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Online Presence: Should Museums Have a Personality?

Should Museums Have a Personality? Beyonce at Wellcome Collection

Russell Dornan on why tone and voice are crucial online and what it means to funnel a museum’s online presence through a unique filter: ourselves

About the author: Russell Dornan is Digital Producer at V&A Museum of Design, Dundee. Until recently he was Web Editor for Wellcome Collection, where he was responsible for commissioning and editing digital content and developing digital projects. Russell worked on building the audience across social media platforms and this article is based on his experience at Wellcome Collection. Russell spoke at the Museum Ideas 2017 conference in London.

Think about some of your favourite museums on Twitter. How about Instagram? What is it about how they present themselves across social media that you enjoy or relate to? Beyond the subject matter or the expertise, it’s the people behind the accounts that bring museums to life online.

Our use of words is the handwriting of our personalities, so it’s impossible for me not to come through” – Kirsten Riley, Wellcome Collection (formerly London Transport Museum)

Museums, once seen as stuffy and elite institutions, exclusive, imperious and didactic, have generally become more and more inclusive, accessible and dynamic; places where humanity’s tangible and intangible heritage can be explored by all. I posit that a large part of this transformation (or personality overhaul, if you will) is thanks to how digital technology has opened up the cultural sector beyond the walls of our institutions. Museums and their audiences can have a more direct, personal and informal relationship with each other thanks to social media. And when that relationship works, well, it’s thanks to the social media managers.

“For me, the whole point of social media is to show that these big institutions have personality. And that they are made up of people. Those people are what make them so great. As a visitor, a personalised visit will usually be a more positive one. And I approach social media as that: a personal interaction” – Lexie Buchanan, Art Gallery of Ontario

I was in charge of the social channels at Wellcome Collection for three years. During that time, I met many social media managers (SMMs) from other institutions as we collaborated, shared experiences and reflected on good practice. Here and there this idea of personality came up. Whereas the overall personality of an institution may be set by the museum’s mission, branding, subject matter and general approach, on social media all of that is channelled through a SMM. Inevitably, the personalities mix, inform and change each other, leading me to the topic of this article: how do our personalities influence our organisation’s online presence?

Wellcome Collection watches all the classics at Christmas

SMMs (humans) run social accounts for their organisations (definitely not human). This presents us with the challenge of deciding how the organisation should sound, act and exist online. Should I say “we” instead of “I”? Am I pretending the museum is actually speaking? What would it say? How would it say it? Can I make jokes? How funny is my museum? Is my museum sarcastic, staid, sombre, sassy? Some of the answers to these questions are found in the history, themes and approach of the institution. But social media has a range of functions and a certain tone; it offers museums a chance to sidestep outdated perceptions or subvert expectations.

“Because of the nature of our collection, people could easily associate us with an antiquated Victorian cabinet of curiosities. Instead, we try to have a light tone of voice which embraces all things fun, exciting and inspiring” – Polly Heffer, Royal Museums Greenwich (formerly Horniman Museum and Gardens)

Some of the answers to these questions may get defined by other people in the organisation with perhaps a more limited idea of how a museum should act online. This can be difficult, as it means the SMM is constantly tempering their own personality.
But this can work well. W. Ryan Dodge at the Royal Ontario Museum has freedom to develop the museum’s voice and tone online (and it’s great), but he deliberately limits how much of him comes through. In fact, although Ryan has made the museum’s social media snappy and challenging, he prefers to use his personal Twitter to emphasise there’s a person involved, rather than overtly serving his personality via the official account.

Drew Mandinach, formerly from Balboa Park Online Collaborative, was able to develop their online tone and tried to make it an experience of exploration as he roamed and shared the park via social media. He was not the sole representative or voice, rather he worked to share many voices and to expand the dialogue to include the community around topics like Black Lives Matter. Some people don’t have that kind of freedom. Even if you can get used to slipping into the “institution’s voice”, if it’s quite different to your own it can be challenging.

“The museum is relatively conservative in its messaging. I don’t feel that I can use my own voice as much because maybe the way I write could be misinterpreted by an audience I perceive to be a little bit more serious” – Anon

Being able to have more control is an asset. It lets you be more responsive and evolve your organisation’s tone according to your audience and what they engage with best. Lucille Carver at the Field Museum in Chicago developed the Field’s social media away from only re-posting other accounts and using content sent to her by helpful staff, to being proactive and creating engaging content herself. Along with a change in tone and personality, this adds so much more: you’re not just a conduit, but a content creator.

Wellcome Collection‘s unhealthy Beyonce obsession

“People react to a human voice much more than a sterile, anonymous one, so showing that an actual person is running the show is important because it increases peoples’ trust in the institution and it’s just more fun” –  Steve Boyd, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Dorothy Howard wrote an article recently called “The Social-Mediafication of Museums”, in which she lambasts the way museums have stepped into social media. Howard is uncomfortable with, among other things, what she perceives as museums lacking confidence about being authorities on culture as we hand that job over to the public. More than that, Howard suggests that the way museums and galleries are doing this is insincere and contrived; a way to appear human and fool our audiences.

“Museums and galleries worldwide increasingly…[post] institutional announcements on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using a kind of doublespeak that mimics human speech and personality” – Dorothy Howard

I can’t vouch for Howard, but I am certain that people running social media for museums and galleries don’t have to mimic human speech; they are in fact human beings using those tools to speak to others. I’m not a machine trying to simulate an ersatz personality online. I already have one (such as it is) and it fed into running Wellcome Collection’s social channels.

Don’t get me wrong: Howard raises several points in her article that will make for fascinating discussions within the #musesocial network. It’s just a shame they’re delivered with such derision and cynicism, ignoring the rich and meaningful exchanges museums and their audiences enjoy thanks to social media.

“This Usership of art institutions falls in a long chain of corporations coopting modes of interaction and economic exchange more commonly enjoyed by individuals, when doing so is advantageous” – Dorothy Howard

Oh, the shade of it all! I’m unclear why speaking to our audience human-to-human irks Howard; it makes me wonder that she might not care about why we do what we do. We project personalities onto all sorts of things, including museums, and I think it would be strange for their online presence to lack any kind of personality. Letting our own character come through as we run organisational accounts can only humanise our museums and galleries, bringing us closer to our audiences and (critically) them to us.

“People don’t want to feel like they’re talking to a robot. Knowing that you’re speaking to a person and not just canned responses is vital in today’s well-connected world” – Alie Cline, formerly Blanton Museum of Art

People who manage social accounts for museums are those organisations. They’re the ones speaking to the public and with whom everyone shares things. A human is behind the accounts, even when they’re acting on behalf of an institution. Being able to funnel the museum through your own personality is a great asset and, when done well, can set that place apart.

“Wellcome Collection and Royal Academy…in the Twitter challenge you…started a trend…and then…you created a moment…you’re the winners of this week’s challenge”

It’s not just that our personality can come through. The form that takes and the other dimensions of who we are also shape the accounts we manage. Our own interests and skills affect how we talk about the museum activities, the aspects we choose to focus on and the way we decide to interrogate or interpret them.

“If I were to ignore who I am as member of the arts community and resident of the city, I wouldn’t be as engaging. I believe that we can mediate our own voice –  and I do – but if we took it out completely then our jobs on social media would be very empty” – Nicole Rademacher, City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs

From speaking to other SMMs, the kinds of things many of us want to represent on our channels involve social justice and equality (e.g. Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+ solidarity, or perspectives from people with disabilities) and providing a platform for discussions around these topics. Sadly, this is usually seen as political and “taking a stance”, so not everyone can do it, but some of us try to push this through when we can.

“I want to use my soapbox for diversity and inclusive content. I want more takeovers and more inclusive-driven posts that share and reflect the diversity of our community and those who visit our museums; not just the dead white guy mentality that has persevered since the ‘60s” – Adrianna Prosser, City of Toronto

Similarly, the way we interact with other museums depends on who we are and what we think our audience will enjoy. For some, it’s a very formal relationship. For me, some of the best fun I had “as Wellcome Collection” was sending Rupaul GIFs to the Royal Academy or wishing our museum friends a merry Christmas using subject-specific GIFs.

There is of course a balance. When I ran Wellcome Collection’s channels, I sometimes caught myself posting more as “me” than I perhaps should have. Occasionally, that can work really well and gets a good response; sometimes it’s less wise. But almost everything I posted on social media for my museum had a bit of me in it.

The bit of me in this post is the reptilian brood

The beauty of social media is that it’s just that: social. I reacted to Wellcome Collection’s audience and how they responded. Now and again I pushed things a bit more than I usually did and I didn’t always know how it would be received; overall I think I judged things pretty well. Very occasionally there was a comment about a photo we’d tweeted (e.g. of naked men putting their dildos in a dishwasher or of a “tart card” depicting light S&M). But it was my job to understand our audience and judge how far I could push them; it was also my responsibility to recognise an outlier and know that although we may get comments questioning our approach it shouldn’t stop me from sharing that kind of content if most of our audience gets it.

It’s a finely tuned relationship and always in flux. Developing a personality for your organisation is a big responsibility and the amount of flexibility or freedom a SMM has to do that depends on the museum. In the same way the front of house or visitor services teams are often the most direct representation of a museum for visitors, so the SMM is online.

“My supervisor made it clear that I was trusted to be the voice of the institution online” – Alie Cline, formerly Blanton Museum of Art

Trust is vital, both in terms of the trust between SMM and the wider museum, as well as the trust between us and our audiences.

“The channels are my babies and I’ve gotten to know people who regularly interact with us and I care about them” – Lorraine Gouin, Canada Agriculture and Food Museum

Considering how careful I was when posting as Wellcome Collection, I’m surprised when an organisation or brand’s social media massively fails. We all make mistakes, but I’m talking about disasters, the kind people are quick to point out and share across social media, sometimes causing it go viral (normally something you’d be quite happy about in other circumstances). A recent example is the London Dungeon’s Valentine’s day faux pas.

When you develop an organisation’s presence online, over time and through trial and error you get a real sense of the boundaries: your own and your audiences’.

