Sebastian Chan, Powerhouse Museum, Australia, and Jim Spadaccini, Ideum, USA
As 2006 began, there were less than thirty known museum blogs; since then, that number has more than doubled. Today there are well over 100 blogs exploring museum issues, from a range of institutions and individuals across the globe. All of these blogs have embraced the concept of ‘radical trust,’ taking the big step to trust (radically) the community on-line. This paper reports the findings of the first major survey of museum blog operators and their readers. Developed by Powerhouse Museum and Ideum, this comprehensive survey of bloggers paints a picture of where the field is today, and where it is headed in the future.
How popular are they? How is popularity measured? Do these blogs operate from the inside or the outside of museums? Who is their audience? What of RSS, aggregators, and link exchanges? Are there emerging commonalities in practice and usage that can be brought together to strengthen and expand the collective worth and impact of museum blogging? This paper explores these questions and more. Several successful operational models have emerged and are outlined here, along with emerging trends for the field. It is our hope that these survey results will also provide a starting point for those museums looking to launch their own blogs.
Keywords: Web 2.0, blogs, Web logs, social software, social networking, evaluation, survey
In 2006 the number of blogs created by and for museums grew exponentially. MuseumBlogs.org, the primary aggregator and portal for the sector, began the year with around 30 blogs and concluded 2006 with 95 registered feeds. By the end of January 2007, this number had jumped to 111 blogs , representing a fairly dramatic jump to start off the new year.
Blogs pre-date the current Web 2.0 phenomenon and have been around since the very early days of the Web, first appearing as on-line diaries. By the late ’90s, the term blog was in use, and its popularity began to rise (Wikipedia, 2007). Museum blogs didn’t arrive on the scene until 2002, with infoTECMuseo launching in June, Museum People in August, and Modern Art Notes in September of that year (Museum Blogs, 2007).
According to Technorati, a blog-only search engine, there were 55 million blogs as of January 2007 (Technorati, 2007). This number has nearly doubled in the last year. The number of museum blogs grew at roughly twice that rate in 2006. (Not hard to do, considering how underrepresented the field was in the larger blogosphere.) The first informal survey of museum blogs in March of 2006 (Spadaccini, 2006) revealed around 30 museum blogs at a time when there were around 30 million blogs. It was noted then that museum blogs were ‘literally one in a million.’ Today museum blogs are effectively 1 in 500,000, still a rarity in the larger blogosphere.
Blogging is the easiest of the group of social software (blogs, wikis, on-line forums, social networking services, etc) to set up. It is cheap and technically simple, and it could be argued that it has the lowest level of ‘threat’ to existing workflows and work practices. In many ways a blog is simply a diary-style Web site with chronologically ordered entries that, more often than not, allows readers to comment on each entry. Even this ability for readers to comment can be switched off. This is in particular contrast to wikis and community engines which, by their very nature, allow much more unbounded community interaction.
Outside the museum world, blogging has been adopted by many technology companies both to improve internal communication and, on occasion, to communicate directly with their customers in supposedly less formal ways. “Enterprise blogging” is seen as a means to improve internal collaboration and productivity through better “knowledge management,” as well as to give the impression of ‘”transparency” with customers (McAfee, 2006; Mayfield, 2006). The success of blogging in the commercial world has not led to museums’ embracing this technology in their own.
Indeed, many museums have been reluctant to experiment with blogging. Most conversations about museums on blogs take place in the larger blogosphere as visitors, teenagers, and tourists discuss their visitor experiences. The museums themselves remain on the sidelines (von Appen, 2006). Those institutions and individuals who represent museum blogs are still playing the role of pioneers.
It is into this environment that museum blogs have emerged. Some were established by in-house IT teams; others have sprung up to track the development of an exhibition or special project; and some serve to document research projects. Excitingly, as these blogs have gone public, many have experienced new unexpected interactions with public audiences and, as their content has been captured by search engines, they have also attracted new audiences who had been previously unaware of the host organization (Russo, Watkins, Kelly, and Chan 2006).
