This course has brought me into the world of Twitter for the first time. Though I’ve carefully avoided Twitter for years, as soon as I started following some of my favorite museums and public history institutions, I grew impressed as I scrolled through their feeds, learning about the institutions and what they have to share. I had a negative preconception that Twitter created a messy, disjointed feed of news, opinions, images, and information that was difficult for anyone without context, or knowledge of twitter abbreviations and hashtag lingo, to comprehend, but I found that many of the institutions feeds were concise, clear, clean, and easy to follow. As I looked at the feeds, I made some observations about the best practices and shortcomings of using Twitter for public history. Here are some of my takeaways that I would give as advice for public history institutions to make the most of their Twitter presence:
- Spread knowledge: The Smithsonian museums, US National Archives, Library of Congress, and Mount Vernon, among many others, do an excellent job of teaching history through small bites of information, then offering a link to more information if a viewer’s interest is piqued. Here is an example from the National Museum of American History.
- Share what your institution has to offer: The National Museum of American History posts a ‘today in history’ factoid with a related image from its collections.
- Promote events (but not too much!): The National Underground Freedom Center, Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art provide good publicity for events they are hosting, and even live-tweet events as they happen. Here, the MET live tweets its lunar New Year celebration, promoted in earlier tweets. Museums have to be careful, however that their promotion doesn’t detract from their mission to educate. The MET’s tweets are well-balanced and not overly live-tweeted, but the tweets of Heritage Village Museum and the Freedom Center are a little too promotion-heavy.
- Surprise your viewers: Share something new, interesting, and unexpected about your institution to viewers, such as unique documents they might never know are in your collections, as with the National Archives.
- Break down barriers: Pictures of the stacks hidden deep in an archive, or images of exhibits-in-the-making give visitors a unique behind-the-scenes view of how a museum functions, breaking down the walls of authority that separate museums from their visitors. Here the MET shows preparations for a new installation, while the US National Archives depicts archivists having fun with their collections, the Smithsonian shows its renovation process, and the Cincinnati Art Museum explains how it repairs armor.
- Invite public participation: Cincinnati Museum Center hosted a “museum selfie day” that encouraged visitors to take selfies in the museum and post them to Twitter. This had the benefit of advertising what neat things are available to see at the museum and how visitors are enjoying them. It even encouraged other local museums, like the Cincinnati Art Museum, to join in friendly competition. Other museum feeds invite users to “ask the curator” or share their own stories about an event in history.
- Fulfill your mission statement: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center puts its mission statement right in its Twitter profile, where everyone can see, to keep its mission centered and clear: “We reveal stories, about Freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.” The Freedom Center does an excellent job of using Twitter to link the history of fighting injustice to current advocacy on justice issues. However, an overbalanced presentation of current issues sometimes obscures the Freedom Center’s effort to reveal the stories of freedom’s heroes from the past.
- Advocate: Just as the Freedom Center fulfills its mission statement through advocacy on Twitter, the Cincinnati Museum Center advocates for preservation and restoration of its historic building, as well as for addressing local community issues.
- Appeal to audiences of all ages and areas of interest: The US National Archives is tweeting about their Archives Sleepover for kids, complete with comics and superheroes!
- …but don’t be too cheesy or repetitive: Heritage Village Museum’s most recent posts consist of advertising for upcoming events, several pictures of its office mascot, Calico Chicken, on museum selfie day, and a series of photographs of its historic buildings in the snow. The promos are informative, the chicken cute, and the snow scenes beautiful, but the repetitious posts do little to enhance the museum’s mission or convey the history it seeks to share. Perhaps if the tweets were more spread out, or made connections to the village’s history, they would be more effective. However, deeper down in the feed the posts have more variety and do a better job of telling the story of this unique living history village. As the smallest of the institutions I have discussed, Heritage Village Museum is accomplishing much with little means.
- Take advantage of trends: It’s talk like a pirate day? New movie coming out? Get on the bandwagon and connect with your collections! Several museums do an excellent job of using Twitter to advertise what is in their archives based on a theme for the week or an event in history for that day. Museums are showing how they can relate to what’s popular. Here, the Library of Congress shows off the world’s largest comic book collection, Cincinnati Museum Center celebrates Star Wars Day, and Colonial Williamsburg and its rare breeds prep for the Super Bowl!
The key lesson I learned from browsing the Twitter feeds of public history institutions is that variety and balance are key. When museums and public history venues spent more time trying to plug their museum to me and advertise for me to come to their facility, I lost interest. But when they interspersed these plugs with interesting tidbits about history, or a sampling of what their museum contains on display, or in its collections or archives, I spent more time looking at their feed, and in the process grew interested in what programming they were offering and what messages they sought to convey.
Featured image copyright Kelly Schmidt.