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Museums and the Web

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Audience+: A Holistic Approach to Developing Social Media Guidelines for Swiss Museums

Axel Vogelsang and Bettina Minder, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, School of Art and Design, Switzerland


The project ‘Audience+, Museums and the Participative Web’ investigates the challenges and opportunities for museums in the German-speaking part of Switzerland with regards to the use of digital social media. It is supported by the Organisation of Swiss museums and aims at developing best practice guidelines for Swiss museums. The guideline not only seeks to give hands-on guidance for the first steps but it also explains how social media can work beyond the role of mere marketing tool, opening up opportunities for a broader user experience. The data, information and insights supporting the research were generated through a diversity of methods, including a survey amongst Swiss museums, a series of workshops, and an extensive use of social media as part of the research process.

Keywords: Audience+, digital social media, user experience, social media, Switzerland

1.   Introduction

1.1 Museums and the Web 2.0

O’Reilly (2005) coined the term ‘Web 2.0’ to describe a paradigm shift in communication media. Whilst classical media were foremost one-to-many media, controlled by a few and consumed by many, new Web platforms increasingly encourage content to be user-generated and interconnected. Through services such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, blogs and many more, virtually anyone can be a publisher now, and at the same time, everyone can open up a dialogue with everyone else. The expression ‘Web 2.0’ tends to focus on the technological and economic aspects of these developments, while the term ‘social media’ emphasises the changes in the way people communicate and interact on the Web. In recent years, for-profit as well as non-profit organizations have increasingly embraced social media as direct ways to reach their customers.

Social media is not just about opening up another marketing channel. It enables customer participation on many levels. For companies, this goes as far as direct customer input on product development and policies (Li, Bernoff, 2008). For museums, it offers various ways to support the museum experience and even to extend it beyond the actual visit. It is not about virtualizing the museum, but about developing new models of participation and feedback (Simon, 2011). As attractive this might sound, these changes do not come for free. Increasing customer involvement very easily reaches a point where traditional customer-relationship models and organizational structures are challenged (Li, Bernoff, 2008).

Museums tend to be reluctant about organizational change, and they are rather unwilling to involve themselves with disruptive technologies (Peacock, 2008). As social media is both a disruptive technology and a trigger of organizational change, it presents itself as a big challenge to museums. Nevertheless, recent years have seen more and more museums embracing social media, with particularly the English-speaking countries taking the lead (Lopez et al., 2010). The MoMa in New York, for instance, currently has a staggering 630.000 followers on Facebook, the Tate galleries in the UK at least 140.000.

It should also be mentioned that the use of social media in the museum context has been criticized, and not just from within institutions. Just recently, Edward Rothstein (2010), cultural critic of the New York Times, and Ariana Huffington (2010), co-founder of the Huffington Post, criticized the tendency towards supporting exhibitions via Smartphone applications. The tenor of both articles is that Smartphone applications and social media actually interfere with the museum experience rather than supporting it. Nina Simon (2011), a renowned expert on participatory museum experiences, replied that this criticism stems from a very narrow understanding of museum experience. Visitors looking for a contemplative experience, rather than a social one, she argues, are in the minority.

When we first talked to museums in Switzerland in early 2009 about their attitude towards social media, we found a lot of interest in the topic, but hardly any serious social media presence by Swiss museums. Many of the biggest houses hadn’t yet entered social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, and since, the picture has only just started to change. This is even more interesting considering that Switzerland seems to pick up on high technologies rather quickly. In 2010, cashmagazine claimed that Switzerland was the best-selling market for the iPhone worldwide. By then, the millionth of Apple’s high-end Smartphones had supposedly been sold in a country with approximately 7.8 million inhabitants (Kuhn, 2010). Already by 2008, 90% of the Swiss population had broadband access (Anon, 2010a), whilst at the same time the rate for the US was still below 60% (Anon, 2008).

1.2 Research interest and study design

We were interested in the reasons for the hesitation of Swiss museums with regards to social media, but we were not aiming at resolving the question of why Swiss museums are lagging behind in comparison to other countries. Even though this is an interesting question, it would have asked for a very different approach. We would have had to investigate attitudes and surrounding socio-economic factors across various countries.

