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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Des Griffin is currently Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum, an honorary position commemorating one of the early directors of the Museum. More about Des Griffin

Digitisation to social media
by Des Griffin

At the 2007 ‘Museums and the Web’ conference in San Francisco, Sebastian Chan from the Powerhouse Museum recounted the history of a project that offered visitors to the museum’s website additional ways of interacting with the museum and its collections. In June 2006, the museum had launched a new means for browsing and searching almost all its collection database in order to optimise usage. The site offered ‘folksonomies’, ordinary words (tags) employed by users without any hierarchy or reliance on the technical terms used by the museum’s curators to describe and classify the objects in the collection. ‘Visitors’ no longer required familiarity with collecting and museological practice to locate objects of interest to them. They could get the information they wanted about these objects using any search terms they liked. The path they used to get there would be recorded electronically by the museum’s software.

From the first use of computers by museum people in the 1960s – astonishingly slow machines accessible by punched tape – computers and electronic devices of all kinds have come to dominate life in museums, as everywhere else, and not simply in size and computing power. It is no longer acceptable simply to provide information and expect people to accept the truth of what is written there. It is now expected that museum visitors – real and virtual – will be able to access the museum’s resources in any way they, not the museum curator or IT technical experts, believe to be most appropriate.

From the email and websites of the 1980s, the web has morphed into a resource accessible in multiple ways that are determined by the user, with little or no input by the organisation or person who originally communicated the material. In the very near future, something akin to artificial intelligence will provide information on Internet sites using complex routines that extract and abstract data of all kinds from elsewhere. Portable devices will be able to access this information.

This extended introduction outlines developments and opportunities that museums have used to exploit these innovations.

Information Technology: the revolution in museums

The application of information technology to almost everything museums do is perhaps the fastest growing area in museums, as in many other areas of human endeavour. This is shown by the developments that have occurred since Tim Hart and Martin Hallett completed their chapter on digitisation featured in this section of the publication. They were writing as what is known as Web 2.0 was just emerging. Web 2.0 facilitates information sharing. But it does more than that: it is user-oriented and allows user-centred design. The consequences are social media.

As Hart and Hallett write, referring to the developments of folksonomies at the Powerhouse Museum, ‘This approach leverages user interest and community knowledge, which has paid immediate and substantial dividends for the Powerhouse Museum. In the twelve months following the implementation of OPAC2.0, online visitation has increased threefold. This project is attracting significant international interest and is one to watch.’

They also say, ‘There are many complex issues around the “voice of the object” and our position of trust and authority. Australian museums cannot simply rely on their existing reputations for authoritative expertise and knowledge if they are to remain relevant and sustainable.’

Everyone associated with museums – especially those working with collections – will recall, often with rather strong feelings, those expressions of surprise by people who do not work in museums as to why museums hold so many objects: ‘what is it that museums do with all that stuff?’ Web 2.0 offers exciting ways to overcome the seeming remoteness of the collections.

The development of digitisation – conversion of information in analogue form to digital information – allows greater access to museum collections and interaction with the information about objects in those collections. This is especially made possible by the nature of Web 2.0. This was supported throughout the 1990s in Australia by government funding, and by funds from museums themselves, in a project managed by the Heritage Collections Council sponsored by the Cultural Ministers Council.

But government funding declined and eventually ended in the last couple of years. One could ask why governments, supposedly concerned about efficient and effective use of the ‘assets’ which they have supported financially, turn away from the opportunities that are now on offer?

Instead of funding further access to collections, in the name of accountability – that so often misused piece of jargon – governments, at the behest of auditors have demanded financial valuation of collections and the placing of the value in the balance sheet. That the valuing of objects that cannot be traded is meaningless is steadfastly ignored. But the huge time and effort is not ignored by the staff whose time is diverted to the task!

Digitisation of collections

The project started by the Heritage Collections Council, Australian Museums on Line (AMOL), as described by Hart and Hallett, aimed to digitise collections and make the information available on the Web, even to children in schools. It later became the Collections Australia Network (CAN), and continued to be funded by governments. But with funding withdrawn, as the Cultural Ministers Council itself ceased to exist, the platform is still managed by the Powerhouse Museum. Further partner organisations are not being sought but social media functionality has been retained.

