by columnist Kacie Rice

Having finally started a professional Twitter account in the last few weeks (shameless plug: follow me @kacie_rice!), I’ve become more conscious of the informal advertising that museums do through new media.  While museums still use traditional media such as newspapers and billboards to advertise, they, like most other companies and institutions, have also embraced more casual, up-to-the-minute platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to distribute their messages. This has the additional benefit of allowing museum marketers to deliver many small messages a day, rather than relying on a focused article in a monthly magazine or a subway ad with limited space. It also means museums can respond quickly to major events or schedule changes, as when the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was able to immediately announce its free community days in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

Obviously, this potential has huge benefit to museums (honestly, way more than enough has been written about new media’s advertising potential by people with far more Silicon Valley cred than me – don’t worry, this won’t be one of those articles), but only if museums can use it wisely. New media, as currently used, should complement traditional media, filling its own niche by providing snippets of current information, links to relevant stories, and casual interactions. It should also allow museums to reach out to the public about experimental topics and stories that wouldn’t necessarily be newspaper-worthy, but could have a happy home on the web (for example, the @smithsonian has recently tweeted numerous survey links soliciting the public’s opinion on potential exhibit topics for the National Postal Museum – before the advent of Twitter, this kind of survey would have to be done either by mail or by museum staff on the floor, and most likely just wouldn’t happen).

So why, with all this potential, do I mostly see museums’ Twitter and Facebook accounts tweeting the same links and information about current exhibits repeatedly? Some museums, such as the Houston Museum of Natural Science (@hmns), do use their accounts to post current science news and memes, but by and large, I’m getting the same thing from the Twitter accounts I’m following that I could get in a small magazine ad. As a potential visitor, I’m following these accounts to gain insider knowledge, current news, and interesting stories – not the same old exhibit ads the museum has been putting out for months.

A notable and admirable exception here is the London Museum of Science (@sciencemuseum), which uses Twitter to regularly invite people to visit its website to play interactive web games and explore collections-based interactives. This, to me, is a perfect use of a museum’s Twitter – it calls attention to an area where educators and developers have obviously spent a lot of time and effort, as well as an area that may be overlooked in traditional media. If museums are developing web-based games and educational materials, presumably they want to public to know about them and use them – so why aren’t they talking about them more often?

Web-based content is often, rightly, viewed as secondary to the “real” museum experience. Museums are inherently object-based (though this gets admittedly murky when talking about science museums), but websites can provide an avenue for more in-depth content, and also a way to reach those who cannot physically reach the museum due to cost, distance, or other limitations. This kind of interactive content can be especially useful for science museums, which often teach complex material that would benefit from the kind of increased experimentation and study that the web can provide visitors.

If I weren’t a professional museum educator, I’m honestly not even sure I would know to seek these kinds of things out on museum websites. Museums have a whole host of these “bonus” programs, such as teacher resources, homeschooler resources, and classroom interactives. These bonuses are rarely advertised to the public, potentially missing audiences of parents or teachers who may want to use them. Museums should be talking about these web-based programs more often, both to reach out to communities in an educational way and to make the most of the resources that they are already pouring into these games and interactives. Twitter, Facebook, and other new media platforms provide the perfect venue for this kind of outreach (best of all, they’re free!) – one that the London Science Museum is readily embracing, and one that I hope to see other prominent museums take up.