The Impact of Museums on Society: The Social Web and the Part it Plays

I thought I would share some thoughts on the impact of museums on society which form a small part of a paper I am currently writing:

How to Define the Impacts of Museums on Society

In 2007, Tlili et al. published a paper entitled ‘New Labour’s Socially Responsible Museum’ which stated that New Labour policy had resulted in a redefinition of museums as public services with social inclusion as a central function (Tlili et al., 2007).  The current government’s dissolving of the Museums Libraries Archives council, with a shift of responsibilities to the Arts Council England, has resulted in a review of the strategic framework for cultural organisations with lists amongst the key opportunities and similarities between museums, libraries and archives: ‘digital skills’, ‘social impact’ and ‘economic value’ (Morris, 2011).

From the perspective of economics, Kawashima discusses the issues that the current product-driven approach in audience development produces, where representation leads to institutionalisation of inequality as the core product remains in-tact and no metamorphosis can occur (Kawashima, 2006).  This perspective could be expanded to incorporate the main message for this report; that target-driven approaches led to a more flexible interpretation of information, and in the case of museums using social media to facilitate access to collections, could result in a more inclusive engagement.   Developing on this notion of the economic impact of museums, Neelands et al. consider the extrinsic measuring of the benefits that come out of access to culture.  The paper criticises the measuring of those benefits, with the statement:

“The government’s attempts to combine a social justice agenda within an economic development agenda in the field of cultural production have been mediated through a recognisable ‘social-market’ position” (Neelands et al., 2006).

Consideration of the goals outlined in the Arts Council England Strategic Framework document (Arts Council England, 2010) results in a similar conclusion, with an emphasis on the importance of the fostering of partnerships with organisations for funding of culture.   There is a perceived difficulty here in the measurement of improvements to access to culture (and museums more specifically).  Holden’s work with the Demos think-tank is useful here, with the work exploring the ways in which the UK Government uses cultural value and the inappropriateness of the nature of the quantitative methods currently used to qualify the impact of culture:

“The value of culture cannot be expressed only with statistics. Audience numbers give us a poor picture of how culture enriches us” (Holden, 2004: 1).

Holden outlines the problem of measuring instrumental value and the difficulty with intrinsic values, and this is a problem that has been identified also within the realm of social media more generally (Finnis et al., 2011) and is a major concern for the work of this research project.  The work of the Let’s Get Real project has made a real contribution to this issue with the publication of the final report due in September 2011 (of which this research report forms a small part).  Let’s Get Real is a collaboration project consisting of twenty-four cultural heritage organisations which aims to identify methods for the measurement of user satisfaction with cultural websites and online services (Finnis et al., 2011).  You can find out more about the project here: Let’s Get Real 

Social media’s impact on society more broadly

A consideration of the methods for the measurement of social media impact within other sectors, as well as examples of successes of the use of social media, could help perhaps to more fully understand the possibilities that social media can offer to museums.  Bertot et al. offers a starting point with a review of the impact of social media on government transparency in the US (Bertot et al., 2010).  Ellison et al. provide a good overview of the social capital that can be gained through participation in social networks more generally (Ellison et al., 2007), whilst Smith & Kidder provide a poignant example of the effects of social media in the labour markets with the case study of the use of Facebook for individuals’ employment opportunities (Smith & Kidder, 2010).  Finally, Enders et al. use Anderson’s ‘long tail’ to consider value creation with social networking-based companies (Enders et al., 2008).

Speaking of Anderson, there is a useful example of the main theme of social media today as ‘relevance’ in Anderson’s anecdote of his children’s preference for contemporaries’ creations of Lego stop-frame animations of Star Wars available on YouTube over the original Lucas films, where the original information is still being consumed, but has been interpreted in a more relevant manner using social media (Anderson, 2010).  You can listen to the keynote that Anderson gave at Smithsonian 2.0 in November last year here: Anderson’s Keynote

I’m going to post later in the week on why we should have access to collections, which may seem a little like doing it backwards, but I think that to understand that, I need to think first about what social media could bring to the party.


Anderson, C., (2010) ‘Keynote: The Smithsonian’s Long Tail’, Smithsonian 2.0 conference, 23-4th January 2010.  Available at:

Bertot, J., Jaeger, P.T., Grimes, J.M. (2010), Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies, Government Information Quarterly 27 (2010): 264–271

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., Lampe, C. (2007), The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12: 1143–1168.

Enders, A., Hungenberg, H., Denker, H-P., Mauch, S. (2008). The long tail of social networking. Revenue models of social networking sites, European Management Journal, 26, 199– 211

Finnis, J. Chan, S., Clements, R. (2011). ‘How to Evaluate Online Success? A New Piece of Action Research’. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted September 7, 2011. Available at:

Holden, J., (2004), Capturing Cultural Value How culture has become a tool of government policy, Demos: London

Kawashima, N. (2006). Audience Development and Social Inclusion in Britain, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 12:1, 55-72

Morris, E. (2011). Review of the Arts Council’s Strategic Framework. Available at:

Neelands, J., Freakley, V., Lindsay, G. (2006): A study of social‐market interventions in the shaping of the field of cultural production, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 12:1, 93-109

Smith, W.P., Kidder, D.L. (2010). You’ve been tagged! (Then again, maybe not): Employers and Facebook, Business Horizons, 53(5), September-October 2010: 491-499

Tlili, A.,  Gewirtz, S., Cribb, A. (2007). New Labour’s Socially Responsible Museum, Policy Studies, 28(3): 269-289