Also, as many viral marketing companies have found, blogs also provide a cost-effective way of ‘gaming’ search engines, quickly raising one’s Google PageRank (Google, 2007) and thus one’s discoverability. Additionally, more blog-generated pages, categories, and keywords provide more content to be indexed, bringing in even more visitors from search engines over time. Having a presence in the blogosphere and the larger Web 2.0 world can help ensure visibility in the ‘traditional’ Web 1.0 world.
About the Survey
This survey was undertaken in two stages. The first was a single-day snapshot analysis of each of the 95 blogs found listed in the Museum Blog directory. The second stage was a public survey accessible through the site. Fifty-three bloggers representing 51 museum blogs responded to the formal survey.
Stage One - Analyzing MuseumBlogs.org
On December 21, 2006, 95 blogs on MuseumBlogs.org were manually visited and the following details were collected:
- The number of posts in the previous 30 days
- The number of user comments in the previous 30 days
- The date of the last post
- The average post length in words
- Blogging software used (if evident)
- The number of external links in the sidebar of the blog
- The presence (if any) and type of advertising
Each site was also checked for back links from Google, and their Technorati ranking was recorded. These figures were collected to allow for an examination of their usage and frequency of update, as well as their relative “popularity” and “authority” as determined by linkbacks.
Stage Two – The On-line Survey
The URL of the survey was e-mailed to the administrator addresses of each blog listed on MuseumBlogs.org, and announcements were posted on the Ideum blog and Fresh + New at the Powerhouse Museum (December 19, 2006). A reminder e-mail was sent a few days prior to the closure of the survey to these same addresses, as well as to the MCN-L (Museum Computer Network) discussion list (January 4, 2007).
Stage One Results
The manual survey revealed the following trend data:
1. Frequency of posting
- 1 blog was temporarily down with server failure
- 6 blogs were no longer available and gave 404 errors or equivalent
- 22 blogs had no posts (nearly one-third) in the 30 days prior to the survey
- The highest number of posts was 88 in 30 days by Zeke’s Gallery, and the average number of posts for the active blogs was 10.17 (sd=14.64, n=67).
2. User comments
- Highest user comments was 128 on UBC’s Botany Photo of the Day.
- Average comments for the active blogs was 7.40 (sd=20.33, n=67)
3. Post length
- Average post length was 273.86 words (sd=158.94, n=88)
- 7 of 85 functional blogs had on-site advertising,
- 6 with GoogleAds and
- 1 with sponsored advertisements.
5. Top fifteen museum blogs by Technorati rankings
Technorati ranks blogs by the number of other blogs linking to them and the total number of links.
|Rank||Blog||Technorati rank||Technorati links|
|1||Modern Art Notes||11,515||784 from 261 blogs|
|2||Eye Level||31,554||262 from 104 blogs|
|3||Botany Photo of the Day||33,683||586 from 98 blogs|
|4||Zeke's Gallery||42,395||304 from 78 blogs|
|5||Yesterday.SG||52,644||1624 from 63 blogs|
|6||Hanging Together||71,599||316 from 47 blogs|
|7||Musematic||87,097||189 from 39 blogs|
|8||Fresh & New||97,958||100 from 35 blogs|
|9||Andy Warhol Blog||111,771||42 from 31 blogs|
|10||Past Thinking||120,367||196 from 29 blogs|
|11||Science Buzz||125,161||768 from 28 blogs|
|12||Ideum: Ideas + Media||130,265||159 from 27 blogs|
|13||Antarctic Conservation Blog||135,801||189 from 26 blogs|
|14||Oz: the blog of Glenda Sims||155,443||92 from 23 blogs|
|15||MuseumBlogging.com||163,248||82 from 22 blogs|
6. Top fifteen museum blogs by Google linkbacks
Google offers a search result by linkbacks (query - link:url). This gives an indication of all types of Web sites linking to the blog, not just ones from other blogs.
|1||Modern Art Notes||6770|
|2||Botany Photo of the Day||3580|
|8||National Museums Liverpool||878|
|10||Art @ the Katzen||600|
|12||Andy Warhol Blog||353|
|15||MODE: Museums. Objects. Design. Exhibitions.||334|
What Does This All Mean?
