The idea of the museum as a dusty old repository of long-forgotten and obscure objects is an outdated concept that itself belongs in a glass case. Many institutions have brought both innovation and technology to the design of their collections, while in recent years opening them up to millions via the internet, further encouraging discovery and interaction through a variety of social media channels.
Museums have embraced platforms like Twitter and Instagram as a way of sharing their content – enticing visitors to experience it first-hand of course – and the sector has become particularly adept at engaging with its audiences in this way, with initiatives such as @52Museums and #MuseumWeek receiving a level of traction that many companies can only dream of.
As the instigator of several of these types of projects, the Pennsylvania-born and Shropshire-based Mar Dixon is at the centre of a unique social/cultural movement – and sums up the nature of her job with tweet-like brevity: “I call myself a troublemaker or advocate,” she says. “I work with museums to try and make them more people friendly”.
Dixon was active on Twitter for two years before it changed her life. On January 16 2011, having read an article on the future of UK libraries, she tweeted ‘“I love libraries because _____” Fill in the blank and RT! #savelibraries’ (and went back to doing her laundry). Meanwhile, over 5,000 users had reacted to her appeal, including writers Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood, and the hashtag began to trend worldwide.
This, she later wrote on her blog, was her “first experience at seeing the power of social media” – and since then she has harnessed this power to help museums from all over the world. “People shared so many passionate stories about the impact of their own local library – and many went beyond the books, though they are vital,” she says. “I was thrown into the spotlight with the media and it got me thinking how the impact could help culture”.
Similarly, the rise of social media has also enabled museum visitors to engage with institutions in a more direct way. Dixon recalls visiting several museums in the UK with her young daughter: “I would talk to front of house and other visitors and found that there were really creative things they could be doing, but that those in power weren’t being told the feedback,” she says. “I basically started asking for meetings and this is where social media helped. Before, you’d have to go through a secretary or PA who wanted to know what the meeting was about and why I wanted time from the ‘big important person’. But with social media, I could just reach out with a tweet. Soon they were requesting meetings!”
Following a trip to Paris in the summer of 2011, Dixon posted about how certain French museums were beginning to engage on social. The Musée de Cluny (@museecluny), Musée des Arts et Metiers (@ArtetMetiers) and Chateau de Versailles (who were also using augmented reality in their gardens) were singled out as institutions that were using it to their advantage – while larger places that perhaps didn’t think they needed to engage their audiences in this way (The Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay) lagged behind online.
“Those that do [it] well are those – and it sounds so simple – that are social,” says Dixon. “They are the ones that share but respond. Acknowledge those people who tag you, ask how their visit was if they check in. Is it time consuming? A bit, but you don’t have to do it for everyone. Grab one or two as you’re walking to your next meeting. Those people become your advocates! The main thing is that the public in general is using social media,” she adds. “Yes, the platform changes, but the behaviour of our society does also and it’s a great way for [museums] to keep their finger on the pulse.” And while Facebook and Twitter have become vital for museums, it’s on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp where Dixon says she sees even more potential developing in future.
Instagram has already proven to be hugely influential. Take Dixon’s @52Museums project, for example, where a different museum takes over the account each week. In the last couple of months, followers have seen the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (@birmingham_mag) post pictures of treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard and the University of Reading upload an entire #Instaphabet of its favourite artefacts – ‘N’ was for New Johnston as the institution holds the archives of Banks and Miles, the design team that updated the famous typeface. The Hamburger Kunsthalle (@hamburger.kunsthalle), one of Germany’s largest art museums, posted recently, followed by a twin offering from @LACMA and @SFMOMA, before handing over to the Getty Museum, which uploaded a generous amount of images of manuscripts, decorative art, paintings and photographs (the account then went on to the Barbican in London).
The idea for @52Museums came from a friend of Dixon’s, Chris Webb, who had established a successful account at @52Quilters, she explains. “He was telling me about it over dinner one day and I thought ‘Hey, why can’t museums do that?’ The remit is a bit different, in that a lot of museums have accounts already, but I saw it as a way for them to use the account to explore different ideas and share things in a way they might not be allowed to do on their own channel.”
As a result of this, many museums actually share the account at the same time, while some that haven’t ever been in contact before have reached out to see if they can work together. “I’m already planning for 2017,” says Dixon. “When I started I asked museums to sign up thinking I would struggle to get 52 – but 117 signed up! I’m asking all the museums to fill out an ‘exit form’ and pretty much all of them said they would do it again and found it worthwhile. It’s been great to hear they’ve found it to be wonderful to test and try new things, including posting seven to ten posts a day when their remit usually is two. And because it’s an international account they are getting new followers.”
At the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Adrienne Luce manages digital communications and social media and has involved the museum in #AskaCurator (originally started by fellow social advocate Jim Richardson with Dixon later taking over), and @52museums. For the latter, “we wanted to showcase different aspects of the museum and our collection,” Luce explains. “We also created broad engagement internally by inviting every department to participate. Since the Getty has six collection areas, it made sense to dedicate a day to each collection area. The seventh day was focused on education and conservation and was incorporated into the collection-specific days.”
Luce says that taking over the account was hard work but well worth the effort. “I posted a minimum of ten times per day and around the clock, approximately every two to three hours and at midnight and 4am PST – yes, I was exhausted – to reach European audiences.”
Luce adds that the video content she uploaded was particularly popular, four times as much as the still imagery, in fact; while a short animated Gif showing the installation of the museum’s Manet exhibition received the most views overall. Having only been active on Instagram since March, the Getty’s account is relatively small, but, Luce says, it gained over 300 followers during the week it took over @52museums.
Dixon’s ideas are inherently collaborative and while she can be rightly credited with starting many of the most well-known campaigns, the fact that they live and breathe on social media means that there isn’t really a sense of ownership over them.
In March 2014, for example, Twitter launched #MuseumWeek – where museums tweet images in response to seven daily predetermined themes – and asked Dixon if she minded that they wanted to use similar hashtags. Dixon lent her support from the beginning and helped to promote the event the following year, specifically working on how to plan the week’s hashtags, she says. “It’s funny, as people still ask me if they can run a @AskACurator day for their museum on a specific day, or do a @MuseumSelfieDay as part of an event, and my answer is always the same – whatever you need to do to engage is great!”
Acknowledgement of Dixon’s own work already runs through the international museum sector. At the V&A, which has embraced Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr in particular, her reputation is based on helping extend the museum’s engagement with its audience.
“Mar’s boundless ideas and energy have really shifted how museums and other cultural institutions are approaching social media,” says Kati Price, head of the V&A’s digital media department. “She’s encouraging us to be more playful and reach people in more imaginative ways. Through her incredible network she gets initiatives to scale up very quickly so we can all reach millions more than we would alone.”
Dixon is that special kind of creative thinker – one who has the bright ideas but is only too happy to share them for the greater good.