Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Strategic Goal for NHM

Effectively engage with current and new audiences using new social systems and technologies.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Home Broadband Adoption

This study by Pew Internet is extremely interesting. According to Pew, the number of American homes with a broadband Internet connection has risen to 55% from 47% in 2007. Growth in this area is important for a number of reasons, but what is unsettling about the report is the indication that low-income Americans are not purchasing broadband subscriptions. Indeed, according to this study only 25% of Americans earning less than $20,000 annually have broadband access at home, down from 28% in 2007.

A heartening figure is that half of Americans between the age of 50 and 65 have broadband in their home, and this group seems to be seeing the most growth among all web 2 platforms recently.

Finally, 27% of Americans do not have any Internet access in their homes. These people tend to be both older (over 65) and poorer (earning less than $20,000 annually).

What does all of this mean? Well, two things:
  1. Some of the hardest people for museums to reach are those with small household incomes. While museums tend to be inexpensive and welcoming to everyone, even those who cannot pay (See the Seattle Art Museum's recent ad campaign - "Pay what you can"), most visitors do not fall into this category. So if they don't come, and they don't have Internet access, how do we talk to them? How do we serve them?
  2. The highest rate of growth is seen among middle income, middle aged individuals. Museums already do a good job of reaching these people through traditional means: direct mail, advertising, e-mail; but this group is also quickly engaging with new social technologies such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, meaning they want to be exposed to more people, they want to be more connected to their interests, and they want to have a more intense experience online.

If a museum communicator were to take the path of least resistance, they would spend a great deal of their time building engaging web content for those people who really want that intense experience, and who are really vocal about it. But as quickly as this group is adopting these systems and seeking out ways to be engaged, and as glamorous as the projects created to please them are, they are a minority group who are probably already engaged. Would it not be more useful to spend those resources on under-served audiences?

What we really need to do is do both. We need to develop the fantastic, award winning, glamorous online content that the growing Internet-using public wants. But we also need to find ways to effectively reach people who don't use the Internet, don't visit museums, and don't have the resources to financially support the organization.

Part 1: Introductions

In "The Temple and the Forum" Les Harrison discusses two competing notions of the identity of museums: the Temple, in which the status-quo is preserved and a/the state has the greatest investment and control in the stories that are told; and the Forum, in which everything is questioned and debated by competing social groups. These two categories, which Harrison sees as opposites on a spectrum, reach their goals and achieve their missions by communicating ideas to their audience, and by allowing their audiences to communicate with each other about specific topics. 

If the function of a museum, regardless of its place on the Temple-Forum continuum, can be understood as that of a communicator, it is critically important for that museum (and the professionals working in it) to understand why people communicate, and through what means. If this understanding is pursued in a strategic and intentional fashion, the museum will be in a position to more effective achieve its mission and realize its vision.

Individuals communicate in a variety of different ways, the oldest of which is oral communication, followed by physical, visual and written communication.  Today, multiple communication methods have been combined, mediated by technology, into a new form of multimedia communication. No one method of communication is superior to the others, and the development of new methods of communication does not coincide with the death of others.  Rather, new methods of communication allow us to communicate with more people, more often, and to a more intimate degree than before (Briggs Chapter 2).

There are three characteristics of all types of communication: permanency, immediacy and interactivity. These characteristics are valued to different degrees by different people under different circumstances, but together they are an effective objective way to evaluate different communication methods. Different communication methods typically have different ratios of permanency:immediacy:interactivity. Consider the following examples:

There are 350 caves in France and Spain that contain prehistoric paintings of animals.  These paintings are widely studied and their content and age debated. What we know for certain is that they are old, with the youngest estimates placing them at 10,000 years old. The artist who created the paintings could have communicated a variety of ideas to his peers, but modern scientists and scholars learn a variety of things from the paints. The significance of these paintings demonstrates their considerable permanency, yet the variety of potential meanings gleaned from the painting demonstrate its weakness in immediacy and interactivity.

Historians consider the year 1450 as the beginning of the modern age, in no small part due to the invention that year of the moveable-type printing press by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz. Gutenberg catalyzed what is known as the "print revolution" whereby printing spread throughout Europe and produced 27,000 editions by 1500 (Briggs 13).  The printing press allowed for the greatest dissemination of knowledge and thought in Europe, the books produced by these presses allowed thinkers to rapidly ready and respond to their contemporaries, creating the philosophical foundation for the "Age of Revolution" beginning in 1789. Printed books were precious commodities in the 16th century, yet they were nonetheless less permanent than the vellum manuscripts that predated them, but the ease and inexpense of creation made the communication via the book more immediate and more interactive.

