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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

State-of-the-Art: German Museums on the Social Web. Benefits and Effects of Social Media for Museum Education and Learning

Bianca Bocatius, University of Duesseldorf, Germany


This article focuses on the questions “How do German Museums use the Internet to enhance their Museum Education Services online?” and “What benefits and effects can be identified for self-directed and collaborative learning with Social Media in museums?” Two case examples will demonstrate the possibilities of online education and learning within the German museum field. The websites of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Städel Museum in Frankfurt represent best practice examples for the online German museum world. In comparison the TATE website will illustrate the differences to the German museum education. Some German museums also use Social Media, such as wikis or blogs, for educational projects. How Social Media are been used in these projects (e.g. WEIMARPEDIA and ARCHÄOLOGIN), will be verified.

Keywords: Museum Learning, Social Web, Germany, Benefits, Effects

In Germany museums are becoming places of participatory and collaborative learning (Riedrich, 2011). As a part of society they nowadays perceive themselves even more as places of learning than as simple warehouses of cultural heritage. Schools already use museums as learning places to improve and complete their academic learning (Grune, 2000). Even education networks develop between museums and schools (e.g. schule@museum or institutions for adult education (e.g. European Socrates Projects Furthermore, the individual visitor is requesting informal learning opportunities at museums (e.g guided tours, Smartphone applications, online games) (Treinen, 1988, Hoffrichter, 1993, Terlutter, 2000). Therefore museums as communicative systems today attempt to guarantee knowledge procurement, exchange and construction within self-directed and collaborative learning settings onsite and online.

Digital educational museum service

In Germany digital learning is still an exception in the museum world. In 2008, 43% of the museums utilized their homepage just to indicate their educational services onsite. And today the gap between the presentation of general information like the address and phone number and an educational service online is still large (Prehn, 2010). The Social Web as part of museum communication is basically used for advertisement, i.e. posting general information about events and other press releases to promote activities of the real museum.

The digital educational museum service in Germany can be separated into three categories (Prehn, 2002):

General information, such as address, contacts and other real site-related details;

Specialized information about the educational service as well as an online registration form, download-center, information about projects or educational programs;

Educational service and learning opportunities through information about the collection or exhibitions, online-games, databases, online-exhibitions, download-center, detailed explanations and general information about the educational service and program.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin is an example of this last category. It concentrates on online learning opportunities (figure 1). On the one hand, the virtual guest is enabled to retrieve fundamental information about guided tours, workshops etc. onsite. On the other hand, the museum also offers teaching aids, online games and a glossary for Jewish words to learn online. Under the menu item Rafael Roth Learning Center, the Internet user can retrieve more information for children, teenagers and adults (e.g. online exhibitions).

Social Bookmarks and Share-functions are the only Social Media elements integrated into the website. Access points to YouTube and Facebook do exist, but Social Media is certainly not used to improve self-directed and/or collaborative learning.

Figure 1: Digital Educational Museum Service of the Jewish Museum Berlin (Jewish Museum Berlin, Date consulted: 27.01.12)

A fourth category of the digital educational museum service involving the use of Social Media and the focus on communication and participation is still not established in Germany. German museums have started getting involved with Social Media (Schmid, 2010). Different Social Media (such as community-sites, mashups, social bookmarks, social tagging or social networks) are barely used for groups or individual visitors to enable learning online. The Social Web can still be characterized as an experiment for the German museum world (Städel Museum, 2008).

The Städel Museum in Frankfurt uses a Social Network feature on its website to follow educational purposes (figure 2). The user can register to “My Städel” to get connected to the museum community. “My Städel” offers a personalized event calendar as well as an individual gallery called “My favorite artworks” that could be shared with the community. These personalization opportunities are offered to encourage the user and the MySite-concept also enables the user to select and learn content (Bamberger, 2009). As the community members are not able to establish contact with each other or view member profiles to get to know each other, the shared private galleries are the only way to communicate. Via comments members are able to talk about the artworks. Just via Social Bookmarking the virtual guest is enabled to select and share content of personal interest with other users. Other clearly defined Social Media for educational purposes or other participatory activities are not included on the website. Virtual guests can basically get connected to the Städel and its content via RSS feeds on the Städel Blog, Vimeo, Friendfeed and Flickr.

Figure 2: Rubric My Städel, Category My favourite artworks. (Städel Museum, Date consulted: 08.08.10.)

In comparison, the TATE museums present a holistic concept for museum learning on their website. Different target-groups can learn online (figure 3). Adults, teachers, teens, kids or school students have different options to investigate the museum’s content creatively and self-directed. Via TATE archive, podcasts or “works in focus,” adults receive selected information. Kids are able to play games or collect favorite artworks and explore the content in an interactive way. Teens get connected with the TATE community, “Young TATE,” to communicate with peers. They learn about diverse topics on “Students’ Resources,” explore other member profiles and community content on “Collectives” or they decide to participate in an online event or onsite workshop.

Figure 3: “Learn Online”. (TATE. Date consulted: 26.01.12.)

