendly site. A lot of schools block YouTube, and so stuff posted on TeacherTube is more likely going to make its way into the school system.


I do get some comments from people who just happen to stumble across my stuff, people from other parts of the world. It’s not as interactive as some of the other online ways of communicating, so I never quite know who all is listening to my stories or watching my stories on YouTube.


But it is a great way to get that stuff out there. I think it is a great way of sharing stories.


As a storyteller, one thing that people ask me all the time is is storytelling dying. You know, is this a dying art? And I really believe that things are always in a constant state of evolution. I think traditions are always changing, and I think that the rise of things like YouTube indicate that people are really passionate about storytelling. They really want to share their own personal stories.

So, it is sort of a really great democratization of storytelling in a way. Maybe people don’t sit around and tell the long form fairy tales in quite the same way that they used to, but people are incredibly interested in sharing their own personal stories and creating stories and sharing them.

So I am fascinated by sites like YouTube because I think it does indicate that their is this human desire to share stories. That storytelling is something that is something that is really important to us as a species. Everyone wants to share their story in some way.


Jeff: Well exactly and storytelling is evolving. There are different ways of telling a story now, and I actually noticed that one of the things you are involved with is using Twitter to tell a story. Tell us a little bit more about that.


Dale: Yes, Twitter is one of these things that you have to sort of boil down to something to a very little short sort of thing.


So storytellers are sort of used to waxing poetic and telling these long stories. I can tell stories as a storyteller, you know, sort of those long fairy tales that take 30 minutes 45 minutes to tell, and I know storytellers who can tell one story that can last three hours.


So Twitter sort of forces you to rethink how you approach a story. I have told stories on Twitter. As part of a storytelling festival I was involved with, I actually told a long-form story just 100 characters at a time in over the course of a week.


So people could sort of follow my tweets and then read the whole story as I posted it. But I think that there is also the potential to use Twitter as well to share some tiny little stories.


There are some great little websites. There is one called Twistory, which is sort of one of these sites that collects all the things that people are putting as updates on Twitter and post them under different categories.


So you can find everything someone hates or loves at a certain moment or what they believe in at a certain moment. And they are fascinating.

Dale Jarvis



It is maybe not sort of narrative storytelling in the way that we think of it, but it is sort of a remarkable insight on into current moods and how people are perceiving their own little personal worlds.


Jeff: How else are you bringing storytelling to the online world?


Dale: I have experienced a little bit with telling stories online. I’ve told stories in Secondlife for example. I have started a storytelling guild in Secondlife. So I can go in as an avatar and tell a story.


It’s a very different type of storytelling from the sort of storytelling that I am used to where you eye contact, which is very important I find in telling a story. But people are really interested in hearing stories. So even in a sort of virtual setting where you don’t have quite the same physical eye contact, direct human interaction, people still come together to sit around a virtual campfire to listen to stories, which I find remarkable. And I think it really illustrates that human interest to listen and tell stories.


Jeff: I think it is great that Newfoundland actually has an official Intangible Cultural Development Officer and an official folklorist. Is that something that is integral to your culture there? Not everybody has one of those.


Dale: I think because Newfoundland has such a unique history in Canada. It’s the oldest part of Canada in some ways, but it is also the newest part in Canada in others.


It only joined into confederation in Canada in 1949, so before that it was its own country basically. And so since it was its on country and an island for so long, it had sort of developed its own unique sort of indigenous culture.


Very sort of Irish, west country English sort of culture. Very much based on traditions around the sea and fishing. Great live traditional music seen here in the Provence. So culture and language and music and traditional dance are really important still at the community level.


So it’s not surprising in Canada, which is this geographically large country, there are really only two providential folklorists in the whole country–one is in Quebec, which has a very distinct French tradition and then my position here in Newfoundland, which has its own very Anglo-Irish island tradition as well.

So yes, I think my position really has come about because people here really recognize that there is something unique here and that there is a value to it and that it is something worth preserving, worth saving.


Jeff: Dale, do you think the stories you are telling now are going to get lost in the online melange of different tools? Is there something that is going to get lost in the actual storytelling itself in the shift of digital?


Dale: One of the programs I run here locally is a storytelling program at the elementary school level. I work with one local school, and I go in and I teach storytelling to grades 4 to 6.


So I go in one day a week, and I work with six different classes and I actually teach students how to tell stories. So I teach them how to tell traditional stories. I teach them a lot of local stories, so stories about the fairies and local ghost stories and local legends and local folk tales.


One of the little projects that we started last year was to record those stories in mp3 format and then podcast those kids telling those traditional stories.


When I first went into the school, I said, “How many of you have heard people tell stories?” and you know, a couple of kids raised their hands. And I said, “How many of you have an mp3 player?” And like every kid in the class put up their hands.


And so what I am trying to do with that project is use new technology to promote a traditional skill amongst youth. And unless it’s meaningful to them in some way, unless it has some sort of value to them, they are not going to be interested in the tradition.


But they are fascinated by the stories, they love the stories. And they also kind of think it is neat that they can go online and listen to other kids telling their stories.


And I sort of knew it was working when one day when I was leaving the school, there were two girls talking to each other and then one girl turned to the other and said, “I’m so downloading your story.” And I thought OK, OK, I have done something right then in this school.


Jeff: Is that podcast still available?


Dale: The podcast is still available. It is holycrosselementary.blogspot.com, and you can go on and you can listen to some of my grade 5 and grade 6’s telling traditional stories.


Jeff: And how do you think the new technologies are going to affect the folklore field?


