Episode 6: Tess Colwell of Brooklyn Historical Society

If you’ve ever managed a museum blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you started off with a lot of steam, publishing two or three posts a week. But over time, your output slowed to a trickle, and you were happy if you were publishing one post a month. Or quarter. Without a good plan in place, you might run out of ideas or worse, fall victim to the dreaded choice paralysis.

With so many great stories at your fingertips, it helps to have creative parameters to make sure you’re telling the right one at. One way to create guardrails on your blog is with recurring features. Think “Curator’s Corner”, or “Artist Profiles”, or, in the case of the Brooklyn Historical Society, “Photo of the Week.”

As Digital Projects Archivist at Brooklyn Historical Society, Tess Colwell oversees major grant projects, provides assets for researchers, and spends a lot of time processing BHS’s collections, particularly the photos. Sometimes she comes across a photo that could bring light to a collection, or provide historical context for a current event.

With Photo of the Week, Tess and her colleagues have developed a popular platform for illuminating hidden treasures of Brooklyn Historical Society’s vast collections and expanding the institution’s reach.


*FULL TRANSCRIPT*

NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s on. I’m Nick Faber, director of content strategy at Cuberis. My guest today is Tess Colwell of the Brooklyn Historical Society, and we’ll be talking about the “Photo of the Week” feature in the BHS blog.

One of the biggest content challenges for museums is the blog. Some museums don’t think they need one, and those who do, don’t always know how to keep it going or even relevant.

If you’ve ever managed a blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you started off with a lot of steam, publishing two or three posts a week. But over time, your output slowed to a trickle, and you were happy if you were publishing one post a month. Or quarter. Without a good plan in place, you might run out of ideas or worse, fall victim to the dreaded choice paralysis.

With so many great stories at your fingertips, it helps to have creative parameters to make sure you’re telling the right story at the right time. One way to create guardrails on your blog is with recurring features. Think “Curator’s Corner”, or “Artist Profiles”, or, in the case of the Brooklyn Historical Society, “Photo of the Week.”

As Digital Projects Archivist at Brooklyn Historical Society, Tess Colwell oversees major grant projects, provides assets for researchers, and spends a lot of time processing BHS’s collections, particularly the photos. Sometimes she comes across a photo that could bring light to a collection, or provide historical context to a current event.

With Photo of the Week, Tess and her colleagues have developed a popular platform for illuminating hidden treasures of Brooklyn Historical Society’s vast collections and expanding the institution’s reach.

I wanted to know the origin story of Photo of the Week, and how Tess knows which photos to share every week, so we talked over Skype

TESS: Photo of the Week is an interesting story. It started before I came to BHS. From what I understand from colleagues, the Fort Greene Patch, which was a local blog, they approached someone from our communications team about creating a Photo of the Week for their website with the intent that the photos would be highlighting the neighborhood of Fort Greene.

And we embraced the idea, and we dedicated one post per month to Fort Greene. And then we posted all those posts to our blog as well. And then other neighborhood blogs contacted us as well, but it didn’t really catch on. And then, ultimately the For Greene Patch fell off the radar, but we continued the posts and then actually started it as a weekly installment.

They publish every Wednesday, and then they’re sent out in the newsletter on Thursday.

NICK: Awesome. So how do you decide which photos make it into the blog today, if it’s not necessarily neighborhood-centric?

TESS: There’s not really one specific way that we determine what’s going to be published on Photo of the Week. I would say that my starting place is always looking at our historic anniversaries document that was created by our public history department. So when I’m thinking about what’s going to get posted the following week, that’s always the first place I look to determine if there are any key anniversaries or events that I should highlight.

Also, our collections support projects that are throughout the institution, so I also try to use it as a way to promote what’s going on throughout the institution. Our exhibitions, educational curriculums, public programs, but I will say that I do have a lot of flexibility when it comes to what I post. Sometimes it’s about a new acquisition that I think would be really beneficial for researchers, or I use it as an opportunity to educate the public about photographic formats, which is something that I’m personally really interested in. Or as a way to connect our collection with other Brooklyn repositories that I feel maybe have some complimentary collections.

I’m an avid reader of the news, especially local news, and I also like to use local Brooklyn news as inspiration to connect past photographs with current events. But I would say, really, the possibilities are endless. We’re on a schedule, so every week I create a draft of a post and then I send it to our Director of Public History and then the managing director of library and archives, and they both review it just to ensure it’s historically accurate or it’s the voice of our institution. And also to catch any grammatical or spelling errors. There have been times when I have submitted a draft, and the Director of Public History will say, “Hey I think it would be a really good idea to highlight what we’re doing over here this week, so maybe you can push this post to the following week…” I also get recommendations from my colleagues in other departments, if there’s something that maybe they stumbled upon in their own research. I would say it’s pretty collaborative but I have a lot of flexibility.

And photography is a personal passion of mine, so I find it really fun to uncover collections that don’t get the attention that I think they deserve.

NICK: The reason I was asking about planning and how you choose which objects is that so many different institutions, like BHS or museums, have so many objects with so many stories that they run into this thing I call “Choice Paralysis.” It’s like, “I can write anything about anything, so where do I start?” So it sounds like between the historical dates that you’re tying it to, or the news and just the things that you come across, that that’s enough of guardrails to always have something to react to and not just be sitting in front of an open WordPress screen going, “Uh… what do I write today?”

