Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Creative, Authentic and United: Digital Engagement during COVID-19

This week we're hearing from Eastman Museum's Kate Meyers Emery.

Kate's the sort of person who you want to sit down with. She's a conversationalist, in the best sense of the word. She listens, considers, and then shares. And, with her, I've had conversations that stick with me. I honestly still think about a conversation I had with her years ago about interpretation. I wish I could relate that conversation, but it would be hard because it doesn't quite relate without Kate doing the talking. Her take on things, and her gentle, thoughtful way of sharing, makes all the difference.

When I wanted to try to understand where we are going as a field and wanted to try to do so thoughtfully by first taking stock, Kate's name was one of the first on my list.

Author: Kate Meyers Emery

Over the last five weeks, I’ve been amazed and inspired by my colleagues in the GLAM digital engagement world. They are producing innovative online campaigns, reusing available content in creative ways, finding ways to create new content from home, and doing most of this with little to no budget, limited or no access to physical objects, and limited access to their colleagues. They have created elevated and new digital opportunities for public access and engagement within their respective museums at a time when physical access is not possible. And they have come together as a community, using social media and other means to connect with one another, support each other’s endeavors, share our strategies and campaigns, and provide advice and words of comfort. Here, I want to look at some of the digital trends that have appeared during the pandemic, specifically, those that I would love to see us move forward with regardless of whether our doors are open or not. We are expanding digital offerings and reaching a broader audience 360 virtual tours of historic homes, digital exhibitions, webinar-based classes, Q&A with curators on Twitter, online educational resources for all levels of knowledge, increased access to digital resources; it’s been incredible to see how creative cultural organizations have gotten with finding diverse ways to engage the public online and create digital versions of their in-person experiences. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been able to attend talks and tours at museums I would never have been able to because I don’t live in that area. We’re able to engage a massive online community in a way we hadn’t a little over a month ago. We’re also offerings a broader range of ways for people to consume content, from casual bite-sized videos to long-form articles to humorous Twitter threads. We’ve relaxed a little when it comes to needing things to look a certain way or be done to a certain quality level. Staff are creating fun videos from their homes, we’re finding interesting ways to reshare and repackage existing content, we’re inviting the community to participate more in our work, we’re opening our social media to non-curatorial voices (you know, like penguins, dinosaurs, and our newest national treasure, Tim at the National Cowboy Museum).

Let me know if that works!] We are asking our audience what they want W. Ryan Dodge made a comment in his recent Cuseum webinar that we as organizations have been “shifting our goal from how do we attract attention more to how do we engage our community and offer them something of value.” I’ve watched as museums around the world have started asking their followers what they want to see, not just the type of content, but also the medium that it is in. Some museums are doing weekly check-ins to see how their community is doing and what they could offer that would be helpful, or useful, or just enjoyable.

 We are showing a little more personality and being more social Now more than ever, Mar Dixon’s words ring true, that social media needs to be social. People want to make a connection, and now more than ever those little moments of interaction between our organizations and the public online can mean a lot. Museums are stepping up by being more responsive to comments, offering more opportunities for dialogue and questions, and responding directly and openly to requests. What’s more, working from home seems to have brought out the personality in many museums that previously had a more organizational tone. We’re loosening up a little and are showing more of who we are as individuals working in the organization. This also increases our authenticity, because, let’s face it, it is hard not to be authentic when you’re leading a large public webinar from your kitchen table. There’s emotion in our messages, and it’s comforting.
While we’re all dealing with unique challenges, we’re coming together as a community It’s important, with all this, that we recognize that every individual or organization is in a unique set of circumstances. Some digital teams and social media managers have been limited in hours or furloughed or laid off. Some do not have the resources or digital assets and are unable to get them. I’m not sure who said it, but it’s stuck with me: while we’re all in the same storm, we’re not always in the same boat. With this in mind, the museum social media and digital community have been bright spots, and it’s been amazing to watch it blossom under these difficult circumstances. We’ve found online spaces for our community, such as the museum social media managers Facebook group, the #musesocial and #musetech hashtags on Twitter, #DrinkingAboutMuseums meetups on Zoom, and the weekly Cuseum webinars where the chat box serves as a hub for conversation. More than ever, we’re sharing ideas about what works and what doesn’t, borrowing ideas from one another, and setting aside any competitive worries. We’re asking and answering questions, providing resources, and offering support in myriad ways. We have created a safe place to celebrate the wins, vent frustrations, and find solace when we’re scared, defeated, or in need.
For now, I hope we continue taking positive steps. Maybe it’s something small like finding more little ways to engage with the online community or something large like tackling a major digital project that has been on the back burner. As we move forward, I hope we continue to build on what has been started, whether it is digital wins at our own organization or broader shifts in museums, and the public perception of museums, as a whole.

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 Kate Meyers Emery, Ph.D., is the manager of digital engagement at the George Eastman Museum. She is committed to leveraging digital tools to engage, educate, and entertain the public online. Find her online @kmeyersemery on Twitter and Instagram.
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