Two Social Media Take-Aways from ‘Cities, Museums, and Soft Power’

I recently finished reading Cities, Museums, and Soft Power by Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship. Certain parts of the book got me thinking about how museums can better market themselves to current and potential visitors. Two ideas in particular stood out to me from the book:

1. Power and Museums are Not Benign 

In Chapter  7, “When Soft Powers Collide,” Blankenberg writes about the responsibility of museums to use their authority and power to “include a diversity of perspectives and connect with their local communities” (100). As museums’ ability to impact their communities grows alongside the emergence of stewardship culture and access to the internet, she writes, lack of action towards progress is, to outsiders, the same as using their influence to reinforce oppressive systems.

This reminded me that online presences are not neutral. At one point, websites were not much more than online phonebook listings, but today your website and your social media presence are often the deciding factor in whether someone will visit your museums or go somewhere else to spend their time and money. Just as you are either engaged in your community or preserving elite power structure, you are either engaged with your audience online or you are communicating closed doors.

The North Carolina Museum of History has a really fantastic online presence, including their website, Facebook, and Twitter. Observe and learn!

The North Carolina Museum of History has a really fantastic online presence, including their website, Facebook, and Twitter. Observe and learn!

Social media is the place where your audience can come to interact with the museum. Blankenship cites Elisabeth Soep’s conclusion that “young people are increasingly exercising their ‘voice and agency on issues of public concern’ though social media rather than though more conventional political channels (104).” Later, in Chapter 15,  Blankenship and Lord write that while “brands are a one way-way message, social media offers a conversation.” As I see it, when museums assume that social media and social media culture (e.g. selfies) are pure entertainment or recreational or trivial, they miss an opportunity to show their audiences that they are engaged with the issues they claim to care about.

Social media is an invitation to be transparent with your audience and listen to what they are saying. Take advantage of it, or as Blankenship writes, “recognize the agency of those [you purport] to reach” (113).

Here are three ways to start engaging on social media now:

  • Keep your posts mission-focused. Make sure that your online followers know what matters to you. Every time you go to post, ask yourself how this content supports your mission and values.
  • Post regularly and keep things up to date. Nothing says “we’re not interested in you” or “our opening hours may be out of date” like a ghost page. How often is enough? You’ll have to determine that for yourself, but I recommend at least once a day on Facebook and twice a day on Twitter.
  • Respond to messages and questions on social media as if they were emails or phone calls. When a potential visitor is asking a question via social media, they expect an answer! Unanswered questions are closed doors.

2. Existing and Being Open Are Not Enough

“For people who see the museum’s entrance as a threshold that they are reluctant to cross, free admission and flexible operating hours are not enough. Many people need to be welcomed or even invited by the museums to gain the confidence to venture through the doors” (Blankenship and Lord, 210).

This advice is found in the “Operations” subsection of their “Thirty-two Ways for Museums to Activate Their Soft Power,” but I think it applies just as well to marketing and social media.

It’s important to remember that many people don’t think of museums as somewhere they are welcome. If you don’t ever visit museums or don’t visit them regularly, you may not know what to expect. I often even find myself–a museum-lover who works in the field–unable to evaluate whether or not a visit to a new museum will be an enjoyable experience. If you don’t know anyone else who’s visited and don’t see what you need to know online, you have to give the museum the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, I can always find somewhere familiar or predictably enjoyable to go, so I rarely choose the “risky” museums. Imagine how much less likely a non-museum lover is to visit your museums if they can’t pre-evaluate whether or not they will enjoy it?


Here are three ways to use social media to welcome visitors and invite them in:

  • Have a professional quality picture of your building prominent on your website and social media sites. Going new places can be intimidating. A familiar (literal) door is always more inviting. Post new pictures during different seasons when you share hours or announcements, especially if you have a beautiful building or gardens.
  • Share pictures of the visitors you want to attract enjoying your museums. Want more families to visit? Share pictures of happy families at your museum. Likewise, you can’t say “this museum is great for young professionals” and then show only pictures of kids exploring your exhibits. (Serious question, does anyone know whether or not there are grown-up activities at the Nashville science center? I’m a millennial ready to be won over…I just need to be invited!)
  • Share behind the-scenes-pictures and information. Let your potential visitors see how passionate your staff are about their work and how much goes into each exhibit. By opening the door to behind-the-scenes information, you are inviting them to invest themselves emotionally in exhibit development and museum success.


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