The CAN site is running essentially as a professional network for the exchange of ideas. Most participants are regional and smaller museums. Listservs – sites using email list management software to which users subscribe so as to receive notices and information by email as they are posted – are managed by CAN’s administrators and serve about 3000 users. Administrator Geoff Barker aggregates live Twitter streams into ‘The Museum Community Daily’. (There are numerous sites, especially dealing with politics, that aggregate items from other sites.) Traffic on Twitter is high, perhaps because signing on to it is easier than logging into sites like MANexus and Museum 3.0 (see below).

In the area of natural history there are sites containing information mainly for scientists. However, the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) combines observational and collection/object-based information for a large number of groups of flora and fauna, allowing mapping and inspection of individual records. ‘Themes provide stories of general interest to the Australian public about particular groups of organisms. The Atlas aims to provide insight into the importance of these animals, plants and microbes through the amalgamation of rich data sources. However, we cannot develop themes without the assistance of scientists, researchers and other interested parties.’ OzCAM, online zoological collections of Australian animals, and the Australian Virtual Herbarium (AVH) form a very solid base, allowing museum and botanical collections to be a central part of the ALA. Restrictions on the use of Australian government funds for digitisation are holding back development in some areas. OZCAM is a great resource for researchers, and a terrific example of collaboration at a national level in the natural sciences.

There are other sites that aggregate collections of various kinds. The National Library aggregates images of artworks from other sites such as Picture Australia. Individual art museums have images of works from their collections on their own websites.

Social Media: engagement and access for audiences

As in so many other things about museums – and anything else – the best ideas are not necessarily found by talking to those who work in that area, or reading only the literature about that area. Too many missteps have been made in managing and leading museums because the reference points were only other museums rather than the wider world.

So it is with social media and museums. After all, the challenges are essentially the same. Social media with its blogs, wikis, nings, Facebook exchanges, tweets, dig commentary, Flickr photos, the journeys on FourSquare and the videos on YouTube all offer new opportunities for communicating about the trivial and the serious, all ignore any notion of authority, all pose the same challenges to distinguish what will make a difference from what will simply satisfy today’s problems. lists the best (‘tastiest’) bookmarks on the Web. New adaptations seem to appear every week. It doesn’t matter what organisations we are talking about, though each will have individual approaches and wholesale transposition would be silly.

Social media can also marginalise traditional print and electronic media with their mandatory mediation by reporters and editors. The temptation is to ignore the traditional media and to believe that new media will attract new audiences, especially younger people who have not previously been part of the audience or customer base. It can be easy to believe that those who are reached by social media will come to value the organisation’s offerings, and the organisation itself, more highly. It is reasonable to believe that greater engagement and easier access would lead to larger audiences. Museums already strongly oriented to their audience are more likely to structure their social media strategy in an appealing manner.

One thing is obvious. As soon as even a reasonably large number of people start using any of these platforms, any person or organisation that is the subject of conversation had better take notice of what is being said, just as if there were a near-libellous or fabulously positive piece in traditional media.

In social media, access for anyone posting a comment or request can be directly to the particular platform and not via some other medium such as a website. Go to Facebook or Twitter and search for your favourite museum. The response is near instantaneous, and the capability for galvanising action is astonishing. The ‘Arab Spring’ is just one example in the political world: photos and comments posted on various sites accessible by hand-held devices drew very rapid comment from traditional media and other platforms, leading to international responses.

Flash mobbing facilitated by text messages on mobile devices can gather hundreds of people for an afternoon of training for a dance routine to become part of an advertisement. Concerted commentary aimed at some person or organisation can create positive awareness or become a source of anguish or misery.

Blogs have been used as part of the ‘Open Science’ movement allowing, for instance, a mathematician to post an invitation to others to find a mathematical proof about the properties of multidimensional objects. Within days, readers, including high-ranking academics, had chipped in vital pieces of information or new ideas. The joint effort led to several papers published in journals. It was an astonishing and unexpected result. [1]

People using social media have little concern for issues such as privacy, traditionally correct spelling of words, and even the continuation of whatever site they are using. That much of the traffic is superficial is not seen as a problem. People inhabit different sites.

