Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Interview with Brooklyn Museum's Shelley Bernstein

Let’s say you wanted to find a model museum using Web 2.0 to support programs and exhibits. A place that blogs, that engages in social networking sites, that tries experiments, and reports about all of it honestly. A place that truly sees these initiatives as part of their mission to serve their local community. A place that does all this in the context of a fairly traditional collections-based museum. A place that makes it all pretty darn cool.

Is there such a place? You bet. It’s the Brooklyn Museum. They've played with Twitter. They just finished a YouTube video contest. They even created a Facebook application. Today, an interview with Shelley Bernstein, the Manager of Information Systems at the Brooklyn Museum, and the engine behind that museum’s fabulous forays into Web 2.0.

Tell me about the background for the Brooklyn Museum’s community web component. How did this all start?

We started in earnest a year and a half ago. Everything here is mission-driven, and we have a mission that’s very much about the visitor experience and community. And we looked around and said: what does community mean on the web? And it was so clear at the time.

We started slowly with the MySpace page, and we started in earnest with Flickr. We did this graffiti interactive via Flickr. The real show in the museum was a series of canvasses showing tags--graffiti--and the curator and education department installed a wall in the middle of the gallery so that visitors could tag (we provided colored pencils, and people brought their own markers and stickers). We let it layer to a point and then cleared sections for reuse. We were taking photos of the wall every week and the changes that were taking place. We were finding that so many people were coming to the exhibition just to tag the wall. The Flickr site became this vital thing to get that information about the changes back out to them.

Did you find that people who had been to the exhibition were commenting on the Flickr page? Were they really using it as a post-visit resource?

Oh yeah. We learned a lot about graffiti from Flickr. They would comment on the photos we'd taken and add notes with links to their own profiles. We saw that these artists were using the wall, then telling us about it on Flickr. We also had a thing where you could email photos of graffiti in Brooklyn and we put them on our Flickr wall. We also created the Brooklyn Graffiti Group.

How hard is it for you and your team to manage the work flow of all of these projects?

The great thing about any really strong community on the net—we’ve never ever had to remove a comment on Flickr or even worry about it. Even criticism has been very contructive. Spam, obscenity--they just aren't an issue at all.

I keep telling people, I’m really honest that these are communities, not marketing opportunities. MySpace is, but Facebook isn’t. It’s a long term commitment. Once you start you can’t stop. It’s a community-level thing that you’re doing. It’s not about marketing or advertising. If you post interesting content, the word of mouth aspects will follow.

We get so much spam on MySpace, whereas on Flickr and Facebook and the blog we never get spam.

One thing that can make it more manageable is the use of third party systems. We use Wordpress to power our blogs. It's great to see so many museums using 3rd party systems, like SFMOMA or LA MOCA's Wack!. You don’t know it’s a blog. Using existing tools to run your site allows for plug-ins. Because we want to keep up with new software, and we’re never going to have the programmers to keep up.

Do you think of your efforts as trying to draw new audiences into the museum or reach out to meet them where they are?

I think about it as going to them rather than the audience coming to us. Just as we might go to Prospect Heights or Crown Heights. We know that the actual statistics of people coming through the door is not quantifiable yet—we haven’t done a visitor survey in a couple years. Within the museum, we have a big initiative to tie together comment books electronically, so that gallery comments go on the web and web comments go in the galleries.

How you do decide what experiments to do?

It depends. If it’s connected with an exhibition, I work with our interpretative materials person really closely on the goals and we have a discussion. She’s really great at responding flexibly. There’s a lot of discussion about what would be appropriate when it comes from an exhibition standpoint. But other things--the twitter thing, the video contest was my idea. We’d received a video PSA from Pratt students,
and I proposed the contest.

There’s a lot of communication in the building about what we could do.
For us it always goes back to mission, so we’re a kind of unique case. For us, it’s not about targeting or marketing--it's about serving the community.