Dale: I think technologies, like cell phones, are something that we are going to see more and more get used for some of this stuff, especially like the iPhone. Especially with the GPS capabilities, and I mentioned before that I am real interested in place-based narratives, place-based storytelling. I think that we are going to see more and more of this type of stuff.


One of the projects I am involved with right now is a project that was started in Toronto called Murmur. The murmur project started off as an art project in downtown Toronto, where people collected local stories told by local people, they recorded those stories, they put them all online.


So there is a map of the neighborhood and you can go to the site and click on the little dot and listen to a person tell the story about that particular location. But then if you actually go to the street and walk down the street, there is a little sign on the street with a phone number and a six-digit code, so you can take your cell phone and dial the number, punch in the six-digit code and listen to the person tell their story on that spot.


And this a project that started in Toronto, it’s moved across Canada. There are now projects in South Pablo and Brazil, there’s projects in Scotland and Ireland, and we are starting up a similar project here in Newfoundland.


I think that that has great potential. That these sort of cell phone based stories and sort of using new technologies to get local stories and local traditions and local knowledge out to a wider public are going to be very, very popular.


I know places like the Appellation Trail and national historic sites in the United Kingdom are starting to experiment with GPS based narrative-type devices, so you can have your iPhone and walk around the site and listen to different types of stories. And I think we are going to see a lot more of that type of stuff happening more in the very, very near future.


Jeff: Do you see more folklorist catching on to social media or more of them using it these days?


Dale: I think it is going to happen. I think the technology is getting friendlier all the time, and it is getting easier and easier and people are getting so familiar now with things like Google Maps.


Even two years ago, people didn’t use Google Maps in the same way that they used today. It comes almost standard that when you are looking for place information, that you go to Google Maps. And it is so easy now to integrate YouTube video onto Google Earth. I think we are going to see more and more of this way of sharing local heritage information and local folklore on those new forms of media.


I was just at the Toronto storytelling festival telling stories, and it is very much so the traditional festival, folk festival, where you go and sit and you listen to people tell stories. And that is fabulous, and I think that the sort of heart of storytelling will always be there at that sort of very personal way of telling stories.


But while I was at the festival, there were two sort of middle-aged storytellers who came up to me and said why do we need to get on Facebook? We have been on Facebook, and we don’t understand it, and why do we bother doing this?” And so I sort of went through my social-media rant about why they needed to be on it.


And then later on in the festival, I was with the same storytellers, and they were saying, they were discussing problems every festival has about attracting new audience. You know, how do we attract new audience to the festival, and I said you know, this is part of the reasons you need to be involved with social media because that is a sort of way to attract the “under 40” crowd to come out to these types of events.


When you go to folk festivals and storytelling festivals across North America, the average age is about 40 plus, generally, but there is this whole other generation of people that are a potential audience and ultimately a potential paying audience for some of this stuff.


So I think that it is really important to start reaching out to those different people and keeping those sort of traditions, whatever they are, by transmitting them to the next generation using the new technology, new media, those types of things.


Jeff: Dale, thanks for joining us today.


Well, that’s it for today’s episode of the Voices of the Past Podcast Podcast. Now, to reiterate what Dale said, our mission here is to inspire connection to heritage values using new media. If you like, you can join the conversation at our show notes site. 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.

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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What is social media?

Social Media apps

 

For the last few years, the terms “web 2.0” and “social media” have been used for nearly anything new and interactive on the internet. Since Voices of the Past and sites like it integrate many basic social media tools, let’s take the time to consider the concept of social media and its potential to advance heritage preservation.

 

In technical terms, the social media phenomenon is a fusion of cross-platform technology, open-source web code and the interactive presentation of audio, photos, videos and text. But at its heart, it’s about empowering people to achieve goals through connection with others who share similar values, regardless of their location.

 

Core to this connectedness is the idea of community and how it’s being redefined. For example, the purpose of Voices of the Past is to inspire connections to heritage values using new media. You don’t have to have lots of money, a Ph.D., or be a credentialed preservationist to view the site or interact with it. It doesn’t matter where you live either. If you care about heritage, you belong here.

 

The accessible nature of social media tools, coupled with the relative anonymity of the web, levels the playing field for discussion. This takes away some of the fear of saying the wrong thing and allows people of many different backgrounds to interact as peers.

 

Social media comes in a variety of flavors. Some of these tools—like forums and message boards—you may already be familiar with. Others, like photo sharing (Flickr), video sharing (YouTube), wall posts (FaceBook), blogs (WordPress), music sharing (iTunes), and internet telephony (Skype), may be new.

 

When you visit the a site like Facebook or MySpace, what you’re seeing is a form of social media called a “social network.” Essentially, it brings social media tools together on the same web page. The efficiency of social networks is leading to an explosion in their popularity. The combined worldwide user base of MySpace and Facebook roughly equals the population of the United States.

 

So how’s this different from the web we used to know? For one thing, you’re no longer just reading the company line. The web is now instantly interactive with the potential for infinite conversation on any given topic. It’s like the old gossip fence, except your neighbor is potentially anyone in the world.

 

What’s been the reason preservation and heritage issues have been so hard to communicate? It’s because they, like politics, are traditionally local. And while probably nothing will ever most people care who’s the state representative for Burning Moscow, Nev., you very well may throw in with an online group that is fired up about preserving the Old West mines there.

 

So, your worldview isn’t just limited to your place of residence anymore. With social media, your interests can help define your social responsibility in the realm of heritage values. Explore and enjoy!

 

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