The key issues for museums today

What are the big issues facing museums from the brand and comms perspective? We talk to Corinne Estrada, founder of the Communicating the Museum conference, about dialogue, digital and the museum as medium

In 1995, Corinne Estrada began working for some of London’s major museums as their PR for continental Europe, with her firm Agenda. After it opened in 2000, Tate Modern’s brand and communications team suggested to her that they would like to share what they had learned with colleagues at other museums. “That’s when we decided to create the first conference, with the Tate team plus the National Gallery, Royal Academy and a very small group from France like the Musée D’Orsay, the Louvre and Centre Georges Pompidou,” Estrada recalls.

Since then Communicating the Museum has grown each year. It now attracts around 300 delegates from museums all over the world and has been staged in the US and Australia as well as throughout Europe. This year’s conference will take place from July 12-15 in Berlin.

So what are the key issues that the assembled cultural leaders will be getting to grips with? Estrada says that when the theme for this year’s event was discussed, there was a split between those wanting to focus on diversity (mostly the Europeans) and those for whom dialogue was the main preoccupation. The latter, backed by US and British museums, won out.

Multaqa, or 'meeting point' in Arabic, is a joint initiative by a group of Berlin museums under which refugees from Iraq and Syria have been trained to work as tour guide. Image: AR Laub
Multaqa, or ‘meeting point’ in Arabic, is a joint initiative by a group of Berlin museums under which refugees from Iraq and Syria have been trained to work as tour guide. Image: AR Laub

“All cultural venues want to engage with a much broader audience than they currently have,” Estrada says. “In Germany, for example, they really want to talk to refugees – a lot of museums are trying to involve them as guides [The Multaqa project is discussed in the July issue of CR]. Museums are also talking a lot about young people – how do we involve them? That’s why we invited the German Army to do a session at the conference about they have engaged younger people. We always invite people outside the sector to give us their best practices and we learn from them.”

“The museum,” Estrada argues, “is a platform. It provides dialogue between people, between its experts and people outside. More and more, people are coming to museums to discuss social topics so that the museum is becoming almost a medium.”

But if the museum itself is becoming the facilitator for debate, where does that leave its position as an authority on specific subjects? British politicians may have decided that we longer need experts but surely we should look to museums and their specialists for knowledge?

“It is a big challenge,” concedes Estrada, “it means more and more that when you work in a museum you have to not just show something but to give an idea or an opinion about it. So you still have that academic knowledge but have to engage in a different way with your audience.”

And of course digital and how museums respond to its challenges will be another hot topic: “The museum is not just a building anymore,” Estrada says. “It has another life outside its doors. The big challenge is to become global and not just to talk to a local audience.” Partly, this imperative is driven by sponsors who want as much coverage as possible for their initiatives.

Google British Museum Street View
Museum of the World, a collaboration between the British Museum and Google’s Cultural Institute, allows users to take a virtual tour of the Museum

One of the more controversial developments in the digital space has been Google’s involvement with major institutions such as the British Museum through its Google Cultural Institute. Google partnered with the British Museum on its Museum of the World interactive experience.

“Many museums are against [what Google is doing],” Estrada says. “They think that then the content is not yours anymore, that Google is making the money and not them and that they don’t have control anymore. But I don’t think you can control anything anymore. I think it’s a great opportunity to have Google as part of the game.”

Google Cultural Institute British Museum
Gathering data for the British Museum’s collaboration with Google Cultural Institute: Museum of the World. Image: British Museum/Google

Estrada also cites the impact of social media platforms like Instagram on museums, particularly the opportunities it provides for small, niche museums such as Balzac’s House in Paris. “There are many small museums doing amazing things – you can be an old heritage site and still be very dynamic with social media platforms,” she says.

@52museum
The Hamburger Kunsthalle is one of the participants in the @52museum Instagram account where a different museum posts images each week

Inevitably there will also be much discussion about fundraising at the conference. “There is less and less public money and more and more private money,” Estrada says. “Mainly this is from individuals, which is a new trend very much coming from the States. People there are used to giving, we are not.”

Louvre Tous Mecenes
From the Louvre’s crowdfunding site, http://www.tousmecenes.fr

One new factor in museum fundraising is crowdfunding, Estrada notes. The Louvre has been particularly successful here, raising 3m Euros in order to buy Cranach’s Three Graces in 2010. The average donation, Estrada says, was just 80 Euros per person, and 80% of those giving money had never come to the Louvre before. “It was like a thank you to the Louvre for giving them the opportunity to give something to France and to art,” she says.

Crowdfunding may well prove a more palatable source of funding than traditional corporate sponsorships, many of which have been under the microscope of late. “There have been very many controversial things and it’s always a problem to find the right partner,” Estrada says. “More and more we customise the relationship and the partnership, so part of it can be not just in cash but in consulting or goods or other ways to reduce the costs of the museum. This idea of barter is growing a lot. But we all need money so when there is money take it!”

The Communicating the Museum 2016 conference runs from July 12-15 in Berlin

Lead image: AR Laub


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