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the first practical telephone in 1875, he did not usher in a new way of communication. Rather, he developed a system in which the oral communication was possible without regard to distance. Likewise, the development of the United States Postal Service was established in 1775, it provided a system in which people could safely and effectively effect interactive communication over long distances. Rather than vessels of communication, these systems lay the foundation for traditional mode of communication: oral, written, to be more effective and more responsive to contemporary needs. 

The cave paintings at Lascaux, the printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg, Einstein's telegram to President Roosevelt and this blog posting all have different capacities for permanency, immediacy and interactivity. The cave paintings at Lascaux demonstrate the importance of permanency, as the author continues to communicate with us today, but there painting has no interactivity: there is no way to respond to the author.  In fact, the value gained in its extreme permanency presupposes any value gained form immediacy and interactivity. The printing press and a national postal system built around the letter demonstrate a balance between permanency, immediacy and interactivity; there are few original Gutenberg volumes available, but the printing press allowed for the dissemination of knowledge previously unknown, and the national postage system of the United States is a structure that allowed interactive communication that, while not immediate, was certainly more expedient than previous systems.

The culmination of these technologies and systems can be seen in the emergence of a system that has radically changed our expectations and methods of communication: the Internet. 


This is what I've been reading over the past couple of months. I'm sure there is a lot more out there.
  • Daniel, John S. “Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education.” London: Kogan Page, 1999.
  • Briggs, Asa and Peter Burke. “A Social History of the Media.” Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.
  • Lytras, Miltiadis D., Meir Russ, Ronald Maier, and Ambjorn Naeve. “Knowledge Management Strategies: A Handbook of Applied Technology. Hershey, PA: IGI Publishing, 2008.
  • Shuen, Amy. “Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide.” Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2008.
  • Falk, John H. and Beverly K. Sheppard. “Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Insitituions.” Oxford: AltaMira Press, 2006.
  • Jenkins, Henry. “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.” New York, NY: New York University Press, 2006.
  • Leuf, Bo and Ward Cunningham. “The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web.” Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 2001.
  • Cameron, Fiona and Sarah Kenderdine. “Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse.” Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007.
  • Harrison, Les. “The Temple and the Forum: The American Museum and Cultural Authority in Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe and Whitman.” Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2007.
  • Ebersbach, Anja, Markus Glaser and Richard Heigl. “Wiki: Web Collaboration.” Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2006.
  • Okin, J. R.. “The Information Revolution.” Winter Harbor, ME: Ironbound Press, 2005.
  • Dougherty, Meghan. “Archiving the Web: Collection, Documentation, Display and Shifting Knowledge Production Paradigms.” Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007.
  • Marty, Paul F.. Factors Influencing the Co-Evolution of Computer-Mediated Collaborative Practices and Systems: A Museum Case Study. The Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 10 (4), 2005.
  • Korn, Randi. "The Case for Holistic Intentionality". Curator : a Quarterly Publication of the American Museum of Natural History. 50 (2): 255.
  • Cho, H.-K., Trier, M., and Kim, E. (2005). The use of instant messaging in working relationship development: A case study. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(4), article 17.http://jcmc.indiana.edu.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/vol10/issue4/cho.html

Thursday, March 19, 2009


The title of this blog is a bit misleading: I am not interested in how museums communicate but, rather, how museum professionals communicate, educate and inspire everyone else based on the mission, vision and program of their museum. I am going to go out on a (rather short, I think) limb and say that everything, everything, we have and do is a product of communication. 

The main thrust of this forthcoming essay is toward communication technologies. We are all caught up in technology right now, especially this web 2.0 business, but we need to remember that this blog, that tweet, those facebook and myspace pages, all those wikis and the innumerable photos posted to flickr are only the most recent expression of our collective drive to make our communication more permanent, more immediate, and more interactive.

The cave paintings in Lascaux, France are a 32,000 year old communique to someone. They are definitely permanent, but not so immediate or interactive:

Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt demonstrates a more immediate and interactive form of communication, but letters are not very permanent (unless you're Einstein).

My Twitter feed (which you can check out in the sidebar) is immediate and somewhat interactive, but its hardly permanent.  

Each method of communication is valuable for a different reason, and people will certainly prefer one method to the exclusion of others.  It is important to recognize that all communication technologies work toward the same goal, but achieve that impact in different ways.

Both of the images used in this post are in the public domain, accessed via wikipedia.org.