Museums Unleashed: Using traditional and social media to reach audiences, build communities, and transform hearts and minds

This year’s NatSCA conference at Bristol’s M Shed brilliantly championed the ways in which TV, storytelling, and social media can engage and inspire the public with fantastic natural history content, and make museum collections come alive. Wendy Darke, head of the BBC Natural History Unit, opened the conference with a moving presentation on the enduring power of the BBC Natural History Unit to produce jaw-dropping films that stir our hearts, like Life Story and Frozen Planet, versus shows like the Lost Land series that appeal to those of us who want to understand more about nature and expand our minds.

The equally inspiring Sara Zeidler, Social Media Manager at BBC Earth, discussed how the team have built an impressive global community of 4.85 million fans across six social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The popularity of the Natural History Unit filming in all corners of the globe has allowed the public to connect to the researchers and filmmakers, places and wildlife being filmed in real time through #EarthCapture and #Earthonlocation. Sara emphasised that nature content that is positive, surprising,and emotional provides the best hooks for audiences.

As an archaeologist who is passionate about geology, Prof. Iain Stewart is one of my heroes of popular science. A passionate academic, like Prof. Alice Roberts, he has successfully communicated the stories of geoscience for over a decade, from Earth: The Power of the Planet, to the more recent Rise of the Continents. In his talk, ‘50 Shades of Grey’, he explained that geology works on TV because it deals with ‘Big Histories’ that ultimately help tell our human story. Iain passionately believes in science for society, and raised the important question of how to maintain meaningful public engagement with increasingly disparate audiences in a world where the Internet has overtaken TV as the main source for the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Prof. Iain Stewart explains the continuum of science programming. (Image: Anthony Roach)

Prof. Iain Stewart explains the continuum of science programming. (Image: Anthony Roach)

Iain’s research into audiences explained that many of us fanboys and fangirls are of course continually engaged in science programmes, events, and activities. We also see the benefits of science in solving societal issues. But Iain raised the strong need to find new ways to reach those who are disengaged in science (either because they lack interest, do not see the relevance in their lives, or perhaps just don’t make the time for science), and move away from ‘disasters and dinosaurs’ TV.

The second half of the conference displayed the shared passion of museum professionals who were inspired by their collections and wanted to ‘be where their audiences were’. @oisinthedeer at Warwickshire Museum was a superb example of how museum mascots can be used as a springboard for a museum looking outwards to its audiences. The composite Irish Deer skeleton has been at the centre of a successful twitter campaign that has given the museum a voice to promote its collections, events, and activities, and ‘build the buzz’.

I enjoyed hearing from Kate Mortimer about the National Museum of Wales’ joined up approach to social media to improve the visibility of their amazing collections. The use of ‘tweet guides’ has allowed colleagues across the museum to co-ordinate the scheduling of tweets, such as #MolluscMonday and blog posts about specimens. My personal favourite being that of the conservation of Arthur the Arthropleura. Kate explained the added longevity that Storify brings to their social media platforms through curating particular tweets and posts. This strategy has enabled colleagues to build deeper public engagement with their diverse and beautiful collections.

Arthur the Arthropleura visits the impressionists (Image source: http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/blog/2014-11-11/The-Adventures-of-Arthur-the-Arthropleura-/)

Arthur the Arthropleura visits the impressionists (Image source: http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/blog/2014-11-11/The-Adventures-of-Arthur-the-Arthropleura-/)

My overall favourite for the innovative use of social media to engage audiences with collections projects was ‘Objects, Meet World!’ by the Horniman Museum and Gardens. Rachel Jennings explained the benefits of Tumblr as a micro-blogging platform to upload multimedia object content during the Horniman’s major review of their anthropology collections. The platform is quick and easy to use, and allows users to put together an interesting story about the object in a few sentences. As a result of their sterling work, the site has generated interest world-wide, gaining a whopping 39,000 followers in under three years. And if you’re a fan of sticks, just check out their ‘Stick of the Week’.

Thanks to Bristol Museums and NatSCA for organising a brilliant conference and set of collections tours, and I look forward to seeing what museums will unleash next year!

Anthony Roach, NHM
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