April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Clearing the Path for Sisyphus: How Social Media is Changing Our Jobs and Our Working Relationships

Jeff Gates, Smithsonian American Art Museum, USA


Social media is changing the inner workings of our museums. Like many other organizations, our hierarchical structure has historically disseminated information from our experts to our visitors. The envisioned twenty-first century model, however, is more level. Instead of a one-way presentation, our on-line visitors are often interested in having a conversation with our curators and content providers. And many of us are joining our traditional experts in representing our institutions in these conversations. In response, we in new media have been looking for ways to engage our public by designing and using applications that encourage dialogue; however, in order to succeed all of us will need to approach our jobs and our relationships with our co-workers in different ways.

Keywords: conversation, on-line, new media, twitter, dialogue


While the early hope of many technorati was that the Web would dramatically change the inner workings of our cultural institutions, new media's role began as a support for more conventional projects - exhibitions, outreach, and our collections - with their Web-based counterparts. But as new Web 2.0 tools developed and we saw the possibilities for a greater engagement, we often felt like Sisyphus. We heard concerns these new initiatives would take too much time or they would take away from our institution's core tasks. And just when we thought we had made inroads, the boulder would come crashing down: one step forward, two steps back. Our work was to function within our traditional organizational structure. Yet these first steps were just a prelude to real change.

Social media is now challenging the traditional flow of information throughout our institutions and out into the world. Researchers, educators, new media specialists, and exhibition designers are asking to join marketing and public affairs departments in conveying the mission of our museums to our visitors. Blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, just to name a few social applications, allow for and encourage multiple institutional voices.

But how is this transformation really taking place? Are there methodologies that encourage this shift? And how can we negotiate with our peers a greater role in content creation and dialogue? How can we challenge existing paradigms, yet maintain the support of our coworkers?

The Smithsonian Art Museum: Two Levels of Action

Those of us at the Smithsonian American Art Museum ( are working on two levels: as part of important Smithsonian-wide initiatives, like Flickr Commons (, and directly within our museum. In March 2009 I discussed social media’s new roles for museum professionals in an article titled “Confessions of a Long Tailed Visionary”  ( Rather than just disseminating important cultural information to our visitors, we were adding new roles to our jobs as we began to engage our public in conversations about our museums and our artworks. We were exploring new connections, advocating for change, collaborating with each other to create new forms of dialogue, and organizing these new communities in ways that would benefit both our visitors and the museum.

In the months since penning that article, I’ve been looking more closely at how we can more effectively embrace this change. And in doing so, I’ve started to explore how social media is changing not just our jobs but also our working relationships with our co-workers. Adding to the five new roles I outlined in 2009 are those of system analyst and negotiator. How can we work together to promote this change and increase our public network? And how do we negotiate with our colleagues as we parse out these new working relationships? What strategies work best for clearing that social media path for Sisyphus?

A Case in Point

One of our most successful pre-Web 2.0 outreach programs has been our on-line Ask Joan of Art research service ( For the past seventeen years people have been able to submit questions about American art to a research team at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and receive a detailed answer to their queries via private email. Over the years Joan has amassed a huge repository of useful information. But none of it has been available to the public. And when the New Media Initiatives department suggested we put this information on-line, we were initially met with resistance.  

Some thought we had more important short-term priorities. We had just completed a major revamping of our Web site’s information architecture. Many projects had been put on hold while we completed this large task, and our stakeholders were eager to get back to these. While New Media Initiatives saw many Web 2.0 opportunities, we had to balance this with our more traditional service-oriented duties.  So we had to be strategic when adding these to our normal workload.

In addition, Joan used a number of proprietary subscription-based publications, like Oxford Art Online, Art Full Text, and Art Index to answer these questions. All of these are full text citation indexes, and the Smithsonian’s General Consul office was concerned that making this comprehensive information public might present a copyright infringement. A case could certainly be made for educational fair use. But our lawyers’ concerns presented a roadblock we needed to deal with.

