An article by David Ng, Now on exhibit, the blogger’s view is in today’s Sunday Los Angeles Times. The article mentions our own MuseumBlogs.org site and starts by looking broadly at the museum blogging community:
Within this small community, blogging can assume many guises. Some museums have dedicated staff who collectively write the blog entries and review visitor comments. Others entrust their blog to one person — an artist in residence or a curator — who uses the site as an official diary or journal.
Whatever form they take, museum blogs provide a space where ideas and opinions can circulate, more or less openly. But for the museums hosting them, that very openness can prove problematic. Unlike personal blogs, where anything goes, museums must weigh institutional objectives, such as promoting new exhibitions, against the populist pressures of the blogosphere — like being independent and snarky.
The article elaborates…
“…museum blogs suffer from a kind of split-personality syndrome. Are they civic forums or glorified marketing tools? Should they humanize the museum or enforce an authoritative distance? Perhaps all of the above. For museums, walking the thin blog line often amounts to an improvised balancing act.”
I think David is right about the improvisational nature of museum blogs. If you look at 61 blogs that are currently listed in the Museum Blogs directory, you’ll find a wide variety of approaches.
In some ways this is not surprising, as blogs are uniquely personal and museum culture can differ so dramatically from institution to institution. When I was at the Exploratorium in the mid-90s, I worked on the Science Learning Network project which originally involved five other science museums. I remember at the time being surprised at just how different these science museums were. If you add Natural History, Art Museums, and Cultural Institutions to this mix, then you really have very unique institutions, each with their own culture.
The diversity of approaches is multiplied again since about half of “museum blogs” are outside of any institution’s control. (This was something not mentioned in the article, too bad.) I think we’ll continue to see a multiplicity of approaches in museum blogs and one that will continue to evolve.
The article continued by looking at Science Museum of Minnesota’s Science Buzz and the charged discussions surrounding the Body Worlds exhibition. The article could have similarly looked at Ontario Science Centre’s RedShift Now which has hosted similarly controversial discussions.
David then posed the question, “SO is a blog still a blog when a museum is hovering over every word?” The answer seems to be yes. Sort of. The issue how much control and how “reactive” blogs can be with lots of museum oversight is explored.
Perhaps, the question should be, “What is your definition of a blog?” I think museums have to find their comfort level. Just because the popular definition of a blog is that they are spontaneous and informal in nature doesn’t mean museums have to use them in this way. Afterall, blogs are extremely flexible and the diversity found in the museum blogging community proves it. The article does seem to acknowledge this, as it looks at Eye Level, the Walker Blogs, “Concealed, Discovered, Revealed,” and a temporary blog (that I had never come across before!) from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles for the exhibition, Conversations.
All in all, the article does a good job exploring some of the issues concerning museum blogs. The timing seems right too, as we are in the midst of a very active period with nearly half of the museum blogs in existence having started this year (24 of the 61 blogs found in the museum blogs directory). Today, as we pass the 1,000 “posts” mark at Museum Blogs, we see yet another indication of just how active and visible the museum blog community has become.
Update (August 2, 2006): The Smithsonian’s Eye Level have written a short post on the article.