It’s been at least a month since most states and US cities have set shelter-in-place guidelines. Museums are still closed and their visitors are still at home. One of the silver linings is watching how clever and empathetic museum professionals have risen to the challenge of keeping their missions alive and their audiences engaged. One of my personal favorite resulting museum projects is the deceptively simple Zoom backgrounds offered by North Carolina Museum of Art. Zoom is certainly having its moment as people are forced to work from home, and by offering attractive images to use, NCMA is showing that it knows where its users are right now, which is at home, probably stressed, and longing to stay connected to their favorite places to which they can’t physically go right now.
I got in touch with Kat Harding, NCMA’s public relations manager, who has been coordinating and producing not just the Zoom backgrounds, but so much more. She and her colleagues have been creating topical content to frame the museum’s stories, soliciting (and receiving!) user-generated content from fans at home, and sending virtual flowers to neighboring museums.
Q. Having content to share is usually not a problem for museums, but how have you been able to repurpose and recontextualize existing content to respond to this moment?
A. We have no shortage of great content, thanks to a collection that spans 5,000 years of art and a Park that sits on 164 acres. We’ve worked to repurpose and reconnect with many of these assets through our new weekly NCMA Recommends series. It launched out of a poll of our members and social media followers following the closure of the galleries, asking for their favorite works of art that they were missing during this time.
Each week, NCMA Recommends spotlights one of those visitor-submitted favorite works of art and pairs film and movie recommendations, yoga and meditation moves, related coloring pages, family activities, connections with local artists, lesson plans, partnerships with other organizations, and more. Some of this content already exists on our learning website NCMA Learn, on Circa, the Museum blog, or on our YouTube channel. The rest is created on the fly with teams across the Museum and in our community, often using Zoom to record interviews and lectures.
By sending out such a wide range of archived and newly created content, we work to reach a range of audiences: parents that are now teachers, teachers looking for online lesson plans, teenagers looking for something to do, adults who want to learn more about their favorite works of art, or even someone just looking for a good movie to watch. We know people are stressed, stretched to the max, and inundated with content, so we offer these focused newsletters that revolve around favorite works of art that can be consumed whenever and however you want.
Q. What kind of feedback have you gotten from your members and visitors to the NCMA Recommends project?
A. We get a ton of replies every week – social media engagement of shares, likes, and comments are at an all-time high! Meditation and yoga have been very popular, the kid-friendly activities have been well-received, and overall, we just get a lot of “thank yous” for the distraction from the rest of the headlines. Art can be a great escape and a form of emotional immunity, so we hope to offer opportunities for meditation, creativity, and conversation during this tough time.
Q. What sort of barriers do you face producing new content at home? Is there anything you wish you could run back into the museum to access?
A. Obviously, with collaborating, we’re missing the face-to-face element. Popping into someone’s office or grabbing coffee with them to talk through content and connections has always been very valuable to our teams. For our new video content, we’re recording via Zoom and that’s certainly different than filming in the galleries. If I could run back into the Museum, I think I’d just take a ton of pictures. (And I’d need to grab my air plant, if it hasn’t perished by now!) Our photographers have remote access to our photo archives, but sometimes I’ve got that very specific image I have in mind for a social media post or a press pitch.
Q. How has cross-departmental collaboration been impacted by sheltering in place?
A. The marketing and communication department has always worked to collaborate closely with all our departments; after all, everyone’s programs, concerts, lesson plans, art acquisitions, and more get filtered through social media, advertising, email blasts, and press releases. During the shelter in place order, we’ve been able to keep that level of collaboration high through NCMA Recommends, working with nearly every department to develop, record, edit, and then distribute. Our Teen Arts Council has contributed, as well as local artists like Monet Marshall and community groups and businesses like the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, Carolina Ballet, Growga, and Colors of Yoga Raleigh.
Q. You also produced custom Zoom backgrounds featuring images of the museum and its collection. Have you heard about or seen anyone using them?
A. Yes! They were one of our most popular offerings on social media lately and it garnered local and national press coverage. We followed up on this with phone wallpapers we offered last week. Our direct messages were full of screenshots of people’s phones with our art as their backgrounds. Just about my whole family updated their phone backgrounds and everyone picked a different work of art. We’ve found that people miss standing in front of their favorite works of art, so integrating them into this new world of video conferencing and digital-only connection is a way to offer comfort and normalcy.
Q. Are there any #MuseumFromHome projects from other museums that you have found inspiring?
A. I think one of the most runaway success stories is Tim the security guard from the National Cowboy Museum taking over their social media accounts. They’ve had huge engagement, international press coverage, and just recently created a T-shirt for the campaign. I think people have responded because it feels authentic, wholesome, and humorous while delivering a little bit of information and learning.
— Nat’l Cowboy Museum (@ncwhm) April 15, 2020
And of course, all of the cross-museum collaborations have been great. We’ve been involved in industry-wide crossword puzzles, challenges, and games. We’ve sent fellow museums a #MuseumBouquet and many museums have participated in the #GettyChallenge to recreate works of art at home. The whole industry is collaborating and learning from each other in a wonderful way right now.
Pictured: “Veiled Flowers,” circa 194, Hobson Pittman pic.twitter.com/nuIYHEiJB7
— NC Museum of Art (@ncartmuseum) March 24, 2020
Q. Have you learned anything that you can share with other museum professionals trying to make the most of this unique experience?
A. The most important lesson I’ve learned is just to communicate clearly and honestly. We’re telling people exactly what we know and nothing more – we can’t make future promises that we might have to break while circumstances change so rapidly; we can’t give timelines and dates for reopening or exhibitions because we simply don’t have them. We keep an up-to-date list of impacted events and keep all of our communication related to our status on one webpage for quick access. As much as we want to have everything settled and figured out, we just don’t, and we can’t communicate what we don’t know.
I’d also just like to plug how important it is to reach out to people. Our Zoom background idea started with a member of our development team just reaching out and sharing something she’d seen. A lot of my coworkers are lurking on social media right now and sending all kinds of ideas my way. And on the flipside, I’m sending different departments ideas and articles to consider. No one person is going to see all the ideas floating around out there, so you’ve got to just reach out and send along. And say hi! I miss just popping in on my coworkers and friends to catch up.