Italian Museums Need to Say “Ciao!”
During my last trip to Italy I was on something of a museum marathon. I didn’t have a list of museums to visit, rather, I would just stop in a city and see what was around. It was during a visit to an amazing museum in a medieval town that my journey came to a pensive pause.
I realized I had the entire museum to myself, save for the staff. Despite my animosity towards crowds, I have to admit that the emptiness of this museum troubled me. When this experience happened again and again on my way down the peninsula, I started to wonder why things were so. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer, because I’d said it during long chats with bored museum staff: “I never realized there was a museum here.”
Aside from big names like the Uffizi or the Vatican Museums, you don’t tend to hear much about the museums outside of the major tourist centers of Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice. The smaller museums in less-traveled parts of the country just don’t have access to the same resources as their more famous cousins. I know from experience that when budgets get tight, you have to be very careful about promotional expenses. Luckily, there are creative and inexpensive ways to get the world’s attention. A set of tools I find indispensable in my work with Lord Cultural Resources are social media.
Social media are the friends of museums big and small. Access to the ever-growing digital community is the same for each and every museum; you just need an internet connection and a bit of time. Just having a Twitter handle or a Facebook page gives millions of potential visitors a way to communicate with a museum. Even small interactions like answering a query about admission fees, or sharing a photograph of an exhibit, raises a museum’s chances of being spotted online. Small actions done consistently can achieve great things.
It’s worth looking at a few museums around the globe who are using their social media to great effect. On the bigger end of the scale, the Royal Ontario Museum has done so well with it’s social media strategy that it earned itself coverage in the Toronto Star. Aside from a wicked sense of humour, the Museum took a comprehensive approach to its social media accounts. They are legion. Many of the ROM’s staff have their own accounts where they share what they’re up to at the Museum that day – and people love it. If there’s a particular time or place in the Museum you’re interested in, there’s probably a curator you can Tweet a question to. By empowering the majority of its staff, the ROM’s blip on the internet radar remains loud and clear.
There are many smaller museums that make good use of their social media to catch your attention. An interesting case is the National Gallery of Denmark, which came to popular attention by increasing its Instagram reach by over 2500%. How? Photographs. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the Gallery who started posting photographs, rather, it created opportunities for people to take photographs and share them online. It started by inviting people in before opening hours to take and share photographs on Instagram, then put up signs encouraging people to tag and share their photographs. They topped off their strategy by creating spaces where people could take a nice selfie. Why did this work so well? Because it doesn’t take much to capture people’s attention online. To quote Ngaire Blankenberg in the Manual of Museum Learning Second Edition: “An image of a work of art posted on Instagram with a line of well-crafted text can increase knowledge and interest in an instant.” No fancy videos or dynamic web pages, just a nice picture accompanied by a few good words.
I should also mention that taking advantage of social media doesn’t have to be a solo affair. Museums of every size and budget have ample opportunities to come together and share their audiences. Events like #MuseumWeek give museums a chance to grab the attention of millions simply by using the same hashtag as everyone else. Museums in a region can even band together like several New York City museums did, swapping their Instagram accounts and sharing photographs of each others’ collections. Even a friendly rivalry between museums can get people interested. A few American museums, such as the Seattle Art Museum and New England’s Clark Art Institute, got into a temporary rivalry over the Super Bowl, using #MuseumBowl.
All this goes to show that even if a small museum can’t afford to hire a full-time social media coordinator, there’s a lot to be gained by implementing a few best practices, keeping content regular, and encouraging the staff to try it out. It might even be worth asking the media-savvy interns and volunteers for help; you can always learn something from someone else. There are many more ways that museums can beat the limitations of a tight budget by tapping into the limitless creativity of its staff.
Social media aren’t the magic bullet for the challenges facing Italy’s museums, but they are useful tools. I’m pleased to see many Italian museums already using social media to grow their audiences. Once museum staff get comfortable with it and venture into posting in other languages, I expect that we’ll see more museums popping up on people’s must-visit lists. Like I mentioned earlier, all you need to get started is an internet connection and a few minutes each day to say “ciao!”