Hey Museums, the Internet IS the Real World

While searching through old AASLH blogs earlier this month, I came across a fantastic “profile” of Mark the Mammoth, the plush face of the Chemung County Historical Society on Twitter. Director Bruce Whitmarsh shows a unusually holistic and perceptive understanding of social media best practices:

“We’ve since discovered that the internet arranges usage on our social media platforms. Local people tend to use Facebook, so [it has] become a convenient way to interact with them and promote museum visits. Twitter, on the other hand, has a wider audience, with regular followers across North America and Europe. Hash tags make everything more immediate, allowing us to link with many different groups quickly and easily.”


What Whitmarsh has identified is the reality that social media platforms are not tools to be used to accomplish an end; they are interwoven groups of communities that form—often organically—around shared location, interests, and ideas. Each cultural organization or museum has a unique place in these communities. Those that “get it” will embrace the opportunity to contribute to that community; those that don’t will be like those friends that join a pyramid scheme and use every social event as an opportunity to try and sell things to their friends. Don’t be that guy. (Think you may be “that museum?” Read this great 101 on Twitter communication from Nina Simon.)

This brings us to an even more important point: THE INTERNET IS THE REAL WORLD. I’m thinking of getting this tattooed on my forehead so I don’t have to keep saying it. Whitmarsh spells out a relevant use of Twitter that most museums don’t really grasp:

We’re now thinking about using all of our internet portals as part of the whole museum, not just for marketing. The reach of the internet has allowed us to think about and work towards connecting and interacting with people around the globe, even if we never expect them to set foot in our galleries. Twitter and Mark the Mammoth allow us to have one more avenue for that connection.


It’s easy to just say “Pull up your pants Look up from your phone, you self-absorbed young’n” without trying to understand HOW these communities are using social media. Predictably, as soon as AASLH posted an article asking “Is There a Place for Pokémon Go in History Museums?,” someone offered a missed-the-point-grumble about “kids these days:”

not real life

Comments like these completely miss the fact that the internet is not just for entertainment. It’s not even just a tool anymore. It’s an inescapable part of modern life. Like any ubiquitous technology, it has changed the way we interact with the world. The car changed the way we moved around, but it also changed the way we created cities; without the car, there would be no such thing as the American suburb. Likewise, the internet is changing the way we move through the world and the way we interact with the real world. As The Atlantic‘s Adrienne LaFrance points out: “When Google became synonymous with online searching, it wasn’t just because Google was the best known search engine out there. It was because search engines completely changed our behavior.” And I won’t even go into the Internet of Things here because that is a whole ‘nother coversation.

Of course, a more immediate relevant example of this phenomenon is the way Pokémon Go is using the virtual world to spur headline-making movement in the physical world. For me personally, friend-making innovations like the Bumble BFF app are changing the way I seek and maintain a healthy level of human interaction and intimacy despite being highly introverted.

Museums simply cannot grow in this new world if they assume that social media or the internet are just ways to advertise. You might as well assume that talking to community members is a waste of your time. Your visitors (and potential visitors) are using social media and the internet to record and interpret their world. You can ignore or impede them, but they are going to do it anyway. So why not make sure they can have an amazing experience in your museum with their phones instead of insisting they enjoy your idea of what experience they should be having?


Look at the innovative way museums studies doctoral student Marina Gross-Hoy used Twitter to both share her solo-trip to the Met with her online community of professionals and reflect more deeply on the individual artifacts and works of art she was seeing:

“Using the hashtag #threedaysinthemet, I set out to tweet a photo and description about every half hour. (The Met provides free—and fast—WiFi, which made this possible with my Canadian phone.) I tweeted about objects, how they were displayed, and how I interacted with them… 

Rather than distracting me from my visit of the Met, tweeting helped me take my time with the objects. It gave me a structure to wander through the museum and be pulled like a magnet to intriguing artworks. Then, it gave me an platform to express in a few words my encounter, be it art historical content or my experience with the object.”

Gross-Hoy has the vocabulary and insight to analyze and communicate the ways social media can positively enhance our experience in the “real” world; her articulation of this physical/virtual merge is unique, but her use of social media in museums is not.

Sure, not every museum is the right place to play Pokémon Go, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that social media in museums is inherently disrespectful, distracting, or otherwise counterproductive to the institutional mission. For example, in a session at the 2016 AAM Annual Meeting, Kai Frazier, the Social Media Coordinator at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, explained how Instagram has become a powerful tool for their visitors to share the parts of the museum that most resonated or affected them. When I am visiting museum dealing with difficult history, I like to share photos of great displays or quotes that I think would help my friends and the world better understand this issue, even if they never visit the museum.


So, my call to action for museums is this: Please don’t try to make me keep my museum experience to myself. Please stop trying to make me keep my museum experience contained within your wall. Let me share the wonder, anger, surprise, and sadness inspired by your exhibits with my friends all over the world. Let me make instant connection between your collections and current events, adding historical context to today’s trending story. Let me make your museum relevant to my life and the life of my online community. Let me create a unique experience in your institution instead of trying to limit how I enjoy your exhibits and collection. Let me bring the real world inside with me, and don’t tell me I have to turn off part of the real world in order to get the most out of your museum.

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