Thursday, 17 November 2011

Virtual Existence & Social Media

Abstract presented by Andrew S. Bowman of the Carnamah Historical Society & Museum at the At the Frontier 2011 joint annual conference of Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia #MAIA2011.

My aim is to broaden your perspective of virtual existence.

I say virtual existence rather than website, as “website” may conjure thoughts of a static simple site that provides details of your organisation, museum, collection and how to visit. Those things are great but that’s not a virtual existence – that’s promotional marketing. Besides plugging your physical presence it leaves the online visitor with quite a hollow online experience.

No one would visit your museum if it contained nothing but information on your organisation. A museum contains a collection and if you want a similar online patronage then your virtual existence should as well.

So how do we benchmark a good virtual existence?

I believe it is one that can exist without your physical existence. If your museum was no longer there would your website still have relevance and a purpose? Ideally a solid virtual existence should sit alongside the physical presence – not beneath it.

So what’s the key?

You need proper content on your site! Something for people to see, watch, read, enjoy, contribute to, follow or comment on.

Taking a sidestep for a moment, why does your organisation exist?

What are your aims and objectives? Why was your organisation formed? Was it founded to get people through a museum door? Probably not. The answer likely lies somewhere around sharing a collection, facts, knowledge, thoughts, ideas, feelings, history, telling stories, educating people or encouraging reflection. All of these things can be achieved online, and potentially with a much larger audience.

There’s this fear out there that putting more online will remove the need for people to visit in person. But will it? Or will it make them more interested in visiting? It isn’t so much about closing the doors to the museum, but about widening them.

Open those doors!

The internet is open 24 hours a day and puts up no geographical restraints. It also provides an opportunity for incidental visitors – those people who don’t know a thing about you, but are able to discover you through an internet search relating to your content (oh, it’s that content word again!).

The internet also lacks a lot of the constraints we experience in the physical museum. For one, space is not a problem. You don’t have to take something down to add something else – you just get bigger! There’s also no conservation issues such as time-limited displays or restrictions on light-sensitive items.

Now that I’ve hopefully loaded you up with theory, let’s go to Carnamah!

Carnamah is a town and farming district 300 kilometres north of Perth in the Mid West of Western Australia. We’re a small historical society with a small museum and a growing virtual existence.

The above statistics for our site are averages for the past three years. Our own visits to the site are exluded by filtering out our IP addresses. Over recent times our online visitor numbers have been increasing, and so have return visits (people visiting the site again). There are 658 individual people who over the past three years have visited our site over 200 times.

I’d like to highlight the point that only 3% of searches included Carnamah – this means if we had a site with less content we’d probably be getting just those 3%, or maybe even less.

So what is our content?

We have a small virtual museum (using images, maps, illustrations and photographs of objects), slideshows of historical photographs, relevant videos from YouTube, reproductions of historical booklets, four cemeteries (with reproductions of their interment books and/or photos of all headstones), and histories with accompanying photos.

We have a page promoting our physical museum and the Macpherson Homestead (under our custodianship) but these aren’t given any more priority than any of other online content.

Our most popular content, and the mainstay of our virtual existence, is our databases of past residents. This began as the Database of Carnamah’s Past Residents and can now be seen on our website as the Carnamah-Winchester Database. The database brings together referenced information from electoral rolls, postal directories, rate books, oral histories, contributions, newspapers and hundreds of other resources. We’ve since started two additional databases for the neighbouring districts of Coorow and Three Springs.

Collectively the three databases span 85 six-metre pages on our site, and if printed out at size 10 point Times New Roman would span half a kilometre. They presently contain 2,171,270 words on over 30,000 people.

In a physical museum it is important to have a defined focus, especially with constraints on room. Online this isn’t such an issue so we’re pleased to have a more regional presence online – which also puts Carnamah into better historical context.

Most people who visit us online arrive via a Google search of a name, event, place or other terms that are mentioned within our database or other online content. It draws in the people who weren’t looking for us but are interested in what we have.

Does virtual mean less real/physical?

One day a curator at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra did a Google search on soldier settlement. Carnamah had four soldier settlement estates after the First World War so it was a search term that featured highly in our content.

