Engaging people in heritage

 10 July 2013

How should you engage with students, teachers, the public and other heritage organisations? Open Culture 2013's speakers shared nine ways to achieve greater engagement.

Collections Trust CEO Nick Poole and Bill Thomspon on how heritage organisations can engage others. Image: Amanda Clay
Collections Trust CEO Nick Poole and Bill Thomspon on how heritage organisations can engage others. Image: Amanda Clay

Guest speakers Steven Zucker, Beth HarrisNick Stanhope and Bill Thompson shared tips and lessons for heritage organisations at Open Culture 2013's conference. 

Working in education

1) Have open conversations

Steven Zucker, co-founder of Smarthistory – an online creative education platform part of Khan Academy –says that you should start being open with your collections now.

"You don’t need to be afraid to take risks and be open with your collection and ideas. We live in a ‘do-it-ocracy’ where we get rewarded for 'doing', instead of a 'meritocracy' where we're ranked according to our exam acheivements.

“We found from our own experiences, that a conversation had the power to make great ideas. Part of this included listening to our users – staff and teachers – and learning what was needed.”

“A bigger partner will always find it easier to lose some costs and move on than you will."

Co-founders Steven Zucker and Beth Harris are both Deans of Art and History university lecturers.

They started Smarthistory by recording unscripted conversations about pieces of art to help create interesting videos for their own students.

“We never show up on video – conversation seems to engage students in a way that a distracting face may not. When recording, Beth and I have to listen to each other, but it also encourages students to listen as well.”

2) Find out what’s missing in the classroom

Beth says a lot of interest comes from the 'informality and intimacy' of their videos, which connects students to the content in a stimulating way.

She attributes this to the videos being able to, “express feelings and emotions. The videos help what teachers do in a classroom and fill in what is missing and engaging from museum catalogues.”

One of Beth's best tips is be experiential and relate the experience of a museum to people that may not have access.

“One of our pet peeves is museums create amazing content for special exhibitions, but it leaves people feeling lost because it's missing a chronological structure. The Metropolitan Museum of Art do this well – they have a timeline of history so you can place yourself”.

“Students never think about the objects out of classroom. Drawing from travelling around Europe, it’s amazing to see seeing a Caravaggio in a chapel."

3) Connect with other museums

Beth recommends that museum websites should link to other museum websites to bring together rich resources from each.

“The website is a marketing tool and place to talk about your own collection. But if you’re not talking with other websites, you’re not connecting.”

4) Use crowd sourcing and social media

Steven says, “a creative commons license is great as it gives access for people to use your material. If a teacher visits your site looking for classroom ideas and doesn’t see that you're resources are free, they're less likely to want to use your collection.”

When Steven and Beth started Smarthistory, they took their own pictures of works of art. Now, they still take their own photographs, but they also use publically accessible images.

"If you’re not talking with other websites, you’re not connecting."

“We use photographs to show the work of art as a living thing. A textbook may only have one image, which is expensive to reprint.

"We can use Flickr to show twenty or thirty images of one work of art.”

They are also crowd sourcing and advertising for volunteers to translate lessons and resources into other languages.

Working with the public

5) Open up your collections

Nick Stanhope, CEO of Historypin, which runs a series of digital cultural heritage projects, says that: “An 'open collection’ means content that is available on open licenses and to a high quality.”

The benefits to organisations of opening collections are:

  • “It gives you more places and ways to explore the collections
  • You find out loads more info about your collections – each piece of your collection is a rabbit hole
  • People feel excited by the collections
  • When you know the value of your collection, you can do a lot more with it
  • It can generate participation within communities, education and research
  • It can provide new opportunities to gain funding.”

6) Forget about sales

Nick does not like to focus on sales when entering into discussions about heritage organisations connecting.

“It seems to a reason for stopping people opening up collections. The benefits of protecting collections specifically for sales are so infinitely outweighed by all the benefits of opening collections. Sales should never be used as a barrier.

"Instead we need to embrace all of the new partnership and income opportunities that come with opening up collections. This could include R&D grants, academic relationships or local crowd funding."

Working with heritage organisations

7) Understand what you want

Journalist and technology reporter, Bill Thompson, says that you need to understand what partnerships are:

“Be experiential and relate the experience of a museum to people."

“Partnership involves a core underlying relationship that involves a strategic and corporate level.

"There needs to be some equality, mutuality and transparency. Partners need to have shared ends.”

“First questions you might want to ask are ‘do you actually want to be there at all? what sort of relationship you actually want?’”

Bill suggests that sometimes you’ll achieve what you’re after by just asking for specific things, instead of taking time out to build a purposeless relationship.

8) Be clear with your goals

If a partnership is what you’re after, look at ways to measure the effectiveness of the partnership.

Bill says you need to, “look at the value of the partnership, the benefits to both partners at a strategic and corporate level, and the value of both sides willing to commit significant time and resources.

"It's important to make your goals achievable, but this may be problematic if the two organisations are different sizes. There may be an assumption that if you work with a larger organisation, their resources become your resources.

“Decide in advance the level of support you’re going to get. Whether it's time, assets or resources. Indicate clearly and let your partner know that you appreciate that their bounty’s not boundless.”

9) Take calculated risks

Bill's advice is to be realistic about your organisation's impact – if you're a small organisation, it's likely that the impact will be smaller in comparison.

"While the ideal Plan B is to make Plan A work, that's not always possible. In this situation, it’s good to have Plans B, C and D. A bigger partner will always find it easier to lose some costs and move on than you will."

Bill says that it's also important to make sure you keep your end of the deal in a partnership.

“When you’re having tea with a tiger, it’s not safe to leave the table until the tiger is satisfied, or you might end up providing a nice post-luncheon snack.”


What tips do you have that have helped you engage? Share your views below.

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