Social media: opportunities for museums

What does all this mean for museums? Firstly – and this is one of the issues most commonly mentioned by many museum people – the museum no longer has control over what is said, what interpretation is drawn out from visits, other people’s comments, publicity or lack of it, the nature of the objects, exhibitions or public statements or behaviour of staff or executives. It matters little whether that worries the museum’s executives!

Secondly, attention to sites like Facebook and Twitter is very demanding: the museum that decides to involve itself with these platforms needs to have good evidence that it is worthwhile in terms of achieving its goals and, as always, in being distinctive. More than that, genuine communication about issues of importance requires care and attention. Therefore the museum can’t just treat this communication in the same way as one would treat casual conversation.

The obvious benefit is engagement with an audience, an opportunity to find out what people think and, more importantly, to encourage people to discuss issues involving the museum and its ‘business focus’, whether it is an art prize, or an exhibition on some scientific subject.

Museums have made use of social media to publicise exhibitions, by running competitions such as submitting photographs or other artworks relating to some object or exhibition in the museum, even bringing people together (termed crowdsourcing) for the opening of an exhibition. These are part of the marketing function!

Crowdsourcing has been used by a number of museums to create exhibitions. A leading exponent is the Brooklyn Museum where Shelly Bernstein, Chief of Technology, works to further the museum's community-oriented mission through projects including free public wireless access, web-enabled comment books, projects for mobile devices and putting the Brooklyn Museum collection online. Bernstein created 1stfans, a socially networked museum membership, and organised Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition and Split Second: Indian Paintings.

Click! was based on the proposition that the wisdom of crowds is superior to that of individuals, something that has been replicated in social behaviour experiments. Click! was an exhibition in three consecutive parts: an open call to artists to electronically submit a work of photography that responds to the exhibition’s theme, ‘Changing Faces of Brooklyn’, along with an artist statement; an online forum for audience evaluation of all submissions (as in other juried exhibitions, all works were anonymous); and an exhibition at the museum, where the artworks were installed according to their relative ranking from the juried process. Visitors were able to see how different groups within the crowd evaluated the same works of art, and the results were analysed and discussed by experts in the fields of art and online communities. Crowd theory (advanced by New Yorker business and financial columnist James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds) was tested.

For quite a few years visitors, real and virtual, have been able to download exhibition ‘guides’ to some sort of portable device, including smartphones, or even capture images and commentary to make their own guide to the museum. Obviously a museum has to have a very superior product if it wants visitors to use the audioguide it has developed. The key point is the usability of the information in terms of access, and the quality of the information as determined by the user. Nothing new in that!

Many museums in many countries have made images of objects in their collection available on their websites. Natural history museums have asked people to inform them of the sightings of various animals or plants, images of which are found on websites which can now be viewed on an iPad. Of course this can be problematic because the identification may not be accurate. There are ‘workarounds’ for this of course.

Most museums and most arts and cultural organisations in Australia make use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. What else would one expect! Most of the attention is directed to marketing: informing and seeking to attract audiences to the program or event, even creating special events through video on YouTube promoted through Twitter, publicising a program such as a play or exhibition. Microblogging platforms such as Tumblr allow users to post text, images, videos, links, quotes and audio to a short-form blog from one posting.

The Australian Museum offers blogs on a variety of subjects including social media and a variety of other material. Education outreach programs, such as the long-running ‘Museum in a Box’ which goes to schools distant from the museum, are assisted by the use of video links: education staff can talk ‘face to face’ to students using the objects and explanatory notes in the box. There are pages on almost everything within the field of interest of the museum, from biodiversity to microscopy. The National Museum of Australia offers a number of blogs, including one by Director Andrew Sayers; there are links to research diaries, stories about Forgotten Australians and cartoon competitions for schoolchildren.

