April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Down To Earth: Social Media and Institutional Change

Patricia Deiser, Museum voor Communicatie; and Vincent de Keijzer, Gemeentemuseum, The Netherlands


The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague is a museum for contemporary art and the applied arts. “Down To Earth” presents a case study of the museum’s recent project, a five-month survey, in which various staff members were interviewed about their knowledge, level of participation, attitude and opinion regarding new social media and community centered projects. Those interviewed included directors; curators; some collections workers, including restorers; some of those involved in documentation, in education, in exhibitions, in ICT; some marketing staff and some in public relations.

The data collected was used to identify five different user types: lecturers; educators; presenters; interactors and connectors. On the basis of these types, a viable and differentiated approach to social media could be planned and put into practice. Central to this approach is a focus on the development of sustainable solutions that fit the museum and its staff. The paper shows how a rather traditional, conservative museum can create its own strategies for dealing with new media in this way.

Keywords: social mapping, user types, museum community, participation, strategy, institutional change


We are living in a time of a “digital revolution” engendered by information technology and characterized by functions and processes that are increasingly organized around networks: open, highly dynamic and interconnected systems of information.

Since the mid 1990s, museums have been influenced by this revolution in profound ways, not only because of the new possibilities sophisticated technologies offer in day-to-day work, for instance in the registration of collections, but also, and more importantly, because these technologies provoke profound change, both within museums and in their relations with the public. One important part of that change is to be seen in the shift in power, no longer held only within the museums; the interaction with the public using new technologies means that the public also has a say in the activities of the museum. Regarding public institutions in general and museums in particular, this means that their role in society is under discussion, that activities within the walls of museums are changing, opening up to the outside, and that from without the patterns of expectation regarding museums are developing.

In this context, the Web offers unlimited possibilities for engaging and interacting with different sectors of the public: there is a culturally interested public; a public specifically focused on a museum or museums in general; a public interested in a particular theme; and the expert public, the latter often highly knowledgeable in a specific field.

The European Union supports efforts to make use of new technologies to offer these different sectors greater access to what were once called by the Union “Europe’s warehouses of cultural content”. The Gemeentemuseum, an art and applied arts museum situated in The Hague, aims to take advantage of this support; that is, to expand its current applications and to find ways of using new media, both within the museum and in its relationships to the different sectors of the public. The ultimate aim is to build up, from the museum itself, a living, on-line community, whose members – generalist and specialized alike – are concerned with the experience and knowledge of the collections in the museum.

At the start of this project there are two main questions. First, how can a medium-sized, traditional art museum integrate new technologies? Secondly, how can a museum find solutions that fit the staff using present limited financial resources?

To answer these questions, the Gemeentemuseum consulted various external experts. One of the most valuable answers they gave was the suggestion to stop talking exclusively with people outside the museum and start discussing the various issues with the people within it. The Gemeentemuseum should create a low-profile on-line platform where ideas on new media could be discussed and experiments could be undertaken. This platform for discussion would first involve the staff and then, by degrees, be extended to include external experts. But first and foremost, the staff within the museum should be made “owners”, both of the problems and of the possible solutions.

The Gemeentemuseum asked the so-called Catch-team, a group of researchers from the University of Amsterdam, to establish this on-line platform for discussion. The team works together with the museum on the MuSeUM project as part of the Continuous Access To Cultural Heritage (Catch) program of The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

As a working title for the project the term GEMEEN was chosen, a Dutch word for common in both its English senses; that is, in the sense of things we have in common and in the sense of low-profile. In Dutch gemeen also has another meaning besides these two; gemeen is the word for mean in the sense of nasty, often unexpectedly so.

figure 1

Fig 1: Logo GEMEEN


The project objectives for GEMEEN are as follows:

  1. To set up an experimental on-line platform within the museum for inventing, sharing and discussing ideas, established and innovative, about information exchange. Exchange here means both the exchange of information within the museum and the exchange of information between the museum and the public.
  2. To establish the concrete means towards (1), that is, an easily accessible, laboratory-like situation, computer based, in which experiments can be made and discussion can be conducted.
  3. To use the platform to develop projects and applications in relation to information exchange based on the daily experience and work of the museum staff, using easily available software, preferably free or low-cost.

