Museum Tours on Twitter
Or being the eyes of your followers
Beyond the traditional (easy) posts about exhibition opening hours and family activities, there are many opportunities to take the museum experience — that sense of awe and wonder at seeing amazing objects — and share it online.
Museums are nothing without the objects they have and the stories they tell.
It’s the stories and objects that engage people the most. To find these you have to find and work with the best storytellers in the museum. The people paid to discover, research and tell stories everyday: the curators.
So this was my plan.
After finding a willing volunteer, I explained the idea: take stories the curator would usually tell on a tour and share them, not with a roomful of people, but with thousands of people across the world.
With the anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth (and death) in June, I got my first chance. I asked curator David Rooney to take me on a tour of the Codebreaker exhibition at the Science Museum, which examined the life and legacy of Alan Turing.
The tour gave David and I the chance to bring their story — and through them the remarkable life of Alan Turing — to a whole new audience.
Writing the tour was fun but agonising. My half hour tour had produced eight hundred words on nine fascinating objects which needed to fit into thirty tweets.
Sometimes, 140 characters is a lot.
It always amazes me how much you can say in a single tweet. But with links, images or even just long words, the characters soon disappear.
Transforming the curator’s words into tweets without loosing his voice was the biggest challenge. It was his knowledge and stories that had made the walk around the exhibition so enjoyable and I was determined to capture that in the Twitter tour.
Although I may have edited the words and stories to fit into 140 characters, it is still very much the curator’s voice.
For the tour, we focused on story of the exhibition — Turing’s life and legacy — not just specific objects. We made a special effort to tease out the stories that missed out on becoming labels and exhibition text.
Why was that specific object selected for the tour? What was the story behind that object and how did it related to Turing’s life? These were all thoughts we wanted to share.
While preparing the words in advance was necessary for fact checking, ensuring we included useful links and saving my fingers from an hour of speed typing, our aim was that the tour would be as ‘real’ as possible.
Both David and I wanted our followers to feel like they were actually there, walking around the exhibition with the curator.
To achieve this, we used photos taken in the exhibition wherever possible and tweeted the tour from the exhibition itself.
Tweeting the tour was fun and relatively easy, but only because the curator was willing to experiment with something new.
The curator’s knowledge of the exhibition made writing an (hopefully) interesting and engaging tour easy work. The tough choice was deciding what to leave out.
Together, the #TuringTour tweets had a potential audience of 19.2 million. Even if just one percent of those people actually read the tweets, that’s still a 200,000-strong audience.
The majority of tweets were sent from the UK, but people also tweeted from as far away as Denmark, Chile and the United States.
Our #TuringTour had gone global.
It might even have encouraged new audiences to visit the exhibition.
Initially, I expected we would be tweeted with lots questions, both during and after the tour. Although we had many positive responses to the tour, only a few questions were sent to us. It seemed people were happy just to sit back and watch.
Making the Modern World
Two months after the Turing tour, it was time for another experiment.
With over 1000 objects to chose from, settling on just ten objects was a struggle (the curator picked eleven!).
He focused on a number of unknown objects in the gallery. Objects you would probably walk past a hundred times without ever stopping to look and find out more.
For me, it was fascinating to discover (and share) the stories behind these forgotten objects.
The tour started with a clock fit for a King, before moving on to the world’s first example of intercity travel by rail.
The curator couldn’t resist squeezing in one remarkable and recognisable object: Stephenson’s Rocket.
Our aim for the tour was to provide a glimpse into how our experience of time has changed as science and technology developed.
Learning from the previous tour, we shared a range of tweets — usually three per object — to provide images, the story and historical context for each object.
The most popular tweet (retweeted for hours after the tour finished) shows just how powerful the curator’s voice can be.
With the curator tweeting from @sciencemuseum, it was possible to share the emotions that can go into studying an object or curating an exhibition.
What did we learn?
Promoting the tour — in particular asking and encouraging others to help promote it too — allowed us to reach audiences we would not normally engage with.
Including Vine (or other video content) gives a ‘live’ and more engaging feel to the tour.
Video and images help followers feel they are seeing the tour through the curator’s eyes. Obvious and simple.But by sharing these you demonstrate what the curator finds interesting (the thing people find the most interesting).
Think about legacy. Saving the tour as a storify enables you to continue to return to (and share) the tour long after it has finished. This could even be added to an exhibition webpage.
Try not to fit too much into a tweet. A powerful sentence or image can be enough. Don’t be afraid to link to stories and content outside your museum.
Being able to demonstrate that followers are keen to engage with the tweets, stories and objects is a powerful way of introducing curators and museum staff to Twitter.
Encouraging followers to ask questions during/after a Twitter tour can be difficult. Be explicit if you want your followers to submit quesions.
We are already looking at new exhibitions to tweet, and I’m keen to explore tweeting a themed tour (Medicine, female scientists, inventions that didn’t quite make it etc) so watch this space.
I also want to expand beyond the museum walls and run a joint tour with other institutions (do get in touch if you are keen to take part).
My final advice for a great Twitter tour? It’s simple really…
Find a passionate curator. Distill their voice into 140 characters. Share unknown objects. Be the eyes of your followers.
Tell a story.
Thanks to curator David Rooney for his patience in answering my many questions and for letting me turn his eloquent words into 140 characters.
Further reading: On Social Media as a Job (at a museum)
Tate Modern: #TateTours
Historic Royal Palaces: #TowerGhosts