Simultaneous to this discussion, Kathleen Adrian, our real Joan of Art, began tweeting questions about American art, but only the questions ( Following her, I saw an opportunity and asked if she’d be willing to answer those questions on our Web site. By posting the question on Twitter and a link to the answer on a new page on our own site, we would not only bring these answers to the public, but also bring followers back to us, creating a synergy between Twitter and our site. Adrian was willing but needed to structure the answers in a way that would not jeopardize copyrighted material she mentioned in her private responses. So she started to post answers into an informative, yet less academic forum for our public site ( ask/question_answer.cfm). In addition, posting the question and answer on our own site in a comment format (using a third party commenting application called Disqus ( allowed the public to interact with Joan should they have additional information to contribute or any follow-up questions.

In the six months since we started this project, we have posted over twenty-one Ask Joan of Art answers on-line, and over 700 people have come to this page to view them (our statistics also show that viewers are staying longer than our average on this page). This is not a huge number in the scope of museum Web statistics as a whole, but gratifying when you consider that only a few months ago this information was hidden from the public. And we are now building up quite a repository, so much so I started to become concerned that some of this would become buried once again at the bottom of the question and answer page. So I went to Adrian with another idea: let’s repurpose these questions and answers as posts on Eye Level, our museum’s blog ( The material was already written and would require only minor editing for style. Since we had already navigated the tricky copyright issue, it would be easy to provide another outlet for information about the museum’s artworks and bring this content back up to the surface to an expanded audience. And, by taking this path, we were able to do this quickly and with a minimal amount of decision-making “by committee” or higher ups.  

Working together, we found a way to navigate around these initial barriers to bring this content to the surface. But it required looking at how we could structure the content and our systems to make it happen. Joan’s answers were written in a form appropriate to each venue: detailed with citations for private answers, more general for her public question and answer page, and more conversational for our blog posts. Adrian had opened the door when she began tweeting on her own. New Media Initiatives worked with her to develop information that benefited the reader and the museum without jeopardizing our other work.

New Media Committee

Through our New Media Committee meetings, in which stakeholders from around the museum are represented, we developed an idea to bring Joan into the galleries. Using branded mobile boxes, where visitors could drop their questions about the art close by, could these answers also appear on Joan of Art’s question and answer Web page? We could focus on one or two artworks for a month, and then move the boxes to other locations and other art. In addition to building a relationship between Twitter and our museum’s Web site, we could complete the circle by encouraging relations between our bricks and mortar museum and the Web. We could not be stealthy about doing this part of the project, and it is presently being considered by our administration. But our earlier work is laying the groundwork (and providing us with excellent talking points) as we make our case.


The methodology used to make these additions to Ask Joan of Art can be categorized, as a co-worker so aptly stated, as a “conspiracy to commit progress.” The New Media Initiatives department recognized the need to bring this content to the surface, but we also took note of initial objections. Noticing the initiative of our stakeholder to experiment with social media, we saw an opportunity to move forward and encouraged a discussion on how we could use this to meet one of our most important Web 2.0 goals: bringing buried content back to the surface. Working together, we then devised a strategy that resolved copyright concerns, was easy to implement (no added work), and value-added (created a connection between our social media efforts and our traditional museum Web site).

Adjusting Our Social Media Outreach: Case Study II

At present the American Art Museum has three Twitter and three Facebook feeds (each managed by a different department), one Flickr account (used by numerous departments but managed by New Media Initiatives), and our blog, which is also managed by New Media Initiatives. Last year all of us involved in the museum’s social media efforts decided to form a working group to discuss and coordinate our various Web 2.0 activities and plan for coverage of upcoming exhibitions and events.

The museum has been using Twitter since September 2008 ( We tweet about upcoming public programs and point to our Web-based content, including our blog and Facebook posts and to our Flickr stream. With a little over a year’s experience and with different museum models now presenting interesting examples of how other institutions tweet, it seems like a good time to take stock of where we are and whether we want to move this outreach to another level.

There are a number of things we can explore. Do we want to increase the frequency of our tweets? Do we want to add multiple voices? In addition to the content we were already tweeting, is there anything new we could add to the mix? Specifically, is there any “low hanging fruit” we could pick to bring content back up to the surface to additional audiences?

