An Interview with Mark Graham, Blogger and Director of Research at the Canadian Museum of Nature

You've been blogging since 2008. Why did you start?

I work at the Canadian Museum of Nature, one of Canada’s national museums. It is a place that does science research based on the vast collection that we have and add to regularly. We discovered that most of our audience did not know anything about our research and why it is important. I started blogging because it seemed like a good way to tell those research stories.

Is your blog written to serve a primary purpose or department (e.g. marketing, or education)?

The purpose of the blog is to better explain what goes on at a significant scientific institution. So the stories are about one of the museum’s core roles, to conduct scientific research. That said, as a director of research, it’s hard not to admit that it dwells on the activities of my department.

Do you find that your online community is different to the 'real' museum community? In other words, do people visit your blog, watch the YouTube videos, or follow the museum's tweets as a result of their interest after having visited the museum, or are most of your visitors people who may not have the opportunity to visit the museum in person?

My online community mostly interacts with me through the web. After that, there is great hope that any inspiration will lead to further interactions with us, or other natural history media, virtually or otherwise. There are some exceptions. For example, when I give lectures I always let everyone know that I write a science blog. Directly before and after my talks there are spikes in visits to the blog. As a national museum, we are always thinking of better ways to be successful at our mission across this huge country. We know we are very good with people who walk in the front door and we are trying to be better at reaching others who interact with us virtually.

I've noticed that you don't have comments on your blog. Have you blocked this function, and if so, what is the reasoning for that?

Under the title of each article in tiny letters, there is a link to the comment box. I’m not sure why it is so small, but that is the way it was set up. Maybe that is why I get so few comments?

Is there anything unique about the ways in which social networking operates for museums?

I follow a few museum sites, but I cannot comment on the entire museum community. I can tell you that museums try very hard to keep track of all kinds of outreach tools. The rapid developments in digital social media is a major preoccupation for communications of all sorts. We discovered that to keep a community interested, we need a group of bloggers so that posting can happen frequently – more frequently than one person with other full-time duties can handle. So our next phase of blogging will see a new post every week from someone in our group of staff writers.

Do you think that the activity of a museum's online community could affect funding at some point in the future (if it doesn't already)? For instance, is a museum with a gazillion virtual visitors more likely to get federal grants?

If anyone can provide dependable insight into how to get museum funds from federal sources in Canada, they will have a momentous consulting business. That said, the more relevant a museum is to civil society when it carries out its mission, the more valuable it is as a cultural institution. If we had a gazillion followers through digital media (or even a billion), we would certainly use that in funding applications to make a case for our impact on civil society. Currently, federal funders are more interested in who visits the museum in-person because that involves entry fees, parking, hot dogs, the gift shop, etc. Financial sustainability is a priority with cultural institutions because federal funding sources have other important financial preoccupations. We also use digital media for our development efforts, from membership drives to donations.

Does the museum plan to go on foursquare? If so, could users ‘check in’ to individual exhibits and achieve Foursquare titles/status like Deputy of the End of the Earth Exhibition?

We have a very savvy Web Team and I am sure they are assessing all of our efforts, including Foursquare. We currently give a little taste of the exhibit on the web and try to encourage in-person visits. We also support many other digital media methods for sharing information.

How about second life? Any plans for that? And in a similar vein – how far do you think a museum should take their activities on social networking (SN) platforms? Do you foresee museums hiring a SN department to manage and promote the online community? Would that be reasonable...or ridiculous?

The Canadian Museum of Nature is trying to encourage Canadians to make the most out of their first life, the one that occurs in the natural environment, here, in-person, on Earth. Our mission is to connect people with nature. I think a balance of social media that conveys inspiring messages, yet allows enough time to at least walk over to a window and look at the birds flying by would be a start. Hopefully people will walk boldly outside, over to a park, touch a tree, identify a flower and eventually develop a complete passion for the natural environment. Let me step off the soapbox for a moment and say that use of social media by museums is extremely important because we have to maintain market share (financial sustainability) and outreach (social relevance). How we do that will be different from one place to the next, from reality to virtual reality. I am sure that larger institutions, such as the Smithsonian, the Natural History Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would be right in line for more extensive Web Teams that include specialists in social media. What is reasonable for each museum, as an entire social media department or as a few resourceful enthusiasts, is to understand the nature and importance of rapidly emerging applications and provide an orientation for their institution to use these tools for the best advantage of everyone.

Photo credit: Mark Graham, Canadian Museum of Nature