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Communicating the Museum

Question: How do you get the Tate, Louvre, Prado, MET, Reykjavik Art Museum, the V&A, Barbican and Finnish National Gallery in Malaga? Answer: Communicating the Museum.

By:  Cecilia Bogaard
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Annual Museum Conference
2009 programme
Birth: 2000
Location: different location each year including Malaga (2009), Venice (2008), Madrid (2007), Rotterdam (2006)…
Directed by: Corinne Estrada
Budget: 300,000 €
Stands out for: case studies and keynote speakers from leaders in the field

Every year international professionals from the museum industry come together to learn, be inspired and share ideas within the sector. 160 professionals from as far away as Australia, Israel, the United States and Iceland, as well as several countries throughout Europe, were present in the 2009 edition discussing subjects under the theme Digital and Personal Networking: Making the most of the connected world. In a time of crisis they came to get ideas for implementing new strategies in their museums.

President Damien Whitmore, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, got the ball rolling when the first conference was held at the Tate as a conversation between just six museums. “When we started in 2000, I had no idea we would grow so fast. We are now a big community,” explains Corinne Estrada director of Communicating the Museum (CTM), as well as founder and managing director of Agenda, a Paris-based communications agency for the cultural sector. The theme changes every year to reflect that years preoccupations. If the 2008 edition in Venice was centred on audience research, advertising, branding and new media, the 2009 edition was all about social networking.

Every year the conference includes keynote speakers such as Robert Jones, author of The Big Idea, Shelley Bernstein and Will Cary from the Brooklyn Museum, Elyse Topalian from the MET in New York or Jérome Lascombe from Hopscotch Paris. One of the 2009 highlights was a talk by Word of Mouth Evangelist Molly Flatt from London-based word of mouth (WOM) marketing specialists 1000heads about their promotion of the V&A Cold War Modern exhibition. With a job-title like hers, it’s clear that you’re speaking to someone with a fresh perspective. “I’m involved in getting people to understand what we do in a clear and deep way. Social media is just us communicating, but using new technologies to do it a lot quicker and louder. You just have to tie in all the fantastic tools at our disposal and root them in what makes us talk,” she explains.

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With a minimal budget 1000heads promoted the Cold War Modern exhibition by sending out cryptic messages to a range of social media voices from design and gaming communities. They fed participants images and clues, culminating in a final reveal where agents had to crack a code to discover a set of coordinates where they met for the first time dressed as spies and entered the V&A for a private viewing. “We got lots of free advertising, including an Evening Standard double-page spread,” highlights Flatt. The key question she posed for museums at the 2009 conference was: Are we giving consumers something WE want them to talk about or something THEY wish to talk about and share? “Its a very old marketing instinct to want to push the message into the conversation instead of listening to the conversation.”

As the word crisis reverberates in every facet of daily life, what are the biggest challenges facing museums in this day and age? “Museums need to understand that the future of the museum lies in them becoming a platform where people can meet, engage and create a community before, during and after the exhibition,” answers Estrada. “Museums are naturally inspiring social places, but they need to open up to new ways of consuming culture including flickr, twitter and YouTube. Not enough are questioning what it means to be a museum and what it means to be a visitor. They need to create parallel entry points and share their content,” stresses Flatt with conviction. “It’s like turning everything on its head, while remaining legitimate. We tend to be very reluctant to change. CTM forces us to face it with a clarity that induces vertigo,” observes Ignacio Herrera, director of the Real Maestranza in Ronda.

“CTM has been amazing. We are currently designing our marketing strategy and I was struck by the innovative approaches taken in some of the case studies,” enthuses Esther Martín, marketing director from Art Natura, a museum complex in Malaga that opens in 2010. Veterans of the event the Picasso Museum first attended CTM in Rotterdam in 2006. “As a meeting point, CTM allows museums to exchange experiences, a fact that is extremely enriching for those of use working in this sector,” explains Ana González from their communication department.

“We learned how to listen to and involve the audience by creating transparent social networks. To take the museum outside of itself and bring it to life!” explains Martín. From the Maestranza in Ronda, Herrera reflects on the experience; “The proposal from CTM is very much about humility and participation. Museums need to be willing to be just one of many players in this dynamic. Chains of command have no place here. None at all. It is a horizontal way of working.” One of the workshops challenged participants to think of one specific action they could put into action the Monday after the conference. “Some commented that the ideas would be hard to take back to the team because in some cases even email is pretty innovative. I think it’s an interesting struggle for the industry. Hopefully the conference steered them to a baby step that didn’t seem too scary,” reflects Flatt.

So, why Malaga? “Culture is not just Venice and Paris. It’s also cities with vision and projects to raise the profile of their city. Malaga is very interesting. There are many different actors from the public and private spheres working together on several parallel projects,” explains Estrada. The conference is based on a business model that divides the costs. Sponsors cover one third, delegates who attend the event another, and the remaining expenses are covered by the host city that provides the venues and catering. “The event raises the international profile of Malaga as a city with an increasing interest in developing its cultural infrastructure,” remarks Fabricio Chavarro from Malaga-based Industrias Creativas. The contingent of foreign visitors was given the opportunity to get to know the city itself, as Molly Flatt pointed out. “We were very surprised by Malaga. It was a delight to see that it isn’t what you’d expect from the Costa del Sol. On a personal note, the Peinado Museum in Ronda was a revelation.”

So, are museums in Andalusia ready to go online and embrace social media? “Both the CAC and the Picasso Museum are doing a great job. The next step is to convince others to move quickly. It’s not about having a big budget, but about changing ways of thinking. The future doesn’t lie in leaflets and straight marketing. I don’t know Andalusia well enough to say yes or no, but a third of the audience was Spanish and it was clear that they know they have to go online and engage the audience,” explains Estrada. In the midst of creating their marketing plan, Martín from Art Natura mused; “Andalusia will embrace social media, but it may take a little longer. We need to learn to combine online networking with other more traditional marketing”.

With a varied mix of participants from twenty-something’s to veterans in the field, this is an event very much on the cutting edge. Buzzwords such as blue-sky thinking, WOM, guerrilla marketing, social media, collective intelligence or community-centred approach were very much present at the 2009 edition in Malaga. “It’s an invaluable opportunity to share fears as well as hopes. To be vulnerable, talk to peers, get reassurance and step back to come up with well thought out strategies”, concludes Flatt.



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El 8 July 2009 a las 2:43 AM, Mary dijo...

What a fabulous idea! Is the conference also open to the public?

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El 8 July 2009 a las 7:36 AM, Fabricio dijo...

Yes it is open to the public, but because of the price tag (1800€) to attend, most participants are linked in one way or another to the museums and art gallery sectors.

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El 1 October 2009 a las 8:25 AM, Thea dijo...

Excellent article.. I didn’t know it existed. Thanks

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