We previously published a guest blog on digital volunteering in Birmingham Museums by Becky Fletcher.
This guest blog by Dr Krista Godfrey, School of Management, Royal Holloway, builds on this topic and reports on her research on social media use in the museums.
Engaging the public over social media is now commonplace in the museum sector. Whilst some museums have social media experts to deal with this activity, it often requires the input of professional museum staff such as curators, historians, and archivists. I was interested in how social media engagement has affected the experience of these professionals. I focused on ‘living memory’ history, which deals with contemporary events such as the First World War or the Falklands Conflict because it is the stories around objects that are uncovered that build interest in museums:
“Our medal room is just basically a room full of really shiny objects. That’s not what makes it interesting. What makes it interesting is the story of the people that held on to those medals.” [Curator]
Many museum staff are now reaching out to the public over social media to help them with a richer, deeper understanding of artefacts; not just what an item is, but how it was used or modified. In effect, turning members of the public into citizen historians through crowdsourcing. My research showed that the public have an almost unconditional willingness to share high quality of information with museums. I have termed this exchange of historical information a network of public. A network of public extends the idea of networks of practice, in which most participants are inter- or intra-organisationally relted.
| The network of public is less bounded, catering to individuals who are interested in a range of information; whether that is sharing knowledge of how to repair a particular make of car or engaging with museums on the uses and modifications to Challenger tanks.
I expected that museum staff may feel a sense of de-professionalization through the museums’ remit to collaborate with the public. Many years of education and training are undertaken to become a curator so it was possible that asking the ‘amateur’ public for their opinion or information may be resisted. However, every individual I spoke to found collaborating with the public both interesting and beneficial to the museum.
Using common social media tools aids such exchanges:
“Because people know how to use them [social media], because they use them all the time, they don’t have to learn something new.” [Curator]
However, museum staff also commented that the public are quick to adapt and learn to help museums with crowdsourcing projects, as can be evidenced by the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Operation War Diary’ project. The public were keen to learn this new technology in order to contribute.
However, while staff want to engage with the public, they are not usually allocated time to do this, which means that their main role – curation – can be affected. Providing time and support to museum staff for engagement activities is beneficial in the long-term. The public become more involved with the museum and act, in many cases, as virtual volunteers, giving up both time and knowledge to help the museum to grow its collections.
Digital volunteering through social media technologies is on the increase, and museums are well positioned to take advantage of this. My research encourages museums to appreciate the value that is gained from engaging the public over social media, in order to add rich descriptions to existing collections or undertake large-scale, dedicated projects (crowdsourcing activities). It shows that collaborations over social media are providing methods of gaining new knowledge, both for the museums themselves as well as for the public.