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Boost the Conservation Signal!

by Suzy Morgan | Aug 12, 2015
The lead article in January 2015's AIC News by Suzy Morgan (for the Electronic Media Group) describes the increasingly important role of social media in a conservator's professional life.

By Suzy Morgan, for EMG

(This article was originally published in AIC News, January 2015, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 1-5.)

The uses of social media for communicating and outreach have been widely covered in the library, museum, and popular literature. Has social media just been a fad, or does it have real implications for the future of conservation outreach and the changing public perception of conservators? A few recent social media “events” have shown that conservators and allied professionals have found new and creative ways to successfully utilize these tools. Many of our allies in other professions, such as libraries, archives, and museums, have already been using these tools to promote their existing blogs and websites, and communicate with their readers in a more informal and colloquial way. This article will describe how cultural heritage professionals have been using these tools to increase awareness of conservation activities and preservation issues, both within and without the field.

#5DaysOfPreservation and Going Viral
In July 2014, Kevin Driedger, the author of the blog Library Preservation 2, started a social media project that he dubbed #5DaysOfPreservation. He described his intent for the project in an email sent to ALA’s Preservation Awareness Discussion Group list:
“The activities that fall under the umbrella of preservation are vast, growing, and often have characteristics specific to individuals and institutions. I am interested in getting a better picture of what this broadening landscape looks like, and I’m hoping others are too.
“Therefore, to create this picture I am inviting all who are willing and able to take at least one picture each day during the week of July 14-18 of what preservation looks like for you that day.”

Images were connected and shared by using the hashtag #5DaysOfPreservation; submissions came in via Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. I interviewed Kevin about his project, how he came up with the idea, and the end results. The initial idea was spawned when he noticed a distinct lack of pictures in an otherwise well-written preservation management book that did a very good job of describing the diversity of preservation work. At the same time he was also reading a book about visual storytelling and the importance of using images to convey a story. He decided to create a simple tool for people working in preservation to visually share images of their daily work. His goal for the project was to create something that had a really low barrier to involvement using tools that most people use every day. Initially, he wasn’t sure if anyone was going to participate, but in the end, the project was highly successful and Kevin said he received very positive feedback about it. Over 300 images were shared via the #5DaysOfPreservation hashtag, and are archived on the project’s Tumblr at http://5daysofpreservation.tumblr.com, illustrating everything from digitization efforts to pest management and control.

What’s a Hashtag? 
“The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages.” 
(source: https://support.twitter.com/articles/49309-using-hashtags-on-twitter)
On many social media sites—such as Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook—hashtags are automatically turned into a link to a page that gathers all content created by other users who tagged it with the same hashtag. Some sites and mobile device applications even have a feature that will let you “follow” certain hashtags, and alert you whenever new content with that hashtag has appeared.


Show the Conservator in Conservation

In my conversation with Kevin, we discussed how social media can engage the public and allied professionals by showing preservation and conservation on a much more “human” scale, by revealing the “conservator in conservation.” This is something that is difficult to do in academic conservation literature, but is integral to social media, as well as to blogs and personal websites. After the first few days of the project, Kevin specifically asked participants to share more pictures of themselves (“post pics of the people who preserve”), rather than just their collections. An example of the humanization of a heavily stereotyped and mysterious profession can be found in the sciences, and the explosion of popularity for science communicators across various types of media. Particularly notable examples are Emily Grasile, currently the Field Museum’s “Chief Curiosity Correspondent,” Cara Santa MariaJoe Hanson, and of course Neil Degrasse Tyson. Also of interest are the Tumblr blogs, “This is What a Scientist Looks Like” and “This is What a Librarian Looks Like”, which strive to show these professionals as regular people.

The library and archives professions have also been struggling to bust long-held stereotypes about the appearance, personality, and the work of their professionals for years. There’s an entire Tumblr at http://dustyarchivekittendeaths.tumblr.com/, run by an archivist, devoted to denouncing the way journalists and reporters use the terms “musty” and “dusty” to describe archives and archivists. These stereotypes can make a profession seem archaic or lacking in usefulness or importance, which can hinder institutional and public support. In the past, the public has not had many widely-disseminated options to learn about conservation; the available choices were articles written by journalists (who invariably chose the wrong terminology or titles when describing conservators or conservation), the rare public lecture in a hard-to-get-to special collections reading room, or the academic conservation literature (which is not easily found in most public libraries) full of technical jargon. Social media gives us a direct way to tell the story of our work to a potentially huge audience, without having to parse it through a third party, in a way that is accessible, personal, and entertaining.