In order to develop useful applications of new techniques that fit the special needs of the museum and its staff, the project was divided into four main phases.

  1. For phase one there were three aims: to understand the museum staff and their work; to research the different technological possibilities that could be used in the future; and to start building the on-line platform for discussion.
  2. In phase two, the platform is to be used within the museum. The museum staff is already involved in working groups and in testing applications. The staff will be invited to offer their feedback on the success of the platform. This should help to gain support for the project within the museum.
  3. In the third phase, external experts for museums and IT-specialists will be invited to offer their comments and critical advice, thus contributing to the development of the platform.
  4. In the fourth phase the platform will be opened up for the use of a wider public.

Knowing Your Position: Survey And Mapping

The first step on the way to building the GEMEEN platform was to gain more knowledge about the attitude of the museum staff. A survey was therefore conducted, using interviews, to evaluate how much the staff knew about new media, how much they used such media, and the extent of their participation in such media. At the same time, the staff were asked to express their opinions about new media projects relating to the public. Another objective was to introduce the idea of building an experimental on-line platform and to investigate the levels of interest, enthusiasm and cooperation the platform would engender in museum staff. The data collected was then used to define different groups of users at the Gemeentemuseum. Based on these definitions, some further strategies of implementing new media into the museum were developed.

Research method

During a two-month period, interviews were conducted with eighteen representatives (nine women and nine men) of the staff of the Gemeentemuseum. They included directors, curators, those working with the collections, including restorers, those in documentation, in education, in exhibitions, in ICT, the marketing staff, and others involved in public relations. Each interview lasted at least fifty minutes, in most cases one-and-a-half hours.

The interviews started by outlining the rationale for the survey – the idea of building an on-line platform for the Gemeentemuseum to conduct experiments with new media. After this opening, the interviewee was asked about his or her education, function at the Gemeentemuseum, and previous job history. This was followed by specific questions on the use of media in general, as well as new media technologies and the person’s particular use of the Internet and Web, both at home and at work. Next, the interviewee was asked to perform a search on community Web services such as Flickr, You Tube and Wikipedia, and to comment on the results. The subject of the search was chosen by the interviewee.

The main focus in the second part was the presentation of interactive on-line projects of other museums such as the Community Area of the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. The interviewees were asked to give their opinions and comments about the various Web sites of these institutions.

The whole session ended with brainstorming about the ideas and wishes of the interviewee with regard to the experimental on-line platform. The person was asked to imagine how he or she could take an active part in the platform.

Research Process and Findings: The Five User Types

The interviews allowed the eighteen persons to be divided according to two main parameters:

  1. communication style and orientation towards the community;
  2. knowledge and use of new media.

The communication style and community orientation of those interviewed varied from a strong interest in two-way communication between the museum and its public though feedback, engagement and inclusion at one extreme, and an orientation towards a mass-media communication style, seeing the museum as the active sender of information and its public as passive receivers of that information at the other. The positions of the interviewees with regard to this parameter reflects both their general attitude towards the public and their way of cooperating within the museum.

The second parameter, the person’s knowledge and use of new media, ranged those interviewed from those with only a superficial knowledge and a distanced attitude to new media at one extreme, to those with a positive attitude with a highly active use of the new media at the other.

By using the two parameters, five user types could be identified. These are now described in turn.


The Lecturers are characterized by a strong focus on content with an almost vocational drive to tell their story to the people – or lecture. They see themselves as experts who pass on their knowledge and are not much interested in contributions from the public. They are one-way communicators, the message being transmitted from a sender (the museum) to a receiver (the public). Lecturers find interactive, public-orientated projects amateur and exhibitionist. Their knowledge and use of new media, especially the Internet, is basic and distant: they use e-mail and check Web sites to search for information but see no need to raise their level of interaction. Lecturers favor “old, traditional” media like books, magazine and the radio and perceive the computer as “a better typewriter”. Still, even Lecturers recognize that new media are important for the future of museums. Lecturers nonetheless represent a group that is generally skeptical about the reliability and quality of Web information and are hostile to increasing open access to museum information. Lecturers fear a “total sellout of museum knowledge”.


