#WAM15 – We Are Museums 2015

We are Museums 2015 was for the first time in Berlin: A new and fresh conference or just another one among all those existing ones? Renowned speakers, hot topics about museums and a vibrant place – let’s take a closer look at the third edition of the “virbrant platform which promotes smart and forward thinking ideas as well as sustainable benefits”.

There are plenty of museum conferences and I have visited many of them over the past 10 years. A few weeks ago I was at the third edition of We are Museums for the first time, a young conference hosted at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and founded by Diane Drubay who is part of the French museum and digital community.

The two-day event caught my attention because of up-to-date topics and well-known speakers from renowned institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, British Museum, Van Gogh Museum, Dallas Museum of Art, Musée d’Orsay and many more. According the website We are Museums is a “human adventure at the intersection of culture and innovation” and “a self-sufficient, vibrant platform which promotes smart and forward thinking ideas as well as sustainable benefits”. In contrast to many other conferences We are Museums is quite affordable with ticket prices ranging from 145 Euro for non-profit organizations to 350 Euro for profit organizations. Students get a ticket for no more than 75 Euro.

Hosted by the Jewish Museum, one of the world’s most impressive cultural institutions constructed by the prize-winning architect Daniel Libeskind, We are Museums took place in the so-called academy, a separate building dedicated to educational purposes. The middle-sized room with scattered chairs and WAM-pillows was quite a contrast to the formal auditoriums of other conferences I attended so far. Most speakers even avoided going on the little stage and stayed at eye-level with the audience. As a reflection of today’s culinarian habits, lunch was all vegan with beetroot gazpacho, salads and vegan quiche. Energy breaks in the academy’s kitchen provided us with candy, coconut water and cookies. As we all know the best parties end in the kitchen ;-) So far, everything was young, fresh and completely different from all the other events I visited. There was a kind of laid-back atmosphere allowing networking to go quite easily. Unfortunately there were also some technical challenges, for example the WiFi did not work which was a bit disturbing as many participants wanted to share the speeches with the online community.

As I arrived a bit late, I missed the introductions and started with Sree Sreenivasan who is Chief Digital Officer at Metropolitan Museum in New York. He also counts to be one of the most influential digital experts in culture. Sree gave us an insight into the Met’s digital strategy and activities which are impressive with 1.3 million followers on Facebook, 1 million followers in Twitter and 500.000 followers on Instagram and Pinterest each.

At Met all spaces are equally valuable no matter whether they are physical or digital: the Met Building, the Cloisters, Whitney Museum and the Digital Met are treated equally which demonstrates the relevance of digital issues at Met.

Sree’s team consisting of 70 people – quite a luxury! – is running the museum like a startup. The overall strategy follows the simple truth that the one and only condition for success is attention. They only perform campaign and do things that evoke people’s attention. Sree’s aim is to create a kind of vicious circle: users have such a great time visiting the Met’s website that they long to visit in order to make analogue experiences there. Apps follow the simple truth: be useful, simple and delightful. Visitors’ issues are considered to be important even if they contradict design issues. The Met team originally decided to renounce a “crappy” map of the building when launching the museum app, but when the audience insisted on for it, they finally included it.

According to Sree influence in social web is not about the number of fans on Facebook or followers on Twitter but about content and about how people interact and connect with the content.

For Met posting about other museums and events provides a new way of leading and inspiring people. Thinking outside the box is the key to success! Experimenting and staying open to new developments is another vital aspect: At Met there are four Google glasses for experimental purposes.

Following Sree’s speech we all tested and discussed various institutional websites. As far as the brand new website of ZKM Karlsruhe is concerned Sree advised to make the images clickable on a broader scale. Another practical advice concerned Google+: It is important to put every major piece of content on Google+ because even if nobody is reading it Google is reading it! Sree also recommends to work with videos and to avoid too much text. Furthermore museums should avoid too much scrolling and reduce the functions on their website just as Rijksmuseum does it. By the way, you can test your museum’s website individually and for free via peek.usertesting.com. They test your website and send you a short evaluation. Here you can see Sree’s slides.

The next speech was about the digital strategy of the Jewish Museum presented by Mirjam Wenzel who was just recently appointed to be the director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. Congratulations Mirjam! Mirjam referred to the so-called Digital Engagement Framework designed by Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson. She makes a difference between digital and online strategy: the digital strategy should give you a broader picture while the online strategy is part of the digital strategy.

The basis for the Jewish Museum’s digital strategy is audience research. Online visitors are clustered in stakeholders such as journalists, travel agents and sponsors, researchers and regular online visitors such as families who visit the website in advance of a trip to the museum. There is a specific access and structure on the website depending on the needs and priorities of those three types of online personas.

After Mirjam’s presentation we listened to Edith Scheurs from Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam who stressed on the importance to create stories and give online visitors the impression they were at the museum itself by focusing on visual aspects. Chris Michaels from the British Museum talked about the digital transformation from text to pictures, videos and finally 3D. According to Chris 3D helps people to explore difficult objects, it gives people new reasons to engage and it finally closes the gap between curator and the audience.

Day two started with Robert Stein’s inspiring speech “Museums, so what?”. Using universal and catchy examples such as Kennedy’s speech on the importance of going to the moon (“Man is determined and cannot be deterred in his quest for knowledge and progress.”) Robert pointed out to the fact that museums are caught between education and entertainment – a battle they cannot win.

He stressed a simple truth of Peter Singer’s “effective altruism” which says that you should get a kind of revenue for the money you invest in philanthropic issues. As a consequence the question arises why anyone should ever invest in art if they can do more good in other fields such as health. On the other hand museums are ideal for making a social impact. The only hurdle to take is the smallness of museums’ visions: Museums’ visions are so small that people do not believe them!

Museums could be catalysts for global changes: 70% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. There will be a dramatic income inequality with 1% of the population who own 46% of the global income. In that context art is a great instrument to understand and tell stories why there is income inequality today. Another challenge will be according to Robert an epidemic of loneliness which proves to be deadly as the suicide rates rise considerably in the US on account of loneliness. Museums can do the change to social exclusion. Robert formulates it pragmatically: “We cannot sit here and whine. Museums need a moonshot. Maybe empathy is the moonshot for museums as culture has the power to create better citizens.” Great speech!

Many trending topics were presented at We Are Museums: from big data, apps and storytelling, to visitor orientation, 3D printing and many more. I had a lot of fun at We are Museums. There were excellent speakers from world’s biggest institutions, great speeches and a good chance for networking. A big plus surely was the conference’s location: Berlin is an inspiring, young and wild city – a perfect place for a conference about creativity, innovation and art. Less than ideal was the conference room which was too packed and poorly ventilated, catering could have been organized more smoothly and WiFi did not work properly, but never mind!

To sum up: I think We are Museums focuses on museum professionals who are mainly working operatively and gives young people starting their career in culture good insights in culture.

For further insights check out the conference’s hashtag on twitter #WAM15 and see the 10 big ideas from #WAM15!



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