Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Increasing Museum Transparency through Social Media at the Levine Museum

This is a guest blog featured on museumcommons.blogspot.com.


Human beings often attempt to predict the future to no avail. The museum community is no stranger to this inescapable predicament. Despite the lack of definitive answers, we can’t help but ask the seemingly innocuous question: what will happen to the museums in the future? What will a museum look like in twenty years? Two hundred? Will museums remain relatively the same or radically different?

In the Southern cultural context, museums are often critiqued for being resistant to change, yet Levine Museum of the New South is ready to explore new territories of viewer engagement. Levine Museum is ready to confront just what a museum will look like in the future. While I can’t answer this question with certainty (and neither could anyone else, for that matter), I do hope to offer a suggestion.

Often one of the most overlooked assets to a museum is its viewership and consequently, the space in which its viewership is comfortable engaging challenging material. In the 21st century, this forum exists in Cyberspace through various forms of social media. I believe that social media is something of an “uncharted territory” that is just now being explored and utilized. In other words, because society is becoming more and more interactive with social media, museums should follow suit despite objections rooted in nostalgia and a reluctance to change. If patrons demand more accessibility in their digital universes, then museums should provide that opportunity.

That engagement framework—increasing access and flattening the hierarchy usually associated with museums has provided the foundation for a new exhibit that the Levine Museum of the New South has just unveiled—the Summer 2012 Virtual Series. What makes this exhibit unique is the “lack” inherent in its creation: it does not utilize specialized web-design software; it does not require additional help of contractors. Through the utilization of major types of social media, primarily Facebook, Twitter and blogging platforms, Levine Museum’s virtual series has been entirely self-sufficient.

The virtual series was created to feature an in-depth analysis of each of the twelve images that adorn two sides of Levine Museum’s facilities in uptown Charlotte, NC. Inside of these lightboxes are twelve images, all iconic of the New South. These images date from 1865 (marking the end of the Civil War) to the present, and include many influential figures in Southern history. Examples include evangelist  Billy Graham, Nascar Driver Richard Petty, civil rights activist Joseph A. Delaine, entrepreneur Joseph B. Ivey, and a startling image of a Ku Klux Klan rally with a very young girl at the forefront.

It is indisputable that these twelve images were (and still are) very important both to local Charlotte history, as well as the larger history of the Southern region, the United States and the world at large. However, as part of a renovation project, and in order to address questions and controversy that have arisen about some of the images, the Museum has decided to remove them from its fa├žade. Through social media, the virtual series addresses these issues through an in depth analysis of each image and its particular context and relevance in local, regional, and national history.

Through the accessibility of social media, the educational staff (myself included) hope to “extend a hand,” so to speak, welcoming visitors into an easily-accessible forum outside of the traditional “museum” setting. By providing the larger community the opportunity to learn more about their heritage in the comforts of their homes, we hope to spawn increased interest in the “who, what, when, where and how” that has culminated in the creation of the society we live in today.

This of course raises an interesting question: does a museum have an obligation to deliver content into the home of the viewer? If the audience requests greater accessibility, should a museum honor that request? Or does this sacrifice the integrity of the museum space? Does this take away from the value bestowed in such repositories of knowledge? This is an interesting point to ponder, particularly given the obvious benefits of social media.

Increased viewership and accessibility are not the only intentions of this series, though. Through the creation of the virtual series, unexpected connections have been established, all of which have done an excellent job of linking Levine Museum with the surrounding community. Obviously, when each image is removed, it needs a place to go; it needs a new “home,” so to speak. Through this “problem,” we have been at work tracing the origins of each image, attempting to donate it to an organization or group that would be interested in preserving its heritage and significance.

This search has led our museum on an interesting journey, but has provided unexpected and enlivening connections. These “partnerships” are mutual: the receiving party is provided a free 3 x 4 ft framed image; Levine Museum has formed a new “partnership” in the community. Such interactions help foster a sense of community among organizations in Charlotte, NC.

The Charlotte Trolley Museum, for example, is receiving our print of an early 20th century trolley in the First Ward neighborhood of uptown Charlotte. A volunteer fire station in Richfield, NC will be provided with a photograph of a band of musicians sitting in a pickup truck playing during a barbeque in the early 1970s. The former Ivey’s department store in uptown Charlotte (now a business and residential center) has eagerly offered to accept our photograph of Mr. Ivey, the founder of Ivey’s (now Dillard’s.) Each location has volunteered to feature the image, further spawning a sense of connection and community in the Carolina Piedmont. Therein looms an inevitable question: what should be done about particularly offensive images, such as the aforementioned photograph of the Ku Klux Klan rally? The answer, in short, has yet to be determined. Due to the volatile nature of this important, yet undesirable part of Southern history, we have yet to reach a definitive conclusion as to its future whereabouts. We will discuss this picture’s removal and donation towards the end of the summer on our blog and other social media outlets.

This interactive foray into the social media world has generated nothing but positives for Levine Museum of the New South. New connections have been forged; the community has been engaged; history is being brought back to life. Every time our Facebook, Twitter or blog features a new post, more people may be reached, more knowledge can be spread and more interest in New South history can be created. The virtual series, in every sense of the word, is a win-win scenario.

While it is impossible to predict the future of rapidly changing technology, one thing remains certain: social media is a positive investment. It is, for the foreseeable future, the direction that communication is heading. We believe, I believe, that social media is an invaluable means to reach the otherwise unreachable. Whether you believe it is positive or negative, social media allows for near constant connectivity to overcome vast distances and prohibitory barriers. Our virtual series can engage people that live ten minutes from the museum; it can just as easily engage people that live on the other side of the planet.

I won’t pretend to have an answer for the multitude of questions inherent to museums’ use of  social media, but I will suggest this. I believe that, as a collective, Levine Museum is taking small steps to experiment with a new model for community engagement. We don’t know how it will turn out. Despite that uncertainty, I believe that this program may serve as a model for a different approach in engaging the community and fostering dialogue. I would encourage your organizations to try something along these lines because, like it or not, social media will continue to play a significant role in museum culture for years to come.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions. What ways do you engage social media at your museums?

Here are some attached links. You are more than welcome to follow the blog, if interested.




Originally Published on museumcommons.blogspot.com on June 25, 2012 



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