Art Museums are traditionally rather daunting places. The Brooklyn Museum, founded 1893, was no different. Its lofty architecture didn't really entice visitors in; it wasn't very accessible or engaging.
The museum wanted to draw in more visitors and give them a better experience. They started 10 years ago with a 'free nights' programme, offering lectures and movies, and that worked.
Then they reached out to the internet and things really took off. They not only reached out to visitors, but managed to engage them with the art in ways that had never happened before.
What did they do? In Museum technology boss Shelley Bernstein's words they "gave up control".
For example, most museums won't allow you to take photos. The Brooklyn Museum started actively seeking the permission of lenders to allow members of the public to take photos.
The Museum even set up a Flickr channel and encouraged visitors to add their own photos of museum exhibits, to tag and comment on photos. Of course, they add their own photos too. Visitors to Flickr add comments and commentary on the images, sometimes extending what the Museum knows.
A blog explains the Museum's activities: architectural digs, for example, or what happened when they sent some mummies off for a catscan. The point is to post interesting content, not just have a marketing channel.
They tweeted about the mummy catscan too, right as it was happening, so they could take the audience on the journey with them.
Their followers enjoyed discoveries at almost the same moment the staff did, such as finding out that one 'female' mummy was in fact a male. That kind of involvement makes people feel included.
The same thing happens when the Museum raise visitor comments right to the top of the web page. It's not just the Museum talking at the public, but a conversation.
Rather than being a big, impersonal, institution, with the Brooklyn Museum blog they say exactly who is writing. Look on the blog and you'll see 20 or 30 different authors.
Another interesting tactic has been to record comments from visitors to the museum - good or bad, and add them to the Home Page of each exhibition.
The Museum aims to promote discussion by their visitors, to engage them more with the exhibitions. Rather than censoring comments, they use them as a valuable source of feedback they can learn from.
On one show, for example, visitors made it clear that they hated the soundtrack. The designers for that show paid attention and decided to remove the soundtrack.
The Brooklyn Museum has actively engaged with Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and even the Four Square online and offline 'game'. These are all online tools that draw in visitors to enjoy a deeper connection with the museum and its activities.
In one project regular visitors, the Posse, help out the museum by 'tagging' photos - adding words that describe works beyond the standard Artist, Date and Media type annotations.
Viewers may add tags such as 'yellow' or 'beard', the kinds of words other visitors may well search for.
It was clear from Bernstein's talk that she and the Museum are passionate about being inclusive. From Twitter to Flickr to YouTube and beyond they have transformed the traditional distant, inaccessible institution into almost a member of the family.
As Bernstein said "We don't want just the Museum's voice. We want to take the community's voice and amplify it."
Shelley Bernstein is the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. She is the initiator and current administrator of the Museum's web initiatives on MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter.
- Miraz Jordan reports on Shelley Bernstein's presentation: 'Fostering Personal Connection to Place'
at the Webstock conference.