Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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The value of museum content, attention, and time

March 19th, 2014 by Seb Chan

It is that time of year again.

In a few weeks time I’ll be running the nth iteration of my annual ‘web metrics for museums’ workshop at Museums and the Web. This year I’m joined by the Smithsonian’s analytics guru Brian Alpert. As usual we will be working through the realities of a museum’s web presence and the new ways to measure how it is performing and how to communicate that to the rest of the organisation.

Every year it gets harder.

There’s now more people than ever before with access to the web, and with that brings the unrealistic expectation from management that those new web users are going to flock to a museum’s content, even though it was likely never created or designed with them in mind.

Let me digress.

I spent most of my spare time in my twenties and early thirties involved in music. My friends and I put on a huge number of gigs, we toured international artists, put out some CDs, ran a weekly club night for a decade, put on festivals, ran a music magazine, and did a weekly radio show on public radio (equivalent of US college radio) for nearly two decades.

We were doing this just as the web became mainstream and the way that music was distributed, consumed, and the cultures that grew around it was in rapid transformation. The music scene that we were involved in was niche but not small – some of the larger parties drew as many as 4000 – and there was only one or two international tours that we lost money on. In a city the size of Sydney that wasn’t too bad. The value of what we did in those years was best measured in its long term impact – not on an event-by-event basis.

We knew how to make it work financially but over the years we also realised that there was a difference between ‘growing a scene’ and ‘sustaining a community’.

The former reaches a point at which the bubble bursts and the scene rapidly contracts, whilst the latter keeps supporting the social needs of the people involved as they get older, their tastes change, and in some cases, pair off into domesticity.

What the web brought to music was two-fold. Firstly it opened the gates for ‘publishing’ – anyone could upload their music, release it, and cut out (or downgrade) the middleman. Second, it opened the gates for ‘fans’ – anyone could, in theory, get access to all this music, talk about it, and build communities around it by themselves

Music discovery metastasized. Personal networks exploded globally, record stores began to be eaten by chains and then die, music media was no longer constrained by ‘issues’ and freight, and then Napster/SoulSeek/torrents took over at the turn of the millennium. Online music media, YouTube and Spotify and similar services have replaced much of what there used to be in terms of music magazines (especially NME/Melody Maker in the 1980s), record stores and music discovery through radio.

So what we have is easier publication, easier access, and, transformed discovery. (Arguably music has gained more than it has lost, although that doesn’t mean musicians have gained)

What didn’t change was people’s time to listen to music, or their urge to listen to music. Listeners just don’t have more hours in their days.

It is worse for museums.

We make short videos. We record long epic lectures. We write essays and ebooks. We publish these online. We ‘effectively utilise social media’ (whatever that means these days). And then we foolishly expect that the world is all going to rush to watch/listen/read them.

But we misunderstand the value of what we’ve made. Unlike the transactional parts of our websites, these are all things that will only reveal their value over the long term.

We barely create time and momentum for people to interrupt their busy lives to consider visiting a museum with their precious spare time – how can we expect it to be an different with our online content?

If you have doubts, the Culture24 Lets Get Real project reports are essential reading.

Its not just museums, everyone is struggling with this.

More at Museums and the Web in Baltimore.

Tags: 4 Comments

  • Kate C

    Also: we now must consider the Attention Web: http://time.com/12933/what-you-think-you-know-about-the-web-is-wrong/

    • http://www.sebchan.com Seb Chan

      Heh heh – you do know that that was my ‘everyone is struggling with this’ hyperlink . . . .

      • Kate C

        Good grief, I’M PART OF THE PROBLEM.

  • http://www.lauraedythe.com LauraEdythe Coleman

    Hi Seb,
    I’m a phd student in museum informatics @ Florida State University. My research is titled “the co-construction of identity in museums.” I have been developing models for evaluating the co-construction of identity and of knowledge in a museum context, however the work becomes extremely thorny as I approach the precipice of the web!
    Have you seen any models or theories for museum evaluation that are used the in-person experience evaluation also transposed for the digital experience of a museum?
    Thanks for your article & the links!
    Laura-Edythe Coleman