Museum Victoria has numerous blog posts by staff dealing with subjects ranging from holothuroids – sea cucumbers – to the eclipse of the moon, to the visit by Director Patrick Greene to Egypt (with links to his lecture commencing the Tutankhamun Tuesday lecture series). There are also blogs on exhibitions and behind the scenes happenings and photographs from the collection. Like a number of museums, Museum Victoria also offers podcasts, something that media sites such as the BBC, the ABC and a number of other newspaper, journal and electronic media sites have featured extensively. A number of museums offer video presentations by staff or visiting speakers.

Almost all art museums have pages on Facebook and Twitter with posts about events and exhibitions, and links to stories in other media which are relevant to the museum: for instance the release by Chinese authorities of the artist Ai Weiwei. Museum Victoria offers images of animals and plants and seeks information from the community about sightings of the species depicted. The images are available on iPad and other devices as well as computers.

Art museums such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery make extensive use of platforms such as Facebook, gathering between 5000 and 15,000 ‘fans’. (Non-art museums have between half and a fifth of this number.) Success can be judged by the number of visitors to Facebook who click through to the main web page of the Gallery, as well as the number of fans who like the site. These people are highly engaged, and staff keep up with visitor comments. For its 150th anniversary the National Gallery of Victoria selected 150 artworks from its collection which it posted on its website and asked people to vote for their favourite work: visitor comments were posted. The 10 favourites became part of a tour for visitors.

The National Library of Australia’s Trove project has placed online digitised newspapers, journals, articles and datasets, over 100 million Australian and online resources. Trove invites contribution from all users in a variety of ways: they can tag items found with keywords; make comments that could be useful to other users; participate in the user forum; contribute digital photographs via Flickr; and even correct the text of digitised newspaper articles. The Powerhouse Museum provides images of Sydney and its people from its archives on Flickr; visitors to the site can comment on the images.

Nings, platforms for creating social websites that can be used for commenting and exchanging views, currently exist in the museum domain. MANexus, managed by Museums Australia, and Museum 3.0, managed by a small non-profit group founded by Angelina Russo (of RMIT) and Lynda Kelly (of the Australian Museum), each have members who can contribute to forums, post notices of events including conferences, photos and so on. Museum 3.0 has 3000 members around the world. But the question that must be asked is, what difference is this making? The sad fact is that a trawl through the entries on the forum page of both sites reveals very little response to any of the topics. Calls for comments seldom end up with responses from more than half a dozen people. Possibly all the action is on Twitter. The number of responses as well as ‘hits’ is surely more important than the number of subscribers.

The semantic web, the next wave

Now Web 3.0, termed the ‘semantic web’, is emerging as the next wave. Wikipedia tells us the following about this.

The Semantic Web is a ‘web of data’ that enables machines to understand the semantics, or meaning, of information on the World Wide Web. It extends the network of hyperlinked human-readable web pages by inserting machine-readable metadata about pages and how they are related to each other, enabling automated agents to access the Web more intelligently and perform tasks on behalf of users. The term was coined by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (‘W3C’), which oversees the development of proposed Semantic Web standards. He defines the Semantic Web as ‘a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines’.

One example is Qwiki, a site linked to Wikipedia from which it extracts the text and to which it adds voice over and images. Qwiki promotes itself thus: ‘Qwiki's goal is to forever improve the way people experience information.’ The assertion is, ‘We are the first to turn information into an experience. We believe that just because data is stored by machines doesn’t mean it should be presented as a machine-readable list. Let's try harder.’ The Qwiki website offers a glimpse of one possible avenue for online searching where a coherent data source (Wikipedia) is queried and mashed-up to provide a summary response to almost any question in seconds, accompanied by a slideshow.

In Web 3.0 the possibility is that algorithms can be developed to both extract and abstract information from multiple sites and present that as seemingly new matter. How do we know whether what is being presented on such sites is reliable? Who are the authors of this information? On the Wikipedia site it is possible to trace authorship, and the people managing the site place qualifications about entries that for whatever reason are thought not to adequately or accurately represent the topic. (And we should note that algorithms now govern much of the share trading in equities markets, and that by itself has been an important reason for occasional violent fluctuations in share prices on some exchanges.)

Challenges: real opportunities

Discussions amongst museum people about the increasing attention to social media feature comments that question whether, through the emergence of social media, collections are being ignored. Is this part of the same argument we heard 30 years ago when ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions were all the rage? Back then some people asserted that blockbusters diverted attention from what should be the principal concern of each museum, the presentation of its own collections. Arguably this missed the point! The principal objective – not mission statement – of museums remains encouraging the understanding and appreciation of art (or science or whatever is the principal area of collection focus) amongst the community: social media ought to aim at that, just as should exhibitions of all kinds.

Should we be concerned about social media being most commonly used for marketing and promotion rather than engagement of audiences in discussions about mission-oriented subjects? We can’t get away from the fact that in a number of cases museums use these various platforms to enlarge their information resources for visitors. A link on the Australian Museum’s Facebook page takes you to a talk on recycling waste, for instance.

It isn’t social media that determines what the museum’s spokesperson says or doesn’t say. That is a function of the museum’s personality and what it sees as its competitive advantage, its uniqueness and its role. This is shown by the success of the Tate in the UK in the way it interacts with visitors on Twitter: it says what is on, when and where in a simple and straightforward way, asks visitors about their experience, helps people with queries or problems and communicates a sense of fun, so revealing that real people are dealing with this interaction. [2] In this age when anything official takes forever and is usually unhelpful if not rude, this is refreshing!

But the point is this. Museum people can control what use they make of the opportunities afforded by Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. As Kristen Purcell, associate director for research at Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project said at the 2011 Museums and Web conference, ‘these technologies, and others, are revolutionizing how audiences consume information, and are reshaping the public’s expectations about information access and immersion, concrete knowledge of their penetration and the speed at which they are being adopted is crucial to shaping responsible institutional responses’. [3]

Social media developed through the emergence of Web 2.0 has enormously broadened and deepened the information and opportunities for learning which museums can provide. Part of the reason is to be found in the kind of thing that online music and book stores provide, sometimes termed the ‘long tail’. Rather than focusing on a narrow range of the most popular, a vast array of material can be made available, with the result that far more people are attracted. Populism is discarded as a governing strategy.

Of course there are valid criticisms of some aspects of social media: that much of it is superficial, that people can say they haven’t got time to read or listen to other material that some – such as distinguished historian and writer Simon Schama, University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University in New York – would consider more valuable. But that does not condemn all social media, and certainly does not diminish the richness of offerings and the opportunities for engagement

In every major development undertaken by a small group, an organisation or a country, a person with some form of authority, sometimes position power but more successfully knowledge power, a person respected by others, drives the development and legitimises it. Whether it is action on climate change, support for contemporary dance, attention to Indigenous people, or support for the contribution that art or science makes to our lives, a leader is essential. That is demonstrated by museums’ approach to Web 2.0 and social media. Genuine leadership, not by any means always at the top of the organisation, has made a difference to the outcome.

Unfortunately, in some cases, because social media seems to allow everyone to express their opinion, every view comes to be considered equally valid, the ultimate in social constructivism where truth comes to mean only what the majority accepts it to be. That is hardly a position that museums ought to take. Museum people might be concerned about the perceived loss of control – something they never had anyway – but to miss opportunities to broaden and deepen the interaction with the museum by people out there would be to exit the stage.

Compilation of this essay has been very significantly and generously assisted by discussions with Seb Chan and Geoff Barker (Powerhouse Museum), Russ Weakly (Australian Museum), Tikka Wilson (National Museum of Australia), Tim Hart (Museum Victoria), Martin Hallett (Arts Victoria), Brooke Carson-Ewart and Francesca Ford (Art Gallery of New South Wales).


1 Bobbie Johnson, 'Open science: a future shaped by shared experience', The Observer, 22 May 2011 For another example, see 'Gamers succeed where scientists fail: molecular structure of retrovirus enzyme solved, doors open to new AIDS drug design', ScienceDaily, September 19, 2011, an account of how gamers at the University of Washington solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme which has a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. The configuration of the protein had stumped scientists for more than a decade. The gamers achieved their discovery by playing Foldit, an online game that allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules.

2 Matt Rhodes, ‘Why a museum is the UK’s top brand on Twitter’, freshnetworks, 13 June 2010,

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Cite as: Des Griffin, 2011, 'Digitisation to social media', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6