We average about 1.8 tweets/day. By comparison, the Museum of Modern Art tweets 3.4 tweets/day and our sister Smithsonian institution, the National Museum of American History tweets 4.8 tweets per day (Twitter statistics via Should we consider increasing our activity by using software like Hootsuite to allow us to “bank” tweets for publication later? Right now we are mainly tweeting directly into Twitter’s Web interface, which has its limitations. Most of our tweets occur during weekday business hours. The Modern’s is skewed a bit more into the evening hours, while the American History Museum tweets much more frequently during the weekends. In addition, is there value in retweeting our own tweets multiple times? With the quick flow of Twitter, people might not see our tweets the first time around, and a second one, perhaps restated to look fresh, might be a good idea. Being able to create and publish our missives at a later time might be helpful.

In a recent Museums Etc webinar, Twitter in Action (MuseumsEtc,, we learned that some museums used only one tweeter while others used multiple ones. Would it be advantageous to us and beneficial to our public if we had multiple tweeters, each talking about different aspects of the museum? A steadier stream of tweets might gain readership. But we did not want to add noise to everyone’s feed. So if we were going to increase our stream we would need to find good content. But, once again, we faced the Web 2.0 dilemma: too many good ideas and not enough time. Who was going to create this content? Did we have any quality “low hanging fruit” we could repurpose?

Figure 1

Fig 1: Could 1001 Days & Nights of American Art be our Twitter "low hanging fruit?"

1001 Days and Nights of American Art

In 2000 we created 1001 Days and Nights of American Art, our first major on-line venture during the museum’s renovation. We had planned on being closed for approximately 1001 days (truth be known, it turned out to be over twice that amount). And we wanted to create a calendar of interesting facts about our collection during the period we were closed: one each day. It was another one of our pre-social media endeavors. While our building was closed we were open on-line, and we wanted to remain connected to our visitors.

Designed and edited by hand each month, it was a huge effort that was supported by numerous departments in the museum, and one that was begging to come back to the surface ten years after we first launched it. The question now is how to create a process that will allow us to do so with a minimal amount of work. Using our experience with Ask Joan of Art, perhaps a similar model could be used with 1001: tweet a teaser with a link to a new page on our Web site.

This is where we are right now. Our social media group is scheduled to meet in a couple of weeks, and these ideas will be part of our discussions. Our Public Affairs department produces our tweets. How these ideas (or any new ideas) will fit into their present model and workflow and how receptive they will be to these suggestions will be part of our initial discussions and negotiations. Having a working group already established to discuss these issues is a good first step. Like Joan of Art, the content has already been vetted: a big time saver. Should we move forward, we would do a system-analysis of the most efficient way to repurpose 1001, with emphasis on minimizing the extra workload for everyone. 

What’s Next?

So what are we learning from these experiences? The social media aspects of Ask Joan of Art began when a museum worker took the initiative to start tweeting on her own. Expanding its functionality by building a connection between Twitter and our museum’s Web site first required us to see the bigger picture: matching the promise of social media with the specifics of our museum’s programs and outreach. Under these circumstances it seemed natural for a few of us to “conspire to commit progress.” Extending our main museum tweets, however, will require discussion, negotiation, and collaboration. Interestingly, both of these methodologies are hardly revolutionary in organizations. They still require good face-to-face social skills. Yet, as we are becoming seasoned students of the shifts taking place in the 21st century museum, we can act as advocates and guides for the changes taking place in museum practice. By keeping in mind our core mission and connecting it to our social media practice, we can make our case for a fuller on-line engagement with our audiences. It is important that our stakeholders know that we are not going to throw out what has worked just for the sake of social media and “the next best thing.” Coming across as reasonable with an eye to that next on-line development will encourage open discussions and negotiations, moving us forward.

There is no silver bullet to the success of these new Web 2.0 projects. Time, money, and personnel are still the anchors to success. And strategic fact gathering, good proposals, and excellent negotiation abilities are still critical in a social media worker’s skill set. While new tools for connecting museum assets to our larger communities are announced almost daily, developing and integrating them into our workflow requires good traditional people-to-people management skills. But the desire to present our content and extend our connections with our on-line public in new ways has increased the need and urgency to fine-tune our ability to work well with our co-workers as the boundaries between museum departments and our job descriptions become more porous and ever changing.

Sisyphus still may be rolling that boulder up a hill, but it is getting smaller and easier to push forward.

Cite as:

Gates, J., Clearing the Path for Sisyphus: How Social Media is Changing Our Jobs and Our Working Relationships. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted