Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Building the 80s – a multichannel longitudinal exhibition web presence

March 26th, 2010 by Seb Chan

You may have noticed that the posts on Fresh & New(er) have been a little scarce. That’s been because the team has been very busy.

The 80s are back

We’ve first been building, then running, a WordPress-based magazine-styled website as the final component in the overall exhibition web presence for the Powerhouse’s latest exhibition, The 80s are back.

Introducing a new ‘integrated’ model, this exhibition had a web presence even before it was finalised. We started a curator’s blog in November 2008 whilst the exhibition was in the very early stages of development. Then, as the themes for the exhibit started to coalesce we began relevant groups on Flickr and Facebook, both in February 2009. These were created to begin conversations with the community in order to explore potential themes and content before they were solidified into the exhibition itself.

In December 2009 the exhibition opened.

The pre-exhibition presence
The curatorial blog worked well in the early stages of the exhibition process especially – prior to exhibition opening the 24 posts generated 213 comments and around 15,000 views. These comments and conversations helped the curatorial team refine the content of the exhibition early on.

The Flickr and Facebook groups were less obviously successful in the early stage. Although they both grew in size the quality of conversation was far lower than on the blog. Perhaps because, as groups, they were largely undirected – and the community had no clear idea of ‘what they were supposed to do’ in them. (Interestingly the activity on the Facebook group has changed as the exhibition has launched – now that there is a focal point and more clear purpose).

During this time, too, the curatorial team were present in a number of online communities – subcultural community forum websites especially – relevant to the major themes of the exhibition. Tangible outcomes here are in the diversity of loan objects and the ‘authenticity’ of selections within the subcultures section of the exhibition itself.

The integrated post-launch presence
As the exhibition moved closer to launch a standard static exhibition page went up on the Museum’s main website in October 2009, then, just before opening in December 2009, we launched the fully blown magazine website and accompanying multi-channel social media presence.

On the magazine site, over the twelve months of the exhibition the web team is acting as ‘magazine editors’ whilst the curators, and a growing bunch of community contributors are adding content and supporting conversations. There are also a range of activities taking place elsewhere online and spread over other websites – depending upon where it is most relevant.

This is a commitment we haven’t previously done and for us this is a new way of working – a “post-social media exhibition web presence” so to speak. And with this new way of working has come plenty of challenges across the organisation.

The main website
The main exhibition website operates as both a promotional site and a magazine portal in the 80s memories section. There’s also space where the ‘making of the exhibition’ has been documented and where related public events are documented as they happen and are then archived. There’s behind the scenes footage, stop motions, and more.

We’ve even managed to get almost all of the recorded AV content that you get in the gallery up onto the website – with transcripts – and with the ‘extended versions’ still to come.

Over in the 80s memories & essays section we have a growing list of Q&A interviews with various people of the 80s as well as movie, music and video game reviews. We’re also bringing together community and curator generated ‘exhibition essays‘ around the key themes with new series being published over the year – a kind of evolving online publication.

We decided to base the site around a (low cost) commercial WordPress theme to build the site in order to keep it flexible and allow for growth with a variety of widgets. We’ve used the concept of WordPress ‘pages’ for static content, and used ‘posts’ for the dynamic areas combined with a mix of hierarchical categories for site navigation. This hasn’t been without its own issues but the large user WordPress user community has been invaluable in resolving the inevitable glitches. (Caveat – if we had been building a more static exhibition site we wouldn’t have necessarily gone down the WordPress route.)

Twitter
We chose Twitter as a useful way to promote new content published in the magazine site, as well as highlight quirky relevant content on other websites – 80s memorabilia on YouTube, quirky posts by other bloggers, trivia – and also to engage in short low-impact conversations around content and exhibition feedback. In order to better tweet links to music videos we’ve been experimenting with Blip.fm.

YouTube
With an exhibition like this there’s an obvious wealth of video content. We made a decision to keep the longer form interviews on our own site for the time being, but quick single-take handheld video voxpops we are putting up on YouTube. These are complemented by vox pops recorded in the gallery through an automated ‘visitor feedback kiosk’ based on the Brooklyn Museum’s example. As Renae explains later, this hasn’t quite worked as expected and we’ve had to use the ‘featured videos’ on the YouTube page as a way of making the live content a little harder to reach . . .

Facebook
We’ve kept the Facebook exhibition group going and we’re keeping active publishing links to new content through it. Not surprisingly, the interactions on Facebook tend to be more low-level than on the main site, but we’re expecting that this will change as the exhibition’s public program roster rolls out over the year.

Why do this?
When we were proposing this approach we argued that the extended resourcing required to build and maintain an magazine-style website was justified because it has multiple aims and outcomes. These included a need to:

– promote the exhibition and public programs attached to it

– provide extensive pre- and post-visit resources for three different types of visitors: the casual, the specialist/enthusiast, and those from the education sector

– crucially, for what is ostensibly a pop culture & social history exhibition the rich content on the site also serves to deepen and extend visitor engagement with the exhibition content and themes

– scaffold public programs and education visits with background and contextual materials

- and finally, provide long term historical resources for the education sector.

