October 28, 2020
By Monica Marchese
Social media is a powerful tool, one that museums are increasingly learning to exploit. Now more than ever, museums are moving to expand their online presences. While museums mainly use Instagram and Facebook—to promote their exhibitions and programs, to share object and installation images, and to provide practical information and updates—Twitter is also emerging, as the most potentially playful platform. Some museums are using TikTok as a means to engage and educate younger audiences.
According to a UN report in May 2020, more than 85,000 cultural institutions were forced to shut down due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the serious financial hit museums have been facing over the past eight months, they have also been taking advantage of the current opportunity for organizational growth. Going forward, museums will need to rely more heavily on their own collections—instead of blockbuster or traveling exhibitions—due to financial strain and limitations on loans, a trend that first emerged as a result of the 2008 recession. Today, even as many museums are starting to reopen at limited capacity, many visitors do not feel comfortable risking their health by visiting in person. Due to all these factors, museums are increasingly reaching out to the public through their websites and social media.
And museums now have the time, technology, and audiences to expand their virtual presence. According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the most provided service by museums during COVID-19 closures was educational resources for parents, children, and teachers (75% of 600 participants surveyed). Closely following, the second most-provided service was digital entertainment and activities (64% of 600 participants surveyed). Using social media, museums are now able to provide these services to visitors in the safety of their own homes.
In many cases, museums are using their websites and social media to both educate and entertain—two factors that visitors are known to look for when deciding to visit a museum in person. The most successful social media posts combine these two aspects. In this blog post, I will highlight some of the most effective social media trends that have been sweeping through the museum world over the past eight months.
The first and most accessible trend is the #MuseumsUnlocked hashtag that appeared on Twitter and Instagram. A100-day activity, this hashtag focused on a different theme each day. Curators, visitors, and official museum Twitter accounts were encouraged to tag museum and object images related to that day’s theme. Conceived by Dan Hicks, Curator of Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, this Twitter thread served as a virtual museum space for many different kinds of museum folks. While the use of this hashtag mainly consisted of posting and reposting museum images, it demonstrated that museums have the skills to grab the attention of their audiences. It also demonstrated that, in the absence of in-person visits, museum audiences are eager to participate and interact with museums and their objects.
During the past few months, the image re-creation trend, hashtagged as the #GettyMuseumChallenge, appealed to the widest audiences. Initiated in the Instagram account Tussen Kunst & Quarantaine (Between Art and Quarantine), this trend was made famous by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. This viral challenge asked participants to recreate iconic works of art in museum collections. Museums then reposted the photos, soliciting views, “likes,” and overall engagement on their websites and in social media. Using the same hashtag, other museums joined in, including the Neue Galerie in New York City and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The huge archive of images bearing the tag #GettyMuseumChallenge on both Instagram and Twitter is well worth exploring. Images from the challenge can also be found in the Getty’s new book Off the Walls: Inspired Re-Creations of Iconic Artworks, profits from which are being donated to Artist Relief, which provides resources to U.S. artists.
Another of my favorite social media challenges is “Show Me Your Creepiest Object.” Museums are known for having in their collections some hauntingly strange items. Kicked off by the Yorkshire Museum as part of their #CuratorBattle series, it challenged other curators to show off their own creepy things. While the Yorkshire Museum’s other #CuratorBattle challenges were less nightmare-inducing—calling for the prettiest, deadliest, or most boring objects—the creepy object challenge upped the ante. Institutions such as the National Museums of Scotland, the Prince Edward Island Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Deutches Historisches Museum joined in, showing off some highly disturbing pieces.
The trend #MuseumMomentOfZen, begun by the Museum of the City of New York, also took over the museum Twitter world. Tweeting out a picture of Herbert Bolivar Tschudy’s The Turtle Tank (1920), the museum aimed to provide followers with a rare moment of peace in their otherwise tumultuous virtual newsfeeds. The Chicago History Museum joined in, offering a 1917 photograph of Florence Kilvary holding a miniature potted plant, while the Rubin Museum shared an image of their Buddhist shrine room, encouraging followers to “take a pause from scrolling and breathe.”
In addition to entertaining their audiences via hashtag trends, museums use Twitter to converse with each other and with the Twittersphere at large. Celebrating events ranging from National Dog Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, organizations use Twitter to present their more playful sides. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City put Tim Tiller, Head of Security, in charge of the museum’s Twitter feed during their COVID-19–induced closure, when he was still reporting for duty in the galleries. During the chaos of the pandemic, Tiller’s Tweets provide not only a wholesome distraction for followers but also educational information on various objects. The National Cowboy Museum now boasts close to 300,000 followers—in contrast with less than 10,000 before Tim took over.
