The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in a multitude of ways, from the mundane and obvious to the more surprising. One of the sectors that has taken social media by storm is, shockingly, the heritage sector. When we think about museums, we think of educational school visits, highbrow tourism, and parents desperately trying to keep their kids entertained during the summer break. Museums are usually a highly visual activity, such as spending hours meandering the halls of the Louvre or basking in the art in the Hermitage. Sometimes they are interactive and engaging, with lots of hands-on exhibits and things we can touch. When we think about museums, though, the online component is not the most obvious.
Like many industries, the heritage sector has taken a major hit as a result of yo-yoing lockdowns, stay at home orders, and social distancing. Many museums are running at limited capacity and most smaller institutions have closed down completely for the duration. Without visitors, it could signal a death knell for a museum if they are not able to retain public interest. So, in this era of social media, the museum nerds have done what nerds do best. They’ve taken to the internet and spread their passion for their subject to the world, in a variety of quirky ways.
A Friendly Rivalry
Museums across the world have used the pandemic as an excuse to show off some of their collections online using media such as Twitter and Instagram. Over the course of several months, curators have built up a friendly rivalry when it comes to their artifacts, with so-called ‘curator battles’ taking place on a regular basis. Started early on in the pandemic, the Yorkshire Museum in the UK challenged its international colleagues to a series of battles of the best objects, with hashtags such as #BestMuseumBum, #CreepiestObject, and #SassiestObject trending on Twitter as part of the #curatorbattle.
MUSEUMS ASSEMBLE! It's time for #CURATORBATTLE! 💥— Yorkshire Museum (@YorkshireMuseum) April 17, 2020
Today's theme, chosen by you, is #CreepiestObject!
We're kicking things off with this 3rd/4th century hair bun from the burial of a #Roman lady, still with the jet pins in place…
CAN YOU BEAT IT? 💥 pic.twitter.com/ntPiXDuM6v
IT’S TIME FOR #CURATORBATTLE!💥— Yorkshire Museum (@YorkshireMuseum) June 26, 2020
Today’s theme is #BestMuseumBum!
This cracking Roman marble statuette depicts an athlete at the peak of fitness! It may have decorated the town house of one of Eboracum’s wealthier residents. Has someone taken a bite out of this 🍑?
BEAT THAT!💥 pic.twitter.com/N3A6KYz339
With so many obscure and attractive objects, it’s hard to say who won each of these battles. Enthusiasts the world over can’t wait to see what sort of themes they come up with next!
An Unconventional Star
With museums’ doors closed for the foreseeable future, staff are working at home as much as possible, which adds an added layer of complication when maintaining a vibrant and relevant social media presence. One museum in the United States found a good solution to the problem of their staff not being on site. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City made the unusual decision to delegate their social media posts to the one employee who is always on site – the head of security!
Hello, my name is Tim and I am the head of security for The Cowboy. I have been asked to take on the additional duty of social media management while the museum is closed. I’m new to this but excited. My team will also continue to protect and monitor the museum. Thanks, Tim Send pic.twitter.com/bPiXD9DoAd— Nat'l Cowboy Museum (@ncwhm) March 17, 2020
Tim the security guard has become an internet sensation with his appealingly naïve posts on the museum’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages. For the museum’s followers, it’s been an entertaining voyage into the technological awakening of a social media novice, with Tim learning such skills as posting photos, tagging people, and using hashtags. Over the last twelve months, we’ve learned more about Tim in these posts that we have about the museum, and people are loving it.
This is the hat and eyepatch the Duke wore in the movie True Grit. They are part of our Exhibition about the 2 True Grit. Lots of interesting props and clothes. I’m told I can’t try it on. Hashtag John Wayne. Lucas, my grandson, told me to use hashtags. Thanks, Tim pic.twitter.com/yNO3RP4uA4— Nat'l Cowboy Museum (@ncwhm) March 17, 2020
It’s not just the museums themselves who have become involved in social media trends to stave off pandemic fatigue. The general public have embraced the opportunity to break up the monotony of lockdowns by engaging in making their own art replicas. The trend of people creating elaborate setups in their homes to imitate famous artworks has swept across the world, with efforts ranging from the half-hearted to the epically brilliant. Instagram and Twitter have become awash with Mona Lisas, Girls with Pearl Earrings, and Screams.
As the pandemic shows no sign of dying down any time soon and people are spending another winter in isolation, museums are continuing to innovate and bring entertainment to the masses in the form of online virtual tours, webinars and lecture series, and interactive challenges. What’s coming next, you may wonder. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that human beings with nothing to do will find ever more creative ways to keep themselves entertained. If they can learn a little bit about culture any heritage along the way, then so much the better. So, when you’re scrolling through the internet on a chilly afternoon in lockdown, think about the wealth of online offerings from our world’s greatest cultural institutions and consider getting involved in the latest sensation brought to you by our emerging social media stars.
If you’re looking to get involved in the art challenge, you can find more information on Facebook.
For upcoming lectures by the Bytown Museum, you can find more information on Twitter.
Bruner, R. (2020, April 10). People Start Trend to Re-create Classic Art Amid Coronavirus. Time. https://time.com/5817117/coronavirus-art-history/.
Dafoe, T. (2020, July 16). A UK Museum Challenged Bored Curators Around the World to Find Art History’s ‘Best Bums.’ See Their Cheeky Responses Here. Artnet News. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/newest-twitter-challenge-uk-museum-called-arts-best-bums-see-cheeky-responses-1895028.
Guardian News and Media. (2020, April 20). Museums hold Twitter showdown to find world’s creepiest exhibit. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/apr/20/museums-hold-twitter-showdown-to-find-worlds-creepiest-object.
Home Page. Yorkshire Museum. (2021, January 14). https://www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk/.
Oklahoma City, OK. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. (2021, January 12). https://nationalcowboymuseum.org/.
Pesce, N. L. (2020, March 27). This security guard at a cowboy museum is learning the ropes on Twitter, and it’s everything right now. MarketWatch. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-security-guard-at-a-cowboy-museum-is-learning-the-ropes-on-twitter-and-its-everything-right-now-2020-03-27.