Legos. Photo by eldeeem

by • 15 May, 2013 • Thoughts about museumsComments (6)5553

The social museum challenge / I’m looking for a team

One of the most exciting developments in ‘business’ at the moment, if you ask me, is the renewed attention to the idea of ‘social business’. Running a museum in this context is most definitely a business. For the sake of clarity I call a museum run as a social business a social museum, although there are many possible other names.

A social museum is a museum that has the strategies, processes and technologies in place to maximise the value created by all individual involved, from directors and curators to visitors and passers-by and everyone in between. Recently I wrote an essay with some early thoughts about the social museum and how to get there using social media thinking, which gives some more background.

The social museum was the idea lingering throughout many sessions and conversations at this week’s MuseumNext. The conference traditionally focuses on new media and technology, but has grown to look beyond the digital teams at education, overall strategy and even recruiting and training. “We should have invited our director,” one colleague said, “because this [digital strategy] is something that will change the entire organisation.” I cannot agree more.

As a consultant, speaker, facilitator and recently in a couple of projects for larger organisations I’ve worked on creating the conditions and early beginnings of social business in museums and other organisations. This is great and rewarding work, especially because it has the power to profoundly improve organisations and the well-being of people working in them as well as the general public that is their audience. Also, it is complex and challenging exactly because it has so much potential and because it involves the entire organisation.

Work we’ve done with the Digital Engagement Framework over the past year often was also strongly related with ideas about social business and involving all stakeholders to make a museum better, have more impact and be more sustainable. The adjusted version 2 of the framework, based on these experiences, will be launched later this year.

Which brings me to the second part of the title of this post and something I’ve never done before on this blog: ask for more than your attention.

I would love to commit to helping a museum or cultural organisation become a more social business. Not from the outside, as a consultant, but from within, as part of the team. I love to travel the world and work with many different organisations and cultures, but I would also love to implement the ideas and experience I gather in that way, get my hands dirty and take responsibility for their outcomes over the long run.

So yes, this is an open call for any organisation that left MuseumNext feeling that you need to take this to the next level, or any other great team in the world feeling social can be more than media, to connect with me. I don’t know where that might take us, but I do know that it might be something really worthwhile for both of us. And email is free anyway.

At the last MuseumNext I saw a glimpse of the future of museums, the discussions we’ll be having in 10 years time. These are discussions about the overall strategies, processes and technologies that help museums and others maximise their value to society, their employees and the organisation itself. Digital and social media are part of this discussion, but no more or less than education, HR, management, exhibition design, programming, customer support, finance or any of the myriad other activities that all work together to make an organisation great. Let’s work towards that future.

Header photo by eldeeem on Flickr.

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  • This sounds very familiar…

    Michael Spender and I talked about Social Museum at Museum Association in 2011 about museums needing to be social within communities.

    Museomix which was started in early 2011 is about museums being social with other communities such as designers, programmers, etc.

    Also, I mentioned how starting Tweetups for museums has helped them be more social online after a meeting face to face.

    Social museum isn’t really a new idea but definetly one to explore.

  • Hi Mar, If you read the essay I linked to you will see that ideas about more social organizations are even way older than 2011 (and it’s by no means an exhaustive investigation). A social museum the way I see it is not merely social with its communities etc, but always trying to maximize the value it creates for and together with all stakeholders involved. Most cultural institutions have barely begun to explore such holistic views towards cocreating value. Social is a tricky word and I’m not sure it’s the best choice to explain the concept of social business, but the underlying idea is definitely worth exploring more deeply.

  • I guess it’s obvious to say but the independent museum movement in the uk was inherently social from the start – 1970s – using trading charities as a structure – inherently social good organisations. The problem has always been, as with all social enterprise to make enough money to keep them going.

  • Hi Stephen, an earlier meaning of “social business” comes from about this time as well. The big difference, I think, is that 21st century tools have enabled us to overcome the problem you mention: translate the value generated into (enough) money. Examples like AVAAZ come to mind. The ideas are old, the opportunities brand new.

  • claire antrobus

    Hi Jasper – I enjoyed reading your article. Sadly I’m not in a position to hire myself as I’ve just quit a museum to be freelance again.

    However, I wanted to add a comment to the discussion about the social museum which is an idea I’m interested in too. The idea is brilliant, and there are different forms of it around (MEAL speaks of itself a social enterprise for example) but I am interested in how to get that to work in practice?

    About 3 years ago I was part of a research team that looked at the question of what made a successful business model in the arts and cultural sector (in UK) and a couple of the characteristics we discovered which relate very strongly I think to how you make a social museum happen were the leadership style (which we characterised as ‘distributed’ and very flexible use of staff and volunteers (summary on my blog here –

    From my own experience of trying to achieve a similar vision in arts organisations and museums both inside and out (as consultant and senior manager) the one area i think we need to focus more attention to in UK is developing and supporting leaders who share this vision and are capable of achieving it, particularly in terms of getting the most from their staff and volunteers. In too many orgs I find staff feel under-valued and under-utilised – if we can’t engage staff and maximise their talents and potential what hope for the wider engagement needed for a social museum?

    Apols – this is a comment on your article not your post, but couldn’t find a better place to leave the comment and wanted to respond! Good luck finding a position in which to make this happen – look forward to hearing how it goes.

  • Hi Claire, thanks so much for your comment! Like you, I’m ever more convinced staff & leadership are the key step towards better organisations. Fortunately, business literature supports this view. First “who” then “what”! (as Collins says.)

    It’s encouraging to see some museums and other institutions bravely hiring and training outside of their comfort zone and being successful while doing so. Looking forward to discovering more about your work as well!