Ever since the rash of closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, museums have been working behind the scenes to set strategies for engaging the public through remote alternatives. Within days, two hashtags emerged on social media platforms: #MuseumFromHome and #MuseumMomentOfZen—which speak to the need for education, stimulation, and inspiration during our challenging and confusing times. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History had an advantage in planning a response: its growing presence on TikTok. Embracing the popular video-based social network’s “silliness factor” as an opportunity to demystify museums and science, CMNH has begun filming its curators in humorous and informative clips, a practice which it is continuing as an engagement strategy while the building is closed to the public.
We asked the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Director of Marketing, Sloan MacRae, to explain the museum’s use of TikTok and how it is evolving for the #MuseumFromHome era. Keep your eye on the Alliance Blog for more on these emerging strategies in the coming weeks, and contact us if you have something to share with the field as it plans its response.
More #MuseumFromHome strategies:
- The National Gallery of Art’s social media gallery tours
- The Akron Art Museum’s collaborative crosswords
- Albright-Knox’s artwork showdowns
CMNH has been on TikTok for a while now. How are you planning to use the platform to keep the public engaged during the pandemic?
We only started releasing regular content on TikTok in January of 2020. We’re thrilled that we quickly gained a following, particularly thanks to Tim Pearce, our fan favorite and curator of mollusks. We see TikTok as a way to share lighthearted content that hopefully scales back the intimidation factor surrounding museums and scientists in general. There’s nothing more relatable than good, old-fashioned nerd humor.
We were fortunately able to shoot a “#SafeHands Challenge” video from the Section of Mollusks the day before the museum closed. We’re asking our science and research staff to submit selfie-style #MuseumFromHome and #HappyFromHome videos that we’re sharing on the appropriate channels, and the funny ones will definitely appear on TikTok.
— Carnegie Museum of Natural History (@CarnegieMNH) March 19, 2020
Since a lot of people, particularly the generations above Gen Z, are still unfamiliar with TikTok, how would you describe it to other museums curious about it? What are the quirks and opportunities of communicating through it as a museum?
TikTok has a silliness factor, and it isn’t for every message or every audience segment. We’ve found it a wholesome respite from the outrage that often drives traffic on the other platforms. There is virtually no trolling.
It’s also not just Gen Z anymore. Millennials and Xers are fast-growing user segments, perhaps because they’re curious about what their kids are watching. Today it’s a safe bet that older family members are hunkering down with their Gen Zers and also watching.
How did you first find out about TikTok? What made you curious about trying it out?
Erin Southerland, our department’s writer and creator of most of the museum’s social media content, pitched me on using the platform. In 2019, we had filmed an entire year’s worth of dad-style snail jokes with Tim Pearce, who has a local cult following. We launched these weekly jokes on the other platforms for #MolluskMonday. This generated traffic and engagement, but not quite at the levels we were hoping. We already had the content produced, so we put it on TikTok, and it caught fire.
— Carnegie Museum of Natural History (@CarnegieMNH) March 23, 2020
How would you envision other museums, particularly those besides natural history museums, using TikTok during the #MuseumFromHome period?
TikTok gives us permission to not take ourselves and our museums too seriously. It’s a forum for engaging new audiences that are currently glued to their screens and hungry for content that entertains, surprises, and delights. These audiences create their own sense of community by commenting and sharing their own content and enthusiasm in what we’ve already said is a mostly troll-free zone. It’s tempting to label these experiences as escapism, but our museum discerns a real human need for them right now.
One thing I’ve noticed about the CMNH’s TikToks is that they come across as very approachable and human, which isn’t always a mode that we see museums and their staffs working in. Did you have to work to find this tone?
Thank you! That’s one of the chief goals of our overall social media strategy. We want to portray scientists and our museum as approachable and unintimidating. We also always try to employ humor when it’s appropriate. So TikTok came to us quite naturally. Along with Tim Pearce, we’re beginning to feature TikToks with Matt Lamanna, our renowned dinosaur guru and owner of a fabulous retro dinosaur blazer that we hope will become iconic. Tim and Matt, like many of our scientific staff, are approachable, generous with their time, and eager to engage with audiences on any level. On TikTok, they get to be a little silly, and they’re obviously enjoying it.
— Carnegie Museum of Natural History (@CarnegieMNH) March 16, 2020
Being a natural history museum, do you feel a responsibility to educate the public on the pandemic? How is that playing into the TikToks or other communications you’re working on?
It’s our civic responsibility to convey information accurately and to keep as up to date as possible. There are authorities better equipped to convey the imperative health information. We’re linking to federal, state, and county communications and guidelines because some of this information changes by the hour. When it comes to TikTok, we’ll keep the tone light with #MuseumFromHome and other hashtags. We recently took part in the #SafeHands Challenge on TikTok.
Besides #MuseumFromHome, another hashtag a lot of museums have started using is #MuseumMomentOfZen, with the idea of sharing peaceful or uplifting material from the collection or the museum’s other assets. Have you thought about how a natural history museum like CMNH can provide moments of zen during this time, when nature doesn’t always seem so uplifting?
As a Jon Stewart fan, I’m not sure how I feel about that hashtag. His “Moments of Zen” were funny and ironic, and these seem to be taking the notion of Zen quite earnestly. However, there are countless treasures in our collection, from geodes to butterflies to fossils, that create immediate connections with the awesome beauty and wonder of nature. My nitpicking aside, there’s certainly demand for it, so I think we’ll feature some Zen-inducing objects soon.Skip over related stories to continue reading article