Another way to look at outreach is to be present as a conservator in the social media spaces you already use every day, and reach out as such to others in allied professions. In an often-quoted WAAC article (http://cool.conservation-us.org/waac/wn/wn16/wn16-1/wn16-104.html), Caroline Keck states:
“If we fail to assume responsibility for publicizing a fine image of ourselves, our work and the need for that work, no one else is likely to.”
Adding to that, I implore those who already use social media to follow this mantra: be a conservator, be visible, be human. Follow Keck’s advice and “make friends” across our sub-disciplines, and find allies in places beyond the field. For book and paper conservators, this could mean following the accounts of special collections librarians,archivists, or digital preservationists. Outreach is a two-way street. The larger issues in these allied professions can have a direct impact on our work as conservators; similarly, those in allied professions can also become advocates for conservation by sharing our concerns through their own networks. When we, as conservators, publicly express an interest in the work of our colleagues, we are building and strengthening networks of trust that also aid us as a profession. After all, these allied colleagues, be they curators, museum educators, museum directors, librarians, or archivists, are also part of the “big picture” of heritage preservation.

Connecting to the Big Picture
So how have conservators used social media applications like Twitter or Tumblr to connect their work with the larger work of libraries, museums, or cultural institutions? One way has been to collaborate by including photos of conservation activity or conservators, or links to blog posts about conservation on the main TumblrFacebook page, or Twitter account of their institution. This can be either in addition to, or instead of, a separate conservation-related online presence. Institutions such as the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; the Smithsonian Institution; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have featured the work of their conservation staff on their various social media accounts. A Tumblr post by the Philadelphia Museum of Art about the conservation of a gold-leafed statue of Diana, received over 700 “notes” (a note on Tumblr is when somebody reblogs a post or selects it as a favorite). The Brooklyn Museum’s Tumblr post about the conservation of an Egyptian mummy shroud was similarly popular. These posts, while very visual, also manage to effectively convey relevant technical information about the artifact or conservation treatment depicted in the image. In other words, these institutions have shown that you can engage your audience with a good image and educate them at the same time, without overwhelming them with too much exposition.

Video has also been an increasingly popular way to connect with the public, and is a kind of content that is easily shared across almost any kind of social media site, website, or blog. The Huntington featured conservator Jessamy Gloor in an episode of their “Behind the Scenes” video series. Richard McCoy starred in a very recent episode of PBS’s “The Art Assignment” called “Please Do Not Touch.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art shared several short videos of the conservation treatment of one of their paintings on their blog post, which was also shared via their Facebook page. On the Tate’s YouTube page, a video about the conservation of their vandalized Rothko painting received more than 45,000 views. 

The number of times these posts have been re-shared by users of these sites only goes to show that the public does indeed have an interest in conservation and the protection of cultural heritage. 

However, some users may not be aware enough to seek out conservation-related social media content on their own, which is why including conservation work under the general social media “umbrella” of an institution may improve the success of outreach efforts. By joining forces with your institution’s branded social media account, blog, website, or video channel you can raise awareness about your work without having to necessarily create your own account. 

Boosting the Signal
Another way to promote the importance of conservation is by reaching beyond the boundaries of your, or your institution’s, online presence to boost your signal to a wider audience. You could think of it as spreading the gospel of cultural heritage preservation in an unexpected place. This can be facilitated by the use of hashtags and concentrated social media “events,” such as a Reddit AMA (which is short for “Ask Me Anything”) or a designated “chat night” on Twitter. Hashtags are employed by many social media services, including Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. A properly deployed hashtag can expand your reach much farther and get interest across multiple social media platforms. The #5DaysOfPreservation event illustrates this concept beautifully. This is important because the demographics for the various social media sites vary quite a bit (see www.pewinternet.org/2013/12/30/demographics-of-key-social-networking-platforms/) as does the kind of content shared on them. In essence, using these platform-wide approaches can reach a certain part of the population who wouldn’t normally follow a cultural institution’s social media account on their own. Hashtag “events” also frequently happen organically and without warning, but can be a fun way to join in the larger conversation if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Some recent examples are the hashtags #ScaryArchivesStoriesIn5Words#LibraryValentines, and #itweetmuseums. These are a fun and sometimes silly way to verbally and visually “play” with our allied professional colleagues, while at the same time sharing important issues about our work and the places where we work.