With respect to museum learning, German museums still consider the real site and the museum’s website as independent places. Although the Städel Museum offers a community-concept, a holistic approach to learning online is not established yet. The Jewish Museum represents one of the first German museums that started to offer learning opportunities for different target-groups online. But participatory learning settings are barely integrated on German museums’ websites (Institut für Museumsforschung, 2008).

Social Media for museum education projects

WEIMARPEDIA demonstrates a blended learning project of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar (figure 4). School groups learn about topics of the Weimar Classic at school and onsite at the Museum with different digital technologies (e.g. Internet, iPads, wiki). A wiki represents the collective knowledge of students with an archive of their articles and creative content such as short films. As a result the students use the wiki to collect information and they participate actively with writing, adding or modifying articles on their iPads. Hitherto the wiki has been mainly used as a knowledge archive; its use as a processual application is not established yet. The project is still at its very beginning and questions about content design, website structure or participatory elements within the wiki are still being discussed.

Figure 4: WEIMARPEDIA, Lexicon. (Klassik Stiftung Weimar,[action]=index&tx_wpj_pi1[controller]=article&cHash=77ea399b7dc01d84b095172b51cc6acb. Date consulted: 26.01.12.)

Another blended learning project is the ArchäoLOGIN of the LWL-Museum for Archaeology Herne (figure 5). During the exhibition “Fundgeschichten” in 2011, the museum initialized a school project in which the school students learn how to work with ipads and how to write and publish blog articles about their favorite exhibits. During the project, the school students gain knowledge about archaeology, but are also trained in how to select information in the museum and online, how to use an iPad and to write short blog entries. The blog consists of many articles, and documents the project results. Hitherto the museum still faces the challenge to activate dialogues, comments and new articles after a museum visit on the blog.

Figure 5: ArchäoLOGIN, “Fundgeschichten” - Blog. (LWL-Museum for Archeology Herne, Date consulted: 26.01.12.)

In comparison to these blended learning projects for school students, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art initiated a “crowdsourcing-project” in informal context for grown-ups. As the exhibits are generated from the collection of the Smithsonian Art Museum, the main museum building often borrows artworks for a long-period of time. To fill the gap the Luce Foundation Center decided to ask their audience on Flickr to select another artwork from the collection. Interested users get some contextual information about the display unit and the other exhibited artworks in the case on Flickr. Furthermore, the user can follow a link to the online collection where more detailed information is available to learn about the exhibits and to select an appropriate replacement (Askanase, 2009). With this project, people get to know the collection, participate in a decision-making process and learn how curators decide about the display of an artwork.

Figure 6: “Fill the Gap” on Flickr. (The Luce Foundation Center for American Art. Date consulted: 26.01.12.)

Social Media is generally utilized in non-formal learning contexts for school classes in German museums. Neither the Internet nor the Social Web is established as a virtual learning place for non-formal and informal learning. Even in the Anglo-Saxon museum sector, the use of Social Media for museum education and learning continues to be a challenge and is as well not established yet. Questions about how to engage with the audience, how to activate discussions, how to guarantee a communicative relationship between the museum and its visitors, how to connect and combine educational work online and onsite and what kind of Social Media could be used for all miscellaneous educational purposes remain. Research results and professional expertise are closely interlinked in this context and as the Social Web is a very young development, research and expertise is also at its very beginning.

Benefits and effects for self-directed and collaborative learning with Social Media in museums

Evaluations about the impact of Social Media for self-directed and/ or collaborative learning in museums are rather infrequent in Germany. For example, the institute “Lernen mit Wissensmedien” (Learning with knowledge media) at the University of Tübingen researches the challenges and impact of digital technologies for individual and collective learning in Science Centers. Knipfer et al. (2009) explain the learning processes within a collaborative setting. The authors show that collaborative learning processes include solving socio-cognitive conflicts via discussions and problem-solving; the initialization of social processes to develop cognitive skills; learning by giving and receiving help or argumentation; the formation of a community as well as an individual identity; collective knowledge procurement within individual and community participation; and active participation in knowledge-building processes to develop not only individual but also collective knowledge (Knipfer et al., 2009). Gabrill et al. (2009) give details about the outcome of these processes and summarize “understanding,” “learning” and “knowledge” as individual results (Gabrill et al., 2009).

In informal learning with regard to individual participation and self-directed learning, Samis (2008) points out some statistics that visitors who use social media spend more time and visit more frequently, and consequently learning opportunities are enhanced when websites integrate Social Media (Samis, 2008). Informal learning opportunities in museums also have the positive effect of being optional, so the online museum experience does not always contain educational purposes but does always offer learning-related tasks (Collis, 2002). However, an intense interest in content, motivation, knowledge management and learning skills are required as learning with digital technologies is not becoming any easier (Tergan, 2001; Tergan, 2002). Tergan (2001) states in this context that didactic concepts are necessary for digital technologies, as knowledge-building processes are not initialized automatically through providing information. In addition social interactions as a characteristic of Social Media support personal engagement (and vice versa) to foster and guarantee individual and collaborative learning, understanding and knowledge-building (Hawkey, 2004; Galani & Chalmers, 2008).



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European Socrates Projects

Jewish Museum Berlin 


Städel Museum Frankfurt



Fill the Gap