“A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world,” Edmond de Goncourt once quipped.
Too bad the 19th century French writer never experienced today’s blog culture. If he had, he’d know that what transpires between you and a masterpiece doesn’t have to stay at the whisper level anymore. Thanks to the appearance of museum-hosted blogs, many of them featuring visitor comment pages, you can proclaim your opinions, ridiculous and otherwise, to all of cyberspace.
As many as 60 museum blogs exist today and the number is growing, says Jim Spadaccini, a consultant at the design firm Ideum, which develops museum exhibitions and websites and from which Spadaccini runs MuseumBlogs.org, a directory of museum-related blogs.
Within this small community, blogging can assume many guises. Some museums have dedicated staff who collectively write the blog entries and review visitor comments. Others entrust their blog to one person -- an artist in residence or a curator -- who uses the site as an official diary or journal.
Whatever form they take, museum blogs provide a space where ideas and opinions can circulate, more or less openly. But for the museums hosting them, that very openness can prove problematic. Unlike personal blogs, where anything goes, museums must weigh institutional objectives, such as promoting new exhibitions, against the populist pressures of the blogosphere -- like being independent and snarky.
“Museums see themselves as experts, and blogs are almost the opposite of that. They’re completely informal and unauthoritative,” says Spadaccini.
As a result, museum blogs suffer from a kind of split-personality syndrome. Are they civic forums or glorified marketing tools? Should they humanize the museum or enforce an authoritative distance? Perhaps all of the above. For museums, walking the thin blog line often amounts to an improvised balancing act.
Forums for debate
CONSIDER what happened at the Science Museum of Minnesota when Gunther von Hagens’ controversial exhibition “Body Worlds,” a display of more than 200 human cadavers and body parts, arrived in May. (“Body Worlds” was at the California Science Center in Exposition Park in 2004-05.) The museum’s online staff invited the public to submit comments on its Science Buzz blog (www.smm.org/buzz/blog). With more than 100 posts to date, the open thread has become the longest in the blog’s nearly two-year history.
Most of the posts are unquestionably favorable, ranging from gushing praise (“This exhibit was one of the best the science museum has put on!”) to a fascinated revulsion (“Today I learned that inside, I am really, really ugly.”).
But the comments that caused the most stir were the openly political reactions. “I wish to know how this is any different [than] prostitution,” wrote one person. “In both situations people are selling a gift of god for worldly gain. And in both situations, another gains the use of your body.”
Another angry visitor seized on Body World’s inclusion of a pregnant woman and fetus: “This is PROOF that a baby is a baby from the earliest stages. Therefore, abortion is homicide. It’s the killing of an innocent human being. You can tell from the exhibit.”
The museum’s decision to publish the contentious comments on its blog wasn’t an easy one: “We knew some people would get worked up about the exhibit,” says Brian Kennedy, an exhibition developer at the museum who also manages the Science Buzz blog. “And we knew we’d attract ideologues only interested in spewing their beliefs.”
Kennedy says the purpose of the blog is to discuss scientific issues, not political ones. “But in the end, we decided that showcasing dissenters, even if they were off topic, would help foster discussion around scientific issues.”
Last year, the museum found itself in a similarly heated situation, but in this instance, the rabble-rousers lost out. A Science Buzz post about the discovery of a Tyrannosaurus rex bone with fleshy tissue provoked hostile comments from creationists, who wrote in denying that dinosaurs ever existed. The attacks were vicious in tone and unscientific in content, according to Kennedy, who says he received several such responses a day for weeks.
This time, the museum decided unequivocally against publishing the contrarian comments. The deciding factor was a single line in the museum’s official policy book: “To compromise the explanations of evolution or to permit unscientific alternative explanations into our galleries or our programs would misrepresent the principles of science.”
Joe Imholte, a museum project leader who works on the Science Buzz blog, says he encourages positive and negative visitor comments. “You need both to have a meaningful discussion,” he says. “But we usually hold off posting controversial comments until our team has discussed and researched them. It can be tricky. By putting them on our blog, it means we’ve taken some kind of responsibility for them.”
Keeping a careful balance
SO is a blog still a blog when a museum is hovering over every word?
