Curating the Cool: How museums use new media to stay relevant

These days, it’s all about being relevant. Whether you’re a social media maven, a small business owner on Main St. USA, or an age-old institution, the key to staying competitive is making it, becoming, and keeping relevant.

In terms of historical organizations, educational collectives, and museums, building a community (virtual or physical) is the first step to meet the audiences where they are and get a real understanding for how they interact. In Dana Allen-Greil’s and Matthew MacArthur’s piece on “Small Towns and Big Cities: How Museums Foster Community On-line” they explain how museums are moving away from the expert-novice relationship and closer to a “whole person” type of approach. From the “Gesellschaft” of city life interactions and into the “Gemeinschaft” holistic community, museums are engaging in social media platforms to engage guests and make them part of curatorial community.

Matthew Fisher in “Online Dialogue and Cultural Practice: A Conversation” from “Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World” calls attention to the need for “an energized space between the traditional authoritative voice and the crowd-sourced, democratized voice of non-experts” to communicate together.

In order to do this, everyone seems to have three ideas or necessities for success…

  • Allen-Greil and MacArthur write of Maxwell Anderson’s call for museum experiences to be “tactile, sensual, and visceral”
  • Fisher explains that to change the relationships between museums and visitors there needs to be “dialogue, engagement, and where you enter with an open mind with a capacity for a variety of voice to be heard.”
  • Maxwell Anderson demands, “documentation, meaning, and representation”
  • Kathleen McLean calls for socially-situated learning centers for, “interaction, conversation, and reflection”

All of these perspectives seem to have one thing in common– find out what the visitors are interested in, have them talk about it, and reflect together (curators and guests alike)… in other words, become and stay relevant to the visitor.

We see this same trend arcing over business models and types of all kinds.

In the quest to “stay cool”, NPR stopped by the most recent South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. Hosting a launch party for “Generation Listen”, NPR’s new campaign targets 20-something listeners’ ears and tastes (and eventually their wallets too…) while calling out to “join the tribe”! On their webpage, they even write, “It’s time for us to get better at finding you where you are and what is most relevant to your lives. And when we get there, we want to hang out — whether in cyberspace, over the air, or through events — and exchange ideas and smart conversation.”


Similarly, in late 2009, the Rosenbach Museum and Library cultivated a website dedicated to the 21st Century Abraham Lincoln. The website, while providing historical information and education, was filled with user-generated content from videos and podcasts to internet memes and puns. The website is a clear example of engaging in new media to make Abraham Lincoln (a figure we learn about over and over and over again) cool, relevant, and perpetually interesting.

A picture from the "Found Abe" portion of the website where users can upload pages, videos, or images of where they "Found Abe" on the web!

A picture from the “Found Abe” portion of the website where users can upload pages, videos, or images of where they “Found Abe” on the web!

NPR, like the Smithsonian, is a cultural institution that packs some serious authority with their name. One curates history,  the other music, but both traditionally target a pretty similar audience. In a new media age, both of these organizations are looking for what NPR calls the “younger, intellectually curious types” to participate, value, create, and engage in the futures of both NPR and institutional museums.


On a different note, I have a few questions for you all! We all hear the praises of a democratizing collaboration where experts and novices join together. In these more conversations settings  (blogs, comment threads, Twitter feeds) where there is a diffused authority, is there also a lessened responsibility? What standards are curators held to, not only on their personal platforms, but when acting under their organization in a casual context?


2 Comments on “Curating the Cool: How museums use new media to stay relevant”

  1. Jesseee says:

    Such a great post! In response to your question: I think the responsibility is distributed throughout whatever the online community is. Each member holds some amount of responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the information in the comment thread, etc. Also, I think the casual nature of blogging, along with its demand for quick content turnaround, allows for some amount of error/revision.

  2. drdankerr says:

    Great question and one that needs to be carefully considered. Nonetheless, institution need guidelines — rather than use this dilemma a a rationale for not engaging the larger digital community.

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