CASE STUDY: How Walsall museum is cooler than Ben Stiller

In Ben Stiller’s  blockbuster ‘Night at the Musem’ exhibits burst to life when the public aren’t around.

Cowboys and Indians come alive and a giant dinosaur plays fetch with a bone.

Walsall museum stores aren’t quite on a par with Washington DC’s Smithsonian but one thing is the same: You’d be amazed what you can find.

Thousands of items are stored as only a fraction can be put on public display at one time.

So how would social media connect a museum stores with residents? Here’s how. In a way that is way cooler than Ben Stiller.

THE EVENT ITSELF…

One Spring Saturday, photographers of the Walsall Flickr group were given special access all areas to take pictures at Walsall Council’s museum stores.

Street signs, an ARP helmet, and typewriters were just some of the treasure trove.

So were items of the nationally important Hodson Shop collection, a huge collection of working class clothes from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Eight photographers spent more than two hours poring over hundreds of artefacts.

What resulted in an amazing explosion of pictures of often rarely seen treasures. Take a look at some of the shots here.

More than 150 images were posted on Flickr in the days after and more than a dozen positive comments were posted on the group’s discussion board.

PLANNING FOR THE EVENT…

Why bother? Why arrange this?

It’s as simple as this: what’s not to like about pictures of Walsall artefacts taken by Walsall people?

Simple as the idea was, three months of planning led to the event itself.

Much praise needs to be given to talented photographer Steph Jennings (@essitam on Twitter) and the forward-thinking Walsall museum curator Jennifer Thomson supported by collections officer Catherine Clarke. Why praise? Because both parties started from different positions and arrived at not just a workable compromise but a groundbreaking piece of work that sets new standards.

REACHING AN AGREEMENT ON  COPYRIGHT CONCERNS…

At the heart of everything was copyright.

Museums traditionally are very careful to guard copyright of their artefacts.

On the flip side, photographers are very careful to guard their copyright too.

In the past, museums have allowed photographers to take shots only in highly controlled circumstances with copyright signed away.

The Walsall approach was different.

The compromise that was brokered was this: photographers retain copyright so long as they accepted that they wouldn’t be able to bring tripods to take saleable pro shots.

That was fine as the Walsall Flickr members didn’t want to sell images.

The group also agreed to limit the size of the shots they uploaded to 1MB and agreed to ask permission before they used the images.

Crucially, what made this process work was the genuine commitment to make the event work by both Steph and the museum team.

The compromise permission form can be found here.

When social media works well it sees a two way discussion. Brilliant things can happen.

An unexpectedly marvellous spin off led to the setting-up of a museum Flickr group to encourage people to submit images.

AN UNEXPECTED SPIN-OFF…

This isn’t just shots of the museum but a place where, as Steph suggested, pics can now be submitted for ‘shadow’ exhibitions. Planning an exhibition on seaside holidays? That shot of Great Aunt Maude paddling at Weston-super-Mare can be submitted and used as part of a revolving powerpoint of similar images. That’s something the whole family can go and see. Excellent.

This isn’t a Walsall Council success story, for my money. This is a Walsall success story. It was the coming together of museum staff, the communications unit and most of all the enthusiasm of the borough’s thriving and talented Flickr group that made this work.

What we found can work here can easily work anywhere.

Hosting a Flickr meet: Five benefits to the museum.

1. Connecting with non-traditional audience.

2. Showcasing exhibits and helping to find an online audience for heritage.

3. Art. Great pictures are just that. Art. What better way to showcase your artefacts?

4. A set of marketing pictures. At Flickr members’ suggestion the group were happy for their images to be used by the musem. Many amateurs are keen to get an audience for their work in return for a link to their Flickr page and a pic credit.

5. Pictures to link to via a Twitter stream.

Attending the Flickr meet: Four benefits to the photographer.

1. Rare behind-the-scenes access.

2. Being able to retain copyright of images.

3. A unique photographic challenge.

4. A chance – if you are happy to – to showcase your work through council marketing.

Thanks to: Jennifer Thomson and Catherine Clarke from Walsall museum. Steph Jennings and the members of the Walsall Flickr group who attended the session.