Rodin-ternet! Brooklyn Museum’s Digital Docent Peddles Art to Peoria

Shelley Bernstein calls herself “chief geek” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but her official title is chief of technology. Among other things, she’s responsible for communicating with museum members through the institution’s official blog, through Facebook, and through all the other online doohickeys that kids are prattling on about these days. She uploads behind-the-scenes snapshots on photo-sharing site Flickr and has a slightly unhealthy obsession with the museum’s Twitter account, which has more than 9,000 followers. In other words, she’s a one-woman, Web 2.0–powered ambassador for the museum.

“I do it nights, I do it weekends, it’s a 24/7 kind of thing,” said Ms. Bernstein, who declined to give her age, last Friday afternoon from the museum’s tech department, sitting in her baby-blue-walled office, which is freckled with postcard-size pieces of art and photos of her dogs, Mabel and Teddy, who look a bit like Scooby Doo. A string of bleeps and bloops blipped from her computer—more new messages. “That community doesn’t quit. And neither do I,” she added.

In October 2005, when Ms. Bernstein took charge of the museum’s technology department, administrators gave her license to experiment with Web-based technologies to better fulfill their mission: to build a bridge between the rich cultural heritage in the museum’s collections and the unique experience of each visitor. And in online communities across the Internet, from Facebook to Flickr, she put a face to the museum’s 560,000-square-foot, Beaux-Arts building nestled in Prospect Heights. The Brooklyn Museum was one of the first museums in the country to actively participate in these Web spaces, using them to communicate directly with members, to chat with artists and to allow visitors themselves to be curators, mostly for free, without infringing on the nonprofit museum’s budget. Over the last three years, Ms. Bernstein has turned the Brooklyn Museum into a model for 21st-century art institutions everywhere.

But this month, Ms. Bernstein is facing one of her most experimental challenges yet. On Jan. 3, with hopes of increasing revenues as well as the institution’s popularity, she and Will Cary, the museum’s membership manager, launched a new Web project: 1stfans, the museum’s first “socially networked museum membership.” For $20 a year, 1stfan members can mingle with artists and staff at a special event each month, view exclusive online content (like behind-the-scenes presentations and videos from artists and curators) and get access to the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed, which includes micro-blogging from artists and other fun stuff. It’s cheaper than the museum’s pricier $55 membership and offers goodies tailored specifically for the members of Ms. Bernstein’s community who have grown to love the museum online, and who hail from as far away as Vietnam and … Texas. So far, the museum has garnered 232 1stfans, in 14 states, nine countries and four continents.

But some members of the community she has built for the past three years haven’t been so receptive of this new, “closed” community. Isn’t the Internet free?
“What killed me was to see some other people who I had known online for three years take this stance about open community,” Ms. Bernstein said. “For me, personally, it was so disappointing to see that, ’cause it hurts.” She’s asking for some support, but will the Brooklyn Museum’s beloved following give it to her? Can a community spoiled on free Web services finally open their wallets and finance what they helped build?

 

MS. BERNSTEIN HAS round, cartoonish blue eyes; brown, cropped hair that sticks up in a halo of spikes around her head; and long, pale fingers that flicker with nervous energy, like she’s had one too many cups of coffee. In pictures, she favors giving the thumbs-up sign; she bops around her Red Hook neighborhood in a fire-engine-red 1974 VW Beetle. Certainly, she’s at home with the Web nerds. “There’s someone on our staff who goes to community centers and reaches out to people—it’s the same on the Web,” Ms. Bernstein said. “We really, really, firmly believe that we should be going to them, not expecting them to come to us. And also that their message is way more powerful than ours on these platforms.”

She helped upload the museum’s entire collection online, and created the ‘Tag! You’re It’ online program, which encouraged people to label the photos with useful descriptions, from “Egyptian” to “nude.” A 100-year-old woman found a museum blog post about the Schenck family houses in its collection and sent Ms. Bernstein photos and memories from when she lived in one of them. Last summer, inspired by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki’s theory in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, she set out to see if a diverse crowd is wiser at making decisions than snobby experts by organizing Click!, a photography exhibition that was curated completely online by the site’s visitors. The top 20 photos, as picked by the Web community, were displayed in a museum exhibit.