Collecting Cultural Colloquialisms: The Art of Social Tagging

Julia Kennedy

Marketing & Aud Dev Associate

There’s been a long shift in the trajectory of the museum world from focusing on the collection to focusing on the visitor. One of the best things about digital trends is they can often be the intersection of both.

Take social tagging.

According to a recent Hyperallergic article, social tagging is a new way to combat the age-old problem of appealing to every visitor.

As author Daisy Alioto points out in the article:

“Established art museums aren’t really known for responsiveness to the individual wants of visitors. Theoretically, the best art exhibitions respond to the emotional and conceptual requirements of their time, rather than to individual tastes. In practice, it is beholden to the Patron (the elite group of funders who underwrite museums) and not the patron (your everyday ticket-holding museum-goer).”

Technology can help museums out with this problem In the past, we’ve profiled why newly available technology initiatives are not only awesome, but important, like the sending art to your inbox initiative from SFMOMA.

Art that comes right to your inbox from SFMoMA

Whether or not tech actually enhances the visitor experience onsite or online ultimately comes down to accessibility.

Thomas Vander Wal, the information architect who coined the term ‘folksonomy’, used the term to describe our cultural colloquialisms that eventually filter to the masses. This crowdsourced naming approach can still be seen today, with most posts on social platforms peppered with hashtags.

The Hyperallergenic article tells the story of how the Met became interested in the idea of bringing hashtags to their collections:

“At the time, the museum was aware that many people visiting its digital archives were struggling to find what they were looking for. It was a classic case of jargon vs. conventional language, Susan Chun said. If the Met could just find a way to get the public to catalogue the archives themselves, then they would know that the system was user-friendly.”

With the help of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Chun and other museum colleagues created Steve, a social media tagging project that acts as a collaborative effort to improve public access to and engagement with US art museum collections.

Understanding how visitors experience something authentically and naturally is a big goal of museums. The desire for authentic engagement even firms the case for museums to cut out academic jargon, because making collections accessible online or IRL often makes for better visitor experiences.

The use for social tagging isn’t limited to cataloging works of art. Social tagging can also help understanding visitors by:

  • Finding language that can help educators, interpreters, and docents use better verbiage to describe objects.
  • Making connections between a  wider variety of people, adding a richer, fuller history to objects and collections.
  • Collecting data that can be used for a limitless amount of tech, from apps to web platforms within a singular museum, or beyond, to regional, national or even international uses.

Technology also allows smaller museums to exist on the same platform as larger institutions, which lets small treasures tucked away in local museums share the spotlight with larger, more well-known collections.

What do you think would be an awesome application to come from social tagging? Let us know in comments.

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