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:

Arthur the Arthropleura visits the impressionists (Image source:

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

Leicestershire Fashion in Detail: Using social media to engage new audiences with museum collections

This post is another in our series of presentation write-ups from the 2015 NatSCA Conference, Museums Unleashed!


The Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom


Leicestershire Fashion in Detail was part of a larger project called Click; Connect; Curate; Create. Funded by Arts Council England as part of their Renaissance Strategic Support Fund, we wanted to find out how we could use ‘digital’ (whether that be technology or content creation) to increase engagement with our sites and collections. Fashion in detail was one a number of pilot projects including 3D scanning, augmented reality and wearable tech and digital storytelling.

What did we do?

For the purposes of this project we decided to utilise a number of existing images that we had of items from the costume collection. These images are close-up photographs of objects, ranging from menswear to accessories, womenswear to shoes, dating from the late 18th century to the present day. We commissioned dress historian Clare Bowyer to curate these images into a series of themes, and to write narrative for each image and each theme.

Why publish on social media and not an online collection resource?
We were going to use our collections online website but unfortunately this had to be taken down. We did have a picture library that had just been launched but, as its primary purpose was income generation, we didn’t want to distort its purpose by uploading images that we weren’t looking to sell.

As the aim of the project was to encourage engagement with collections we thought, ‘Instead of expecting audiences to come to us, why not go to them?’, and put our content on the platforms they use.

We settled on Tumblr, after considering a number of other image based platforms (including Pinterest and Flickr), as it works well with images and has a large fashion-based following.

Net overdress, c1910. Image of lace detail

Net overdress, c1910. Image of lace detail

What happened?

Since we began posting in October 2014, we have:

  • posted 191 images
  • received 949 ‘notes’ (these are interactions with the content in the form of likes and reblogs)
  • had 782 users interact with our content
  • gained 134 followers (and counting)

This is an average post engagement rate of 495.3%. In comparison to our picture library, our download rate is 0.98% and our average engagement rate on Pinterest is 1.47%.

Union metrics

Union metrics

Where relevant we would also link back to the collection if it was on our picture library, and as a result our social media referrals increased, not just from our own blogs but from other peoples’ too; 20% of social media referrals to our picture library are from Tumblr.

What did we learn?

1. Tag, tag, tag
Fundamentally with all social media, it’s about being discoverable, and for Tumblr it’s about using the right tags so that users can find your content and then hopefully reblog or like your posts. Knowing the right tags to use is down to a process of trial and error, but descriptive tags work best. Do your own research on what you think are popular tags, then look at what other tags have been used for that post and use them for your own.

Top Tags

Top Tags

2. Social media is about engagement, not broadcasting
The purpose of social media is to engage with audiences, not to just broadcast about what’s going on. It was something that was picked up in our development of a social media strategy. The strongest recommendation from that was to move away from broadcasting to engaging with our audiences; telling people about our collections was a perfect way to do this.

3. Experimentation is key
As with tagging, a lot of what makes good content is trial and error. Try something, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, look at why and try it again. If it does work, look at why it did and see if you can replicate it. We saw that images of our corsets were gaining the most engagement, so we have decided to create a Tumblr about our Symington corset collection.

4. Digital vs Physical
Our biggest learning outcome is that a digital visitor isn’t better or worse than a physical visitor; they are just different types of visitor. We have people from all over the world engaging with our collections who might not have found out about them if it wasn’t for Tumblr. They may never visit us in person, but at least they know we exist, and we have made our collections accessible to them and in a way that allows them to truly engage.

Session Geography - Google analytics

Session Geography – Google analytics

5. Naming your files
I didn’t mention this in my presentation, but the importance of a digital asset management strategy is key. Only some of the images used were labelled according to the garment they were from so I had to spend a month in the ‘Frock Box’ trying to identify the item from the image and updating the metadata accordingly. Whilst I relished my time exploring the collection, renaming all of the images was a pain.

