How do Museums use Social Media?

According to Genoways and Ireland; ‘Effective marketing and public relations are vital elements in a museum’s success.’[1]  In today’s world of high-speed communication, web 2.0 and increasing digital literacy, interactivity with customers is now critical to online success. Reed noted that; ‘There are almost two billion people online. […] If you can reach even a tiny fraction of them, you will have a viable business.’[2]  Since the digital revolution in the late 2000’s, museums have increasingly been using social media platforms to promote themselves to a vast online audience. In 2010, the British Museum recorded 5.8 million physical visitors and a similar number of online visitors to its website.  Due to their largely free nature, many smaller museums are now investing in social media strategies. This essay shall highlight how museums use social media, what platforms are used, and how they are used. It shall analyse social media strategies used by both large and small institutions in order to compare any similarities or differences between the two.

The British Museum

The British Museum (BM), one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, is ideally positioned to engage with its global visitor base through social media. In 2009, the BM set up its own Facebook and Twitter pages and the initial investment is now reaping benefits. On Facebook, the BM has nearly 650,000 likes and 420,000 visits, likewise on Twitter, it has 412,000 followers. It is hard to compare Facebook likes to Twitter followers, as both sites have different focuses. Rebecca Atkinson noted that; ‘Facebook is a social networking website that allows people to build closed networks with friends within which they can chat and share information. […] Unlike Facebook, Twitter is an open network, which means you can also see updates from people you aren’t following.’[3]

Daniel Pett, an ICT technician at the BM published a paper on the museum’s social media usage in 2012. He commented that the main focus was to; ‘broadcast information about the museum and partner museums activities worldwide.’[4] His report details a perceived advantage of Facebook as being that;

Photo by Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen

A selection of social media apps available today.

“Facebook’s registered user base would equal the population of the world’s 3rd largest country (640 million users), the site receives 310 million visits daily and in an average 20 minute period in 2010, 5.9 million wall posts, 10.2 million comments were made and 2.7 million photos were posted. In contrast, if we consider other platforms for a moment, 49% of registered Twitter users never check their timeline (although Twitter claim to have 100 million active users).”

However, recent developments by Facebook decrease its attractiveness to certain museums. As Atkinson notes; ‘All the main social media platforms now offer paid advertising […]. And Facebook has made changes to its algorithm that determines which posts make it to users’ feeds and which don’t – unsurprisingly, pages that pay are prioritised.’  She uses the Museum of London (MoL) as a key example.[5] The MoL has 68,450 likes (5 January 2015) but because of Facebook’s new algorithm, there is no guarantee that their posts will reach 68,450 followers, or even a fraction of that number. As such, the MoL has been forced to start paying for advertising; ‘Next year we will start paying to promote our content on Facebook and also on Twitter, if we don’t, our content is going to starting dropping off people’s feeds.’[5]

The BM’s social media usage is not limited to Facebook and Twitter; the museum also has an Instagram and YouTube presence. Instagram (owned by Facebook) is an image-sharing platform which the BM uses to promote photos taken by visitors and staff. It currently has a following of nearly 46,000 followers. Instagram permits the exporting of images to other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Images are becoming increasingly important on social media platforms, as Atkinson argued; ‘Twitter recently unveiled a new photo tagging feature and the option to post four photos per tweet. Google+ has updated its user interface, which includes extra-large images. And Facebook’s algorithm, which determines what posts are seen by people in their news feeds, also prioritises image-based updates.’[5]

Similarly, video content has seen a dramatic rise in popularity. The BM has its own YouTube channel which is used to promote its major exhibitions. The Museum’s channel now has over 7,000 subscribers and some of its videos prove remarkably popular, such as the “Making a Glass Fish Replica” video from 2012, which now has over 690,000 views.