Ideally this sort of exercise would be baked into the exhibition development process but we’re still figuring out how to completely integrate and plan a digital content schedule right from the start – objects, audio visual material, ‘extras’, the lot.

That was the plan with the curatorial blog but as the exhibition deadline drew closer and closer the role of the blog diminished as curators worked on object lists and the exhibition itself. And with an exhibition like The 80s are back which has hundreds of individual objects and hundreds of loaned objects – toys, records, especially – the final list of included items wasn’t finalised until a few weeks before opening.

The pressure of marketing the launch of a summer exhibition, too, meant that the more traditional content for an exhibition website – the basics, the public programme listings – all took over in the final two months as well.

But now, post launch, we have been in a position where curatorial staff are still maintained on the exhibition content and can be utilised to create and augment web content, and, importantly we can continue to grow the content that ‘didn’t quite make it into the exhibition’. Equally, we’re able to better listen and respond to visitors who have been coming to the exhibition and asking questions or taking the content off in tangents.

Matching the audience
Clearly as the exhibition is aimed squarely at Gen Xers, there is an almost perfect match between the kind of social media use we are undertaking and the types of uses Gen Xers in Australia use social media for (compared to other age groups). As we are focussing on asking visitors to contribute and create content, as well as follow and spread trivia, social media is perfect for eliciting and amplifying the memories of Gen X for their formative years in primary and secondary school – whereas for younger or older audiences it may not be so successful.

Similarly, by aggregating the best quality content pulled in from other channels onto the Museum’s site itself, we are aiming to present the kind of authoritative ‘curated’ resource for the education sector that will last into the future.

Keeping it flexible
We’ve got a dedicated online producer, Renae Mason, working on the magazine side. This allows us to go with the flow a little bit more and be responsive to the types of content that resonates best with our visitors. Renae is pulling together content, finding and working with contributors.

Renae is also one of three people tweeting.

F&N: How does the site work with niche communities to match them with public programs?

Renae: Like public programs, the website affords the opportunity to expand on the themes in the exhibition and engage diverse communities around the extra content we produce.

Our general approach is to provide a variety of content on all sorts of topics – films, music, games, toys, fashion, history and trivia – and then specialise around topics that match the public program events or inspire the most interest from our audience. All of this material will remain online, serving as a nice social archive for future reference.

The best example of synergy between the exhibition, public programs and the web presence happened for our Retrogaming Weekend.

The museum was packed with classic arcade games and table tops, game-inspired Dj-ing, presentations & panels by experts in the field and a 48-hour lock down competition for Global Game Jam, an event that seeks to stimulate the local game development industry.

Our online strategy to support this particular audience and event focused on developing original content during the lead up, including reviews of 80s games and machines. This content went out through our social media platforms, particularly Twitter.

On the opening night of the event we gathered video voxpops and responded to tweets in realtime. It was really rewarding to see the network of people all chatting about the event on Twitter. This discussion continues online – we even ended up posting the setlist from the DJ as a result of an online request.

F&N: How have you found content creation, the vox pops, being a ‘roving reporter’?

I realised early on that I’d need to learn more about the 80s than I’d ever thought possible but it’s actually been a lot of fun. There’s so much material to draw upon, and it’s almost possible to find something to please everyone. It’s also been incredibly interesting hearing other people’s stories about what the 80s means to them and the vox pops that we’ve been soliciting have been great for that – personal and short enough to cater for the online attention span.

There’s great value for me in getting to know who our visitors are in person, rather than relying solely on my own assumptions or web analytics. I’ve noticed that most people proudly share their voxpops with their friends online, so they must be enjoying the process too!

F&N: What sort of feedback is coming in?

In general, an overwhelming amount of positive feedback including lots of shout-outs on Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs to let us know that they enjoyed the exhibition.

In other cases, we’ve had constructive criticism that helps us to make minor tweaks and fixes both online and in the physical space. For example, one visitor let us know that our toy Voltron wasn’t entirely transformed, (our curators had neglected to open the tiger’s mouth to reveal Voltron’s face) something that passionate fans would notice.

Other fans are making their own videos of their experience in the exhibition.

We’ve had mixed results with our YouTube kiosk channel but as a result of that we’re putting serious thought into improving the exit experience, which is where our YouTube kiosk is currently located. Although we’d adopted the Brooklyn Museum’s tried and tested Scrappy Doo model, the physical location of the kiosk meant we’ve been inundated with poor responses – mostly people fooling around or not knowing what to do.

Curiously the best on topic ones seem to have come from British tourists, not locals!