There are some interesting common features that most of the top-ranked museum blogs share. The first is that these sites tend to post more frequently (avg 37.6 per month) than the average museum blogs (10.17 per month). More posts mean more possibilities for links back to the blog or trackbacks (links that allow bloggers to see citations from other blogs). In addition, posting more often means more aggregated content through blog aggregators and other services.
Related to frequency of posting, the operational models that most of these top sites employ seems to be a factor. Botany Photo of the Day and The Andy Warhol blog (until its closure) are somewhat automated, providing new content regularly while staying focused in a particular topic area. Eye Level, Science Buzz, Musematic, Hanging Together, Walker Blogs, National Museums Liverpool, and Yesterday SG have teams of bloggers, allowing for more frequent postings, but also for varied perspectives. This doesn’t mean that the lone blogger cannot be successful; the most prolific blog was Zeke’s Gallery which is also the 4th most popular of all museum blogs (according to Technorati).
The top four in the Technorati Ranking - Modern Art Notes, Eye Level, Botany Photo of the Day, and Zeke’s Gallery - appeal to the general public. Museum blogs as a whole are split between those that are geared for a public audience and those that focus on professional development. As we’ll see in the results from the on-line survey, the split was nearly 50/50. Of the top blogs, Hanging Together and Musematic are the only two that focus squarely on professional development.
Another measure of success is a blog’s engagement with its target audience. This is best measured by the volume, quality, and relevance of comments in response to posts. While a few blogs surveyed do not allow commenting and measuring, quality and relevance is beyond the scope of this study.
|1||Botany Photo of the Day||128|
|4||Bad At Sports||39|
|5||Fresh & New||27|
|11||Oz: the blog of Glenda Sims||11|
Examining this list of blogs, a different picture emerges. Here the blogs that rank highly are those that invite user participation as a factor of their content and design. Many of these blogs operate as community hubs (Museum People, a group LiveJournal conversation) and professional-to-professional blogs such as Fresh & New, Inherent Vice, Museum 2.0, Hanging Together, Oz, Musematic, and Ideum Blog. Of those aimed directly at the general public, Botany Photo of the Day, Science Buzz, and Observations all can be demonstrated to be engaging successfully with their target audience by measuring participation in, and reaction to, blog postings.
Stage Two – The On-line Survey
The on-line survey collected information from 51 blogs submitted by 53 individuals (two blogs had two authors participate), more than half of the known museum blogs at the time the survey was conducted. Accordingly, the group represents a wide range of institutions, individuals, and blogs from across the globe, representing many ‘first world’ countries of North America, Europe, and Oceania.
Most of the blogs that participated use English as their primary language although five of the blogs are in other languages. This is fairly representative of the number of foreign language blogs that currently appear on the Museum Blogs site. As of late January 2007, 13 of the 111 blogs in the directory were in a language other than English.
More than half of the participating blogs are directly affiliated with a museum, a university, or an institution of some sort. From those who responded to the question of what ‘Department’ they were affiliated with, a wide range of responses was collected. Museum blogs can be found in exhibit and exhibitions departments, collections, education, marketing, or IT or specialized Web departments. The diversity represented here is in keeping with McAfee’s (2006) assertion that social software will initially emerge from various places within large organizations, rather than from the ‘top down.’
Most of the participants (46 of 53) agreed to share their responses. We will quote some of those responses directly as we summarize the results of the on-line survey.
Purpose and Target Audience
We asked bloggers to describe their target audience and the purpose of their blog. As indicated in the first the survey, there is a split between those that are geared for the general public and those focusing on museum professionals. In addition, there are blogs that target both of these audiences as the numbers indicate (General Public and Museum Professionals have shares of more than half of the responses).
|Who is your target audience(s)? (select all that apply)|
|Museum Professionals||29 of 53|
|General Public||28 of 53|
|Special Interest Groups||17 of 53|
|Students and Teachers/Educational||9 of 53|
|Internal Museum Personnel||9 of 53|
When we asked participants to describe the purpose of the blog, we received a wide range of responses. There were few common threads (although a number blogs used the word “experimental” in describing their purpose). Here are a few comments from those blogs that are geared primary for professional development.
