Unless you have been trying incredibly hard, you may have noticed that the “Ice Bucket Challenge” has made a bit of a splash, on a global scale, over the past couple of weeks. On the off chance that you haven’t, participants in the challenge are required to empty a bucket of ice water over their head, nominate a number of others to do the same, film the whole process and share it online via social media. The purpose of the challenge is to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s or Motor Neurone disease, and to encourage both participants and those who view their video to donate money to the ALS Association. The challenge comes hot on the heels of a similar initiative in March that encouraged social media users to share “no make up selfies” and nominate others to do the same, raising £8 million for Cancer Research UK in just six days. The “Ice Bucket Challenge” by comparison has apparently raised a huge $100 million in the space of a month.
The success of these philanthropic crazes has encouraged me to think about whether or not the museum could make better of use social media to position themselves as agents of positive social change. I am not suggesting museums beg for donations, however “awareness” is something they can never seek too much of. Whilst awareness of the institution itself is imperative, the function of that institution is to make its visitors more socially, culturally and at times, politically aware. I believe there is scope for museums to facilitate this beyond their physical parameters, by following the charity challenge model.
I have recently been working on recommending an interpretation strategy for a science centre exhibition about energy. One of the key strategic aims of this exhibition will be to raise awareness of the scale and effort required to meet the public energy demand, and the environmental impact of wasting electricity. As part of this, I considered a few ways in which the exhibition could engage its audience with these themes using social media. One idea tabled was to encourage visitors to share images of their home light switches in the “off” position before travelling to the centre, using the tag “#lightsout.”
The rationale behind the initiative is threefold. Firstly, it is immediate positive engagement with a key theme of the exhibition, and it gets visitors thinking about important learning outcomes before they have even arrived onsite. Secondly, it encourages positive social behaviour in general, raising both awareness of the need to reduce energy demand, while also ensuring that people take a proactive approach to doing so. If successful, the centre literally becomes an agent of positive social change. Thirdly, it raises awareness of the centre and the exhibition itself on a peer-to-peer basis, advertising that web users are far more receptive to than being marketed to directly by organisations.
Another example is one that I considered in March following the success of the “no make up selfie” campaign, and relates to the Jack Vettriano Retrospective that had recently closed at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow. A video screen on display within the exhibition featured the self taught artist discussing how he took a leap of faith in 1989 by submitting two paintings to the Royal Scottish Academy annual show, a move that paid off spectacularly when they both sold on the first day, kick-starting what continues to be a successful career. This got me thinking if the exhibition therefore could have done more to highlight this achievement, and encourage other artists, regardless of their aspirations, to feel more comfortable and confident in sharing their work with other people. Whether they were merely hobbyists or had dreams of showcasing their talents across the globe, the exhibition could have encouraged these visitors to share images of their work with the museum and their peers using social media.
The rationale is again that it would have been immediate positive engagement with the exhibition, raising awareness of its content and inspiring visitors to take an interest in the arts because of it. The initiative would encourage visitors to feel confident in sharing their work with both their peers and a notable institution such as Kelvingrove, and promote cultural and artistic productivity and engagement through an increasingly accessible platform. Again, the intended outcome being that the museum would have facilitated a positive social and cultural change. I can only speak for myself, but I would much prefer someone to share the fruits of their artistic endeavour with me than yet another cat video or supposedly witty “meme.”
Whether these initiatives would work can only be speculated upon at this point. The hope is that there is food for thought here as to ways in which museums can promote themselves as practicing agents of facilitating social and cultural change by both encouraging awareness and proactive participation with exhibitions and their content. Especially over social media, a platform that the museum sector is finally beginning to appreciate the potential of, and use in a productive and engaging manner for their audiences. I nominate the digital teams within the museum sector to take up this challenge.