Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Shelley Bernstein talks about the Brooklyn Museum at the NLNZ

Shelley Bernstein, the social media maven from the Brooklyn Museum spoke to a packed audience in the NZ National Libraryy Auditorium last night in Wellington.

Her presentation covered a lot of ground, as it would given the profile she and her institution have picked up of late over their enthusiastic embrace of social networking tools and techniques as a core component of their Museum strategy.

Note the emphasis - Brooklyn is not about using social media as just another marketing and visitor experience tool-set. Rather, as Bernstein said last night, Brooklyn Museum itself is now a social network - that is its job - to be a center for the community to have a conversation.

What about the collection!
Given the nature of her audience, she was protected from the inevitable comment , but what about the Museum and its collection - isn't it also about being above the common fray as it pursues its research and collecting purpose.

Nobody asked - and so nobody had to be told that being social doesn't inhibit either scholarship nor the hitherto core purposes of the old style universal museum . Actually, when it works best, as Bernstein pointed out with a lovely illustration, it can bring into the Museum an 80 year old Brooklyn resident, and others, with precious information to give about collection items, whether from inside their heads, or up in their attics.

Social Media - The usual suspects
So what did she talk about? Much of it was around how to really leverage the likes of the usual suspects Flickr - YouTube - blogging, et al.

It takes time and authority
Using a wealth of examples from all three platforms she hammered home her key findings. First up, working the social media landscape takes time, and it needs authority. It's "not an intern role " , it needs management buy-in and a whole lot of time and attention, with the concomitant commitment to have the patience to wait for the return hit.

Build the conversation - trust the conversation
Second, trust the user - listen to the conversation - especially in the likes of Flickr, and act on it: i.e. take on board that expertise is now distributed and that user communities have long term value. Even better, use the community - let it take the responsibility to find and locate the next step. This is not a place to pick up volunteers who you then direct!

Make it personal
She was wonderfully scathing about anonymous institutional naming conventions - especially around blogging. Thus, to be successful, as well as respectful to the medium, blogs had to be personal - authors had to be named. The Brooklyn blog, for example, had a community of authors and each of these had their own RSS feed. Nice touch I thought.

Make Mistakes
We have heard this before - but it is just so important to hear it from big ticket institutions with all the baggage that comes from big sponsorship and foundation trusts. That on social media it is not just okay - it's necessary - to make your mistakes in public, and learn from them.

The Brooklyn Museum API
She also took the time to tell people about the launch of the Brooklyn API, here, and the hope that this will become a key tool in the next phase of their online development plans, because people will come along and do"cool things with our material"

And, on that note, she was also very gracious both about Te Papa and work of Digital New Zealand - especially the latter as the release of the DNZ api had given them encouragement to take a similar stance.

The focus on the developer and the API
Curiously, this was the one area of her presentation I was a little flattened by. Don't misunderstand. Her energy was irrepressible and a real inspiration.

However, as others have found, there are real issues in the cultural field around the notion that if you give people the technical means to access your collection data, for example through an API, then a developer community is ready and willing to come along and "do cool things"

This may well happen - but if memory , heritage and knowledge institutions have an ambition to help create the next phase of the digital landscape, then making their assets available to the developer community is, for me, only one, and not necessarily the most important step, they need to take to make this happen.

The Producer Class
Rather, as the team at Digital New Zealand know well, my own view is that key cultural institutions need to start thinking about engaging with what I cheerfully call, the producer class - i.e. organisations, or people, or groups, who the likes of the Brooklyn, Te Papa, or any variety of National or State Libraries could work with directly to figure out how best to release the benefits of the API into their project or practice.

When I say the creative class, I don't mean a joint dinner party with the black T shirt posse; rather I mean identifying and then proactively engaging with a whole bunch of organisations and groups who are about their own business, and whose core activities somehow touch the museum or the library collection, who haven't a clue what an API is, but would very quickly figure out a way of engaging with it if they had it explained to them, and were then offered a way of using the same to enhance their own work.

Community of Practice
I also think there is enormous fun to be had for all concerned. It gives the classic stakeholder model a new reach, and has the potential to create a whole new community of practice around our main stream heritage, learning and cultural collections, as well as offering a way to showcase why the developer/software guys get so excited about the potential of the emerging API ecology.

All that said, it was a class act, and a delight to see and hear Ms Bernstein. I wish her a safe journey back to the Big Apple. And hey, while I am at it, when are the big institutions who manage these kind of digital rock stars going to learn, letting them fly round the world in cattle class is just not good?

Upgrade them!
Perhaps their enthusiasm and humility confuses people. So let's be clear. In terms of value to their institution, they are ambassadors of real distinction - the same drive , enthusiasm and commitment do you more good than a million dollar marketing campaign. Upgrade them!


Sarah Eades said...

Brilliant!! Thanks for the notes, i couldnt make the talk so this is fantastic. Totally on board with most of the comments.

Must catch up for a chat about AAG website soon.

Sarah Eades said...

"a center for the community to have a conversation"

I think this would make a great vision for most institutions.

Angelina said...

Hi Paul
Great post and more timely than mine will be! I agree with you that it is time museums connected with creative producer types. The need to appear relevant in our time has never been more crucial - particularly as recession looms.
Which brings me to my next point - upgrades. I agree that international guests (heck, any guests) are important and should be flown business class. Trouble is that many of our initiatives are funded by research projects which have fixed budgets. If we do stretch to a business flight from UK or USA we can usually only afford non-transferable, non-refundable tickets so all it takes is one timetabling change by either party and you could end up without a keynote speaker and a large bill! Perhaps the way around this is to partner with other organisations and/or run concurrent conference sessions in different states/countries so that we can all benefit from these great speakers! Perhaps something to discuss for the NZ digital summit?!

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