Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Social Tagging and Museums: Attracting a New Audience

Tagging is one of those trendy new online terms which defines labeling digital objects in ways which are meaningful to the user. It’s used as ‘social book marking’ to save photos, webs sites, and blogs so that a user can access them from any computer. It also allows the user to search by descriptive keyword or ‘tag’, which will give them access to a vast archive of similarly tagged items. Museums are now getting on the tagging bandwagon in hopes that they can arouse interest in their collections and attract a new audience.

Online museums, although employing web technology, have not really reached the broad audience base that was perhaps intended. Why is this? Perhaps it is because these virtual exhibits are curated by those same academics who organize traditional exhibits. The philosophy behind the product is predictable an thus, the reaction of the public is predictable. Essentially, you have almost the same audience at the ‘real’ museum as you do on the online version. Many people just find the content inaccessible and not applicable to them..

The idea that tagging is a way of creating a ‘collective knowledge’ is an interesting one. It could be a important step in defining a new museum audience. Some may feel that tagging is appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’ but wouldn’t tagging just be opening up a whole new audience to the world of art and history? Museums are really trying to appeal to a wider audience and by employing a new and ‘hip’ technology like tagging, they hope to engage this new revenue source. Although that does seem rather cynical, we must acknowledge that many galleries and museums are cash-strapped. If you can engage a new sector of the public through a trendy online phenomenon, you could potentially draw more patrons to the museum and thus increase revenues.

Of course you are also engaging a new audience which could give feedback to the museum and potentially improve the exeperience of all patrons. Cohen and Rosenzweig in their article “Building an Audience" say that you need to think about community rather than numbers of visitors. They feel that you need to define your purpose; basically who you want to speak to and why. How do you reach the community? They make a good point. You first need to engage an audience and make them feel their ideas and presence are valued before you can hope to entice them to your exhibit. Bearman and Trant emphasize that the motivation to participate is likely to come from a user's personal connection with the museum or the content. Again, tagging would allow for this personal interaction with museum content.

Tagging allows many viewers to form opinions on the same work but are there limitaions to this democratic and some would say, random process.For instance, spelling could skew search results and leave the object with a tag that was unintended. The label itself could be false; the ‘tagger’ having inadvertantly described the item as the wrong colour, shape or misjudged the content. The tag could end up applying to too many items, especially in a large collection, making the search time-consuming and cumbersome. However, as the museum tagging technology develops and is assessed, these problems could be minimised or eliminated, giving both the online patron and the museum the full benefit of tagging content.

Ultimately, I would have to agree with Mills T.Kelly's assessment of what the museum/tagging experiment should be. He believes that the “teaching implications of tagging are enormous. If we allow our students to begin assigning their own significance to the evidence we introduce them to, I think we'll find that they make meaning from this evidence in ways that we couldn't imagine.”(Kelly, T. Mills“Subverting the Archive,” edwired (21 Mar 2006)

Tagging museum content allows for education at the grassroots level. This is the best kind of outreach as it allows individuals to interact and place their own ‘stamp’ on items to which they previously might not have had access. It validates the ideas and opinions of a new audience. The simple act of tagging means that users are engaged with the object and are participating in critical thinking. If the user feels his or her input is respected by the institution , wouldn’t that person be more likely to visit the museum in person and become part of the new audience? Tagging would help eliminate priveleged access to those who have a specific knowledge or education, or reside in a certain geographic area and open up the world of art and history to a new audience.


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8:11 AM  

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