The Museologist

Museums and Social Media

Posted in General by adevereux on January 22, 2010

In general, there are two schools of thought concerning the cultural and scholarly authority of museums.  The first argues that museums are empowered to tell stories that hold truth and that visitors will undergo a learning process made possible by the museum and its curators.  In essence, curators are the “holders of truth” and are to be trusted to tell the stories.  The second school of thought argues that curators hold one part of the truth, and that visiting a museum is not just a learning process but an experience.  A museum-goer adds to and expands the interpretation of the story.

The rising trend in museums, and the one I tend to agree with, is the second school of thought.  How to make a visit to a museum an experiential learning process, and one that gives credit and weight to the ideas and interpretations of the visitor, is difficult to determine.  However, after reading a recent article in the NY Times, I’ve been convinced that the web is one venue that allows the public to contribute to the curating process and to the discussion on issues raised by museums in their exhibitions in a way that does not undermine the role or expertise of the museum curator.

The way museums can use the web to forge successful collaborations with the public is to look at their websites not as virtual exhibition spaces, but as a form of social media.  The article writes, “While only a handful of museums have successfully harnessed Web users to develop their collections, social-media platforms are starting to foster new kinds of interactions between Web audiences and museum curators long accustomed to working only with other experts.”  In this way, the public is able to contribute new thoughts, ideas, interpretations, and responses to collection material in a way that is meaningful.  It also allows curators to gauge what material is relevant and important to their audiences.

Nevertheless, the curator gets the final word on what materials are included in an exhibition and the accompanying narrative.  But the sources available to a curator will expand beyond what has already been said by scholars, or the curator’s own interpretations, to those offered by the public:  “new-media advocates argue that Web participation can actually enhance the value of curatorial judgment. ‘Curators are starting to realize that they can be challenged by the audience’”.

A museum’s use of the web as social media in order to let the public to contribute to cultural and historical dialogue re-distributes the authority traditionally granted solely to the curator, but in a way that doesn’t compromise his/her skills, expertise, and judgement.


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