Online Musings of a Public Historian

Posts tagged ‘social media’

Mobile Media and Museums: What’s App With That?

“There’s an app for that!”

How many times have we heard that phrase?

The now-common saying originated as the catchphrase for a 2009 commercial advertising Apple’s iPhone 3G:

Five years and several iPhone generations later, the concept of a mobile application for “just about anything” is more than just a snappy advertising gimmick.  As of October 2013, at least one million applications are available for download in Apple’s App Store while competitor Google Play reached its own million app mark earlier that year. Through mobile applications, smartphone users need only swipe their touchscreens for a plethora of possibilities ranging from social media and gaming to online banking or food delivery.

With public dependence on smartphones and mobile media only growing as we progress further into the 21st century,  museums and other cultural institutions are working to establish an increased presence in the digital realm. Whereas social media pages, official websites, and online access to collections allow such institutions to connect with outside audiences, mobile applications bring the digital inside museum walls.

So what goes into the development of mobile applications for cultural institutions?

Reading through the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis’ “Smartphone Services for Smithsonian Visitors” report one element in the app development process stands out more than others — and it’s not the technology. As reinforced in Nancy Proctor’s podcast, “Evaluation-led Mobile Experiences,” the audience — and their experience –matters most.

In developing the Smithsonian Mobile App, its creators relied heavily on audience feedback.  Through on-site interviews, social media surveys, and visitor testing of application prototypes, project members assessed audience needs and adapted the product’s content accordingly. Similarly, Proctor’s podcast emphasizes the importance of audience evaluation in the research process, discussing methodologies for conducting such studies digitally.

The idea of encouraging smartphone use within a museum setting certainly raises several questions.  At the forefront lies the issue of whether or not such applications pose a risk of distracting or eclipsing from the physical resources.

While this notion poses a valid concern, the heavy reliance of app development on audience feedback proves a poignant reminder of the important role audience evaluation plays in the research process.  Regardless of project format — whether the end product is digital or more traditional — the end goal of a positive audience experience remains the same.

After all, you can’t do public history without – you know – the public.


Museums & Social Media

At times, social media feels pretty inescapable.  It’s everywhere, permeating nearly every aspect of our daily lives from the comforting privacy of home to more public spaces such as the workplace and classroom. Whether Facebook or Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr (or any of the myriad other platforms out there),  the use of social media is a defining characteristic of 21st century society.

NMAH Facebook Page

NMAH Facebook Page

Despite its name, however, social media is no longer a purely social phenomenon used for individual communications between friends and loved ones. As a growing number of  corporate organizations and cultural institutions build and maintain an online presence through such platforms, social media takes on a new role as a professional and academic tool.

The question of whether or not to embrace this social media phenomenon – and to what extent – remains a point of continuous debate amongst historians, particularly within the museum world. In recent years, several cultural institutions have taken the plunge into the digital realm, hoping to use the tools provided within social media as a means of connecting to a broader audience.

NMAH Twitter Profile

NMAH Twitter Profile


In their article, “Small Towns and Big Cities: How Museums Foster Community On-line,” Dana Allen-Greil and Matthew MacArthur examine the manner in which the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH)uses social media to engage with online users and visitors to the museum alike.  The NMAH uses a variety of platforms to facilitate audience connections online, offering topics ranging from general information (such as that found on their

Facebook and Twitter pages) to specific projects, like their Julia Child Recipe Series on Tumblr. The museum additionally offers visitors the opportunity to engage digitally while physically visiting the museum, with interactive web exhibits and holding events such as the “tweet-ups” described in Erin Blasco’s article “Presidential Hair is a Twitter Winner.”

NMAH Julia Child Recipe Series Tumbler Page

NMAH Julia Child Recipe Series Tumbler Page

Of course, allowing visitors a higher level of interactivity with the museum entails additionally conceding to the public greater authority in the curation and interpretation of its collections.  This leads to the question of how much public authority is too much, with some arguing that this diminishes a curator’s position while others contend that it increases the curator’s responsibilities in regulating not only collections but also public interactions with them.


On the whole, however, the integration of social media and digital technology into cultural institutions seems to add a higher level of interactivity, enables more opportunities for connection, and enhances the overall visitor experience.



Social Media as a Tool of Research

Growing up a short distance from Washington, D.C., my relationship with the iconic sites and structures of the nation’s capitol is markedly different than that experienced by the thousands of tourists who frequently flock there. For me, places like the Smithsonian museums and the monuments of the National Mall aren’t simply destinations on a travel itinerary. They are familiar figures, featuring prominently throughout each stage of my life so far.

I first became acquainted with D.C.’s heritage sites and cultural institutions in childhood, from a combination of school field trips and obligatory family outings whenever an out-of-town relative paid a visit. In high school, navigating the Metro system and venturing into the city without parental supervision was a common rite of passage.  The National Mall became not just an intellectual but a social destination, serving as the backdrop for prom pictures, first dates, and after-school outings with friends.

One of my first "grown up" group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

One of my first “grown up” group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

Reading Trevor Owens’ article on “using the social web to unpack the public meanings of cultural heritage site[s],” the different layers of meaning the D.C. sites hold for me instantly came to mind. Using TripAdvisor reviews of the commemorative statue of Albert Einsten (located in Washington, at the National Academy Sciences building) as an example, Owens examines the interpretive value of online social commentary in studying public relationships with cultural sites and institutions.

Undoubtedly, “traditional” source materials are necessary components of any research project. Knowledge of a site’s background — the motivations behind it, the message it conveys, its purpose in existing at all — is necessary for an accurate understanding of how (and why) the public interacts with that site. These can be found in any number of primary or secondary sources relating to a site, both online and off.

"History and Culture" page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website

“History and Culture” page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website.

While these materials certainly help historians in figuring out the why of a site, they only provide so much detail on how the public connects with it.  For this, Owens argues, we should look to the social web for assistance.  Visitor reviews, such as those featured on TripAdvisor, and social media posts can be incredibly helpful not only in discerning how the public views cultural heritage sites, but also in determining the types of interactions people engage in.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

Some believe that sources drawn from the social web are not as “legitimate” as those taken from more traditional avenues.  Others feel that the experiences individuals describe via social media, such as the use of the National Mall  as a venue for prom pictures, are “disrespectful” or “irrelevant.”

Reflecting on my own experiences, both formal and informal, with the cultural sites of Washington, D.C., I feel that Owens’ piece makes a valid argument.  Part of the entire premise behind public history is an understanding of how the public connects with the past.  Whatever their nature, posts made on social platforms offer valuable insight into how people create these connections through interacting with such sites.

Cultural heritage sites carry a number of different meanings. Visiting these sites and interacting with them — whatever the context — allows people to develop their own relationships for them.  In doing so, these places become a part of their lives.