How Facebook Can Make Museums More Social (And Why Jewish Organizations Should Pay Attention)

I’ve been active on Facebook since 2004. Right before I started college, Brandeis University was added to the then-still-exclusive site, and I was able to connect with my future classmates. More than a decade later, Facebook has evolved and become a huge force in most of our lives. Today my feed is crowded with baby photos, and I’m grateful for the ability to connect with friends and family across the country. It’s become something we all take for granted.

But occasionally the power of the site still manages to surprise me.

The Pine Bluff Desktop Museum
The Pine Bluff Desktop Museum

I got a tip recently from a friend, Gary, who shared the online link to Paul Perdue’s albums constituting the Pine Bluff Desktop Museum with me. I was confused at first, and tried to overcome my initial skepticism– I’m not sure how I feel about online museums, in general. Often their static materials and limited interactive elements leave much to be desired (I already knew of a few exceptions, of course, like Jewish Women’s Archive and 82nd & 5th) but Gary explained to me that this was different: This museum’s exhibits are actually hosted on Facebook.

Paul Perdue, the curator of the PBDM, has been collecting any and all material from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He uses the intuitive, interactive nature of Facebook to get around the failures of a traditional online exhibit. He uses what people are already familiar with and are using, and it works: People love his albums of Pine Bluff memories and memorabilia. Each album contains 200 “pieces,” and more than 40 albums have been created thus far.

This project truly embraces some of the current trends that major museums and historic sites are integrating into their practices. As databases are moved online, museum professionals are reimagining the empirical authoritative system of classification but allowing for objects to be described and classified from more inclusive perspectives. Curators are creating more user-friendly web interfaces for collection databases, “folksonomies” are emerging in the classification of collections information, and sites are placing collections information outside the confines of an institution’s own web spaces and inviting user input.

The Risenberg Brothers. Source: ISJL Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
The Risenberg Brothers. Source: ISJL Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities

I find the PBDM charming because it breaks most of the typical formats of an online collection. The albums are not classified chronologically, not by theme, not by any means as far as I can tell. There is no search tool to find something specific to the history of Pine Bluff you may be interested in. That’s where I find the surprising beauty of this Desktop Museum. It somehow produces that feeling of opening a box of old photos, sorting through each one quickly checking the backside for a handwritten note identifying the faces and places. It produces a museum experience that facilitates the joy of discovery. As a Jewish museum professional, I was looking for an image of old Jewish stores, but I ended up delighted by so much more.

The site is focuses on connecting the “Pine Bluff Diaspora” — people of all generations who have a connection to Pine Bluff but are no longer there can now walk down memory lane together.  The comments on the photos provide a warm sense of familiarity, and personal connections to each of the museums’ items on exhibit. I spent time looking for some Jewish content but was immediately drawn in by the variety. I don’t have a personal connection to Pine Bluff (although I wrote about a photo in the ISJL’s collection from Pine Bluff) but I now have a real appreciation for their unique Zebra mascot!

This summer, the remaining Jewish community in Pine Bluff held their final service at Anshe Emeth.   The congregation worked with the  Jewish Community Legacy Project to develop plans to deconsecrate the building and a few items were donated to the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.

Jewish museums can learn a lot from the Pine Bluff Diaspora. Actually, all Jewish organizations can learn from this model! We certainly understand the term “Diaspora,” and we are part of many diasporas. Congregations could have albums from each decade to connect even kids who have grown and moved away with their home congregations; museums can have virtual album-exhibits; the possibilities for connection are exciting and engaging, and I encourage you to check out the Pine Bluff Desktop Museum, and be inspired by how you might share the memorabilia and memories from your communities in the social space.

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