There have been quite a few publications about the application of Web 2.0 tools in museums in the recent years (e.g.: Berstein, 2008; Weibel, 2007). Particularly in the last two years, a few surveys with regional focus have been conducted, looking at museums and their use of Web 2.0. A study comparing several European states and the US was run by Lopez et al. (2010). Boost (2009) looked at the usage of social media in Flemish museums, and Fletcher (2010) did a survey amongst museums in the U.S.A for the PRAM (Public Relations and Marketing Committee) of the American Association of Museums. There are regular rankings of the usage of tools such as Facebook and Twitter in German museums (Anon, 2010b), whilst Kaul (2010) published an analysis of the use of social media in the Swiss cultural sector in general. The Swiss museums as a specific group though had not been subject to Web 2.0-related research before.

What interested us more than levels of involvement with social media was to understand the reasons behind the reluctance of Swiss museums towards social media, and possible ways to overcome it. That said, we are not suggesting that social media necessarily have to be part of the media mix of every museum. We were rather assuming at the outset that some institutions might want to overcome their own hesitation but didn’t know how.

Thus we initiated the research project Audience+. The project, running from spring 2010 until spring 2011, is unique in its kind, at least in the German-speaking countries of Europe. Whilst we did a survey amongst Swiss museums, we deemed it also necessary to involve ourselves deeply with the respective institutions and technologies. Accordingly, we invited seven Swiss museums to discuss and explore social media in a series of five thematic workshops, and we were also able to convince the Society of the Museums of Switzerland (VMS) to support our efforts. At the same time, social media provided us with most of the tools with which we organised the project, developed the research design, collected and archived data, and discussed and disseminated our findings.

With this in mind, it makes sense that the main outcome of the research would not manifest itself in scientific publications alone. We set ourselves the task to design a social media guideline for museums, reflecting the situation in Switzerland. However, the project only covers the German-speaking part of Switzerland, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the population of almost 7.8 million.

This research design has also to be seen against the backdrop of our institution as well as the conditions set by the funding body. Audience+ was initiated by the design research department of the School of Design and Art. Consequently, applied research methods play an important role. Similarly, The KTI, the Swiss innovation promotion agency which funded the project, is interested in the direct transfer of research into the commercial sector. For that purpose, we also collaborated with 4culture, a group of arts managers who have been working at the intersection of social media and cultural institutions for several years.

2.   Swiss Museums and the Social Web

2.1 The survey

With the help of the VMS, we launched an online survey amongst Swiss-German museums in late spring 2010. We reached about 500 of the 1061 members of the VMS and counted 124 valid responses. About one-third (31%) of the institutions said that their organisation had a social media presence of some kind, including blogs, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc… However, at that time only 13% were active on Facebook. In comparison, Fletcher’s survey from March 2010 had 91% of the responding US museums claiming to be active in social media, with Facebook seen as the most effective platform. We also asked the museums about their attitude towards social media. Almost two-thirds partially (57%) or wholeheartedly (21%) agreed that maintaining control over content was a worrying issue when it comes to social media. Whilst that might sound discouraging, slightly more museums partially (25%) or wholeheartedly (55.3%) agreed that Web 2.0 offered opportunities for museums. This supported our initial assumption that amongst Swiss museums there was a mix of curiosity and suspicion surrounding social media. They were interested, but didn’t know how to proceed, or what the benefits were.

2.2. The workshops

The five one-day workshops over a period of several months were designed as a focus group for Swiss museums, supposed to give us insights into the actual situation. Who were the important players when it came to dealing with social media? What were the personal and institutional hurdles? What role could social media play in the context of museums? Therefore we chose a broad cross-section of institutions for the workshops, comprising a wide range of size and topic:

  • Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau: a regional museum of contemporary arts with inter-regional appeal
  • Augusta Raurica near Basel: an open-air museum on the remains of a large Roman colony
  • Natur-Museum Lucerne: the natural history museum for Central Switzerland
  • Nidwaldner Museum: a small but ambitious regional museum covering local history as well as contemporary art in three different locations
  • Museum of Communication in Bern: the only museum in Switzerland of its kind and the only one of this group that already had some kind of experience with social media beforehand
  • Schaulager, Basel: a unique institution, based on the concept of storing its great collection of 20 thand 21 stcentury art in an open warehouse
  • The Swiss Open-Air Museum Ballenberg: exhibiting about 100 original rural houses and farm buildings from all over Switzerland.

To each workshop we invited two representatives of these museums. Even though curators and educators were taking part, roughly half of the participants came from a marketing background. The topics covered were “the basics of social networking in museums”, “marketing and target groups”, “social media and education”, “the audience as an author” and “knowledge management”.

Each of the events contained three main elements: input related to best practice, a moderated discussion about the respective workshop theme, and some hands-on activity. The latter meant that we either investigated specific social media tools or worked on a more conceptual level; for instance, brainstorming about a social media concept for a specific exhibition.