The platform TikTok, made popular by Generation Z, has been heavily used by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) to share fun educational facts and to dispel the public image of the scientist figure as intimidating and unapproachable. Like Twitter, TikTok has a “silliness factor” that can be risky for an established museum to play around with. But the risks paid off for the CMNH, whose account now boasts more than 310,000 followers, and whose videos have attracted almost 4 million likes.
In almost all the cases that came up in my research, museums venturing into lighthearted content and new social media platforms have been amply rewarded with increased traffic on their sites. Museums are also reaping the benefit of increased camaraderie both among themselves and with their publics. In conclusion, museums have indeed proven their abilities to adapt and evolve. Their innovative use of technology over the past eight months has shown that, as a whole, the museum field provides crucial and vital voices to large and varied audiences during these ultra-challenging times.
 UN News, “Covid-19 Crisis Closes 90 Percent of Museums Globally, UNESCO Plans for Reopenings,” May 18, 2020. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/05/1064362.
 Elizabeth Merritt, “Reinventing Museums: Pandemic Disruption as an Opportunity for Change,” American Alliance of Museums (blog), July 7, 2020, https://www.aam-us.org/2020/07/07/reinventing-museums-pandemic-disruption-as-an-opportunity-for-change/.
 “National Survey of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums,” American Alliance of Museums, June 2020, https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/2020_National-Survey-of-COVID19-Impact-on-US-Museums.pdf.
 Michael Press, “How the Pandemic Has Highlighted a Crisis in Contemporary Museums,” Hyperallergic, August 11, 2020, https://hyperallergic.com/580954/how-the-pandemic-has-highlighted-a-crisis-in-contemporary-museums/.
 Yorkshire Museum, “MUSEUMS ASSEMBLE! It’s time for #CURATORBATTLE! …,” Twitter post, April 17, 2020, 5:07 a.m., https://twitter.com/YorkshireMuseum/status/1251074717408264192?s=20
 Katherine J. Wu, “Museums Challenged to Showcase ‘Creepiest Objects’ Deliver Stuff of Nightmares,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 21, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/museums-challenged-showcase-creepiest-objects-deliver-stuff-nightmares-180974713/.
 Sarah Rose Sharp, “Despite Anxious Times, Museums Offer a ‘Moment of Zen’ on Twitter,” Hyperallergic, March 13, 2020, https://hyperallergic.com/547455/despite-anxious-times-museums-offer-a-moment-of-zen-on-twitter/.
 Chicago History Museum, “Let’s keep this going! Here’s our #MuseumMomentofZen…,” Twitter post, March 12, 2020, 11:32 a.m., https://twitter.com/ChicagoMuseum/status/1238125602319691777?s=20; Rubin Museum, “Take a pause from scrolling and breathe with this image of our shrine room…,” Twitter post, March 11, 2020, 3:03 p.m., https://twitter.com/RubinMuseum/status/1237816519251447809?s=20.
 Becki Schildhouse, “Oklahoma’s National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Finds Twitter Hero in Security Guard,” NBC 7 San Diego, April 23, 2020, https://www.nbcsandiego.com/entertainment/the-scene/oklahomas-national-cowboy-western-heritage-museum-finds-twitter-hero-in-security-guard/2311889/.
 Joseph O’Neill, “The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s #MuseumFromHome Strategy: Funny TikToks,” American Alliance of Museums (blog), March 31, 2020, https://www.aam-us.org/2020/03/31/the-carnegie-museum-of-natural-historys-museumfromhome-strategy-funny-tiktoks/.
 Carnegie Museum of Natural History, TikTok profile, accessed October 19, 2020, https://www.tiktok.com/@carnegiemnh?lang=en.
Getty Museum. “2020 mood. Your versions of ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch, all featured in our book based on the #GettyMuseumChallenge.” September 10, 2020, 4:12 p.m. https://twitter.com/GettyMuseum/status/1304150653871284224?s=20.
New-York Historical Society | Behind The Scenes. “#MuseumBouquet to Brighten Your Day: Sending Flowers on Social Media,” March 27, 2020. http://behindthescenes.nyhistory.org/sending-a-museumbouquet-to-brighten-your-day/.
Souza, Josette, and Rachel Lee. “How Your Museum Can Use Social Media During COVID-19.” American Alliance of Museums (blog), March 24, 2020. https://www.aam-us.org/2020/03/24/how-your-museum-can-use-social-media-during-covid-19/.
Monica Marchese is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She expects to receive an M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2021.