The purpose of Musematic was to provide a place for museum information professionals to talk about museum technology. Several of us also have a foot in the library community and we observed the growth of blogging as a professional communication tool and felt that the museum community needed a similar venue. Musematic was conceived as an experimental space and we continue to refine our expectations and goals. (Richard Urban, Musematic, USA)
This blog wants to reflect the complexity of the education in the museums, the problems which daily we faced and to the rich horizon that appears before us. Between the strictly academic and nonformal thing, applying old methodologies or experimenting with present, looking for new ways to spread the knowledge of our institutions, those that we dedicated ourselves to these questions we looked for our voice before the interferences of other professionals (Rufino Ferreras, Museo Abierto, Spain).
e-artcasting is a nonprofit research project, an information source’ [sic] and a professional network to share experiences, exchange information and develop resources about Sociable Technologies in Art Museums from all over the world. It is our belief that these new ways of communication are valuable tools for Art Museums interacting with their audiences. From this point of view, e-artcasting explores and documents their use, impact, and possibilities. (lamusediffuse [name given)], e-artcasting, [country not given]).
Share my experience in museum projects as multimedia content producer: films, interactives, videogames, kiosks, web sites, and installations. Explain my company goals and motivations. Publish our references (Stéphane Bezombes, Reciproque, France).
Among those that target the general public or museum visitors there was also sense that blogging is new ground.
It is still early days for us and this blog and the exhibition itself probably have a rather narrowly banded target audience of interested people. We are still learning by using the blog, but feedback and evaluation to date seems positive. I've found the process of blogging the curation of an exhibition to be useful in itself. It does help one keep a focus on the exhibition itself and just thinking about regularly generating content for the blog has a number of useful benefits for the exhibition team (Mal Booth, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, Australia).
Support has grown. [The blog] was not a marketing initiative but came from discussion between program and web staff. In fact, marketing had issues dealing with unorthodox approach to the program (which basically is a hoax with parents as collaborators) [but] now marketing can see the value and are increasingly using it in their own PR (Helen Whitty, Dragon & The Pearl, Australia)
This blog is a part of Questacon's contribution to International Polar Year. The blog is really an experiment, to see whether we can facilitate a working scientist in communicating about his work (and somewhat unusual life), as well to see what sort of audience we can create for that. The scientist writing the blog is from the Australian National University, and will spend four or so months in Antarctica (he's just arrived by ship as of writing this) (Geoff Crane, Polar Passport, Australia/Antartica).
The blog is really part of a bigger Web publishing effort that began in April of 2006. Stories are generated for a weekly e-newsletter, our Web site, a bi-monthly printed publication that now has circulation of 250,000, as well as general news releases. When I started in April, there was little or no participation from anyone. Now, we're getting story submissions from all parts of the institution. We have a long way to go, but the stories are flowing and being told. The staff seems thrilled. We've come a long way in less than a year (Stan Orchard, Pacific Science Center, USA).
The on-line survey looked at who publishes to the blog, how frequently, and whether these posts are published directly or are reviewed in some way. Given the diverse nature of museum blogs, the ‘type’ of individual varied accordingly. No particular type of individual had more than 14 total responses (see Table 2.2).
|How would you describe yourself? (select all that apply)|
|Museum Educator||14 of 53|
|Interested Individual||13 of 53|
|Museum Curator||11 of 53|
|Student||11 of 53|
|Museum Consultant||8 of 53|
|Marketing Professional||3 of 53|
|Scientist||3 of 53|
Many of the survey participants made more than one choice and the ‘Other’ category contained a wide-variety of individual responses such as: media developer, librarian, historian, museum youth staff, IT specialist, Collections Assistant, Podcast Producer. The diversity of museum blogs represented by those who operate them is apparent here.
