Christina DePaolo, Director of Digital Media, and Maren Dougherty, Director of External Affairs, Balboa Park Online Collaborative

We talked with Christina and Maren about the successes of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, the role played by the Web in museums’ marketing and outreach strategies, and the future of social media and engagement.

As Director of Media at Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC), Christina is in charge of Balboa Park Commons, an effort to place the Park’s over 20 art, science, and cultural institutions into one online library. She also lends her considerable skills to the open-source website, kiosk and collection projects currently being worked on at Balboa Park. Christina is Vice-President of BPOC, “a model for technology-focused collaboration among art, cultural and science institutions.” She previously worked for 12 years at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) as a media manager. At SAM Christina was responsible for developing and managing online communications including email marketing and social networking.

In her role as Director of External Affairs, Balboa Park Online Collaborative, Maren is responsible for development and management of the Park’s digital strategies. Her position includes overseeing, getting funding for both basic operations and special projects, and garnishing public support. Maren is BPOC Corporate Secretary. She writes a Park blog which publicizes the Park’s programs. Her other activities include cultivating donors, overseeing grants, obtaining advertisers for online campaigns, and developing new business opportunities.

The Success of Balboa Park Online Collaborative

The BPOC is possibly the first and only online museum collaborative of its scale in the United States. The project was started by funding from the San Diego-based Legler Benbough Foundation, led by Peter Ellsworth who had always recognized the importance of the role Balboa Park played in the cultural life of the city and funded many of their activities. Mr. Ellsworth saw the opportunity for the institutions to work together collaboratively to implement technology and technology solutions that would both help the museums and save them money. The Park’s smaller museums have benefitted by having the same quality technology as the larger organizations. In addition to being cost-effective, this cooperation among the Park’s many museums improved public access to BP’s content and created partnerships with corporations and universities.

The infusion of technology throughout the Park helps create exciting and memorable experiences for visitors. The Park has launched over 20 websites, built a park-wide high-speed fiber optic network connecting 14 buildings, and provided free public WiFi in most Park museums and many outlying areas. Visitors can connect to the museums with their own devices, and this capability has inspired more creativity and innovation on the part of the museums to develop experiences using mobile devices in the galleries and beyond. The Park has developed software to improve users’ experiences. There is a cell phone app, Giskin Anamoly, that’s an adventure game through the Park; there is an online version for those who cannot visit the Park.

While working collaboratively has been a benefit to the Park, it also is a value to the community. Christine expressed her pride in the “Wounded Warrior Technology Internship Program.” Local service veterans receive on-the-job training in museums’ technology which helps them build marketable skills that will transition to the civilian sector.

The biggest challenge faced when collaborating with multiple museums is working with people who have a difficult time changing. It’s all about how to manage the challenges.

Role Played by the Web in Museums’ Marketing and Outreach Strategies

Christina feels it is important that the museums’ website and their physical building have a unified voice and that the website is an extension of the museum itself, not just an afterthought.

BPOC uses the open source Drupal platform for their website. They did have difficulty using Drupal to push collections. They are now looking into using a digital asset management system to create Balboa Park Commons. They rely heavily on social media sites like Flickr and YouTube to push museum content.

Maren’s fundraising experience has involved email, direct mail, parties, matching grants, challenge campaigns. She does not think putting a donate button on a website is a really effective way to get donations. People who “push the button” are going to donate anyway and are looking how to do it online. While inexperienced with a micro campaign, she sees its value and would like to try one. Maren feels email is an important tool for fundraising and a good way to send a “call for action.” Facebook has the greatest reach, and largest following. Twitter is better when trying to engage with connector types – journalists, politicians.

Museums can engage audiences without spending a lot of money. Creativity is needed. The Museum Marathon is a great example of successful museum marketing. In order to highlight the diversity in the Park, Maren lived in their museums for 26 days without leaving. She blogged, tweeted, posted on Facebook about everything she encountered. The free media coverage that the Park received helped achieve their marketing goals.

They do have a number of advertisers on that are helping cover general operating expenses. Maren has different marketing packages depending on how much ad time is wanted, and they are putting ads on five kiosks throughout the Park using Drupal-based Open X software.

The Future of Social Media

Both of our experts feel the use of social media will continue to grow with more mobile space. There will be more diversification into different social media channels according to different interests and maybe different demographics. Society is constantly evolving; museums must be strategic about where people spend time for education and marketing. It is about using the right tools that work with that particular museum.

Christina and Maren offer great advice for students who are planning a career in the museum world. Maren recommends getting internships and meeting people. She also suggests following Twitter to see what issues are being discussed by leaders in the field. Christina’s advice is “don’t give up.” Sometimes when starting out, people get disappointed and discouraged because they want to do a good job and employ new ideas, but their museum is three or four years behind and not willing to change. She recommends that you articulate your ideas and be a change agent where you can, to adjust your expectations and don’t worry about the project being perfect. It is sometimes the small changes that lead up to a really great project. Finally, continue asking questions about fundraising. If you can fund raise for your own project, then you will always be valuable.

