That’s the way they ‘like’ it

Cultural bodies such as the National Gallery of Modern Art, Sahitya Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi need to perk up their use of the social media

Published - July 26, 2012 10:12 am IST

Lalit Kala's Facebook page could do with a makeover. Photos: Shanker Chakravarty

Lalit Kala's Facebook page could do with a makeover. Photos: Shanker Chakravarty

With social media having transformed methods of publicity and outreach across the world, slowly but surely this revolution has touched institutions associated with the Indian government as well. Bodies like the Sahitya Akademi, the Lalit Kala Akademi and the National Gallery of Modern Art opened their accounts on popular social media site Facebook some nine months ago.

And while their pages are not very exciting, to get them moving in this direction was a feat in itself, accomplished largely due to the efforts of Abhay Kumar, former Deputy Secretary, Public Diplomacy, in the External Affairs Ministry, whose personal interest motivates him to keep nudging a sluggish bureaucracy. He says it took him two years to convince the institutions. At every NGMA exhibition, he would remind the director Rajeev Lochan of the need to start the project. He also wrote to Jawahar Sircar, then Secretary, Culture. Finally, says Kumar, Lochan invited him to discuss the matter, and one of the employees maintaining NGMA's website was entrusted with maintaining the Facebook page.

The page is slow moving. “There's not much happening because they don't do many events,” explains Kumar, adding he has suggested they could put a 'photo of the day' or share videos of past events. He also suggests calling for people to share their videos and selecting a winner who would get free entry to the next show. These efforts would only be making more creative use of the medium with available resources. Even the work done so far, he says, has been at “zero cost”.

With NGMA on Facebook, Kumar found it easier to win over the Akademis. “They were worried about what is the policy of the government. I told them NGMA is also under the Ministry of Culture, so you don't need guidelines since they have a Facebook page."

Now though, he adds, National Social Media Guidelines have been made available by the Department of Information Technology.

As for outreach, there is unfortunately not much traffic at LKA's page either, which announces that some 470-odd people ‘like’ it, or at Sahitya Akademi's page, which had notched up some 512 ‘likes’ by early July. The Sangeet Natak Akademi lags behind with less than half the number. ‘People talking about this’ are in the single digits. (‘Liking’ an institution's Facebook page is the counterpart of becoming a ‘friend’ in the case of individual accounts.) NGMA presents a better face, with ‘likes’ crossing the 1440 mark and some 50-odd ‘talking about this’. But a comparison with the pages of major art institutions in other countries makes our ponderous cultural bodies' social media presence look decidedly unsocial.

It's not just that the Facebook page of the Tate Museum of Modern Art, London, has been visited by over 93,000 users, or that The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, has a page ‘liked’ by well over a million and visited by over 229,000. It's more to do with the busy interactivity on these pages, with works of art posted, discussions and comments pouring in and information constantly updated.

Facebook is not the only social media site used by museums of Europe and the U.S. The Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid, for example, which first created a Facebook page in September 2009, is also on Twitter, Google + and Youtube. “These are the main ones although we are also on Foursquare and ArtBabble,” notes Javier Pantoja, Head of Web and Communication online at the museum, over email.

If Kumar spent two years convincing authorities, the Prado functionaries had no such opposition. Asked if Prado loyalists felt entering the social media meant trivialising the reputation of the august museum known for its vast collection of European arts from the 12th to the 19th century, Mr Pantoja replies, “On the contrary, we feel that they were very happy to see the Museum promoting its activities, exhibitions and collection through these media.”

As Kumar points out, while a website is a static medium, Facebook is dynamic. “It's a very important medium for engagement,” he says. “You can start a dialogue process.” Mr Pantoja mentions that besides informing and engaging with the public, “it allows us to answer visitor’s practical questions in real time and to improve their visit experience by providing further information about paintings, activities, exhibitions, etc. It also contributes to increase the number of visits to our website and the knowledge of Prado’s collection.”

The Indian institutions would do well to learn from this example, but Kumar is upbeat. Remarking that “social media is a great democratising force,” he counts among the key successes of his office the bringing of 70 Indian embassies and missions on social media. “We have more than 400 documentaries on our Youtube channel,” he says.

While the nature of the medium is such that “your following forces you to update it,” Kumar warns that a team should be dedicated to updating the page, otherwise “frustrations will increase” if queries are not quickly addressed. Posted to Kathmandu recently, he is nevertheless confident that the wheels he has set in motion will continue to turn. “Social media technology is here to stay,” sums up Kumar, “because it empowers individuals.”

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