The question of whether staff members publish directly or whether content goes through a team for review explores a key operational question. Blogs have a reputation for informality, spontaneity, and championing the individual. In a large institution this tendency of social media such as blogs often runs counter to both institutional policy and culture. Surprisingly then, of the respondents, nearly four-fifths publish directly. Seven respondents reported that content is reviewed and of these, one reviewed content of posts by some individuals but not others. Frequency of posting is in keeping with the findings of our single-day analysis, where the average number of posts was 10.17. In the on-line survey, 62.3 percent of respondents post 5 or fewer times per month; 9.4 percent between 6 and 10 times per month; and 28.3 percent over 10 times per month.
Resources and sustainability are ongoing concerns for bloggers, with only 6 of 53 receiving any form of exhibit or project funding, and only 2 receiving support from their marketing departments. The lack of resources may explain why the time spent managing and maintaining the blogs is relatively low, with more than half reporting 5 hours or less per-month.
|How many staff hours are needed each month to maintain the blog? (53 responses)|
|0 – 3 hours||41.5 percent|
|3 – 5 hours||22.6 percent|
|5 – 10 hours||13.2 percent|
|More than 10 hours||22.6 percent|
Visitation and Evaluation
The vast majority of museum bloggers measure visitation: over four-fifths (81.13 percent) responded positively when asked. Not surprisingly, a majority of survey respondents (33 of 53) cited the number of visitors as a measure of success of their blogs. However, about half the museum bloggers cited the “Quality and relevance of comments” (27 of 53) and “Number of links” (25 of 53) as benchmarks to measure success. A lesser number of museum bloggers listed the “Geographic spread of blog visitors” (15 of 53) and the “Number of media mentions” (10 of 53).
The platforms that museum bloggers employ are fairly evenly split between installed software and blog hosting services. Those who have installed software prefer WordPress (22 of 53), with Moveable Type (3 of 53) and Drupal (2 of 53) marginally represented. For hosted services a similar pattern emerges, with Blogger (17 of 53) dominating. Only TypePad (2 of 53) had more than one user of the remaining services.
The majority of museum blogs support some type of syndication: only about one-fifth do not (11 of 53). As far as syndication format is concerned, RSS was the most popular (37 of 53), with Atom not far behind (21 of 53).
Most museum bloggers use supplementary blogging software tools and services. A majority (29 of 53) reported using Technorati. Feedburner (16 of 53) and Google Blog Search (19 of 53) were also fairly well represented, although about one-fifth of the respondents (9 of 53) reported using no outside blogging software tools or services.
Successes and Challenges
We asked survey respondents to share ‘success stories’ and while many commented that they were still too new to blogging to have much to share, there were a few interesting stories.
“In less than two years the blogs on our web site have gone from zero visits to the 3rd highest traffic part of our site after our on-line Collections and the Walker home page. Each month shows about a 30 percent gain.” (Brent Gustaf, New Media Initiatives, USA)
“My audience is limited as I write in Swedish to a narrow
group of people. But I think that I have an audience. Now a year since I
started the blog I get serious comments and lots of encouraging words The
blog has appeared in museum employees workers' union magazine in an article
about exhibition reviews” (Karolina Uggla, Kuriosakabinettet, Cabinet of
“Several posts about new web 2.0 services have been responded to by the CEOs of the relevant companies within 24 hours!” (Seb Chan, Fresh + New, Australia).
“The word ‘love’ appears in over a hundred search result hits for [our] subdomain [in Google] (Daniel Mosquin, Botany Photo of the Day, Canada)
Finally, Bryan Kennedy from Science Buzz, which is also accessible through kiosks on the museum floor at Science Museum of Minnesota, shared this:
Visit times internally (on the floor of the museum) have been much higher than we expected and on-par with more hands-on full body interactives. We have continued to grow steadily in visitation since the site's launch. The number one way people reach our site is through specific content-focused searches. A blog style format allows us to have the narrow focus on topics across a broad range of topics that benefits this sort of Internet audience.