The main intention of Educators is to “educate” people in a traditional way: they want to pass on knowledge, communicate on a well-informed, theoretic level, and make sure that the visitors get the message. They are interested in the voices and feedback of their public mainly to evaluate if they accomplished this aim. They are also willing to offer the public a “look behind the scenes”; for example, by showing photos of how an exhibition is made or what museum storage looks like. Educators do not want to let the public contribute to the work of the museum. Educators tend to distinguish “high art” from “low art” or “real art” from “amateur art” and are not eager to allow these two domains to mingle. The interaction level of Educators with the Internet is intermediate: they use e-mail and check Web sites for information but also surf for fun or shopping. Still their attitude towards the Web and new media is indifferent, and they do not use the possibilities in a creative way. As with the Lecturers, they in general prefer old to new media – but they use both without a feeling of special allegiance to the old. They know of the importance of new media for museums. Educators realize the gaps in their own knowledge and are willing to fill them.

Educators are nonetheless skeptical about the reliability, value and quality of Web information and are wary of increasing public access to museum information. Their main belief is that museums are cultural institutions with an independent public contract, and as such they have to keep their distance from the mass of commercial enterprises and their application of new media.


Members of this group like to present – and the bigger the audience, the better. This motto also determines their relationship with new media. They mainly have very precise ideas about how media can help them to reach their objectives; even if they see risks in using media in the museum environment, their priority is nonetheless to reach as many people as possible. If one of the media, for instance the Internet, helps to reach more people, it has to be used.

Presenters are advanced in their interaction with the Internet, they use e-mail, surf and shop, skype and blog, and are members of networking sites. As a result they are active users with a positive and open attitude towards new media and the opportunities they offer. This attitude is paired with a strong interest in the possibilities and techniques of new media.

The interest of Presenters in audiences is average: they may want to hear, but mainly they want to tell. In this regard they resemble Educators; they also want to give the public a look behind the scenes but do not want any interference or active contribution from the public. Presenters make the same distinction between real and amateur art and also want to keep the two realms apart.


Interactors are community driven: they have an above-average interest in people and the public. They want two-way interaction between the museum and its public in order to bring the museum closer to the people and to integrate museum themes and issues into their lives. Interactors believe that people and visitors should be stimulated to tell their own stories, give their points of view, and share their experiences with others, and feel that the museum must offer a platform for this.

Interactors use the Internet in an intermediate way. They use e-mail, do Web site searches and surf for fun or shopping. Like Educators, however, they have an uncommitted and indifferent attitude towards new media. They are not creative nor highly motivated in their use of new media and prefer “old” to “new” ones. They use both happily, however, and they are also willing to learn more about the interesting possibilities new media offer. This group is nonetheless indifferent to, or lacks awareness of, the problems of new media use, such as copyright, open access, data security or interoperability.


Connectors combine developed skills in using new media with a high level of awareness of the possibilities of intercommunication and are orientated towards exchange between the museum and the public. They thus have a positive, open and informed attitude towards new media with strong interest in the possibilities and techniques new media offer. Connectors make advanced use of new media: they use e-mail, they surf, shop, skype, blog, and are members of networking Web sites. Connectors are able, active and creative users of new media and have an informed, critical awareness of problems regarding information and authority, copyright, open access, and data security.

The survey showed that of the staff at the Gemeentemuseum working with the collections, exhibitions and education, the majority are Educators. The next largest group is Presenters. Lecturers, Interactors and Connectors each comprise a small number. With regard to the new media, this may be seen as a positive result because the very skeptical group, the Lecturers, does not comprise a large number. Nevertheless, the groups most open to the new developments, Interactors and Connectors, also comprise small numbers. These results thus indicate that while a majority is at least open to new developments, interest in new media and active participation in using those media, together with an awareness of the importance of the development of interaction between the museum and the public, to the benefit of both, will require considerable stimulation and support within the museum in the immediate future.

