Catherine “Cat” Shteynberg is the Assistant Director, Curator of Arts & Culture Collections, and Head of Web & Media at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture in Knoxville, Tennessee. During our conversation on October 19, 2017, many of the topics we discussed returned to two themes: audience research and prioritizing resources.
Ms. Shteynberg got her start in museums as an intern at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where she discovered her passion for curatorial work. At the beginning of her museum career, she worked at the Smithsonian Institution Archives on many digital projects, including the Bigger Picture blog. One goal for this blog that Ms. Sheynberg discussed was diving into the stories behind the photos and objects featured on the blog and getting the archivists to tell those stories. In doing so, the team spent a lot of time determining who the blog’s audiences were and defining editorial categories to reach those audiences with useful and engaging information. Ms. Shteynberg stressed that it takes a great deal of research and effort to get a proper museum blog up and running.
The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture is much smaller than the Smithsonian (as most museums are) and Ms. Shteynberg has multiple roles at the McClung Museum, meaning, in her words, “something has to give.” According to Ms. Shteynberg, a small team with limited funds, like the McClung Museum, needs to understand its audiences and their needs/expectations, and weigh the goals and benefits of every project against the necessary staff time, and prioritize based on that analysis. The topic related to this point on which Ms. Shteynberg and I spent the most time was social media. While she freely admitted that she prefers long-form content over short social media posts, she also doesn’t think it’s necessary for museums to be “on” 24 hour a day — meaning social media followers can wait until the next business day to receive a response — and the resources museums are dedicating to being constantly “on” may be better served elsewhere, depending on the museum, its audience, and its goals.
Overall, Ms. Shteynberg believes the goals of most museum web projects should be focused on how to extend the museum visit, create lifelong supporters of the museum, and provide resources for those who may not be able to visit in-person. All of that requires detailed audience research and a clear plan for the use of staff time and resources.
Ms. Shteynberg provided a wealth of insight on museums and the web but is also eager to hear from us — she is particularly interested in hearing the thoughts of current museum studies graduate students and emerging museum professionals on these topics and what we see as the future of museums online, especially thoughts on the role of social media is museums.
I really admire Catherine’s vision about ways that digital can set itself apart by providing more narrative content through features such as a blog space and links to enhance the experience beyond the exhibit space.
Bringing in voices to add contemporary layers to historical topics covered in your museum is a fantastic idea to make history more relatable and accessible. I loved Catherine’s example of bringing in professors to write about local, contemporary Civil Rights issues. Has anyone else partnered with subject matter experts outside of the museum space to have them do a ‘take-over’ or participate on a museum’s social channels to discuss current trends relating to historical topics covered in museums? Do you think it’s appropriate and/or manageable to engage partners to spark dialogues with the community on a museum platform to bring in even more voices and perspectives?
@Elizabeth and @Jenna, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think that many University museums still work in a pretty traditional, but still effective, model when it comes to involving Subject Matter Experts. You would think it would be second nature, but, for example, museums have been notoriously awful about even consulting with indigenous source communities. Bringing in stakeholders (e.g. the Native American Student Association and Native American Studies professors for a contemporary Cherokee art exhibition at our museum) really early on in the process is very key, I think. Often, there is a token outreach to these communities after an exhibition or programming narrative is very fixed. I think this kind of “old-fashioned” research of simply talking with one another is the place to start for projects, whether digital or more traditional “on the wall” exhibition text.
We have never had a “take-over” of our own social media accounts, and I think the key here is going to where your audience already is. The Smithsonian Institution Archives very effectively did this with their Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons, which continue today: https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/inside-wikipedia-edit-thon
I also think it’s often very effective to let your influencers use their own accounts–it’s more natural, fewer logistics, and you have the benefit of that person’s built-in audience. So, for example, museum tweetups.
Sometimes, you want to simply engage your visitors, and not necessarily SMEs. Some of the most effective examples of this that I’ve seen are not even high tech, and/or don’t involve social media, like Nina Simon’s post-it note interventions. Others, do have a bit more tech involved, like Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories: https://portlandartmuseum.org/objectstories/. I think the key here, as always, is that the storytelling and intention are strong and that technology happens to be involved. I think that the Brooklyn Museum has great examples of how the museum’s best intentions in tech (e.g. offering up preprepared recs of what to see) failed https://namp.americansforthearts.org/2016/07/18/arts-and-technology-how-one-museum%E2%80%99s-app-is-connecting-visitors-and-driving-institutional-change, and the need for agile fails and constant retooling is especially needed in the areas of tech/social media.