A lot of museums try to show they have a sense of humour online. Sometimes they’re sassy, sometimes they’re bold. It’s about judging what’s right for your institution. Museums like the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia have collections that could gratuitously shock or disturb if given that kind of spin, but Gillian Ladley ensures this is not the approach they take. Dealing with human remains demands respect and needs a sensitivity that some museums may not have to worry about in the same way. It’s an interesting dichotomy: the Mütter doesn’t “spin” their approach to social media in the same way as, say, the Horniman does (to actively step away from dusty preconceptions), because the material they cover is by definition highly unusual and unexpected to most of the public. They can’t be sassy or irreverent about their collection, but (or because) their collection is provocative by default.

“I have a very real loyalty to the public that follow and engage with LTM and I want to make sure that I don’t let them down. Whether all this matters to the public, or whether they even notice, is another matter” – Kirsten Riley, Wellcome Collection (formerly London Transport Museum)

Meltdowns like the one caused by the London Dungeon’s tone deaf Valentine’s Day misstep (new band name, called it!) are a good reminder of why we work so hard to understand our respective missions and audiences: the last thing we want to do is upset or disappoint people who love our museum. I think it’s difficult for some of us to do this effectively without fully immersing ourselves. It’s no surprise, then, that our personalities mingle and fuse with those of our institution.

But what happens when you leave that museum? How do you untangle yourself from it? And how do you take over a different museum’s online presence?

“In some ways it terrifies me to hand over the Hammer’s voice to someone else, but in other ways I look forward to seeing how it develops. My voice isn’t perfect; no one’s voice is” – Arielle Sherman, Hammer Museum


So after putting all this work in and pouring yourself into the institution’s online persona, what happens when you move on? I’m very sad to have handed over Wellcome Collection’s social channels and I’ll watch closely to see how it changes. Having recently given up the channels at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford when Adam Koszary moved jobs, he and his team discussed these same issues.

“We accepted that the voice of the Bodleian will change, but that it would still remain uncorporate and informal. What I had done was to show that if the next person chose to take a sarcastic, sassy and humorous tone then our audiences enjoyed it. I’m very curious as to how it will develop and I hope that it will be better. I’m sure that the vast majority of our audience won’t have noticed that I’ve gone” – Adam Koszary, Museum of English Rural Life and Museum of Reading

A small part of me would like to think the person who has taken over Wellcome Collection’s channels won’t do as good a job as me. They won’t be as cheeky; they won’t take the same (calculated) risks; they won’t gauge the appropriateness of the content correctly (how can they, they don’t know our audience like I do), either being too risqué or too bland; they won’t have the same sense of humour through which to funnel Wellcome Collection. But before we collectively choke on my arrogance, a much bigger part of me understands those fears are unfounded.

Reflecting on this with colleagues at other museums, for some there’s the similarly unfounded notion that their successors might not do quite as good a job, but the fear that the next generation are likely to be much better was far more keenly felt amongst the group. Of course, anyone following in someone else’s footsteps should be better, building on what came before and taking it further.

“Running a museum’s account for a period of time gives you a sense of ownership; you want to protect the experience the audience receives. But it’s still very important to push the organisation forward and new perspectives can do that” – Alie Cline, formerly Blanton Museum of Art

Having just written about why it’s important to let someone’s personality come through on an institutional account, I obviously don’t think a new person should be bound to an existing tone and approach. It should flex and adapt as they naturally become more entwined with it. And, ultimately, how much will the public notice that gradual change in personality?

I think the real worry about handing over your museum’s social accounts to someone else is focus. We can be confident that our organisations will appoint people with the required skills to be a good communicator, to have an imagination and to think creatively. But there’s more to being human than that. The next person will have different interests, letting the museum present slightly different sides of itself. Great! But what if the shift in focus includes moving away from approaches you feel are important or even vital? Social media/digital content may be one of the few areas of your institution that can try new approaches and act boldly. What if the next person is:

“…someone who won’t work as hard to share voices of experiences that aren’t ours  –  quotes and images of people of colour, focus on celebrating women in collections or LGBTQ+ history  – whatever it is” – Drew Mandinach, formerly from Balboa Park Online Collaborative

Before I left, Wellcome Collection had their Twitter account taken over in an attempt to decolonise our collections. It was a challenging few days for the museum, but amazing and necessary (and hopefully just the beginning). If the next person in my position were less keen to explore this, they may not have felt comfortable to hand over the keys. I hope that soon these sorts of conversations will spread through organisations and society, meaning we won’t need to worry about how we as SMMs can provide a platform for hidden voices, but until that happens, we need SMMs who are willing to demonstrate the power social media can have in this and other areas.

My proudest moment

Allowing the personality of the person behind a museum’s digital presence to come through is only a problem if their personality is…inappropriate. For many reasons, it’s a massive asset. It’s also easy to tell when someone is faking it; being genuine is important for the audience and giving your own personality space to breathe makes it so much easier to be real.

So the next time you see a museum share something on social media, have a think about the person behind the account: a human being reaching out to the same.

Russell Dornan,
Digital Producer, V&A Museum of Design, Dundee
(and past Web Editor for Wellcome Collection)

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