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Virtual engagement

Publication Date : 17-05-2012


When the Palace Museum registered a Sina Weibo account on Jan 1, 2011, it took merely five hours to collect about 100,000 followers. The multitudes' sudden emergence stunned the account's operators.

"We tried to use Weibo because we're aware of its power for direct communication. But we didn't expect it would be so popular," Feng Nai'en, one of the account's three operators, says.

The burgeoning of new media platforms like weibo, a Chinese term for "micro blog", have given museum managers new inspiration.

Over the past two years, about 100 museums in China have registered official micro blogs, rushing to create useful public communication platforms, Chinese Museum Association vice-president and secretary general An Laishun says.

"Museums are using micro blogs, like many other sectors, whether they fully realise this is a trend or not," An says.

"The positive role micro blogs have had on museum development is evident."

The Palace Museum's micro blog is not only one of the first opened by a museum but also one of the most popular, with nearly 900,000 followers.

Its three operators work in shifts to answer followers' questions, in addition to doing their regular work. The job often lasts from 8:30 am until midnight.

They also post messages about the museum's history, collections, buildings and e-shop. And they tweet information about exhibitions, forums, research achievements and activities.

"All the museums' micro blogs are similar in form," says Palace Museum micro blog operator and public relations officer Chang Lingxing.

"Our content is usually more serious, because we have such a broad audience and we're careful to avoid disputable messages. Some museums might be more lax on this."

But "serious" is a relative term here, as many of the Palace Museum's tweets are lighthearted. For example, followers often refer to the individual who answers questions as "Gu Gu" or "Brother Gu" - a reference to the Forbidden City's Chinese name, Gu Gong.

Chang says operators try to pepper their posts with humour, while maintaining the standards of accuracy, timeliness and depth.

It's in the same mindset the National Museum of China, with more than 900,000 followers on Sina Weibo, launches such social media events, with four other museums, as Show the Cuteness of Museums for International Museum Day on May 18.

The museums have been posting funny illustrations and pictures of their collections, while encouraging followers to do the same.

Many netisens have participated in the light-hearted activity. Every museum also provides small gifts for those who join up.

The National Museum's introduction says the intention is to amuse netisens and show the museum's lively side to kindle public interest.

"Museums have gradually come down from the ivory tower to engage the public and play a role in cultural life," An says.

"They're willing to interact with people on an equal footing, which is why their micro blogs are becoming so popular."

He says micro blogs provide new platforms for social education, while also providing new outlets for feedback on museums' operations.

"Not only can people use these channels to learn about museums and their collections, but also, they can participate in management," An says.

Most questions are about regulations, tickets and collections.

But more sophisticated questions about more esoteric topics are brought up by such history and natural science buffs as Dong Jin. The 33-year-old Beijing freelance writer follows dozens of museums on Sina Weibo.

Some fans like Dong provide information to other users, in which cases the museums' weibo operators join the discussions and consult with experts to ensure the information's accuracy, Chang, with the Palace Museum, explains.

Dong says micro blogs provide an opportunity to directly interact with museums, especially those in other cities.

"Many museums have official websites, but I don't have time to browse them," he says.

"Micro blogs are more like live broadcasts. I've learned a lot from them. And micro blogs have melted museums' stuffy character, enticing more people to visit."

But it's not just museums interacting with fans on micro blogs. Museums often interact among themselves and cooperate through social networks, explains Duan Zhisha, a micro blog operator of the Shaanxi Provincial Museum in the province's capital Xi'an.

"We follow one another and often engage in private communications," Duan explains.

"We collect information about other museums while posting our own messages. Most of us were born after 1980."

Shaanxi Provincial Museum's micro blog was registered at the end of 2010 and has more than 20,000 followers. Duan says she has enriched her knowledge while publishing messages and answering questions.

"Weibo is part of my workday," says Duan, who's also the museum's web editor.

"But I usually stay online, so followers can reach me anytime. The job involves a lot of communication, and that suits my personality. Followers' interests and topics change, so it's never monotonous."


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