Is Bigger Always Better?: How the Public Views Large and Small Museums

“Do you like us on Facebook?” is a common question on museum websites today.  In the current digital age, many organizations are concerned with how to better represent themselves through social media.  On the flip side, through sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp, organizations are being represented through people’s reviews.  Museums can use these reviews to gain public feedback on how well the public likes the museum, engages with the museum, and considers the best assets of the museum.

For my print project, I would like to research the differences in how large and small museums are represented on Tripadvisor and Yelp. I would like to see if people have different experiences at smaller museums versus bigger museums. Do people feel a more intimate connection with small museums? Do people find large museums impersonal?  I would also like to discover if museums get their central theme across to visitors and if reviewers comment on this theme. In the more intimate setting of a smaller museum, do visitors understand the central theme better?

The idea that visitors who have a more engaging experience become more interested is well-supported by the University of Iowa Libraries’ successful experiment with crowdsourcing, as described in “Crowdsourcing the Civil War: Insights Interview with Nicole Saylor.”  I will use Saylor’s insight on when people more intimately engage with history, such as transcribing Civil War letters, they become more engrossed in the history.  I would like to see if people’s experiences at small museums reflect this intimacy and thus heightened interest and connection.

These reviews can also provide insight into the many different ways museums reach visitors.  Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, in Digital History, illustrate how the web connects people with history in more ways than ever and museums should find ways to better reach audiences through this new medium.  I will also research if people comment on the presence of museums on the web. Are larger museums better represented on the web given their greater access to more resources? Does this provide people with a different experience than smaller museums? Does an online presence decrease the intimacy of smaller museums?

To study if there are differences among how smaller and larger museums are discussed on social web sites, I will concentrate my study on six sites (three small, three large) in Washington, D.C.  I will look at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Newseum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The smaller museums I will look at are the American Red Cross Museum, Frederick Douglass Historic House Site, and Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. If there is a large amount of comments, I will use the digital tool Voyer to find repeated themes.

My hope is that this study will reveal the differences between small and large museums and how all types of museums can engage with social media. These museums can realize their uniqueness and understand what visitors take away from their visits . Even though smaller museums will be less represented on these travel sites, this study might reveal how these smaller museums can appeal to more people by emphasizing what reviewers found most compelling. Museums can further their appeal when they consider public input.  These social web sites allow museums to understand how visitors think of a certain museum, what they find most meaningful, and what they connect with the most. Isn’t it every public historian’s dream to better understand how to connect with their audience?!

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