More positively, something that really inspires me right now is finding out that teenagers are actually dragging their parents along to the museum, and not the other way around. Brilliant!

F&N: How are you tracking these channels?

There are some great simple online tools available to help make sense it all. I’ve set Google Alerts and subscribe to custom Twitter searches. We monitor all web traffic using Google Analytics as well as using Bit.ly for URL shortening and tracking. Critically, though, it has been about understanding what each of the ways we are engaging with audiences are trying to achieve and then matching the tools as appropriate.

Of course, there is still a lot of manual work.

It’s important to stay logged in to our social media channels and be timely. That necessarily means working slightly outside of the 9-5 day structure.

Another thing I’ve been looking at are Twitter lists – it’s revealing to see what kinds of lists we’ve been included in. One of our followers added us to their ‘fun’ list, so I think we must be doing something right for at least one person out there! Of course, there are also specific tools to monitor your performance on Twitter ( but I don’t place too much emphasis on them as raw numbers. I think it’s much more important to develop your own goals and style and then apply them to the tools.

F&N: How did the 80s social media presence make you think about and react to your own social media identity?

In my personal life I’m pretty flippant about social media. If I don’t blog for a month, or tweet for week, it doesn’t matter. I dip in and out of the stream of conversations when I feel like it or have time to kill and I’m always signing up for new things so that I can understand why other people might find them useful, if not myself.

But doing social media on behalf of your employer is slightly different. For starters, metrics are important, timeliness is essential and everything you communicate has to be relevant. The biggest drama for me was finding my voice, balancing the need to be authentic whilst representing the museum ‘brand’.

Privacy on Facebook was another concern of mine. I got around this by creating a new profile for myself, that I can use exclusively for work. I treat it in much the same way as my personal account, except that I identify myself more clearly as working for the Powerhouse Museum on ‘The 80s Are Back’ exhibition and I join groups that relate to our 80s content that the other ‘me’ probably wouldn’t. Occasionally my two profiles get invited to events together, which is kind of amusing. Should I RSVP twice?!

The 80s exhibition also has more traditional e-marketing channels. Whilst the key demographic are heavy users of social media they have also not abandoned email – and for this reason a combined approach has been used. Kathleen Evesson in the Marketing Department describes how the email list has functioned

F&N: How does the email fan club work? What is it trying to achieve?

Kathleen: People subscribe to the 80s fanclub by signing up on the 80s website (the subscription form is prominent on the homepage) or by opting in when they purchase a ticket to an 80s-related event. The aim is to encourage visitation to the exhibition (and repeat visitation during the year of the exhibition), to promote special events and to assist in building a community of ‘fans’ of 80s content.

Before the exhibition opened, we promoted the fanclub through our existing email lists, on Facebook, on our website, and in paid advertisements. Pre-launch, the fanclub provided us with a way to build awareness of the exhibition. We got the fanclub involved in the exhibition itself: before the launch, we invited members to come in and help us ‘build’ our entrance wall to the exhibition (made up of over a 1,000 cube puzzles). About 35 fans came in to help, ranging in age from 6 years old to 70. With their initials written on the back of each cube, these fans literally became part of the exhibition itself – a great example of how engaged they were with the exhibition and its content – before they had even seen it!

Making the title wall. (c) Powerhouse Museum.

We also pre-sold tickets to the opening night party to this group of enthusiastic fans, and gave them special offers and giveaways. By the time the exhibition opened on 12 December, we had a database of about 400.

F&N: How is it going post-launch?

We have been steadily growing the database in the first two months of the exhibition, and now have 1,000 members of the (email) fanclub. This slow and steady growth has been encouraging, as the growth of the database has not been at the expense of reader engagement. Often when email databases grow, the open/ click through rates drop proportionally. In this case though, we have stayed consistently around 50% open rates (with emails going out about once a month; every fortnight in December and November).

In terms of content, there are strong links back to the 80s website and coming events. 80s trivia has been the very popular as have events where visitors can get involved (eg building the entrance wall; voting online).

F&N: How does it compare to previous email marketing initiatives?

Maintaining engagement with this audience over a long period of time (a year) is the unique challenge for this campaign. Previous campaigns (for example, we developed a very successful ‘Star Wars priority list’ for 2008’s Star Wars exhibition) were more focussed on pre-sales for exhibitions, and promotion short duration events.

As a result, in the 80s fanclub, we’ve focussed more on including engaging content – pulling out and highlighting info from our 80s website and discussions happening in social media (flickr, twitter and facebook). We also cross-link between our enews, online (website/ social media) and print advertisements, so that our 80s fanclub emails are integrated with our online and above the line campaigns.

The main website: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/the80sareback
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/the80sareback
Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/powerhousemuseum80s
Facebook: http://from.ph/80sfacebook

Main site content statistics: to date we’ve put up 100 posts containing 54148 words generating 101 comments of 5727 words in total. On top of that there are 39 static pages.

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