When I started at my current job, the magazine’s web site was, well, pathetic. We posted selected news stories, once a week, almost no features, and no columns. (The print issue was, eventually, replicated online, behind a members-only entrance, and in a rather difficult-to-use format, so it might as well not have been.)
The reason was that those who made this decision believed that posting articles would cause the association the magazine serves to lose members; if we give away articles, the thinking went, nobody would have any need to join the association.
This was absurd in 2004, and even more so in 2009, once we finally did start opening up content. There wasn’t a mass exodus of membership, and finally the magazine could be a part of the online discussions that had passed it by for many years.
How does this relate to museums? Much like the association is much more than the magazine, a museum is much more than its artifacts. Museum visits are an experience, rather than just a transfer of information. Sharing information online, therefore, won’t make visiting the museum less valuable. Quite the contrary, in fact.
A personal example, and then a non-personal one.
The biggest draw at the Nature Museum, where I volunteer, is the butterfly haven. It’s also the one place that I absolutely know that I’ll be spending some time during my volunteer shifts—while programs vary, the butterfly release is a daily event and, since it draws a big crowd, all of the program volunteers are assigned to it.
So, ultimately, the butterflies are probably the museum animal that I spend the most time with and the most time talking about.
This hasn’t made me less interested in them; it’s made me more interested in them. Since I know better which ones are common and which are rare, and what kind of behaviors are common and what kind are unusual, I appreciate seeing them more. And instead of spending less time there, I spend more, often going to the haven to check out what’s new before my shift or occasionally even on off days. And I research on my own, and share my experiences online.
And the non-personal story: This one, via Dulwich OnView, about how well-placed and well-timed information helped children to understand and appreciate paintings in a gallery, changing the visit from one of boredom to one of interest.
This kind of connection is invaluable, and connecting in person like this is incredible—but it’s not the only way, nor should it be. While sharing information online via, say, a regular Facebook or Twitter feed, won’t replace a well-timed bit of exhibit interpretation, it can inspire and build excitement for the visit where that interpretation can take place.