When it comes to challenges, sustainability is by far the primary concern of the bloggers surveyed (see Table 2.4). This not surprising as we’ve already learned that less one in five museum blogs have any kind of direct funding. Institutional support, spam, and hate speech were also listed as concerns for some bloggers.
|What concerns do you have about your blog? (select all that apply)|
|Sustainability||31 of 53|
|Institutional support||14 of 53|
|Spam||9 of 53|
|Hate speech or inappropriate comments||7 of 53|
Our final survey question was, “What are your plans for the blog over the next 6 months? The next year?” This question, perhaps more than other in the survey, elicited many similar responses. While a few shared concerns about a lack of time or continuing funding, most shared plans for continuing their blog and even for expanding it.
“I just plan to continue blogging - let the core committee worry about directional issues. We are inviting new voices to blog in an attempt to engage young professionals” (Holly Witchey, Museumatic, USA).
“I will be blogging more often and starting to include other online museum resources such as discussion lists and podcasts” (MuseumGuru, Anita Cohen, USA).
“Keep up with developments and make changes as and when needed. Find some more contributors. Install WordPress mu (MultiUser) for all staff members to use (60+) and broaden our reach” (Dan Pett, Portable Antiques, United Kingdom)
While continuation and even expansion were common threads, a few respondents looked to work on expanding the community aspects of their blogs.
“Continue what we're doing. We'd like to add more rich media if possible, and perhaps do more in the way of "community” (Brent Gustaf, New Media Initiatives, USA).
We are working on enhancing the community aspects of our blog. We have seen a need for more personalization around our content. This will involve more developed user and author profiles. Using this info we will build ways for users to find stories that will interest them most. We also know that if we want to build a community around the discussions happening on Science Buzz we need to remove all technical barriers to the user participating in this discussion (Bryan Kennedy, Science Buzz, USA).
Zeke from Zeke’s Gallery summed up the thoughts of many museum bloggers, as far as the future is concerned: “Bigger, more, faster, better.”
Museum blogging is maturing and is becoming an accepted (and unfunded!) communication platform. From an operational standpoint, the team approach to blogging that Museumatic, Hanging Together, New Media Initiatives, and others have developed scored highly in most of our measures. Due to its distributed nature it is perhaps the most sustainable as well. These blogs, and others in the top of the visitation rankings, also tend to deliver focused and consistent content to their target audience. In addition, they tend to allow and encourage audience participation through comments.
The success of ‘semi-automated’ blogs such Botany Photo of the Day and Andy Warhol Blog provide an interesting model that many museums can explore at low cost and with minimal resources. One could easily imagine a collection item of the day from an art or history museum. We’ve already seen the Rijksmuseum and the American Museum of Natural History develop Apple and Yahoo! Widgets (Urban, 2006) that work in much the same way. Putting this information in a blog format seems a natural next step.
While blogs have great potential for marketing, those that have a strong marketing focus are far from the most popular, according our surveys. Providing blog visitors with more than just marketing information helps build and retain an audience, and thus an interest in those things one wishes to ‘market’ (Barnes, 2005). However, for many marketing departments, blogging software can be a cheap means to attaining the productivity and workflow outcomes of a content management system, with RSS feeds and other highly desirable features. Perhaps comparing these ‘marketing blogs’ with traditional static marketing Web pages would be a better measure.
The survey and the response to it reveals an emerging museum blogging community. More than 60 percent of the known museum blogs participated in the survey. Many museum bloggers comment on each other’s postings and, as the survey revealed, over 80 percent link to other museum blogs. Anecdotally, the two authors of this paper ‘met’ while commenting on each other’s blogs, and agreed to conduct this survey and write this paper without first meeting in person.
As the museum blogosphere continues its rapid development, it is hoped that this community will strengthen. The rapid growth that we will experience (at the current rate, we’ll have over 200 museum blogs by the fall of 2007) will bring new ideas and models to share and learn from. We look forward to the continuing conversation.
The authors wish to thank Mike White of Parks Canada for his extensive and helpful suggestions for questions for the survey, Renae Mason for her work in compiling Technorati and technical data, and our many respondents in the museum blogging community. Additionally, we’d like to thank James Kassemi for programming the survey and Kemper Barkhurst and Chris Gerber at Ideum for additional technical help.
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