Four Attributes of the Best Museum Blogs
Back in December, my colleague Eric Holter asked in his monthly newsletter if a museum’s blog really matters. (Spoiler: It really does).
One of the benefits Eric highlighted is what’s known as the Long Tail Effect, which basically says that the almost-limitless storage of your website allows you to illuminate the treasures that you can’t display in your galleries — a little something for everyone. Your museum’s blog is also a place to produce social media fodder, create “related content” for your collections and programs, and to hone your museum’s brand. So yeah, we think that you’re missing out if your content strategy doesn’t include consistent blogging.
To support Eric’s article, and highlight a deficiency of consistent institutional blogging, I conducted a not-so-scientific study of 100 museum’s websites to see how they were using a blogging platform, if at all. I used BigRoads.com’s “highly opinionated” list of the best museums in the U.S. as my source, which includes museums of all different sizes and genres. Here are a few of my observations:
- Only 51 of the 100 museums on the list had blogs (that’s bad)
- 21 of those blogs had “branded” names beyond “blog” (that’s good — I don’t like the word “blog”)
- Four blogs were hosted on different domains than the museum home (that’s fine — you might miss out on SEO juice, but you can still reap other benefits)
But the observation that really cut me to the quick was that many of those museums that even had blogs had trouble keeping them up to date or thematically consistent. I’m sure that many blogs are launched with good intentions, but more than 10% of the blogs I reviewed hadn’t been updated in over a year.
And I get it. It’s easy for a blog to flame out quickly. You start out with so much energy and enthusiasm, but without a clearly defined plan, the ideas and motivation dry up fast.
Does this look familiar?
So how do you keep a museum blog active, illuminating your collection’s stories and growing your website’s Long Tail?
After reviewing hundreds of museum websites and blogs, I’ve identified four attributes that the most successful museums share. They are: format, theme, cross-linking, and schedule. For this article, I’ve chosen 20 examples of blogs that are doing all of the above, a little of each, or focusing really hard on one.
Without further ado, let’s look at some great museum blogs.
When blogging first came onto the scene as a personal publishing platform, bloggers were often accepted as amateur journalists and reporters, covering their favorite topics no matter how obscure or personal. Their websites didn’t need to be slickly designed, as long as the content spoke to somebody. But as blogs became more mainstream, many were gobbled up by big media companies, and suddenly, yesterday’s at-home printing press became today’s online magazine. Some actual magazines, seeing slumping sales, went all-digital, and today, blogs and magazine websites are virtually indistinguishable. At least, as far as the formatting goes.
One aspect to consider when launching or rethinking your museum’s blog is, what will the format be? Will it be a standard chronological archive of blog posts? Will your blog’s homepage have featured articles and bold imagery? Will you call it a “blog” or will you aspire to publish something that feels like a professional online periodical?
These museum blogs have taken the magazine approach, not just in layout, but with unique names, brands and editorial standards.
- North Carolina Museum of Art – Circa: Image-rich homepage
- The Getty – The Iris: Unique branding and logo
- Houston Museum of Natural Science – BEYONDbones: Featured articles and “Editor’s Picks”
- National Museum of African American History & Culture – A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story: Readable format and Tweetable quotes
- Wellcome Collection – Stories – Media-rich articles and serialized stories
If you want your blog to feel as prestigious as your member’s magazine, the visual formatting is just the first step. With a slick design and clean layout, your readers may expect more from your blog. If your blog is going to look like a magazine, maybe it should operate like one, too. As Karen Kelly, Senior Editor of NCMA’s Circa, told me, the magazinesque approach to their blog is very intentional, and has roots in the museum’s member magazine.
When NCMA’s bimonthly member magazine became an annual, Karen, who also works on the magazine, brought her editorial approach to publishing Circa, as well as a focus on quality.
“Just because it’s free,” she said, “treating it as though it were an $8,000 publication going out just keeps the level of sharpness up and vitality.”
Like most of the other blogs on this list, Circa shares some of the other attributes of effective museum blogs. But if you’re looking for an example of a blog with the look and quality of a magazine, Circa is a great place to start.
As a cultural institution, you have no shortage of incredible stories and assets to share with your online audience. But oftentimes, all of those options can lead you to feel overwhelmed. This is why “choice paralysis” is one of the terms I use the most when talking with museum professionals about what to publish, and when. A blog strategy of “themed content” is one of the simplest but most effective frameworks for creating focus, and ensuring that your content means something to your audience.
Here’s a quick exercise from our eBook, The Art of Storytelling, that might help you imagine how this would work for your museum. Take a few minutes to think of three to five broad themes that represent your institution, and for which you can repeatedly create content. Some examples might be “Artist Profiles”, “New Acquisitions”, “Community Outreach”, etc. Think of things that your visitors associate with your museum, or that you want them to know about it. Once you’ve got a short list, try to come up with a blog post title for each theme. You should find this a little bit easier than being told to “write anything at all!”
Your themes could manifest themselves in your blog as categories or recurring features, like “Curator’s Corner”. In the cases of some of these blogs, it just takes one or two themes to inspire consistent content that connects their museum’s mission to its audience.
- Museum of Life and Science – Animal Keeper Blog and Nature Watch: Blogs with single themes and perspectives
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Blogs: A rotating selection of theme-specific blogs
- Brooklyn History Society – “Photo of the Week” feature: Bridging Brooklyn’s past and present
- Seattle Art Museum – “Object of the Week” category: Stories from beyond the label
- New-York Historical Society – Blogs: Theme-specific blogs for mission-driven themes
On a typical Saturday morning, I’m one of the hundreds of parents enjoying the 84-acre campus of the Museum of Life and Science, trying to keep up with our kids: bouncing from interactive exhibits, to treehouses, to live animal enclosures, and trying to do it all before naptime. There’s not much time to linger. It’s easy to miss some of the more interesting stories, even when they’re right in front of you. For instance, I noticed that whenever my son and I visit the Farmyard exhibit, a yellow goat named Charlie is always the most social. But before I can ask one of the keepers more about Charlie, my son is running off to see the alpacas.
