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