As a direct result of our virtual content Carnamah is now featured at the National Museum. The Landmarks gallery is split into ten themes and Carnamah, along with two other places, make up the theme Extending the Farmlands. Much of the interpretative detail used in the section on Carnamah was sourced from the Carnamah-Winchester Database on our website.

We undoubtedly get more visitors to our physical museum from our virtual existence. This is for three reasons:
  • Exposure - people find out about us and that we exist.
  • Interest - the content of our website gives a lot of people a reason to visit. Many weren't familiar with Carnamah but our content gives many an interest in visiting Carnamah, discovering its past and visiting our museum.
  • Presence - we're out there Facebooking, tweeting and blogging and reminding people we're still there and what we're up to.

Social Media

We have Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Blogger.


We started our blog in May and have since posted 25 times. I’ve tried to keep its content mixed and varied – just as you would in a museum or on a website. Different content appeals to different people. Our posts vary between additions to our website, what’s happening with our museum, history pieces, things we’re up to and also general interest but locally relevant posts – like stunning photographs taken in Coorow during the recent wildflower season.

This is a screenshot from our blog. This particular post is the sharing of a local railway ticket that was purchased at online auction website eBay and then posted out from the UK.

From reading our blog post on Carnamah’s inclusion at the National Museum I was asked to submit an article about Carnamah for Musing, the tri-annual publication to the members of Museums Australia WA.


The photos in slideshows on our website are hosted on Flickr. It’s free to use unless you want to upload large volumes within a short time and then it costs US$25 a year, or less if you are a non-profit organisation. We have about 500 photos live on Flickr but will be expanding this into the thousands. It’s easy to organise the photos into what Flickr calls sets, which are like albums. The below screenshot is for a set detailing a farm in Winchester (southern Carnamah) in the late 1920s.

A big plus of Flickr is that it that it has the provision for people to leave comments on photos, as shown in the above screenshot. One of our most popular sets on Flickr (and duplicated as a slideshow on our website) is our “Mystery Photographs – Can You Help?” set. We request help for identifying people, places or with dating and have received great assistance from the public.


We’ve had Facebook for three years and have found that some people who wouldn’t e-mail us are quite willing to leave comments or questions on our Facebook wall. It’s a nice forum for sharing, commenting and discussing. Our Facebook has become a blend of us posting things (with subsequent likes and/or comments) and also visitors leaving feedback.

Note that most of these people have visited our website – not our physical museum. If we didn’t have content on our site I doubt they’d have become interested enough to follow us on Facebook.

I’m uncomfortable at posting on Facebook more than once a day. From personal experience pages that post a lot become increasingly annoying.


Twitter has a different culture and a very different following to Facebook. I don’t see any problem with tweeting multiple times a day. If you use Twitter well it works in two directions. Don’t just use it to announce what you have to say but follow others and read what they’re up to. It’s very useful for ideas, news, trends and to stay connected with other people and/or organisations.

From Twitter we discovered One Place Studies and in October we were their region of the month! Meanwhile Inside History magazine discovered us through Twitter – and we’re featured in a two-page spread in their current Issue#7.


Branding is useful to tie everything together. Our CA logo (from an old vehicle licence plate in our museum) and our stonework backdrop (from our Macpherson Homestead) are used everywhere. You’ll see them on our social media, our blog, website, business cards, and so on. We've also gone with the short and consistent username of "carnamah" across all social media as well as our domain.

Are we at the frontier? I don’t really think we are. The frontier has been here for a while but we’ve just been a bit slow at taking advantage of it. Many cry out that money is the obstacle but platforms like Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube are all free. There are grants available to help with funding and the examples of others are there to provide ideas.

Another often-stated reason is that there's no one who can do the work. It may be of interest to note that I live in Perth – some 300 kilometres from Carnamah – yet I manage the Society’s virtual existence (website, social media, etc). One’s geographic location is almost irrelevant when it comes to the virtual world of the internet.

I’d be really happy to discuss any of these points further. I don't believe Carnamah is a perfect example but for a small organisation we're a fair effort.

Related blog posts:

Carnamah Historical Society & Museum:

1 comment:

  1. Thnx Andrew. Great post and good to hear how a smaller museum is using these tools in interesting and cost-effective ways. Keep up the good work!