One afternoon, while my son was napping off his exciting day at the museum, I was still thinking about how nice that yellow goat is, so I went online to see if I could learn more. And I did, on one of the Museum of Life and Science’s specialized blogs. Turns out the goats, like all of the museum’s animals, work with trainers, and Charlie is a star pupil.
The Museum of Life and Science publishes two tightly focused blogs, Animal Keeper and Nature Watch. By giving authorship to staff who are most passionate and knowledgeable about their themes, the museum’s visitors can always be “in the know”, and the museum is never short on meaningful content.
The four attributes I’m describing here come from intentional strategic decisions. Format and theme are strategic frameworks to keep you inspired and focused and amplify your museum’s positioning. Cross-linking is a tactical expression of your strategy, which can help your museum achieve its mission in practical ways. And it requires some consistent habit-building.
If you think your online collection is overwhelming to you when you’re trying to pick a topic to write about, imagine what it’s like for the online visitor who just wants to look at some cool art or artifacts. But what if that visitor came to your blog first, and found a post about a topic they already care about? And what if that post was full of links to related objects, papers, and events? And what if each of those object and event pages linked to other related blog posts?
A great blog post can be a portal into your collections. Further, it can enhance your visitors’ appreciation and understanding of your objects. And isn’t that what your mission is all about?
- Corning Museum of Glass – Behind the Glass: Linking directly to the online collections
- The Jewish Museum – Stories – Linking through to featured objects
- Baseball Hall of Fame – Discover More: Connecting players with their stories
- Minneapolis Institute of Art – Blog: Curating the permanent collection online
I like the Corning Museum of Glass’s blog for several reasons. It’s got a very newspaper-esque layout, with narrow columns of black text on white. It has a “featured news” section, indicating a level of editorial care and importance. And the latest posts are featured on the museum’s homepage, in a “Behind the Glass” section. So the latest and greatest articles are always easy for visitors to find.
But one thing that Corning does consistently, which you don’t see on a lot of other museum blogs, is providing links back to related events, exhibitions, and best of all, object pages in their online collections. Furthermore, when a new blog post is published about a particular piece, a link to the post is also published on the object’s record page in the online library.
Take a look at this recent article by two Rakow Library interns about sketching and the design process. Not only is the content informative, and enlightening about the process for creating pieces of glass, it’s chock full of links. In the very first sentence, the authors link to the Whitefriars Collection page, which itself is full of related content. In the next paragraph, a link to Dandelion plant 95 [watercolor] takes the reader to its library record, where you can find every blog post written about that sketch. And so on.
Remember, you never know who is going to read your articles, how they’ll access them, or how much more they want to learn. But by hedging your bets and creating as many different links as relevant, you’re giving every reader an opportunity to be a future enthusiast, visitor, or donor.
One of the most critical aspects of a blog strategy is the calendar. It tells you what’s on at your institution, what’s going on in the world, and which article is due on which date. Without an active calendar, and someone to manage it, it’s easy to let the blog slide… and slide… and, eventually, fall right off a cliff.
Back in the old days of blogging, one of my favorite things to hate was when, after several months of silence, a blogger would publish a post with a title like, “Sorry it’s been a while, guys!” Not only would it look kind of sad, I also imagined the author thinking, “Welp, there’s a new post to hold me over for a couple months.”
Calendars keep you from falling into that sort of complacency trap, and they also give your most active readers something to count on. Could you imagine going to your favorite news site and seeing nothing but month-old articles? Or worse, a headline reading, “LOCAL PAPER HASN’T PUBLISHED BECAUSE, LIKE, REALLY BUSY.”
Here are some of the most reliably active museum blogs I’ve found:
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum – “Object of the Day”: Shedding light on a new object every single day
- Crystal Bridges Museum – Blog: At least 1-2 new posts a week
- Peabody Essex Museum – Blog: Weekly stories about objects, artists, and community
- The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens – Verso: New posts, every Wednesday
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art – Unframed: An almost infinite grid of current articles
From an editorial perspective, the Cooper Hewitt’s blog provides its authors with incredibly narrow themes to work within. All posts must be about an object in the collection, the Hewitt family, or, in support of a new exhibition, about color. And that’s it. Some people say that a strategy is all about ‘what not to do’, and for a blog, a strategy a great antidote to choice paralysis.
But because we’re looking at schedules, I want to talk about Cooper Hewitt’s revolutionarily simple blog category of “Object of the Day”. For the authors of the blog, it’s easy. Pick an object, any object. Too broad? OK, pick an object related to an exhibition, or a program or holiday. With so many objects in its collection, this feature could go on for 500 more years without repeating an object.
Object of the Day posts are written by curators, cataloguers, and folks from a variety of departments. So readers are treated to new and different perspectives every day. And the daily schedule gives them a reason to frequently visit the site, and perhaps the museum.
If your museum’s blog feels hopeless, it’s not too late to turn it around. And thanks to content management systems like WordPress, it’s easy to start publishing again at any time, no matter the size or budget of your institution. By choosing which attributes to focus on, be it formatting, theme, cross-linking, or schedule, you can put together a blog strategy that works for the resources you have. And once you get in the habit of thinking strategically about your content, you will always know what to write, and when.