Narrative, sharing and memory

Posted on April 23, 2011

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I was reading an article yesterday about new media as it relates to news processes, but its lessons seem equally applicable to the online museum.
Remembering through Sharing by Julia Sonnevend  addresses Sonnevend’s experiences and observations of entry into an online community engaged in commemorating the death of a film-maker who was brutally murder in Puerto Rico in 2009. After being introduced to the story and community through a friend, Sonnevend became engaged in both learning about – and remembering – a man whom she had never met.

She uses the experience to make two key observations that can be applied to the online museum experience.

The first is that “personalised narrative [can provide an] introduction to further narratives.” She explains:

First, it shows how introductory personalized narratives can help us when we have to choose from many competing stories. You can (and want to) provide your attention only to a very small number of stories and friends can help decide which those will be. Friends’ personalized narratives work as leads to the news items and navigate you in the jungle of news narratives.

In this age of massive data when content curation is an issue of on-going significance, personalised narratives or recommendations can provide an effective entry point into the online museum, be it through social networking sites or other forms of recommendation. If we want people to engage with our websites and collections there needs to be a personal aspect to the engagement, so that the user has a reason to invest their time and energy into the site. While a researcher might examine a collection website because he/she is seeking information on a particular artefact or group of artefacts, if we want non-experts to engage with a site there needs to be a compelling and personal point of entry.

Secondly, Sonnevend discusses sharing as a commemorative act or ‘remembering through sharing’. She writes,

Online commemoration seems a little bit like ‘news:’ central to us for a short time, but forgettable on a long run. Just like traditional news, sharing the information on social networking sites is very effective in triggering social solidarity. And personalized narratives along with personalized visual and textual memorial sites contribute to this triggering effect.

She considers both traditional and new cultural practices for social remembrance, and concludes that the act of sharing information online – through linking and online discussion – is

a quick and powerful way to express solidarity. It is quick, because it does not require more than a few seconds from you. It is powerful, because the low barriers of distribution enable you to broadcast the news to many at the same time. It is important to note, however, that in most of the cases you broadcast to a certain group of people, to your fellow ‘friends’ and ‘followers,’ but not to ‘all.’

Museums are lieux de mémoire – sites of memory. By lowering barriers to engagement and making online objects easy to share and broadcast, we can enable online communities to participate in acts of commemoration and social remembrance and grow their sense of social solidarity.

Museums might make beautiful looking and functional websites, but unless visitors have reason to personally engage with the site and to connect its contents with their own lives, then surely the relationship will be superficial at best. Engagement will come when visitors have an emotional connection to the site and a reason to invest further in it – like when the experience is emotionally rewarding (and maybe even fun!). Personalised narratives can provide a vehicle to get people in, and lowered barriers of engagement can give them a reason to broadcast and share those stories with others. Therefore, when designing museum websites – or apps – maybe we need to consider why someone would personally engage with the site, and how to ensure they broadcast their engagement to get others involved too.

Posted in: Museums