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Social Media and Museums

If you’re a fan of John Stewart on the Daily Show you’ve seen his critique of CNN and its use (or misuse) of social media. On a recent show Stewart played a clip of CNN summarizing three major news stories, then inviting viewers to text their choice of the story they wanted to hear more about. The story with the most texts was the story CNN covered. “Gee, they all seem kind of important to me,” said Stewart, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “If only we had an expert to tell us which was the most timely and relevant.”

Stewart’s critique reminds me of museums and their enthusiasm for visitors’ contributing content. There are inspiring examples of museum users contributing content, MN 150 at the Minnesota History Center and Gail Durbin’s World Beach Project at the V & A, London are a couple of fascinating examples. But it disturbs me how often I hear social media enthusiasts proclaim that users will contribute meaning in today’s museums.

The fact is that museum collections are created and cared for by experts who engage in enormous amounts of research and scholarship about the objects and their meaning, and our visitors want to hear from them. When I wonder why an object is in a museum, I want to hear from an expert, not another visitor who knows as much as I do, which is nothing. The experts may not be able to represent the whole story, but their part is important enough that I don’t want to see it thrown out.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually a big fan of social media, and I think it has great potential for museums. But let’s not deny our own expertise. I think Heather Hughes and Dana Kletchka have it right when they pointed out, in their NAEA session: More Than Just Social Media, that museums have expertise to contribute to the understanding of their objects, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the last word on the meaning, and they don’t control meaning for visitors. So, when museums race to jump on the social media bandwagon, their advice is worth remembering – expertise yes, control no.