We try to be really really careful here. That’s why we’re not in Second Life. #1, it would be a lot of work. And #2 it doesn’t fit our accessibility mission. Flickr photos and Youtube videos are open and available to all. We look at the equation and say maybe Second Life isn’t the right fit for us. You have to have a really good computer and internet connection. And I’m not sure that our visitors would really benefit from it. One of the things I think about is capturing video in SL to share with others. Any time you see an interactive on our site—we have a plaintext version of that wherever possible. It’s really fabulous when Flickr or YouTube or can really provide content for audiences who use those sites—AND it provides a way to broadcast on your own site.

One of the best services you provide the museum community is your honest post-mortems on projects. Do you ever run into institutional challenges for being so honest?

Not really. Even when it’s kind of a disaster, I try to be methodical about it instead of just ranting. So it’s a calmer discussion, and the people here appreciate that. With the blog, we really try to own up to what blogging is about. It’s a multi-author approach, and the authors are not edited. We have a policy, but for the most part, I think all of the authors have been pretty good at keeping it personal and trying to be transparent.

Do you have any dream projects in the near future?

We really try and go on a case by case basis, fitting things into the context of the larger museum. I read a lot and I look at a lot, and I just sort of keep things in the back of my head. Oh, we could do this. The facebook thing was very organic. I read an article by the founder in Wired about how that platform was so different in terms of application development. My developer had wanted to do an app on it for his own curiousity. We checked with a few people around here and we tried it out. We’d been using Facebook for awhile for groups, but then I happened to read about apps, file it away, and then a week later it came up in conversation.

All of these communities require a real commitment—that you’re there, that you’re updating. It’s funny; I think it’s something we do really well on Flickr, because we’ve been there so long and we know the audience there. If you look at the IMA (Indianapolis Museum of Art), they’ve got that going on in YouTube. Maybe the Tech will have that with your new project in Second Life.

Jim Spadaccini often talks about how you have to learn about and respect the native community on these sites.

Exactly. You want to concentrate on something and make it fabulous. The Walker has it with their blogs. Us on Facebook. IMA on YouTube.

For a museum new to this scene, that isn't ready to make a full commitment, how would you recommend getting started? Programmatically, I think there are some individual projects--like the video contest--that could allow you to dip your foot in the water.

I think you could easily do it on Flickr—the Tate did that with How We Are Now. I don’t know what their commitment is now, but they had a great commitment during that project, which had a beginning and an end. And that was such a fabulous project, and a great experience.

I hesitate though a bit because I don’t think that people should necessarily go do a one-off because I think it doesn’t really build the community. I worry about that. There was a museum that put a series of photos up on Flickr for one project. They did that one thing, and it was clear to me that they were not interested in being there.

We were on before Youtube—it allows longer vids. Blip doesn’t expose the views, but some of these videos have 100,000s of hits. We’ve been there longer (than YouTube) and the audience is responding to our content. One of the reasons we did the video competition was because YouTube is a space that shouldn't be about us pushing content out—it’s YouTube—it’s what they produce, not what we do.

Do you have any image rights issues?

Most of the stuff in our museum is public domain, and we have a very good policy that non-commerical photography is okay. We’re very clear about our photography policy everywhere.

Any special projects you'd like to highlight?

Well, we have electronic, web-connected comment books coming soon to all exhibit spaces. The comment architecture is going to get a lot bigger in the next several months. And then there's the Facebook application, Artshare—the Walker and the Powerhouse are going to come on board with that. My hope is that ArtShare becomes an app not just for the facebook community but for the museum community as well.

Amen! If you're on Facebook, check out the Artshare application. Browse the Brooklyn community site. Check out the links above from the projects Shelley mentioned. And leave your comments and questions (for Shelley, me, or other readers) here!

3 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Great projects Brooklyn Museum! I'm writing a paper on museums and Web 2.0 and must say that the Brooklyn Museum will appear in it as a great example of how to fit Web 2.0 in a museumconcept.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I love the approach and look forward to more content to explore.


lorenka said...

Way to go Shelley! Glad to see how far you've progressed with web communities since that first MySpace page :) Awesome job.