Our discussion with Christina and Maren provided an enlightening glimpse into an extremely successful collaborative project that has transformed positively the physical and online experience for Balboa Park’s visitors. BPOC has become the place for others to watch. Its story is a lesson in the power of collaboration to save money, encourage innovation, inspire creativity, and embrace change.

Listen to the interview

Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.


  1. Matt Eaton says:

    This was an interesting interview to read about. I agree that physical museums and their websites need a unifying voice.

    It’s great to see that a collaborative project such as the Balboa Park Commons is coming together. My town has a collaborative group of museums that are currently developing programs between five separate institutions. We are making progress, but it has been a bit difficult to inspire everyone to work together. To see a successful group of over twenty organizations gives me hope that our efforts will work as well.

  2. Ruth Goerger says:

    I was surprised to learn that the Balboa Park Online Collaborative was the only of its kind in the United State. It makes sense that the idea is slow moving to establish in other areas of the country. A collective like this requires that many museums agree to have faith that ideas like this work and faith in new technologies. San Diego, it seems, was lucky enough to have a forward-thinking city council that funded the initial projects.

    I thought it was interesting what Christina and Maren had to say about “crisis fundraising.” In case a disaster strikes, it is best to have a way to collect donations already established. If you have to turn donors away because you are unprepared to take their money, it is unlikely that those donors will come back to you when the news cycle as moved onto another topic.

  3. joan says:

    Cultural institutions benefit in so many ways from Maren and Christina’s decision to embrace a collaborative work practice in order to further common projects at Balboa Park. Lower development costs, increased revenues from community grant applications and corporate sponsorship deals negotiated for all institutions,underline the efficiencies of the Balboa Park Collaborative.

    I was awed by the simplicity of the tactic to provide museum leaders with Smartphones. Leaders could experiment and experience the power and potential of technology in a museum setting, become more skilled at evaluating the benefits of new technology, perhaps becoming powerful advocates for change within their institutions as part of the process. Listening to and watching a PowerPoint presentation in order to be persuaded about the benefits of the latest app seems just so “yesterday” in comparison.

    In a nutshell, the Balboa Park Collaborative model highlights efficiencies that are possible when institutions (leaders, board members, staff and volunteers) leave the silo mentality behind and risk sharing their inner sanctums.


  4. Lisa Eighmie says:

    “Christina feels it is important that the museums’ website and their physical building have a unified voice and that the website is an extension of the museum itself, not just an afterthought.” I completely agree that a museum’s website needs to mirror the physical museum in its interest and relevance. One platform has to represent and support the other or the museum won’t benefit from the exposure the web offers them. The internet provides limitless opportunities for creativity and there really is no reason a museum shouldn’t take advantage, especially with the knowledge that society is constantly evolving.

  5. Brittany Baksa says:

    It is interesting to read that the BPOC has the greatest reach and largest following through their Facebook followers but Twitter is better used when engaging with connector types such as journalists and politicians. I found that to be something many museums have in common throughout our class discussion on Twitter. It was also mentioned in the interview that this is a culture of sharing posing questions such as, “will they be willing?” and “what will they share?” It is important to keep in mind that the museum must provide a platform that enables users to feel comfortable in sharing content.

    Christina commented on how museum websites and their physical components should have a unified voice and not just be an afterthought, but an extension in providing content. This fit in nicely with our class discussion last week as we continue to further develop our web projects. I am sure Maren is right when she says that placing a “donate” button on the website is not an effective form of fundraising. I still think it provides a convenient way in which online visitors can participate in donating money. An effective way to market the fundraising aspect of the donation can be through the use of social media.

  6. Carly Dykes says:

    I loved both Christina and Maren’s advice about beginning in the museum field. What Christina said about getting disappointed and discouraged because they want to do a good job and employ new ideas, but their museum is three or four years behind and not willing to change – this really speaks to me. I think as museum studies students we’ve all been in a position where we can see the big picture and where we want the museum to end up, and its hard to slow down and take all the small change-making steps it will take to get there. In the end taking the time makes the change stronger, but it can try anyone’s patience waiting for the change to come.

  7. Brian says:

    I really liked what Maren had to say about the various types of outreach, especially because it mirrors how many media organizations look at marketing and promotion. E-mail is often seen as an outdated delivery system when in fact it is quite effective. Twitter is the home of influencers and media types who are most likely to be active users of the site. And Facebook is often the biggest traffic driver outside of search. Really fascinating interview — great job!

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