Do Web Designers and Museum Professionals Ever Talk to One Another…

I did a knot tying demonstration this weekend at my museum.  The demo was part of our “Little Skippers” program at the museum, which I created to encourage families to visit the museum once a month, participate in a short tour on a different historical subject and then do a hands-on activity relating to the subject.  This month during “Nautical Knots” families discussed how knots were used on ships during the age of sail, and were they may see some common knots on the modern ships used in the Navy today.  After a brief tour of the museum, 12 cub scouts and I sat down on the floor to try and make a Monkey’s Fist knot, one of the more complicated knots to make, especially when little fingers and short attention spans are involved.  The trick to the success of Little Skippers programs like Nautical Knots is that I get on the floor with the kids, talk to the one on one.  give them a pat on the back when they master a skill, or tell them to “take a deep breath” when I can see they get frustrated.  Despite all the cool ways to create communities, collaborate with other museums, and engage visitors through museum sponsored web projects this week, one fact keeps coming back to me.  My Museum is a special, unique place to visit because the staff interacts with visitors on a daily basis.  A computer cannot get down on the floor and listen to a seven year old talk about his dad’s two trips to Iraq as he tries to create a patterned knot with a piece of line (we don’t say “rope” in the Navy.)  A computer can’t give a high five or give out a bouncy balls or stickers for complete scavenger hunts (even when most of the answers are less then correct because all the kid wanted to do was talk about his grandpa’s boat in the Vietnam War.)  It’s that personal interaction that makes my museum a community organization and a successful outlet for people of all ages to talk about their past (whether they know they’re doing it or not.)

 I found most of the reading for this week to be frustrating.  The overall impression that I got from many of the authors (many of whom seemed to have more a background in web development then in museum work) was that creating online projects and web based applications where people could share their memories about certain subjects was the only answer to creating a Museum community.  I loved reading about making larger portions of collections that were inaccessible in the past readily available in new “create your own museum exhibits” (kind of like The Sims meet the Museum.)  I’ve had some experience with this though.  Museum visitors are intersted, for awhile, in artifacts you display on line (in whatever fashion you choose to display them.)  But there is something special about calling a Museum and asking for permission to see something that isn’t accessible to a large portion of the public.  Making everything accessible via the web isn’t a good idea for museums.  We need that little bit of mystery, that ability to take people into our “off-limits spaces” and show them items “to delicate to be displayed for the rest of the public” (even if the item is a dime a dozen.)  Display anything and everything you want from your museum on the web…it won’t stop the calls from the people wanting the one on one time though with the “special” artifacts. 

“Beyond those benefits, museums who choose not to participate run the risk of either being invisible in the Web 2.0 world or having their institutions defined entirely by outside voices.”  I hated most of the tone of Kevin von Appen “Community Sites and Emerging Social Technologies” article.  One of the biggest issues that I see between museum and the web community is that very few people in either camp actually talk to people in the other.  David Bearman and Jennifer Trant have worked on both sides of the fence…sort of.  I don’t know that you can really understand the issues today’s small museum have with starting community based web project having worked for the Getty or the Smithsonian in the 1980’s.  (BTW-I’ve been to the Media and Technology sessions and networking breakfasts at AAM-90% of the attendees to these particular sessions come from museums with discretionary budgets larger then $500,000.)  While those of us working at the bastions of scholarship, may not always be at the cutting edge of technological trends, we aren’t all monkeys.  Most of us who work at small museums with discretionary budgets under 100,000 a year would love to embrace web projects that would engage the community with our collections in meaningful ways.  Hell, a lot of us actually know how to do it, have ideas for projects that we could actually create using in-house talent.  I don’t want to get overly dramatic here, but those sorts of things are fun fantasies for small, underfunded museums (as many are.)  When everyday is a fight for survival though, when eleven people are responsible for the upkeep, maintenance and programming for space roughly the size of two football fields that holds priceless objects, the least of your concerns is website development past what you already have that tells people how to get in the door.  The Getty does not compete for visitors, and it’s staff certainly does not have to beg for an extra $1000 for a new copier at the end of the year.  Those of the issues the small museums face.  I’d like to ask von Appen and crew to spend a day in the trenches with me and a few other museum professionals with similar circumstances. 

I realize I’m all over the board with my thoughts about museum and web relationships.  I’d love to see my museum’s website blossom into something more community based, where customers can actually input their memories, thoughts, recollections, etc.  I also know that sort of tool is never going to be able to replace personal interaction within a museum.  If someday it does though, I think we’ve really lost something as a society.



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