Monday, 18 February 2013

Thomas P. Campbell to me

Some time ago, I watched a presentation by young social media expert Jasper Visser entitled The future of museums is about attitude, not technology.  Even before watching it, the title stroke a chord with me. Indeed, what impact can technology alone have if one doesn´t know how to use it, if one doesn´t understand or is not interested in exploring the possibilities it offers and use them with vision and imagination? This requires attitude, indeed; or rather, it requires the ‘right’ attitude.

A couple of weeks go I received an email from Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wished to inform me about a new project, called 82nd and 5th, a series of new videos, where a Met curator talks about a specific work of art in the museum collection which has inspired him/her or changed his/her life or way of thinking. Thomas P. Campbell informed me that I could subscribe in order to receive all new videos by email and suggested I informed my friends about it.

It´s not the videos I wish to talk about (the quality and interest of which you can easily verify on the museum website), it´s the details in communicating this new initiative. As you can imagine, the email I received was not from Thomas P. Campbell himself and I received it because I´ve subscribed the museum´s mailing list. The Met could have easily done what most museums do: send an email to all those on the mailing list from its general email address. Instead of this impersonal way of communicating, they created a specific email address, the museum director being identified as the sender. He´s the one addressing us and presenting this new intiative, asking us to use it, embrace it and help the museum promote it. And this small detail makes a whole lot of a difference. It shows attitude.

Indhu Rubasingham, Tricycle Theatre artistic director (Photo: Alastair Muir for The Guardian)
I had another special encounter with a cultural organization´s director a few months before. When I called the Tricycle Thearte in London in order to reserve tickets for a play, the phone rang, but before getting through to the box office, I listened to an automatic answer. It was a message from the theatre´s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, who thanked me for getting in touch in order to buy tickets and asked me to consider paying an extra pound per ticket in order to support the theatre in its work. It was a simple, direct, friendly message, that made it impossible to resist. I supported a theatre I had never been before, which is something I haven´t done for those theatres I´ve been attending for some time now. Maybe because nobody ever asked. Indhu Rubasingham and the Tricycle Theatre have got attitude.

None of the examples given above required a huge investement. Actually, they didn´t require any investment at all. Lack of money or fancy means cannot be an excuse for lack of attitude. Furthermore, a lack of attitude when having the means, but not using them to their full potential, also indicates a lack of vision.

One of the most common concerns of culture professionals when I give training in cultural communication around the country is the inability to use the technology and the means available autonomously in order to promote their venues, work and activities. I especifically refer to organizations belonging to local authorities or private foundations which are not allowed to have their own websites (they´re usually an item on a sub-sub-menu) or manage their own facebook pages. Information is managed centrally and not by those who have the best knowledge on the subject matter and are more interested than anyone else in promoting it. And who would do it better than anyone, if they had proper training.

Let´s be the client for a moment. Are you interested in finding out if the Electricity Museum in Lisbon organizes birthday parties? Well, you start by searching for the museum on Google, like I did. The first links refers you to EDP (Portugal Electricity) Foundation website, where the museum is an item in the menu. Reaching that page, it seems like you´ve arrived on a portal presenting boxed news. Each box is a link to pages with a desciption of the current exhibition; the permanent exhibition; the latest statistics or other news. The museum itself has got no menu. 


Do you wish to visit the Museum of Ceramics in Sacavém? A search on Google will refer you to (by order of appearance): a reference regarding the museum building on the website of the now extinct Institute of Museums and Conservation; the Greater Lisbon Tourism; Wikipedia; Lifecooler; a number of other websites... If, by intuition, we decide to search for Municipality of Loures, we will find a link leading us to a page with a general description of the museum under Municipality of Loures / Getting to know / Tourism, Culture, Leisure / Museums. 

I chose the examples of two museums I like. Because this makes me think of how much different and better, given the tools available, my online and at a distance relationship could be (not to mention their relationship with those who don´t really know them and might be interested).  There are may more examples of this sort. How can a museum or a cultural venue ever establish a relationship with current and potential visitors/users when it´s so well hidden (starting from their URLs)? Or when the information it can actually give is so static (and boring and incomplete)? When there´s no open, direct, constant, informal dialogue?

A communications professional like me totally understands the need for coherence and I believe this is the main concern of local authorities or foundations which manage a number of venues and projects. Nevertheless, the solution is not to control them to the point of struggling them. People develop relationships with the organizations they visit, with the projects they love, not with the entities that manage them. No central communications office in a municipality will ever chat with people on Facebook on the day-to day life of a municipal museum, the items in its collections, the activities it has to offer the way a person who works in that museum would. There is, undoubtedly, a need for guidelines, for training, for orientation. But people are eager to receive them and be able to put them to good use in order to better promote what they´re doing and get to the people they wish to communicate with. It´s not a good idea to leave this to those who know less, who are – inevitably – less passionate, who have no real involvement in it – as is the case with Wikipedia, the tourism office or Lifecooler. This shows lack of vision which eventually condemns to a lack of attitude. And there´s no future there.

Every time I think of all those frustrated professionals whose only wish is to communicate (and I think of them a lot), I´ve got Sting´s song at the back of my head:

When you love somebody
Set them free…
Free… free….
Set them free…

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