2.3 Workshop results

During the workshops we identified three major areas of concern regarding the introduction of social media in museums. First, there is a fear of losing control; secondly, there are structural issues relating to hierarchies and responsibilities; and finally, there is the question of resources. In the following, the discussion about each of these focal points will be presented, followed by an analysis.

2.3.1 Letting loose

One of the first tasks for the participants was a short piece of research on their own institution. What would they find if they searched for their museum on Facebook, Flickr or YouTube? We wanted to make our project partners aware of the fact, that it does not lie within their authority to decide whether to have a presence in social media or not. Their audience would most certainly take things into their own hands. Unsurprisingly, one of our partners found that somebody had already set up a Facebook page in their name. Another museum was quite astonished to see images on Flickr that suggested that a visitor had climbed onto an art installation in order to get a better view. These examples raised many questions amongst our project partners: How can they retain control over their image in such an environment? How do they deal with copyright infringements? How does one react to libel and slander? And last but not least, what happens to the interpretive dominance of the curator?

A certain loss of control is almost unavoidable when venturing into social media. It starts with the fact that social media platforms have their own visual identity, which mainly overrules the branding of the respective institutions. The presence of institutions like MoMa or Tate on Facebook, however, only goes to show that in social media corporate identity is played out differently than in classical one-way media. It seems not so much a question of the right branding, but a question of content. Authenticity in an environment built on dialogue means two things: it needs authentic people, not abstract voices; and it needs a diversity of arguments. Therefore, conflict and diverging opinions do actually add to the authenticity of a platform.

When copyrights are infringed and conflict turns to libel and slander in a way that is unacceptable, one should not forget that the Internet is not a legal vacuum. Also, there are many built-in ways of dealing with insulting comments; such as flagging them on Facebook, or deleting comments, or even switching off the comment function on YouTube as a last resort. The best argument that sensitive topics can be dealt with in such environments is probably the Facebook page of the Austrian Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt with almost 2500 followers involved in lively but respectful discussions.

With regards to the traditional authoritative understanding of the curatorial role, it has to be said that the application of social media does not necessarily undermine this position. Fletcher (2010) in her survey concluded that most museums in the US still see Facebook and Twitter as a one-way information channel for promotional purposes. Whether that is a good use of social media is a totally different question. Thus it seems that institutions still have the choice whether they prefer to keep dialogue in the safe confines of their educational programs, or whether they use social media to open up to broader discourse. The latter scenario will ideally involve the curator and thus will influence how he or she operates. A change of role, though, does not necessarily mean that this role is diminished.

This leads to a deeper-lying concern. Our partners were worried that the constant flow of imagery and comments would actually further undermine the aura of the artwork itself. This fear is easily allayed. A big Van Gogh exhibition in summer 2010 in the Kunstmuseum Basel was a huge success. Now, in winter 2010/2011, that institution is showing a retrospective of Warhol’s early work. The famous artists whose images the audience has seen so many times still seem to be the big crowd pullers. The sociologist Schulze (2010) argues that rather than destroying the aura of the artwork, the iconic turn has actually led to a constant search for aura. People seek the authentic experience.

2.3.2 Structures and hierarchies

Nevertheless, social media can definitely challenge existing hierarchies and working environments. Many museums in Switzerland are still under the control of their local or regional government to an extent that some do not even have an independent Web presence. This dependence can lead to some conflict, as the following example shows: it was presented by one of our museum partners. In summer 2010, the Swiss state channel SF streamed all matches of the Football World Cup in South Africa live through the Internet. Employees of the local authorities of the region Lucerne seem to have taken up happily on this offer during their working hours. This supposedly led to a capacity overload of the servers of the regional government to the extent that online driving tests could not be conducted any longer. Without further discussion, all streams and social media access were blocked for all governmental employees of the region. For that reason, the respective museum was not able to set up a Facebook site.

Two other project partners had similar experiences when they started experimenting with Facebook, inspired by the workshops. In order to get Facebook access for their organizations, they had discussions with the respective IT specialists. For these experts, security issues had top priority, and social media were mainly seen as a threat. However, over the last six to eight months, the picture is slowly changing. All the museum partners except one now have an active Facebook presence: still not the rule in Switzerland. The one museum that is opting out, has taken a deliberate decision not to get involved in social media for image reasons. Also, local governments in Switzerland seem to be waking up to the opportunities of social media, as two recent pilot schemes show (Tribelhorn, 2010).