TESS: Absolutely. And the goal is really to increase access to our collections and highlight new acquisitions, and also just highlight collections that maybe people don’t know about. So I really try to think about that when I decide which image I’m going to highlight for that week, but I try not to be repetitive. We have a really robust, dynamic photography collection here at BHS. And there’s just so much to work with. I feel like it’s a real gift to be able to share that with the public every week.

NICK: So who do you consider your audience? Who are you thinking of when you’re trying to figure out which objects or which photos to feature?

TESS: You know, I would say that I’m definitely thinking about researchers, but also the general public. I try to tie in research guides that we have to assist researchers in housing research, or genealogy, which is another really popular topic here. But also I just want to get people, even the general public, interested in what we have in our photography collections.

NICK: So when you say general public, does that specifically mean people with connections to Brooklyn?

TESS: Yeah, you know, I would say a lot of the subscribers to the newsletter, who I believe is how most people get acquainted with the Photo of the Week. I would say most of the people who receive the newsletter have some connection to Brooklyn. They either live her now, or they formerly lived here, they have relatives here… but our newsletter definitely reaches beyond that as well. But I would say probably the majority have some sort of connection to Brooklyn.

And so, when I’m thinking about writing the photo of the week, I’m certainly thinking about researchers, like I said, but also how I can help increase access to our collections, and highlight new collections, and connect to people who might not physically come to BHS but can draw some sort of connection to the work we’re doing here.

I think one of the most gratifying aspects of writing this weekly post is the email responses I get to the posts. We have a really lovely collection — It’s called the John Morrell collection. He was a former librarian here at BHS and he would take street photographs in nearly every single neighborhood in Brooklyn, so it’s a very well-documented collection. And as a librarian, he also added really rich metadata. And he took these photographs between the 1950s and 1960s, so I find I get a lot of response from people who formerly lived in Brooklyn. They feel some nostalgia and reflection when they see photographs of Brooklyn that they know from that period of time. It’s really exciting to receive those kinds of responses.

And, you know, also I get a lot of research requests directly through the posts. So people might see that we highlighted a specific collection and maybe want to learn more. So it’s always nice to get those types of responses where I can lead people to other resources or give them the opportunity to explore more from that collection.

NICK: That’s really awesome to hear. I think a lot of times, people when they’re creating blog posts, or social media, or other types of content, you can kind of lose track that there are people on the other side. And it sounds like your audience is not just really interested in what you’re looking at, but they’re hungry for more and they actually feel a connection to your institution in such a way that they can reach out to you and put in research requests, or dive deeper into your collections. So, that’s awesome. It sounds like, if that was a goal of Photo of the Week, it sounds like you’re definitely reaching it.

TESS: Yeah, and it’s really exciting to think… I’ve only been writing the Photo of the Week for about four years, but it started several years before I came here. And it’s really neat to see how it’s evolved and we’re in the process right now of building our new institution website. And it’s neat see that Photo of the Week is going to play a larger part than it has now. Right now, it’s just posted on our WordPress blog but we’ve been part of a conversation where Photo of the Week is going to play a prominent part on our website. So it’s really exciting to see how it’s evolved. And that’s really from the public’s interest in those weekly posts, so it’s really exciting to see that.

NICK: How cool. Well, I think that that’s great inspiration for people who are thinking about starting a blog or have one and they aren’t really sure how to use it. With that in mind, is there anything that you’ve learned over the course of doing Photo of the Week that you could give to other museum or archives professionals for creating a sustainable content plan to both further of the mission of their institution, but also one that’s sustainable and they can keep going as long this one’s been going?

TESS: I think for us, consistency has certainly been key to building an audience. We have a really set weekly schedule for creating content, and then reviewing that content and publishing, and I don’t think we could have kept it up without having some sort of set schedule like that. Also, we’re lucky that we have tons of support from our communications team. And they push out the content to our various social media platforms and through the newsletter. So think the consistency and also the support of social media has really helped to bring Photo of the Week to where it is today.

NICK: Great. Is there anything else you would want to add that we didn’t get to?

TESS: Something else I just want to add while I’m thinking about it is, I think one of the best parts for me in writing the Photo of the Week is learning more context about our collections and about the history of Brooklyn. For some posts, I really do some serious research. And that helps, not only to better inform the public but to enhance our collections. Some of this research that I do for our photographic collections, that goes back into our records to enhance our records, and make them more accessible, and to assist with research.

So that’s been an unexpected aspect for me. We have a pretty set format for how the posts are laid out, but other than that, I think before they weren’t always super historical, necessarily, or super news-related, but I think that just has to do with some of my own personal influence.

I really love learning about Brooklyn History, and it’s really nice that I have the opportunity to work with our Director of Public History and she can add details to that, or maybe correct some of the information that I find elsewhere. She really provides a new perspective on our collections as well.

NICK: That was Tess Colwell of the Brooklyn Historical Society. I want to thank Tess for talking with me about Photo of the Week, which you can find at brooklynhistory.org/blog/. And I want to thank you for listening.

If you’d like to be a guest on What’s On or know someone doing something cool for their institution, send me an email. It’s nick@cuberis.com.

To find more episodes or subscribe to What’s On, head over to cuberis.com and click “What’s On.” Or look for us on iTunes.

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?