Nam June Paik's "Information Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" (Image copyright Nam June Paik Estate / Courtesy Smithsonian)

Nam June Paik’s “Information Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” (Image copyright Nam June Paik Estate / Courtesy Smithsonian)

Museums sometimes seem to have a split identity — some institutions are on the bleeding edge of innovation, taking full advantage of the internet and technology in spreading access to their collections and programming. Others are stuck in the past, operating just how they might have decades ago with administrations unwilling to push technological initiatives. A report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project on “Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies” provides a fascinating insight into just how museums and other cultural institutions view their relationship to the web.

The study collected data from 1,258 arts organizations, which were drawn from a list of 5,773 National Endowment for the Arts grantees. 84% of the organizations are nonprofits, and 13% focus principally on the visual arts, while others take on music, theater, literature, and design, among other disciplines.

Below, we collected some points we learned from the report about how these institutions employ technology and the internet in the hope of expanding their audiences, aiding staff, and augmenting programming.

Diagram from Pew Report

Going Virtual

Technology and the internet are helping museums to push more of their offerings into cyberspace. 86% percent of organizations report that they’re doing more events online, while 29% say that they’re hosting more online-only events, webinars, virtual performances, and online exhibits. The Walker Art Center, a museum that is constantly pushing the boundaries of what museums do online, recently hosted a virtual installation on its website that had tiny bees take over a visitor’s monitor while it was dormant.

One difficulty of pushing for more online initiatives is that the perceptions of how technology can help the arts aren’t always positive. Only 39% of the responders said they felt they were “embracing new technologies” and a minority reported that the internet is important for cataloging and collections management, a view that seems laughable. A tiny 19% of responders say that technology is important to curation.

Diagram from Pew Report

The Problem With Websites 

Museum websites present a perfect opportunity to access an online audience and present mirrored versions of institutional programming, but one big problem is that they require a whole new kind of staff with unique expertise. Only 36% of responders have staff whose primary responsibility it is to maintain a website and create new content. Budgets are forever tight, and for organizations who have trouble funding exhibitions or projects, an online presence isn’t the biggest priority for staff.

Yet active, dynamic websites can actually help museums reach their goal of connecting with audiences in an impactful way. The survey shows that museums use their websites for the purposes of posting photos, helping users to share content, accepting online donations, encouraging online debate, streaming video, and selling tickets, in that order of prominence. Developing better websites would aid museums in those activities, many of which lead directly to sources of revenue.

How Much Social Media Is Enough?

Pew’s group of responders all had social media presences, but it’s interesting to see just how energy is put into social networks:

  • 99% of those surveyed use Facebook (compared to 17% on Google+),
  • 74% use Twitter, and
  • 67% use YouTube (compared to 23% on Vimeo),
  • 38% use Flickr (compared to only 7% on Instagram),
  • 31% use LinkedIn,
  • 20% use Foursquare,
  • but only 13% are active on Tumblr.

Most museums use between 2 and 6 social networks and post “several times a week.”

Facebook and Twitter are useful in conveying information to fans, but they’re not so great for multimedia experiences. The multimedia-friendly social networks actually seem to get less play for museums. A tight majority of 56% of respondents believe that social media has a major impact on “boosting your organization’s public profile,” so maybe it’s not so unbelievable that some institutions are sluggish on social media.

Web Traffic

We know roughly how many visitors actual museums get to their buildings every year, but a less public angle is how much traffic their websites get. The Pew report shows that most don’t get a ton of traffic, but the best-funded arts organizations could compete with the biggest blogs. 60% reported less than 25,000 unique visitors a month, while 18% reported 25,000 to 99,999, 5% reported 100,000 to 500,000, and 1% each reported 500,000 to one million and one million to 50 million.

Gawker, by comparison, gets somewhere around 30 million across its network. Museum sites get a lot of passers-by checking exhibition schedules and opening times, but how could they take better advantage of that captive population? 50% of surveyed museums have blogs (though qualitatively they aren’t all the same) — maybe the other half could jump on board.

50% of responders in the report say that the internet and technology have increased engagement with the arts. To that I have to ask, who are the other 50%? How the web has increased our exposure to art and culture is nothing less than revolutionary. Arts institutions are still finding their way along that path, but they are making headway.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, Godard’s anti-imperialism, in defense of “bad” curating, an inexplicable statue, criminalizing culture wars, and more.

Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...