Social Media and the Museum

by lisafthenakis

One of my biggest pet peeves with social media is the tendency to treat it like some foreign language or a new form of communication where all the rules of the game change. While yes, microblogging in 140 characters may be a new format, the principles of good communication don’t change with brevity. What is new is the public’s ability to be heard by a broader audience. While one angry customer might have been able to spread their opinion to only friends and family in the past, they can now publish their opinion for all to see. In this situation it becomes all the more important for institutions to acknowledge the value and importance of every single visitor whether in person or online. In my opinion, the opportunities and challenges of social media mean that institutions, whether they are the local museum or the Smithsonian, can no longer get away with bad habits that might have been hidden in the past by a lack of communication between visitors.Social media forces institutions to deal with the realities of interacting with the public as individual people and think through their communications decisions carefully, which is something they should be doing anyway.


With curators describing themselves as “‘knowledge brokers’, ‘communicators’, ‘facilitators’ and most commonly ‘interpreters,'” being active participants where their audience is communicating should be a critical part of their job. In the modern world this means that social media is a medium they can not ignore. While Erika Dicker makes great points about the logistics of social media implementation and use in a museum in her article, my biggest takeaway was not the practical advice she offers but an understanding that in order to create worthwhile social media content, it needs to be viewed as a central part of a museum’s core mission – engaging with the public to facilitate learning.

One of the best uses of social media I have seen is mystery object posts. Whether on HistoryPin, as the Imperial War Museum has done, or via a blog post, as the Field Museum has done, these mystery objects offer a great way to reach out to the community. As individuals help to solve these mysteries, they create a personal investment in the museum and its collection. It also shows visitors that they too have valuable knowledge and expertise. While curators are subject matter experts, these posts show how they rely on information from the public and how they work to discover information.

So many of the issues surrounding social media come back to the issues of how to communicate with the public – issues of authoritative voice, dealing with the media, information quality control, etc. – all come back to an understanding of how to communicate with real people, something curators have always attempted to do. And while historians are not necessarily known as early adopters of any new technology, I would encourage them to see social media not as a minefield, but as an opportunity to examine and better understand what is important in the professional dispositions that have become institutionalized in the field.