The rise of social media is transforming the landscape of communication for all organizations, including museums. There are myriad new ways to connect directly with the public, and new spokespeople have stepped forth to fill these niches. Recently I interviewed two museum specimens that have become social media celebrities. Sue the TRex, (otherwise known as Specimen FMNH PR2081) tweets from the Field Museum of Natural History. Mr. Blobby the Blobfish, a Facebook phenom with over 800 fans, resides in the collections of the Australian Museum in Sydney when not making public appearances .
Dear Mr. Blobby and Sue,
Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed by the Center for the Future of Museums. In coming decades, museum objects may frequently speak for themselves, as well as for their museums, so you two are pioneers of things to come. I hope that by sharing your thoughts, you will help your colleagues in other museums consider whether a career in social media is appropriate for their future. With that in mind, I invite you to address the following questions:
What prompted you to venture into the world of social media? Was it a top-down initiative at your museum, or was did it emerge from the bottom up?
(Blobby) I happened to get onto social media by accident. I starred in a popular Australian television show about advertising called The Gruen Transfer. The brief to advertising agencies was to ‘sell the unsellable’, in this case what they purported was my ugliness. Just to prove them wrong I set myself up a Facebook Fan page the very next day and within one week had 500 people loving me! Overall, I guess you could say ours was a bottom-up initiative in all sense of the word!
(SUE) When you’re fossilized in rock for millions and millions of years you have a pretty unique opportunity to form lots of opinions, but you have no one to share them with. The nice thing about social media is I can stay right where I’m at and thrust my opinions upon the world.
What advice would you give to museums that are seeking potential social media celebrities from amongst their collections? What qualities make for an effective museum spokespecimen?
(Blobby) My advent into social media was serendipitous and I think it is best this way rather than being too ‘try-hard’. That said, one of our Indigenous educators was so taken with the idea of me that she established Gagali the Gecko on Facebook as a way to connect with Indigenous people/community organisations and discuss Indigenous issues and collections. So far Gagali is going rather well! I guess the lesson here is to choose something that resonates with audiences, is a bit quirky and to definitely have a staff champion behind you.
(SUE) I think you need someone able to bite someone in half. People tend to listen to that person.
As accessioned collections, I imagine you usually work most closely with curators and collections managers. But now you’ve ventured into territory normally controlled by public relations staff. Tell me about how this works at your museum. How much independence do you have in your messaging? Do you pretty much toe the official museum line, or do you call it like you see it? (Sorry if that is insensitive, Blobby—I’m not sure you have toes…)
(Mr. Blobby) That’s OK Elizabeth. Not only do I not have toes I don’t have hands either so answering your questions has been a challenge! Now, at the Australian Museum we are a bit different. For starters we don’t have traditional curators but we do have Collection Managers. We also have staff who take responsibility for social media across the Museum – it isn’t the gamut of the PR/Marketing people. So I am completely independent, although I do subscribe to one rule – don’t say or do anything I would not like to see as a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (or, in your case, The Washington Post!).
(SUE) Well, I have a brain the size of a cantaloupe, so I do need a proofreader from time to time. Mostly I just use common sense (No one likes a petty dinosaur who’s negative all the time) but other than that…have you met the nice ladies from our public relations department? I doubt any of them even OWN a tranq gun. Who’s going to tell a two-story tall horror lizard from Earth’s brutal past what to do? As to independence, I see it like this: The Field Museum is the greatest place on the face of the planet and everyone should get down here and give me a high five. Also, they keep me well stocked in meat, and I don’t want to spoil that gravy train.
You two could hardly be more different. For example: Blobby has no bones while you, Sue, are a big-boned, gal. (All bone, as a matter of fact.) How important do you think is for museum celebrities to have a spine? Might being spineless, in fact, make you more flexible in maneuvering through the complex world of public relations?
(Blobby) I know I don’t have a spine, but I do believe strongly in speaking my mind, taking a stand when need be and generally being an all-round jolly and informative fellow. And, yes, flexibility is the key!
(SUE) Are you making fun of my back injuries? I lived to be pretty old for a T.rex, you know. You get bumped around and jostled. And don’t get me started on T.rex mating…
Has the museum set goals for your work? What is considered “success” and how do you measure it?
(SUE) I think “Don’t devour museum visitors” was pretty much the only rule they gave me. Some days I’m successful. Some days I’m… less than successful.
(Blobby) Early on the Museum decided that I would be on Facebook for around two months (the same time my physical self was on display in the Museum’s College Street site). How were we to know the love that fans developed for a blobfish such as I? Now success factors are how many more fans I can engage and how I can continue to–reinvent myself and chat to fans about anything. We do have some big plans for the next few months…
What are your favorite things to discuss via your respective social media, and why?
(SUE) Dinosaur news, science-y things, stuff going on around the museum, meat, Chicago stuff, Star Wars, velociraptor hatin’, the weather, sports, video games, chasing Jeff Goldblum in a speeding jeep in the rain…
(Blobby) Well, I am considered not only a scientific icon but somewhat of a popular culture commentator and raconteur. Not only did I predict the winner of the FIFA World Cup, I successfully predicted the winner of Australian Master Chef, participated in discussions about movies and TV, as well as other such cerebral worldly matters. I also attended the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes– Australia’s most glamorous and prestigious science awards event and reported live from the red carpet which was fun and informative!
What is the strangest question you’ve ever received? (Or, the oddest thing you’ve overheard in the museum)
(Blobby) I have someone continually asking me what I eat. Coz I’m a shy fellow, not much is known about me so I haven’t been able to answer that. Oh, the other comment was that I looked like a person someone once dated and I have had several marriage proposals…
(SUE) Someone asked me if I’d ever go vegetarian. THESE TEETH ARE NOT MADE FOR HUMMUS!
Just for HUMANS, eh? So Blobby and Sue, If Hollywood made a movie about you, who would play you and why?
(Blobby) Well, Elizabeth that was such a great question I just had to put it out to my fans. The variety of suggestions were terrific and some that resonated with me were Jimmy Durante (for obvious reasons), Orson Welles, Benny Hill, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. However, who did I choose? Well, it just had to be Jack Black – an actor with a great sense of humour and comic timing, yet with an underlying manic, chaotic and cheeky personality somewhat like myself.
(SUE) Lindsay Lohan. She could use the work. I’m generous that way.
Let’s take it to the mat, here. Which of you is more charismatic, and why?
(Blobby) I think we both have our charismatic features. While I could never compete with such a magnificent creature as a T-Rex, the nature of my looks and personality shine through the so-called ugliness I believe. Like Sue, I am also here for the long haul and have important messages to send about biodiversity and conservation, as well as having a jolly old time!
(SUE) Let’s put it this way… kids don’t go to bed wearing blobfish pajamas in blobfish sheets after being read a story about blobfish.
Well thank you for your time, Mr. Blobby and Ms. Sue. You are truly role models for museum specimens across the globe, giving voice to the (usually) voiceless. I hope this interview encourages yet more people to follow you on your respective media.
Gentle Readers, does your museum have a spokespecimen, and if so, who is it and what social medium do they inhabit? Help me compile a list…
And if you happened to know the Great Blue Whale who tweets, poetically albeit unofficially, from the American Museum of Natural History, please broker an introduction!