The Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation manages three national museums in Ottawa – the Canada Agriculture Museum, the Canada Aviation Museum and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The Corporation has been using social media to support its mandate to increase knowledge about science and technology in Canada by developing collections of scientific and technological artifacts and objects relevant to Canada and demonstrating their economic, social and cultural relationships with society.

In 2008, a project was undertaken by the Canada Science and Technology Museum in partnership with the Portrait Gallery of Canada, a program of Library and Archives Canada, to organize a major traveling exhibition Karsh – Image Maker to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth (December 23, 1908) of Yousuf Karsh, widely recognized as Canada’s leading portrait photographer of the 20th century.

Karsh photographed heads of state and celebrities, producing iconic portraits of some of the century’s most notable figures – Winston Churchill, Andy Warhol, Nelson Mandela, Marshall McLuhan, Audrey Hepburn, Benazir Bhutto and many more.

By the time he closed his studio doors at Ottawa’s downtown hotel, the Château Laurier, for the last time in 1992, Karsh had created photographic portraits of more than 11,000 leading local, national and international sitters that spanned six decades. He also welcomed sittings of ordinary residents of the region, such as portraits of debutantes, children, weddings and soldiers, and made passport photos and advertising photographs. His proper name was colloquially transformed into a verb, as his subjects and sitters spoke of “being Karshed.”

Aware of the importance of Karsh’s work to the social history of Ottawa, the exhibition team was interested in seeing images that might not have been included in the Karsh Fonds at the Portrait Gallery of Canada.

Outreach objectives for both partners included the desire to actively engage the public in Festival Karsh and to build interest in the exhibition and programming that was coming in 2009. The solicitation of personal images for potential inclusion in the exhibition had been part of the exhibition concept from the beginning; however, gaining access to numerous private holdings and developing effective procedures to review them presented challenges.

Given the photographer’s sixty-year career, many of his subjects were now quite elderly, which raised the team’s concerns about their comfort level with new technologies. The invitation to Karsh’s subjects, or their descendents, to share their Karsh portraits and to recount the experience of being photographed had to respect their preferred means of communication.

Another challenge was the desire to find a solution that did not unduly weigh down the collaborative teams already committed to developing the main web presence, the Karsh Trail, with its multiple partners, the major exhibition and programming and activities.

Due to the collaborative nature of the initiative, a distinct and autonomous entity presence was desired, clearly associated with the two institutions yet with its own distinct branding.

Social media solution
Flickr, the user engagement website conceived to allow people to share images and content, provided the most appropriate means to address these considerations. Establishment of a Flickr Group named My Karsh has allowed people to look at Karsh images and read stories, to comment on these images and stories, and of course to make contributions of their own.

Four images and stories were used to “seed” My Karsh, providing a model for people and an inspiration for their own contributions. The initiative was launched with a media event on November 27, 2008, where the first four images and stories were shared.

From November to the June 2009 opening of the exhibition, individuals were invited to contribute their own personal stories and to post their “family portraits” taken by Karsh on Flickr. The curators of the exhibition selected two groups from these amazing stories, contacting the contributors to arrange temporary loan of their personal photographs for display in the exhibition.

Within the first two weeks, 24 people had responded to the call by sharing 60 images. In most cases, the photographs were accompanied by personal memoirs of the experience or anecdotes about the significance of the portrait within their family histories.

The methods selected to provide materials show a significant preference for using e-mail with attachments. Ten percent of contributors used Flickr directly. Despite the expectation that traditional communication would be the preferred option, over time less than a third chose it.

Some unanticipated contributions have complemented the expected portraits by Karsh. These contributions and the comments are evidence that Flickr encourages the creation of genuine communities, each of which interprets the invitation in their own way. For instance, professional photographers have recounted their meetings with Karsh as being significant moments that inspired their own careers, and students of black and white portraiture techniques practice their craft by replicating Karsh’s style in their own work. The Be Like Karsh meetup has been particularly active, making and sharing pictures that demonstrate that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

By the end of January 2009, 92 items had been added by 30 contributors. The My Karsh community, born on Flickr, continues to grow and evolve, and the user generated content from the virtual exercise will be integrated into the real space exhibition. As of May 2010, 168 photographs have been posted.

Festival Karsh included a major exhibition at the CSTM, the Karsh Trail in downtown Ottawa of locations significant to Karsh’s life and work, the website, and a roster of special events and programming. The Karsh – Image Maker exhibition, which has since been available for circulation to museums and galleries until 2012, has been showing most recently at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.

The Canada Agriculture Museum also invites visitors to post on Flickr their photos taken at the museum to demonstrate the rich source of photographic possibilities of farm animals and environments in a demonstration farm setting, In addition, the museum is perfectly suited to Twitter messaging because there is always something new such as animal births and the changes in farm activities and operations as the seasons change.

Both the Canada Aviation Museum and the Canada Science and Technology Museums have YouTube channels featuring videos contributed by Canadians as well as educational videos produced by the museums.

The positive results of engaging Canadians through the use of social media can assist organizations, and especially museums which have a responsibility to converse directly with Canadians, to fulfill their mandates and engage with their audiences from coast to coast to coast.

Denise Amyot is a senior public servant in the Government of Canada. She is currently CEO of Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation.