5 Key Takeaways from MCN 2018

Social media has revolutionized the museum experience.

After generations of struggling to provide a welcoming experience to those less involved in the arts, personal tags, location tags and hashtags are helping a new generation of museum curators better understand the needs and interests of an increasingly diverse audience. Today these institutions are finding new ways to expand their audience, enhance the experience for everyday visitors and expand the conversation beyond the confines of the physical building by using social media platforms.

Given these trends, it’s no wonder that the theme of this year’s MCN conference in Denver, Colorado was “humanizing the digital.” The annual conference held in mid-November sought to explore “how museums can use technology to foster human connection and dialogue, advance accessibility and inclusion, and champion inquiry and knowledge.”

As a first time attendee, I was interested to discover how significant an impact social media platforms are having in redefining the museum experience for a new generation of attendees. Here are a few key takeaways from MCN 2018.

Social Media is changing our relationship with history and art

One of the most prominently recurring themes of MCN 2018 was the way social media platforms are allowing museum exhibits to take on a life of their own within the museum walls. Whether on stage during a presentation, or in the hallways between sessions, conference attendees were eager to share how their museum content took on a second life in the digital world.

The Denver Art Museum, for example, allows pet owners to become part of its “Stampede: Animals in Art” exhibit. Visitors are encouraged to share pictures of their pets on social media, using the hashtag #DAMpets. The photos are then displayed on a live photo wall, effectively incorporating social media activity into the exhibit.

In places where visitors (or their pets) aren’t becoming a literal part of the exhibit, their thoughts, conversations and emotions the exhibits provoke are still being liked, shared, Tweeted and upvoted on social media, allowing visitors to engage their networks in a conversation about their experience. Furthermore, traveling exhibits have now become a way for museums to engage the local community in a global conversation that follows artifacts around the world, engaging a new audience with each location they visit.

Social feeds are turning visitors into curators

Though museums have their own teams of expert curators, visitors have in some ways become curators themselves. As they walk the halls of the exhibit, they are in a position to evaluate which pieces they feel connected to and are “worthy” of sharing on social media. Guests are even able to narrate their thoughts when they interact with an exhibit, share what the individual works mean to them, and create memes and other humorous content based on what they see.

The ability to use museum exhibits as inspiration for social media content effectively turns every visitor into the curator of their social feed. As a result, the visitor experience is no longer one of passive spectatorship. Instead, visitors are able to interact with everything they experience.

UGC is providing new insights into visitor behaviours

Before social media, attendance records were effectively the only metric museums could use to help inform their decisions. Now that every visitor is their own curator, museum staff have the opportunity to monitor social media content to determine not only which exhibits are most popular, but also which individual works are getting the most attention.

While we heard from major institutions using social media to improve the museum experience, such as the Denver Art Museum, they emphasized how simple it is now for smaller institutions to reap the same benefits. Even a team of one or two, using some basic social listening tools, has access to more visitor feedback and insights than the curators of the Louvre and Vatican did just ten years ago.

Digital is helping to demystify the museum

Museums have historically been intimidating institutions, especially for those that have limited prior knowledge of the exhibits they house. Social media platforms, however, have helped museums make the experience feel more friendly by providing social media prompts, offering opportunities for visitors to take pictures with the exhibits, and sharing some of the stories behind the exhibits on social media.

The archivist for the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, for example, explained how from the outside, the museums could make the namesake artist seem larger than life, and not very relatable to the average person. The reality, however, is that many like Still have a quintessentially human story to tell, one which has been historically difficult to share with those outside of the exhibit.

For example, Still once cut a piece out of one of his masterpieces because of a conflict he had with the collector who purchased it. He also once spoke of how he preferred the “ innocent reactions of those who might think they see cloud shapes in my painting to what a critic says he sees in them.” Such stories can now be told more readily on social media, helping users connect with the artists long before arriving at the physical display. A post that included that Still quote, for example, earned 881 likes!

Social media will change the way the current generation experiences art

Though museums may have once felt less than welcoming to anyone other than school children and PhD candidates, social media tools are helping staff provide a more user-friendly experience, and allowing visitors to interact with exhibits in new and interesting ways. Many of these works of history and art have been around for generations, but this will be the first generation that can share their personal experience with a global audience.

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