I was a teenager once. Although it feels like a long time ago. It was definitely before mobile phones, Facebook and emojis. And I remember having to use books for school research rather than the internet. In reality it was less than 20 years ago but a lot of things have moved on since then and although I have tried to move along with them (I have a mobile phone, Facebook account and occasionally use 🙂 ), I am definitely seen as a grown up by most young people under 25.
So when we were putting together a proposal for the exhibition, Fashion Cities Africa, and we knew we wanted a good proportion of the audience to be 25 or under, I thought we might need to recruit some help.
We were working with PR company Ariatu and media partner Nataal, both of whom encouraged us to become more active on social media to help spread word about the exhibition. I started thinking about how I could combine the skills of young avid social media users with some of the amazing colourful, interesting content coming out of the development of the exhibition…..
Discussions with Royal Pavilion & Museums’ Digital Development Manager made me realize we were thinking along the same lines – let’s try and encourage conversations online, rather than simply giving information. A presentation organized by Culture 24, by 16 and 17 year olds from the Brit School, Croydon, emphasized the point that they are more likely to listen to recommendations or opinions of their friends than a faceless voice online. This seems obvious but how to make yourself known to that age group in the first place?
Three months before Fashion Cities Africa was due to open, we decided to recruit a team of Digital Ambassadors: a group of young people, aged 16-25, with their own active social media accounts and a strong interest in fashion. I approached Brighton Fashion Week who contacted their database of volunteers on our behalf and ten young people said they would love to be involved. In return for their time, we offered them exclusive behind the scenes access to the exhibition installation, interviews with curators and designers, a training day with professional Instagram artist 5ftinf and Ariatu PR, invitations to the press launch and private view, and copies of the accompanying catalogue.
We had no agenda or control as to what they wrote on their social media accounts about the museum or exhibition. My role was to facilitate their access to content, which they could then do with what they chose. We were genuinely interested in their responses, good or bad.
I gave them a list of dates every few weeks where they could come in and see what was happening, take photos, meet people connected with the exhibition, and also said that if anything particularly took their interest then we could look at it in more depth. One of the participants said she was really interested in textiles so she accompanied the exhibition curator Helen Mears to a London market to buy fabrics for the exhibition.
Despite a broad interest in fashion it was really interesting to see the different approaches they all took and the different elements of it they found interesting. Molly and Hermione were really interested in the different fabrics and textiles in the exhibition. Victoria and Emma focused on how exhibitions are put together and meeting the designers and curators. Keilah took slightly quirky photos and created instavideos of the mannequins.
There were nerves on both sides to start with. The Digital Ambassadors were all slightly hesitant that they were really allowed to take photos behind the scenes and ask questions to the curators who were installing. We were also nervous about giving access to the exhibition before it opened, so as not to reveal too much too early.
But I was keen not to edit the Digital Ambassador photos or posts. I asked them to be mindful not to give too much away until the opening and they respected that and produced some enticing, tantalising posts.
The Digital Ambassadors aren’t just ‘ones to watch’ for the future of blogging/Instagramming/tweeting; they are at the forefront of what is becoming a prominent means of communication and connecting with others. It’s impossible to tell whether social media posts by the Ambassadors translated into their friends or followers visiting the exhibition itself, other than word of mouth feedback. Has it impacted on the demographic of the audience engaging with the exhibition, whether online or in person? Does knowing this matter? It was a participatory experiment to try and discover how to make museum exhibitions and events excite someone under the age of 25 enough to talk about it to their friends. In the lead up to the opening, the exhibition and the role of Digital Ambassador held the interest of about six of the original ten participants. For whatever reason, not everyone made it to the opening night. But the six who came told their friends, who may even have told their friends…..it’s definitely a role we would like to explore further, with future exhibitions and different interest groups and even more Digital Ambassadors….watch this space.
Thanks to the Museums Association Transformers programme and Culture 24 for their support of this pilot project. Thanks also to Emma, Victoria, Ruby, Keilah and Molly for sharing their images with us.
Jody East, Creative Programming Curator