In the case of our partners, the usage of social media not only collided with the surrounding administrative structures, but also internally raised some eyebrows. In middle Europe, the concept of a division between low and high culture is still very much alive. For some co-workers of our workshop participants, Facebook seemed not to be a serious environment for dealing with high culture issues such as a museum collection. Interestingly, it was one of our most sophisticated project partners who opted not to get involved with social media for the time being for exactly these reasons.

Another interesting point was the question of who should be in charge of social media communication in a museum. As long as social media are seen as a marketing channel, this is easily answered. We suggested, though, that they could be used to connect more deeply with visitors on many levels. For instance, one could allow the audience to catch a look behind the scenes: the setting up of an exhibition, the work of a conservator, interviews with artists. It could also be used to have the audience participate in oral history or other exhibition projects. In these cases, social media can very quickly turn into an issue for curators, conservators, educators and even researchers as well. The boundaries between these roles might even blur in social media. However, the discussions showed that classical role perceptions were still very alive and very much guarded.

2.3.3 A question of resources

There is a preconception that social media are free. While this is true for most social media tools, it is not true when it comes to doing the job. Social media need resources. This was a difficult issue for our partners for several reasons: Everyone seems to be already fully absorbed, if not overloaded, by their actual tasks. Nobody really feels competent to do the job properly, and because there is a lack of competence, there is also a lack of proper arguments in favor of fresh resources.

The effect of social media activities on visitor numbers is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate. Success, in museum terms, though, is still mainly defined through visitor numbers, at least in the case of the museums we talked to. However, through our workshops the museums increasingly became aware of other arguments in favor of social media. One partner, for example, the marketing manager of a medium size local museum, complained about how difficult it is to get the attention of the local newspaper even for big events. Thus she decided that it might be a good idea to shift resources from traditional PR work towards social media. The situation is quite similar when it comes to societies of friends. Whilst they still constitute an important support group for many Swiss museums, they slowly become over-aged. Accordingly, our partners are looking for new ways to connect with increasingly elusive audiences.

Another way to deal with resources is to outsource social media activities. We invited Roger Levy to one of the workshops, to share his experiences. He runs a blog called KulturTV ( through which he reports about exhibitions and interacts with artists in a very unconventional way, and with various media. He has built himself a reputation in the contemporary Swiss art scene to the extent that cultural institutions such as the Kunstmuseum Lucerne pay him a retainer for covering the museum’s activities on his blog and other social media without exerting any influence on style or content. This could be an interesting alternative for institutions that lack competences and/or time to deal with social media in-house.

As a result of our workshops, at least four of the seven museums are now making financial resources available for a more serious engagement with social media.

3.   Social Media Guidelines for Swiss Museums

After we had analysed the workshops and the survey, it became clear to us that more than just a how-to guideline was needed for Swiss museums. It also needed to be more than just a marketing manual. The task was to enable museums to make informed decisions about the usage of social media on a much wider level.

The guideline is supposed to be a starting point, particularly for the many medium and small-sized museums which cannot afford to bring in an external consultant. In the Swiss context, this means one has to start with the basics. Existing tools such as the Minnesota Historical Society’s guidelines and worksheets (Hoover, 2010) mainly take a certain amount of knowledge of social media as given. In Switzerland, though, for the time being, such knowledge can rarely be taken for granted. Our experience from various conferences in Germany gave the impression that this applies for many museums in Germany as well.

We decided to take a holistic approach by trying to help the institutions and individual employees to understand how their organization or their particular field of expertise can gain through the use of social media. The guidelines will also explain what kind of institutional setting is needed in order to support social media. We will discuss how acceptance of social media can be raised, and we will give advice on how to integrate social media with existing strategies. How-to manuals and links to best-practice case studies will further support the guidelines.

3.1 Content overview

The following focal points were defined for the guideline:

