Utilizing New Media to Promote Visitor Engagement at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
At the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens our Mission Statement is succinct; “To engage and inspire through arts, gardens, and education”. The critical word there is “engage”. When it comes right down to it, if an institution can’t engage with its visitors, if it can’t create a space that allows them to actively investigate its collection, if it can’t get them to care about the place they are in, then that institution has failed. As we stand in the early 21st century, museums have more options for visitor engagement available to them than ever before in the form of digital media and emerging technology. The Cummer Museum is no exception and is perfectly placed to take advantage of new media in order to engage with visitors before, during, and after their visits to the museum.
The Cummer is not a complete stranger to the use of technology in the pursuit of visitor engagement. Over the years the museum has implemented several initiatives to varying degrees of success. Rather than take the time to describe what hasn’t worked I will outline the areas where it has. Currently the museum’s biggest successes in new media have been through its social media presence. Through the use of platforms like Facebook, and more recently Instagram, the Cummer has been able to interact directly with visitors both as a group and individually. Our Facebook page allows the museum to disseminate information about exhibitions, classes, programs, etc. Here we can also send and receive messages directly with visitors to answer inquiries or field grievances. The museum’s Instagram account reaches a similar audience but is perhaps less effective in communicating back and forth. The purpose of this initiative seems to be more about sharing images from the museum and building enthusiasm for what visitors might see and do here. The other benefit of Instagram is that it allows the museum to see photos that have been tagged with the Cummer as their location. This gives our staff insight into what areas of the museum visitors are photographing and responding to. Part of what makes both of these efforts successful is that the programs are designed and maintained by a third party. These efforts, along with the museum’s recently overhauled website, represent the limited but successful use of new digital media at the Cummer.
That brings us to what we as a museum can do to improve our visitor engagement through new technology. Fortunately many other institutions are currently going through this same process, resulting in a wealth of information and ideas being shared within the museum community. Just last year the Association of Art Museum Directors released their latest installment of Next Practices entitled Next Practices in Digital and Technology (2015). This publication includes submissions from over 40 institutions exploring a wide range of ways to apply digital technology - from social media and mobile apps, to in-gallery interpretation of works, to improving public access to data as well as behind-the-scenes collections management. This report shows that institutions at every level are imagining and implementing exciting and innovative ways to use new technology for visitor engagement.
Looking to others museums as a model, in particular the terrific work of the Guggenheim (e-flux), the first way that the Cummer could improve visitor engagement would be through the development of a mobile app. Given that more than half of Americans adults use a smartphone (Harvard Art Museums 2014) a successful app could be a way for the Cummer to begin visitor engagement before the visitor even arrives at the museum. Through the app visitors could retrieve basic museum information such as location, directions, ticket prices, that day’s hours of operation and programming, as well as museum policies. Once on site, visitors could use the app to navigate the museum through a live map that showed their actual physical location. Museum members could retrieve their membership information through the app, eliminating the need to carry a physical card. There could also be options for audio tours of the collection. These tours could be arranged around various themes or interests and could be updated as needed. In the case of the Cummer we could also build the app to include a menu for our café and the ability to place a reservation. The possibilities for the app are extremely diverse and a large part of its appeal is that it depends on the visitor’s personal device so there is no hardware for the museum to buy or maintain to deliver this service. As recently as last year the New Orleans Museum of Art began offering their museum guides in a manner very similar to this (New Orleans Museum of Art 2015), encouraging visitors to use a digital version of their gallery guide through their own phones. This concept is something that could be developed at the Cummer relatively inexpensively but create a large impact.
A much larger overhaul of technology within the museum would be necessary for our Art Connections area. Currently Art Connections is described as our interactive center and is a part of all of our school tours. While it is technically designed as a space for visitors of all ages, in reality it only appeals to children and having last been renovated in 2004, most of the technology in this space is much older than the children who actually use it. What the Cummer needs is to look to other institutions that have successfully integrated digital technology into an interactive visitor center and build on their work. A good example would be the Gallery One initiative at the Cleveland Museum of Art (Bernstein 2013). Art Connections already contains a timeline wall that includes works from our permanent collection but this experience could become so much richer if it resembled the touch screen wall in Gallery One. A wall that contained images of nearly every piece in our collection, that could be explored by time period, or artist, or theme, or artistic movement. A wall like that would reinvigorate our timeline by replacing a static experience with a dynamic one.