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Fig 2: Gemeentemuseum Staff Mapping

Future Strategies and Recommendations

The final report of the survey concluded with a series of suggestions for the next stages of the development of the GEMEEN on-line platform. These are discussed next.

1.    Develop GEMEEN from inside to outside

Before opening up to a wider public, the museum should invest time in developing the museum staff’s awareness of the platform. The aim should be to involve a high proportion of the staff – including departments that were not included in the survey – in thinking about the implications of the information age, the network culture, and the possibilities and consequences of new media for museums in general and this museum in particular. This can be achieved in the first place by stimulating discussion of the subject matter across a broad spectrum of those working in the museum, thus building a network of people from all sectors who work actively on the project. Another aim is to ensure that more museum workers develop an understanding of how new media, including the Internet and Web 2.0, can actually be applied at the museum, including in this practical awareness an understanding of the possible risks involved and how these could be managed.

2.    Address common barriers – be transparent

Throughout the interviews, potential barriers to the project became apparent. These must therefore be addressed if the opening up to new media is to succeed.

The barriers became apparent in general questions like: “Why does the museum have to take part in this development at all?” This very fundamental question must be seen as a reaction to the fact that new technologies challenge the museum in everything it is – from its practices to its self-conception. Other concerns play a considerable role here too; for instance, museums are often not in the habit of generally opening up their collections and resources to the public; they are used to consumer audiences, not to a public that would like to take part in the museum’s activities, to share their knowledge and opinions with the museum - in short, to interact with the museum. In this respect it is probably the curators in particular who are concerned that the authority of the museum will be undermined if such interaction were to become a way in which the museum functioned.

From the point of view of the museum’s identity in the public domain, marketing and communication staff is averse to the idea of external parties adding, editing or changing the image of the museum. Other barriers are less obvious: some information is more or less confidential, and opening up the resources of the museum might be seen to pose a threat to that confidentiality: opening up the resources and contents of the museum through new media is predicted to swamp the museum with demands for access, threatening the quality of the services offered by the museum. Other typical questions that were raised involved costs. For example: “Why should we make our knowledge accessible for free?” Others involved legal questions concerning privacy and liability: the Web is well known for the dissemination of information without formal contractual agreements regarding, for instance, authorship or copyright.

For all these questions there are no automatic answers. Instead, the issues have to be tested in practice and if they are found to be real issues rather than imagined fears, solutions that fit the museum must be found. Central here is the necessity for discussion on these issues among the museum staff: the need for their concerns to be heard and addressed actively. In the meantime, an open and transparent attitude on the part of those promoting the new media, especially with regard to such issues as those described here, will build trust and confidence, and replace an understandable lack of confidence in the new with a curiosity and willingness to take part.

3.    Let staff members inform each other

The survey reveals a large group of self-identified Educators, people with medium interest in public interaction and average knowledge about new media. This is the group that has the most questions about the use of new media in the museum and at the same time is a group badly informed of the possibilities new media offer. In order to make the on-line platform successful, special attention has to be paid to this group to allow them to keep up with the development and take an active part in it. In this context, other groups, those of the Connectors and Interactors, both concerned with public interaction with the museum and interested in interpersonal communication, could stimulate an interest in those aspects among the Educators. Similarly, the Presenters and Connectors could stimulate an interest in the more technical aspects. Through interaction among the different groups, the Educators and Lecturers may thus be stimulated to relinquish their positions as cautious onlookers (or even as skeptics) and be given the necessary confidence to join the project actively. The pleasure of acquiring skills and insight into the rewards involved should help to improve the necessary cohesion within the museum for the success of the project.

4.    Build project groups

An important part of the process of cohesion can be the creation of project groups that work together on different issues and assignments. These groups canbe built within the existing departments, or according to strategic considerations, or because of shared interests. These “communities of practice” (a term introduced by Etienne Wenger (Wenger, 1999)) comprise  groups of people who share a passion or work (or both) and regularly meet, discuss, work and learn together, thus sharing their experiences and problems and finding solutions to those problems. In this way, communities of practice can be central in the development of knowledge. Different groups of this type may be formed to address specific issues pertaining to the platform. Curators or conservators, for instance, could form such a group to find ways to share knowledge of the collections with the public in a two-way process of interaction. Those in the education department could form groups to develop interactive educational programs for special target groups. Those in the ICT department could form a group to facilitate the technical planning of the on-line platform. The marketing representatives could think about strategies to introduce and promote the platform to a larger public and, together with those from the department of communication, encourage and promote active communication with the public.

5.    Make the platform part of an overall Gemeentemuseum Web concept

To be sure that the platform has its place in the more general Web policy of the museum, several steps have to be taken. First, the Gemeentemuseum should start to build an active Web 2.0 presence within diverse Web services such as Flickr, You Tube, my space or Wikipedia. This means that while different people – visitors, artists, members, etc. –are already adding museum content to these sites, museum staff should in the future claim an active role in collecting, moderating and presenting these contributions. For example, a Flickr account could be created where those who have photographed the museum during their visit could post their contributions. The existence of a Gemeentemuseum Flickr group could be communicated in at least three ways: via information boards in the museum building; via the newsletter of the museum; via the Web site. The same can be done with other sites such as You Tube, my space, Wikipedia, Facebook or Hyves. These are also simple and cost effective solutions for a museum with a limited budget that wants to take part in the world of social media and make its collections, exhibitions and discussions available to a wider public.

A second important contribution to an overall Web concept is the building of an interactive, community relevant Gemeentemuseum Web site. This Web site should offer different layers of information, communication and entertainment. A range of tools could be implemented quickly to help to create a more lively Web site and could easily be integrated into day-to-day museum practice. Blogs can be made as permanent information tools but can also be made by different members of departments for more specific or temporary ends; that is, for exhibitions or other special events, and also for research results, for restoration projects and for documentation. Photos of new exhibitions, the ways they are made, when they open, as well as visitors’ impressions of such museum events could enrich the museum’s existing on-line presence and thus draw people to the museum.

Down To Earth

Based on the recommendations in the final report of the survey, in fact the results of the initial research into the attitudes of those who work in the museum, the Catch team developed the first draft of the GEMEEN platform. The first tests are done with current, suitable issues. A curator wants to publish conservation details on-line; the exhibition department wants to professionalize its working methods and information system; the management is approached by a supplier of downloadable audio guides and wants to discuss the technical and organizational impact of this proposal.

These pilot projects are published on the platform and the colleague who has the most interest in finding a solution for the problem is assigned as moderator. He or she writes the mission statement and plans the steps that have to be undertaken to bring the project to a satisfactory conclusion. The moderator can ask colleagues to make special contributions to the discussion. An overview of the work that has to be done by the documentation department for digitalizing the collection of conservation reports or an overview of existing software for exhibition planning are two good examples.

Other colleagues may be included in the discussion as interested readers. They follow the subject from a somewhat greater distance and may comment on the contributions whenever they like. If the right expertise for a contribution or comment is not available in the museum, the moderator can make use of outside networks and invite an external contact to join the discussion.

Of course the first moderators need a lot of support to use the platform in the best possible way. The mission statement needs to be precise and clear, the planning of the various steps in the project smart, and the right colleagues invited for contributions and comments. As the platform grows and the users become familiar with its possibilities, this support can slowly be diminished.

There are many possible scenarios for the future development of GEMEEN. We could easily describe a bright future in which everybody in the museum happily co-operates and exciting new experiments are undertaken. Specialists from different museums work together on interesting projects and students can be asked to design software or Web sites based on the requirements of various projects. But that would not be in step with the title of this contribution. So let’s get down to earth, start with institutional change, and slowly work from there.


We’d like to thank Michael Latcham and Kara Peet for helping us translate our paper into proper English.


Deiser, Patricia (2008). Gemeen : building an experimental online community platform at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag : internship report. Amsterdam: Reinwardt Academy

Wenger, Etienne (1999). Communities of practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Cite as:

Deiser, P., and V. De Keijzer, Down To Earth: Social Media and Institutional Change. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted