The Virtual Museum Visitor: The 16th National Museum Publishing Seminar

The 16th National Museum Publishing Seminar took place June 12-14 in Boston.  A biannual conference, it attracted a broad group of about 200 museum publishers, from the smallest college museum or UK art book publisher, to the Met, Getty, and Yale University Press.  Yale’s John Donatich was the keynote speaker on Saturday and gave a rousing talk on “Why Books Still Matter.”

With two years to prepare, the program was well-conceived, and the participants well prepped.  Most of the museums are grappling with integrating digital into their organization charts, so time was spent discussing what that might look like.  Museums like SFMoMA have one “Chief Content Officer” (Chad Coerver) overseeing both books and online, while the Met, for instance, has 70 people in its digital group alone.  Many museums like the Menil Collection, have one or two people who do it all.

At the last meeting in Chicago in 2012, there was much talk and a presentation of the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI).  Now the project has proven itself, and museums like Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA and Washington Museum are moving to create online publishing for collection catalogues. There is also a lot of work being done around archival material – from books to monographs, museum publications, etc.  The behemoth Met created a MetPublications section on its site, where books can be browsed, bought and some even printed on demand. (Associate Publisher Gwen Roginsky says that even the curators are happy with the quality.)  Print books were scanned, and are housed on the Google Books platform.  The Guggenheim, which has much of its collection available online, has an ambitious program that allows users to buy and download many monographs, but the download numbers have been disappointing.

In fact, despite impressive experimentation (the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is using crowd-sourced material in its Anselm Kiefer book), ebook downloads and sales continue to elude most players.  The Hirshhorn did an experiment with Ai WeiWei’s exhibition, where they offered a $39.95 hardcover book, a $5 magazine (basically just the pictures) and a $19.95 ebook.  The book sold 10,000, the magazine sold 20,000, and the ebook sold about 200.

Like publishers, museums are fascinated by data, especially data about their physical versus virtual visitors.  Charles Kim talked about surveys that MoMA has been collecting, to the tune of 3 million print and online questionnaires.  Its new visitor guide, Audio+, has nine languages available and allows visitors to share pictures they like, and save information that can later be accessed off their own phones.  This gives the museum useful information about how people visit, what they choose to photograph and save, etc.  Dallas Museum’s Rob Stein says that visitors there can walk around, checking in when they move to a new room, and rating their experiences.  So far, 68,000 visitors have chosen to do so.

Like trade publishers, museum editors and publishers worry about discoverability.  But increasingly, dazzling museum websites are enabling publishers to make their titles – often the entire content of their books – accessible to scholars and interested visitors.  Of course, when that doesn’t translate to a sale or a download, it’s easier to justify that it is nevertheless helping the organization’s “mission.” Alas, trade publishers haven’t yet figured out how to do that.