Photo: Run With Scissors, Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND.

Guest post by Sébastien Magro, Digital Project Manager at Musée du Quai Branly – Jaques Chirac.

In a few days, I will celebrate my 6th workversary at Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a French Paris-located museum, dedicated to arts and civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Here are a few things that I have learned over the past years; these thoughts could be useful to my colleagues in other museums, as well as other professionals, students and researchers working in a #musesocial context.

Know your museum

It might sound obvious, but knowing your institution really is essential. Let me tell you a secret: back at the end of 2011, while in the recruitment process to join quai Branly, I was also discussing joining Centre Pompidou. I was thrilled about working on modern art and contemporary art, collections that I was more familiar with than ethnographic collections. It turned out that I had a positive answer from quai Branly before Centre Pompidou’s, but I never regretted it: I discovered impressive collections and research fields, I learned to be reflexive on my very own cultural and digital practices, thanks to reading anthropology and ethnology books.

Being familiar with your collections, having a proper knowledge of your exhibitions and events program allows you to be more efficient when answering online audience questions. It also allows you to save time in your daily tasks and to be able to react to the news in a smart way. Over the years, I have learned to use resources and tools that are produced by my colleagues of other departments and units, among them the Education and Communication Departments (contrary to most museums, my unit, the web and new media unit, is in Exhibitions and overall production), like visiting an exhibition with the curator(s) before the opening or browsing through various print materials and resources. Of course, when needed, I turn to my colleagues for specific informations, for example the Research and Collections Departments, or the Media Library.

Don’t judge your audience’s practices

Even if our audience studies tend to portrait our typical museum visitor as a middle-aged, urban, educated mom, our audience is not a homogeneous group. Visitors may visit while still under jet lag influence, they may be excited and looking for a long waited-for visit; or they may be quite bored and unimpressed at a visit that was imposed to them by school or by family; they might even be tired after a long work week or visiting with boisterous kids. Our visitors are not all White, wealthy, urban, able, straight, cisgender people. They come to the museum with their own personality, identity, personal life story, and all of this has an influence over the way they perceive the museum. Many visitors are not aware of the difference between a permanent presentation and a short-time exhibition, some do not know that other things than exhibitions happen in museums: live performance shows, family workshops, public lectures and talks, etc. As on line museum educators, social media managers have to take account of their audience’s specificity. We have the subtle task of speaking to everybody as a whole, while addressing everyone as an individual. That is the reason why we sometime have to segment our offer.

The best example is the selfie vogue: as many, I am puzzled by the impressive number of selfies some visitors can take while at the museum (toilets), and I may have judged this practice sometimes. But, has demonstrated by researchers like Danah Boyd, even if taking selfies can appear as nothing more than egocentric storytelling, it is a complex practice that goes far beyond being self-centred. Museums social media managers have to accept that they cannot understand, know and/or share our all of their audience’s practices. We have to accept them without judging them, sometime to accompany them, sometimes only to observe them, in order to report these practices to our chiefs and directors, and let them choose if they want to listen and adapt the museum offer – or not.

Don’t believe your audience has the same use of social media that you have

As a corollary to the previous point, it is quite easy to think that you and your audience share an identical use of social media. Missing the hype of an emerging platform because you don’t have a personal use of it or organizing your editorial line around you own interests: the risk is high of lacking a lucid view on social media practices, and using your institution’s social media accounts the same way as you use your own.

Here is a relevant example: back in November 2014, Star Wars VII trailer made quite an impression on social media – I mean, Twitter was literally crawling under reactions to the return of the long awaited saga. I tweeted a joke (in French) which, to this day, remain our most popular tweet ever. The following year, as the film it self opened in theatres, I prepared a dozen tweets with the help from curators and librarians at the museums. They were based on our collections and aimed at showing how Star Wars was ’inspired’ by cultural productions from non-Western civilizations: costumes and fabrics, hairdressing, jewels, languages, architecture, etc.

Of course, I wouldn’t have posted these Twitter threads without a relevant material and, of course, their great success has to do with news-jacking the opening of the film. However, I realised afterwards that the initial idea was mainly based on my own geekiness… Talking to geeks and getting them to be interested in the museum is fine, but what if it gets other people to feel excluded from the party? The balance is subtle and quite hard to achieve: you should not ”try to hard” and you should choose the right media, all of this while showing the objects you are dealing with and their authors/creators the respect they deserve. Museum social media managers have to accept that they cannot speak to everyone and that, sometimes, targetting a specific audience is perfectly fine as long as they are relevant and respectful.

Prepare for the worst – even if you have reasons to hope for the best

Even if you have reasons to hope for the best… From crisis situations on a national level to bad buzz aimed at your institution, being a social media manager means expecting the unexpected, and accepting everything that goes beyond your reach. And when I say expect the unexpected, I mean literally everything: like this shorter paragraph.

Let it go

When you are a young professional and/or starting a new position in a museum, it can be hard to take a distance: you’re young and bold, you get very committed to your job, you love giving your audience the best service possible. Then one day, you get confronted to aggressive comments, hostility, trolls. As in any other job, we have to cope with frustration, sometimes even anger and that ’nobody-understands-what-I am-going-through’ feeling. But, more than in any other job, social media managers tend to bear the burden of their belonging to an institution even when they are not working.

As time goes by, you learn to disconnect at night, on the weekends and while on vacation. You literally learn to let it go (there is no need being an ice queen for that), and get invested in other projects outside of your job, even if it means giving up the early days passion. Social media managers convey the institution’s voice to the public and deliver the audience’s voice to the museum top management. They play a central part in the museum-visitors relationship, but they are not the museum itself. Letting go of the early days passion allows to acquire serenity and confidence, while coping with the fact that we cannot answer every single person. Being humble as to the limits of what you can – and cannot – do allows you to do it better.

Et voilà!

As a conclusion, I would like to stress out the fact that, while part of my job description makes me the social media manager, I have never been the only community manager at musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. Three of our Facebook pages (only available in French, that is the reason why I do not link them here) are managed by my colleagues from the Education, Media Library and Auditorium Departments. Moreover, we have been using a third-party management tool for 3 years now, that allows 10-12 employees to publish on the museum’s accounts. I would like to thank them for their commitment and their creativity — thank you all, guys!