Video content can  directly lead to sales benefits as Atkinson notes; ‘Analytics suggest that videos are a driver for physical visits – 90% of people who clicked through to the site after watching a video about the Cheapside Hoard left on the buy tickets page [The Cheapside Hoard was a featured Exhibition in the Museum of London].’[5]

Pett argues that the BM has used Facebook to a greater extent as it promotes more interaction than Twitter or Instagram; ‘It [the BM] currently [in 2012] has 62,604 followers but only 439 users, suggesting a low level of interaction or reciprocity [on Instagram].’[4] Today’s figures suggest a similar, although growing, trend. Currently, (5th Jan 2015) the Museum has 440,000 followers on Twitter, yet is only following 42,300 other users. Whilst these figures suggest a low level of reciprocity, the BM has made over 10,000 tweets, many of which have several hundred re-tweets and favourites, which suggest that Twitter users are indeed reciprocating. Furthermore, the Museum also utilises Twitter to publicize employment opportunities, hence advertising to a much wider audience than just by placing an advert onto its own website.

Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery (iTweetus):

Quite the opposite from the British Museum, the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery is a much smaller institution whose dedicated social media campaign provides an excellent example of smaller institutional use. The museum ran a co-ordinated twitter campaign back in 2011 which culminated in the opening of their £1.5 million gallery dedicated to the roman heritage of Cumbria. The museum created a fictional Roman legionary, Marcus Julius Latinus (Twitter handle, @iTweetus) whom they used to post updates of his imagined part in the roman invasion of Britain. The concept was to show the daily historical progress of the legions moving northwards with iTweetus arriving in Carlisle on the same date as the Gallery’s grand opening.

The museum employed roman history experts in order to assure historical accuracy, as well as tweeting a variety of posts, such as iTweetus’ feelings, educational posts, or humorous ones in order to promote interest. The museum had success with the campaign as iTweetus has (as of 5 January 2015) 863 followers on Twitter and has posted 197 tweets. As Richardson noted; ‘Social Media is a conversational medium, so museums should Tweet or Re-tweet if it’s something they think people will be interested in. The key is not just to talk about yourself.’[3] Tullie house has taken this on-board, and their character responded to tweets by followers.

Image By Mark Kens

Social media word cloud

Social media strategies are not limited to Facebook and Twitter, museums are also using newer platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Vine to creatively engage with online audiences.

Other Social media platforms:

Tumblr is an image focussed micro-blogging site, which can be used as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, a museum’s website. The Horniman Museum and Gardens has its own dedicated Tumblr site which it ran in conjunction with its anthropology exhibition. Murphy argued that; ‘We wanted to make the process as visible as possible by sharing new photographs and discoveries, although we do put these on our main website’s collections pages, it’s not possible to pull things out or highlight new finds.’[5]  The museum currently has over 23,000 followers and many items have been reblogged. Atkinson notes that one image of a reindeer antler knife sheath was reblogged over 1,500 times.[5]

Pinterest is another site that has been used by some museums, such as the Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT). The site has over 1300 followers on its pages. Spurdle explains that; ‘Pinterest is very lightweight to use and you don’t have to put a lot of work into it. We find a lot of people using it have a very intense interest in a specific area.’[5]  This raises questions regarding the copyrighting of images. The BMT has allowed users to share its images by uploading them under a Creative Commons License. Other museums, such as the Museum of London, do not upload images as they are not prepared to risk multiple copyright infringements.

Vine, a short-video sharing service, has seen limited usage by museums, such as the Museum of Islamic Art in Dofa, Qatar, which experimented with sharing content via the platform, but this was abandoned. Similarly, The Living Museum of the North, in County Durham, experimented with Vine but, as Martin says; ‘We experimented with it, but we still don’t know how we can use it to best to benefit us.’[5] It is hard to argue that a 6 second video has any useful purpose or can highlight an exhibition in detail.


In conclusion, there is evidence that the museum industry is utilising the benefits of social media platforms in order to improve audience interaction. By using the major established sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, museums have the ability to tap into huge audiences, and this is reflected in their “Like” and “Follower” numbers. By being inventive, varied and creative, museums are seeing highly positive interactions with their followers as Atkinson notes; ‘increasingly it [social media strategy] is about starting conversations, reciprocal sharing and developing a distinctive online presence.’[5] Newer social media sites and their utilities are still being explored and viable social media strategies are still being developed as the museum industry re-invents itself to exist in the modern age.


[1] Genoways, H and Ireland, L, Museum Administration; An Introduction, (Oxford, 2003), pg 207.

[2] Reed, J, Get up to speed with Online Marketing, (London, 2011), pg 3.




(Featured Image courtesy of Chris Robinson)

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