If you all come up with some great examples of SMEs or visitor-led dialogues that are effective, please share!
Catherine, thanks so much for your response! Absolutely agree that actually going out and having conversations with the communities you want to engage or whose stories you want to share is key for authenticity, especially at the start. It will certainly lead to richer story telling, and likely take you a different and even more exciting and interesting place than what you were initially planning for.
You make a such a strong points about going to the platforms your audience is already on, and in the value of bringing in influencers/SMEs and having them use their own accounts (as opposed to take-overs!) – you have the potential to expand your museum’s reach and (hopefully) find new visitors by tapping into their already established audiences.
Thank you Catherine for all your insights I really enjoyed your perspective of education and application in career choice. I completely agree specializing in niche areas does not lend for the best opportunities when entering the work force. I am on my second masters and considering an MBA I was really turned away from the idea of a Phd looking at the salaries of different types of jobs in education and other fields the salary just doesn’t justify the student debt.
I loved listening to Cat. She certainly does wear a lot of hats at her current job at McClung. I did some work in Knoxville so I understand where she is coming from with her typical visitor. What was really interesting was the fact that their archivists didn’t think it was their place to tell the story about an artifact or artwork! But she got all the departments involved in doing one blog a month and got them all excited. And that the storytelling is what pulls people in and hopefully gets them to want more, gives the virtual visitor something to grasp onto and possibly get them into the door to do their own research. Storytelling with objects… Great interview.
I really appreciated Catherine’s emphasis on “wearing many hats” in the role of a musuem employee. Practical skills like budget management and conflict diffusion aren’t something that we’ve necessarily had an education in, but are needed in a field where it’s expected that we’re going to be working in different areas.
What an insightful conversation. One thing that really resonated with me was the importance of thoughtfulness when considering what a project is trying to accomplish and why, instead of pushing something out into the world – “throwing it into a hole”. That was definitely something I encountered throughout this semester while working on and discussing our projects.
Her comment about burnout and resisting the 24-hour news cycle creep into managing social media was refreshing. Connecting directly with users and leveraging social media to strengthen someone’s relationship with an institution is exciting, but that same thoughtfulness when developing web projects can extend to a social media strategy, influencing how/how often an institution engages online.
I love her passion. Her discussion about building the Smithsonian project by beginning with manageable but mandatory posts and the enthusiasm that grew organically from that is exactly how I see most successful initiatives getting started. I also appreciate her candor about budgets and the pros and cons of small institutions. While the ability to work cross-departmentally is no doubt beneficial, it sounds like being spread too thin is a real issue. However, being able to really devote oneself to their passion, to, as she says, “tell stories with objects,” is invaluable, and smaller institutions really do hold a lot more opportunities for people who really want to focus on their own vision. Having a university affiliation adds so many layers that I haven’t thought of, I especially enjoyed hearing about what kinds of benefits that provides.
I also SOOOOO appreciate her discussion of the energy it takes to maintain social media and how fatiguing it can be. I’m about her age and I agree that it does seem like something better suited for 20-somethings who bring a different perspective and energy to the table. That was really refreshing and relieving to hear.
So many hats! I am impressed. I loved listening to Cat’s interview. I especially liked her discussion about the museum’s use of blogs which she really pushed for. At LIM, we don’t have a blog and I do find when writing short social media posts, I want to give more content. After hearing her discussion, I think I want to look further into writing blogs for the museum or as she did, collaborate with other departments to write timely posts on a variety of museum happenings.
Mary, there were a couple of great points that struck me about Catherine’s interview. First of all the fact that she has to handle so many different departments is remarkable and daunting, but it requires strategy and organization. That strategy and organization is what leads me to the second note that I had which was her advocation for museum’s having a lean or at least purposeful strategy when it comes to social media. The need to not always respond right away or post all day is smart and makes sense given her limited time and resources. She would need to maximize each post and activation in order to effectively use her time.
I was really interested to hear Catherine’s discussion about making the website’s area to highlight research more dynamic. As she describes, the self-published research papers are static, and it can be difficult to get people to contribute. We are dealing with the same issues at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. There is a lot on our website dedicated to research, but until recently, it has been written for a scholarly audience without much room for participation. As Catherine says, the digital version should do something different than a paper copy.
The object of the week initiative that Catherine describes sounds like a great way to highlight ongoing research. At Dumbarton Oaks, we have recently started a post-baccalaureate fellowship program, and several of these fellows write for digital media. It has definitely helped to made our online presence less static!
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