Museums and digital
    practices: the difference between informing and engaging

    10.12.2016 by Jerome Turner

    One of my first tasks on the smARTplaces project was to develop a better, immediate understanding of our project partners. The project had already been running for a short time, but rather than ask for a full briefing, I found it useful to take on the role of uninformed stranger in the first instance. I wanted to explore the institutions’ online presence, which for many visitors represents their first port of call. I first identified what websites or social media accounts each project partner ran.

    Amongst other findings, this exercise reminded me of the difference between disseminating information and engaging with audiences. On one level, it is of course useful to put out information about upcoming events and exhibitions as and when your audiences expect them – through your Twitter accounts, Facebook Page and websites. But in doing so, be prepared for people to reply to such posts with questions, even they are only about parking, or start times. Responding will help instil an idea that the institution is run by warm, communicative people – it develops an identity beyond the ‘bricks and mortar’ of your organisation. And of course if people are asking for certain event clarifications, it helps you understand what needs to go into future similar posts.

    Sometimes it is the audience who start the conversations. If someone posts a selfie on social media whilst visiting your latest exhibition, do what you can to be kept in the loop about this. If they are directly tagging or ‘mentioning’ your organisation this can easily be done, but perhaps also do weekly searches for certain keywords that you suspect people might be using, such as the name of your event or institution. Once you’ve found any relevant posts try and go beyond simply ‘Liking’ them – a comment or reply is more visible and engaging, and again instils that idea of ‘the human’.

    Finally, I’ll close with one more detailed practice that we learn from journalism – phatic headlines. The phatic function of a headline is “to keep communication lines open and keep
    social relationships well. So phatic function is the function of maintaining cohesion within social groups” (Tiono, 2004: 50). Hannah Westley talks about this in terms of Facebook. If we are sharing a news story, blog post or Facebook Event within Facebook, we have the option of just including the link. But given we have the option to do so in Facebook, adding a few words of context to lightly or maybe quirkily  introduce that post has an additional phatic function – it suggests the link has been warmly shared by another human, rather than been automated by some cross-posting system. It is these kinds of details that can help draw the lines of communication between museums, the people that work there, and their audiences.


    Tiono, N.I., 2004. An analysis on syntactic and semantic factors found in newspaper headlines. k@ ta lama, 5(1), pp.67-83.