“Control is an inevitable part of institutional blogging,” says Mark Rose, who works in public relations and on the side publishes the site PR Blog News, devoted to the intersection of the two. “Organizations have policies about what employees can and can’t say in public, and those rules translate to the online world.”
Museums face an additional online challenge because their audience tends to skew cultured and sophisticated. “They can see through the PR bull easily,” says Rose. “The best promotion for a museum is to be nonpromotional.”
Achieving that equilibrium while working within institutional limits can be a sign of a truly creative blog team.
Take for example the Eye Level blog at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (www.eyelevel.si.edu) “We’re doing a very un-blog-like thing here,” explains Michael Edson, an information technology officer at SAAM. Edson says his team reviews every blog item, whether written by a blog staff member or a visitor. The team picks them apart for content and style; sometimes, they even ask writers to revise their posts. Final approval for all blog content ultimately goes to the office of the museum director.
The labyrinthine process means that an Eye Level post can take up to a few days to go live, Edson says. That’s a significant lag compared with the near-instantaneous nature of most blogs.
“Our internal review structure means we can’t react to breaking events,” says Edson. “The upside is that we have the time to write thoughtful commentary a few days after the fact. We see ourselves as a high-level blog, and I can say we’re proud of every piece we’ve posted.”
Among Eye Level’s entries are items on the burden of installing new art (complete with a Quicktime demonstration); an appreciation of the late video artist Nam June Paik; and a seven-part entry documenting the museum’s reopening this month after a six-year refurbishment.
Edson says it’s always tempting to turn the blog into a fancy public relations channel. The key, he says, is to address that temptation rather than avoid it: “Institutional blogs aren’t likely to succeed internally if they don’t promote the institution. But it also can be more than that. You can balance marketing with more experimental things, like being critical of yourself. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
In an infant field such as museum blogging, there are ultimately no hard rules. Sue Lawty, a British artist who specializes in weaving and textiles, found this out when the Victoria & Albert Museum in London approached her last July about a new blog project. Her assignment: to write about what interested her, at whatever length. (www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1395lawty/wordpress/)
“I get a lot of latitude,” Lawty says. “Frankly, I’m astonished how trusting the museum is.” Initially, the blog acted as a supplement to a series of exhibitions Lawty was completing for the V&A.; She would submit her entries to the museum’s online team along with pictures from her digital camera, and together they would edit and publish them. In two months, Lawty, who admits she didn’t know what blogging was before the project, was flying almost completely solo, uploading her posts through Word Press, a popular blog publishing tool.
Lawty’s entries have digressed to far-reaching subjects, including a flood that nearly ruined her studio and the similarities between blogging and weaving. (“The most recent posting always seems to assume greater importance than previous ones. This EXACTLY mirrors the building structure of tapestry; the discipline of working from the bottom up.”) Lawty has even blogged about the work of other artists at various museums.
The V&A; is eager for other artists and curators to start blogging. “The museum has been fairly open to the idea,” says Mark Hook, a Web production manager at the V&A.; “I think many people here started from a point of ignorance about the field, and perhaps that’s lucky because we’re able to sell them on our conception of what a blog should be.”
Narrow-interest blogs such as the V&A;'s are a popular choice among museums. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County hosted a temporary blog about its exhibition “Conversations” when the show traveled to the Netherlands in April. The blog followed the museum team through the monthlong process of installing the exhibition at the Naturalis museum in the town of Leiden. The Natural History Museum says it hopes to revive the blog if “Conversations” travels to other cities, according to a museum representative.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis runs several mini-blogs, each dedicated to a specific part of the museum, including new media, performing arts, visual arts and film (blogs.walkerart.org/index.wac).
“We want each blog to define itself,” says Robin Dowden, new media director at the Walker. “Not all writing has to be positive. Of course, we do promote our events, but we bring in artists from the community to help raise the bar on critical discourse.”
Since the Walker blogs launched in February 2004, they have seen traffic grow steadily. Today, the blogs are the fastest-growing part of the Walker website, with user traffic up about 30% every month, according to the center.
After more than two years, running the blogs can still seem like an educated guessing game. “It’s a constant evolutionary process,” says Paul Schmelzer, a marketing director at the Walker. “We’re trying to strike the right tone, one that has personality but isn’t necessarily personal. The blogs came first; now we’re finding our voice after the fact.”