Examples of Recent Social Media “Events”
  • The Smithsonian Libraries hosted an “Ask Me Anything” on their Tumblr with their book conservator, Katie Wagner, in April 2014.
  • The American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, highlighted the annual cleaning of its Blue Whale model with the hashtag event #whalewash. This event included a live video feed of the aforementioned cleaning, a pre-event promotional video, and an archived and edited video of the process on YouTube.


Humor and Humanity
Some institutions, conservators, and other social media mavens have taken advantage of the informal nature of social media, embracing humor as a way to effectively convey a light-hearted message. For instance, the Tumblr site “When You Work At a Museum” often has posts highlighting the trials and tribulations faced by conservators. These posts utilize a vast variety of animated GIFs to tell their story, a common feature of Tumblr posts. GIFs have also been used in a slightly more staid (but nonetheless interesting) way by the Smithsonian’s various Tumblr accounts, the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections and the Huntington Library’s Tumblr. The Smithsonian regularly features images from their collections that have been animated, but have also shared GIFs of protective enclosures and a conservator sewing a book. The Huntington’s Tumblr even has a GIF of a conservator dry-cleaning a paper document. The tone of these kinds of posts may also help keep the interest of the younger generation, who are more likely to be embedded in this style of internet-specific communication.

Observing your Peers and Going Forward
The most effective users, in my opinion, of social media have been those who realize it as a place to have conversations, not just as a place to make a statement. It is a place to be both serious and silly; to be at once professional as well as human, and share our enthusiasm about our work. It should be noted, too, that these tools serve a complementary but different purpose than older, more established types of online communication, such as blogs, websites, and listservs. Social media can connect us to that audience outside the edges of our professional networks, to the people who may not yet know about who we are or what we do. It can be a useful way to connect with the younger generation of conservators, pre-program, or emerging cultural heritage professionals. In fact, the utility of these tools are strengthened when they are used in tandem with more formal, or long-form, types of media like blogs. A tweet to a blog post can reach a wider audience than the post could all on its own; similarly, a video can be shared rapidly across Tumblr, where users can view it without ever having to open another tab in their web browser. By observing the creative ways other institutions and professionals have been using social media, you might just discover a new way to promote the website or blog you already have, or find a whole new group of virtual colleagues to follow. 

Some examples of Web-Based Media for Outreach and Sharing

Social Media Site

Type of Service

Examples

Facebook

Social sharing site that lets you write text-posts as well as upload photos, videos, and re-share some content created by the people and pages you follow.

● Art Conservation Advocates

● National Digital Information Infrastructure & Preservation Program

● Huntington Library

Twitter

Micro-blogging site that limits each post to 140 characters. Can also share photos and links, as well as easily “re-tweet” the content of others.

● Shelburne Museum

●  Penn Museum Artifact Lab

● Preservation Department at Iowa State University Library

Instagram

Available as both an app and a website, Instagram is a photo and 15-second video sharing service that lets you quickly add filters to photos and other users can comment on them. Photos can also be tagged with hashtags.

● Smithsonian

●  Los Angeles County Museum of Art

● The Conservation Center (Chicago)

Tumblr

Micro-blogging site that lets you upload images, and videos, as well as write full-length posts and easily “re-blog” content shared by others on your own Tumblr

● Brooklyn Museum

● The Getty

● Richard McCoy

●  The Mind of a Conservator

● Turning the Book Wheel (Smithsonian Libraries)

Pinterest

Pinterest allows you to create a virtual pin-board by “pinning” images, videos, links, blog posts and other content from across the web.

●  ICA Art Conservation

● West Dean Conservation

● Blue Roof Designs (Bookbinding/Book Conservation)

● Smithsonian Institution Archives

● Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

More detailed information about these sites, as well as more suggestions of who to follow, are available on this AIC Wiki page.



—Suzy Morgan, Preservation Specialist at Arizona State University, suzanne.morgan [at] asu.edu


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