Saturday, May 21, 2011

Social Media and Museums

UK organisation Museum Next recently commissioned four surveys about social media and museums, exploring attitudes and expectations of both museum professionals and museum audiences:
  • Social Media Audiences and the museum (results of a survey of 500 UK residents) - referred to below as the "Audiences" survey.
  • What do people want from Museums on Facebook? (results of an online survey)
  • What do museums think Twitter is for? (responses from 361 museum professionals)
  • Museums on Twitter (results of an online survey from non museum professionals)
There are interesting similarities and differences between the results of the different surveys.
First, an overview of the Audiences survey:
This is one for the social media sceptics: more than three quarters of respondents said they used social media websites (how 'social media websites' was defined for the purpose of this research was not made clear, but more on that later*). And while usage declined with age, this drop in use was nowhere near as marked as some people might expect - just over half of the over 64s used social media (compared to 95% of the 18-24s).
However, the over 64s were far less likely to be a fan or follower of brands on social media - 21% compared to 83% of 16-24s (again, the percentages fell for each age bracket). Put another way, 16-24s are four times as likely as over 64s to interact with brands through social media. This potentially points to an interesting generational shift with respect to how people associate with brands and products (or alternatively says something about which brands have a social media presence, and the target markets of these brands).
In keeping with the "what's in it for me?" principle, the most common reason for following brands was to access promotions or special offers (54%). Other popular responses related to getting advance information about new products or events (37%), or that the brand supplied interesting content for its followers (33%).
Nearly three quarters of the sample said they attended museums and galleries, and this was roughly evenly spread across ALL the age groups. However, only 18% were aware of museums using social media, and only 10% were a fan or a follower of a museum (i.e. roughly half of those who were aware of museums on social media were fans or followers).
Interestingly, the reasons people gave for following museums were different from those given for 'brands', with the most common response being a wish to support or promote the museum (47%), followed by a desire to tell friends about an impressive visit (38%).
However, while 83% of respondents said they would be more likely to visit a museum which had been recommended by a friend (the question doesn't explicitly state 'recommend by social media', but this may have been inferred from the context), 66% thought that their friends would be 'indifferent' if they became a fan of a museum on Facebook.
Whereas the Audiences survey appears to be of a random sample of UK residents, it looks like the other survey samples were more opportunistic. Thus the age spread does not reflect different age groups' social media usage (as reported in the Audiences survey), and women outnumber men by nearly 2 to 1! (I'm not sure if this means women are more interested in museums, more inclined to social media, or that they are more likely to complete online surveys, but I digress . . .)
Of the sample, 82% of respondents 'like' at least one museum on Facebook and nearly 90% follow at least one Museum on Twitter, with most following several (i.e. This survey population is clearly different from the Audiences survey, where only 10% of respondents were fans or followers. By contrast, this sample is highly aware and engaged, and findings should be considered in light of this).
The reasons respondents gave for liking or following were similar across both Facebook and Twitter, with the top three being: to learn about exhibitions and events (76% Facebook, 98.9% Twitter); to show support for the museum (64% Facebook, 51% Twitter); and to help promote the museum (47% Facebook 35% Twitter). Based on these percentages, people overwhelmingly use Twitter to get information and news about museums, whereas Facebook has a greater promotion / supporting role. This does make intuitive sense given the way that each platform works, in that Twitter is more immediate and open while Facebook is more about sharing between people you already know. Although interestingly, 93% of people said they would be more likely to visit an exhibition that a friend recommended on Twitter compared to 83% on Facebook, which would seem counter that interpretation.

Roughly half of respondents had visited the museums they liked or followed; a further 35-40% had visited 'some of them', indicating that the physical audience and the online audience do not completely overlap. This might mean that a proportion of people are happy to have a purely online relationship with a museum, even if they do not visit in person. (I would imagine the nonvisiting fans and followers live some distance from the museum, but this could be an incorrect assumption on my part.)
If this is the case, and there is a small but significant proportion of fans and followers who are unlikely to visit in person, this might have interesting implications for museums' social media strategies - how can social media be used to add value for visitors and non-visitors alike?

*Just one final observation about the Audiences survey: although most of the questions refer to 'social media websites' generically, it's not clear how (or indeed if) this term was defined for respondents. I know from experience that there are often different understandings about what constitutes a 'social media website', so depending on what was said and how that was interpreted this may have affected the results.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Object labels and accessibility

Conducting focus groups among art gallery visitors last Saturday I had a strong sense of deja vue as several participants got hot under the collar about their frustration and anger about the dysfunctional object labels in a special exhibition.

The exhibition presented three-dimensional objects and used standard art gallery object labels. You know the kind – small print and low-set. To add insult to injury, the labels used a reflective material. 

In traditional galleries, like the Art Gallery of NSW in the next photo, visitors are more accepting of low-set object labels in small print. This picture shows that the labels are set well below eye-level and even average-height visitors will have to bend to read each and every one.

Traditional art gallery labels

This style of object label becomes problematic for free-standing glass cases when labels are put even lower down on the plinth. In many cases visitors have to kneel to read them. Not so easy for older visitors! No wonder many give up in frustration.

In special exhibitions, visitors have come to expect more. Art museum visitors are often well-travelled and many have seen best-practice interpretation in other places.

The National Museum is doing a good job of making object labels more accessible. In several permanent and temporary exhibitions they have adopted an approach that uses a sloping ledge to hold text, images, video screens, or interactive elements. 

Here's an example from the First Australians gallery. The ledge has the advantage of being very close to the visitor while leaving a clear view of the objects on display.

Interpretive ledge in First Australians gallery at NMA

The following picture shows a group of visitors at the display. It is clear that the visitors are looking at the art works and talking with each other. The great fear of art exhibition curators is that more prominent labels will 'take over' from the art works themselves. This example seems to demonstrate that more accessible information does not substitute for examining the works themselves. 

Visitors in First Australians gallery at NMA
While this 'interpretive ledge' solution won't apply to all situations, it should spark some creative thinking among curators who want to support excellent visitor experiences.

At the very least, object labels that can't be read by older visitors are an accessibility issue.

Posted by Gillian Savage