What next?

Leicestershire Fashion in Detail has been such a success to us that we want to explore how we can develop it further. In regards to the overarching project CCCC, we are undertaking an evaluation and visioning exercise to see how we might be able to embed the learning from the project into the strategic delivery of the service.


Lucia Masundire
Project Manager – Click; Connect; Curate; Create
Leicestershire County Council

Objects, Meet World! Using Tumblr to Bring Collections to New Audiences

This post is another in our series of presentation write-ups from the 2015 NatSCA Conference, Museums Unleashed!


In 1901, Victorian tea trader Frederick Horniman opened his museum (The Horniman Museum and Gardens, in London) with the ideal of bringing the world to Forest Hill. His collections were vast and varied, encompassing Anthropology, Natural History, and Musical Instruments. They have been added to extensively over the years.

In 2012, the Horniman embarked on a three-year review of our Anthropology collections, Collections People Stories, with the aim of getting a clearer picture of what we now have and learning more about our objects, in order to inform a planned redisplay of some of our galleries.

The review project was an enormous undertaking, involving staff from across the museum as well as external experts and community groups. The progress of the project was shared on the museum’s blog, but we also wanted a more informal way to share the day-to-day work of our review team, and to highlight some of the amazing objects we saw every day as we ploughed systematically through the Study Collections Centre.

Boxes of objects in the Horniman's stored collection

A review in action: lots of coloured labels!

Tumblr fit the bill nicely: it is a microblogging (think very short-form) platform that can accommodate a variety of content, including text, pictures, video, and audio. We’ve found it works best with images, plus a small amount of text to explain what the object is and why it’s interesting. Posting is quick and simple, so it can fit into a busy workflow easily. Tumblr is also a great way of reaching a large audience with little initial effort, thanks to the snowball effect: followers can ‘reblog’ our posts, sharing them on their own page, and then other people reblog it on from there, and it can just keep going!

Our page, In the Horniman, was set up in September 2012. The review team were given control of the page, and let loose! Our agenda with Tumblr is not overtly educational; we aim simply to share our enthusiasm for the collections with our followers. We choose objects just because we like them – anything that makes us say ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ is an instant Tumblr candidate.

"Wow, that's amazing!" - a beautiful ceramic dragon from Uzbekistan (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

“Wow, that’s amazing!” – a beautiful ceramic dragon from Uzbekistan (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

We didn’t just want to share pretty pictures with our followers, though. We also wanted to encourage engagement. This is not as easy as it sounds, because of the way Tumblr works: followers can ‘like’ or ‘reblog’ posts with one click, but commenting is less common because it takes more effort. But without us even trying, it was happening: people were commenting on our posts, sometimes even telling us things we didn’t know about the objects. So we started an interactive feature called Stick of the Week, in which we share an image of a stick-like object and ask the good people of Tumblr to guess what it is. We have many such objects in the collection, and wanted to share them to highlight that any object can be interesting when you know its story! Stick of the Week sounds silly, but it has (hopefully!) got our followers looking at and thinking about objects differently, and allowed us to open up a dialogue.

Stick of the Week: a parrying dagger made of antelope horn

Stick of the Week: the reveal (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

In The Horniman has achieved our aim to share the progress of the Collections People Stories review, and wildly exceeded our expectations. Since 2012 it has gained over 39,000 followers (up by 2,000 since I delivered this talk at NatSCA 2015!), received over 90,000 page views from 158 countries, and even won an award (Best Social Media at the Museums & the Web Awards 2014)! But the reason we keep doing it is the wonderful feedback from our audience:

Visitor feedback for In The Horniman Tumblr page

In The Horniman: people lobe it!

Tumblr has given us a platform to share our collections with audiences all over the world, and a new way to engage people with our objects. Mr. Horniman’s aim in founding the museum was to bring the world to Forest Hill. Through Tumblr, we are now bringing Forest Hill to the world.

Rachel Jennings
Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum & Gardens