  • Many institutions lack the basic know-how to lead an informed internal discussion about social media. We need to provide the museums with arguments. What are the pros and cons for the application of social media in museums? How can colleagues, superiors, funding bodies and external decision-makers be convinced that social media are a useful extension of the media mix for a museum?
  • Part of this rationale should also be a basic risk evaluation. There is a lot of awareness of dangers of social media. However, many organizations we dealt with are not able to assess these risks and whether they are real or imagined, whether they apply to their specific situation or not, or how to deal with them. The more of these questions that can be answered, the easier it will be to sell social media to the people involved.
  • A guideline should also contain a tool for an initial self-assessment regarding institutional preconditions. Does my institution involve flat or steep hierarchies? How do the departments interact with each other? Is it a conservative or a progressive environment? What could be potential stepping-stones? Where could the resources come from? How do these preconditions affect social media activities? In the worst case, the result of this self-assessment could be that at the current time an adoption of social media might not be recommendable.
  • The self-assessment should also help to define starting points for social media activities. Where does the museum stand with regards to social media? What are the experiences of the institution and of the employees? It is also important to know where ideas for social media involvement could come from. The museum could, for instance, build on present online activities or on participatory efforts of the educational department.
  • The guideline should also help to frame strategic targets for social media activities. Again, these targets should be formulated as a response to the various existing activities and tasks of the museum and should not focus only on marketing.
  • A very hands-on introduction to the most common social media tools and their application in the museum context will be needed as well. Related to this, we are also producing a best practice map. It is a landscape on which case studies are positioned and sorted according to areas of application such as curation, education, collection, research and marketing. The map is designed to help museums to further define their own needs.
  • With Swiss museums, the evaluation of Web activities in general is still underdeveloped. Our survey showed that only one-third of the museums analyze their log-files. Accordingly, the guidelines should support museums with evaluation criteria and approaches to evaluation for social media activities. This is all the more important as the museums need good arguments in order either to get new resources or to reassign existing resources towards social media.

3.2 A user-centred approach

Through our research we have identified four essential strategies that need to be reflected in this guideline to make this a successful tool:

An emphasis on practice

Analogue to the bottom-up approach of the whole Audience+ project, the guideline needs to take a very practice-oriented perspective. Given the lack of experience and knowledge regarding social media there is no point in confronting the readers with a lot of technical details and abstract concepts. As much as possible the advice will be supported by best practice examples from all over the world.


We had quite a few social media novices in our workshops, and our survey tells us that the situation isn’t much different in many other museums in Switzerland. Accordingly, the entry thresholds are high. Thus the guideline will contain easy hands-on exercises as a low threshold entry point into social media. An introduction to the basic tools will again be supported by references to best practice in order to show what is possible with social media in a museum context.

Individual access

As we have pointed out various times, we do not see social media as a tool solely for marketing purposes. The guideline should speak to museum staff members of various professions. Curators, archivists, educators and scientists should be offered the chance to develop an understanding of social media from their specific perspectives and needs.


We see storytelling as an important method to achieve this multi-faceted approach towards social media in the museum context. This is because museums are based on objects and on the stories incorporated in these objects. Accordingly, the guideline will introduce storytelling as a way to generate content for social media activities.

3.3 The form

An obvious question we asked ourselves was whether this should be published in print, as a downloadable PDF, a website, a Wiki – or even if it should be disseminated in some form via a social media Network such as Facebook. A digital form would make sense for some reasons. First of all, the world of social media applications is very short-lived. A guideline published today might have to be adapted tomorrow. Digital formats are easily adaptable. Also, publishing the guideline via social media would increase its credibility with respect to the topic.

However, taking into account that many museums in Switzerland are rather inexperienced when it comes to social media, we decided it would make perfect sense to publish it in print. It also makes sense from an interface design perspective, considering the practice-based approach of this guideline. For instance, when working online on an example, it can be extremely cumbersome having to constantly switch windows back and forth between the guideline and the case example.

We are nevertheless planning to make drafts available online to the museum community for feedback purposes, and we are also planning a free download of a PDF version.

4.   Conclusions

The introduction of social media as a working and marketing tool for Swiss museums faces many obstacles. Strict vertical hierarchies, for example, are very problematic in this respect in any organization. Also, there are horizontal relationships specific to museums, such as the traditional separation of education, marketing and curation/collection, that have a strong influence on how social media are considered and used. Traditional beliefs about the role of curation, conservation and research in a museum context also seem to be in conflict with stronger audience involvement through new technologies.

Whilst a lack of resources was often mentioned as well, this obstacle does not seem insurmountable for many museums in Switzerland, at least not for the medium-sized and bigger museums we have talked to. It is mainly the lack of knowledge or misunderstandings about this new information environment that keep museums from raising or diverting the necessary funds.

However, the mood is slowly changing. More and more Swiss museums have been showing up on Facebook with their own pages in recent months. What we’ve seen so far, though, indicates that social media in this context are still used mainly for marketing. What is needed in order to make better and wider use of social media is some sort of education for the museum sector. This is what we intend with our social media guideline.

At the time of writing this paper, we are already working on the guidelines; a first draft should be available at time of the conference.

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Cite as:

Vogelsang, A. and B. Minder. Audience+: A Holistic Approach to Developing Social Media Guidelines for Swiss Museums. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted