For thirty years, the museum sector has been predominantly online working within spaces which they construct and control, reluctant to venture out of their comfort zones. This research acknowledges how museums with diverse curatorial narratives have engaged with and even confronted online expert communities where people who are knowledgeable about specific topics come together to discuss their interests and even discuss these very institutions. Through a series of ‘episodes’, it becomes evident that some institutions recognize, acknowledge, and participate in these communities but of these, only a few are confident in their interactions and this confidence can wane depending on a variety of circumstances.
The research was conducted across American museums with diverse curatorial interests and within active Expert Web communities with corresponding interests:
New York Botanical Garden // plant id & photo communities on Instagram and Facebook
Strong Museum of Play // gamer & My Little Pony communities on Twitch and private forums
MIT Museum // robotics, slide-rule, and wooden boat communities on Reddit and private forums
Museum of the Moving Image // meme & political (alt-right) communities on Reddit and 4chan
Field Museum // taxidermy communities on YouTube and private forums
The thesis progresses museum practice online by examining complexities seen across platforms and detected within communities. The research evidences how: identities presented by the museum affect how online communities react and respond; platforms influence the type of person attracted to the conversation and resulting discourse; and conversations are either exchanges of information or negotiations of control in which participants attempt to control the parameters of the conversation.
The thesis demonstrates that the sector needs a new awareness and literacy when interacting with such communities. It will provide a framework for how museums can assess these engagements going forward and establish a vocabulary to explain these interactions. Ultimately, it concludes that perceiving these individuals as fans of a subject matter (as opposed to ‘audiences’) is a more pertinent way to describe community members and enables museums to reevaluate how they perceive both the notion of community and the wider online world.
(Estimated completion is Fall 2021)