Besides learning about art that already exists, a renewed Art Connections should also offer visitors opportunities for art making. The few digital art making areas we currently have available can only be used by one visitor at a time and rely on a printer to create a copy that visitors can take with them. This method is not only expensive but also prone to breaking. I envision digital art making stations in Art Connections that offer more varied ways of creation, maybe with a stylus on a screen or even with the movement of your body. These creations could still be kept by visitors but rather than printing them they could be retained digitally via email or social media account, which ever the visitor elects to input.
A final consideration for an improved Art Connections would be to offer on-demand video and audio that details various aspects of the museum. This could cover things like the history of the Cummer and its founding family, interviews with artists associated with the museum, and a look at how an exhibition comes together. While taking the time to develop these videos would be costly I think their life could be extended outside of the museum by offering them through our app or website. We could also use them as part of another potential upgrade to the way the Cummer uses technology to reach visitors, through outreach.
Through a number of partnerships, the Cummer regularly sends educators into classrooms throughout Jacksonville and its surrounding communities to work with students as part of its outreach initiatives. Despite the high volume of students our educators are able to visit, we are limited by time, distance, and staffing, from engaging with an even wider audience. Through the use of web-based applications, such as Skype, the staff of the Cummer could potentially perform outreach “visits” digitally with equipped classrooms. This would allow educators to have live conversations with students and teachers that may be too far afield to physically travel to. Efforts similar to this are already taking place in certain institutions under the format of massively open online courses (Moocs) in an effort to help shrink the gap between museums and their audiences (Ridge & Birchall 2015). There’s also the potential for the Cummer to utilize it’s already existing social media platforms for outreach as outlined by educator Juliana Huffer, who used Instagram to document her student’s photography project (Delacruz, Brock, Fuglestad, Ferrell, Huffer, Melvin 2014).
As Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, puts it, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.” (Lohr 2014) This statement is especially prescient as things like VR and augmented reality technologies become more and more sophisticated. The difference between physical and digital experience becomes less significant as individuals, or visitors in the case of the museum, surround themselves with technology.
Museums, Ms. Antonelli insists, have an important role to play in helping people explore and understand the emerging hybrid culture. “It’s this strange moment of change, and digital space is increasingly another space we live in.” (2014)
Throughout the history of museums it has been necessary that they keep in step with the lifestyles of their visitors in order to remain relevant. For the Cummer to remain relevant and to continue to fulfill its mission of engagement, it becomes absolutely vital to develop and deploy advancements in digital media that will connect our visitors more closely to our collection, our culture, and to us.
Bernstein, F. (2013, March 20). Technology that serves to enhance, not distract. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/arts/artsspecial/at-cleveland-museum-of-art-the-ipad-enhances.html?hpw&_r=1
Delacruz, E. M., Brock, D., Fuglestad, T., Ferrell, K., Huffer, J., Melvin, S. (2014). Teaching art in the age of social media: Firsthand accounts of five technology-savvy art teachers. Trends: The Journal of the Texas Art Education Association, 61-68. Retrieved from, http://www.taea.org/TAEA/Docs/2014/TRENDS-2014.pdf
e-flux, Museum launches new multimedia mobile app, Retrieved from, http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/new-multimedia-mobile-app/
Harvard Art Museums (2014, January 24). Technology in the Museums, Retrieved from http://magazine.harvardartmuseums.org/article/2014/01/24/technology-museums
Lohr, S. (2014, October 23). Museum morph digitally, the met and other museums adapt to the digital age. Retrieved from, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/arts/artsspecial/the-met-and-other-museums-adapt-to-the-digital-age.html?_r=0
New Orleans Museum of Art (2015, August 4). Press Release, New orleans museum of art introduces new digital technology in museum galleries. Retrieved from, https://noma.org/new-orleans-museum-of-art-introduces-new-digital-technology-in-museum-galleries/
Ridge, M., Birchall, D. (2015, October 23). How digital tech can bridge gaps between museums and audiences, The Guardian. Retrieved from, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/2015/oct/23/digital-technology-museums-audiences-collaboration
The Association of Art Museum Directors (2015) Next practices in digital and technology. Retrieved from, https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/Next Practices in Digital and Tech.pdf
Utilizing New Media to Promote Visitor Engagement at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens