The Black Country Living Museum is an open-air attraction that tells the story of Britain’s early manufacturing history, set in the defiantly unstarry town of Dudley, in England’s industrial Midlands. Among the exhibits that have earned it a clutch of awards are two mine shafts, a lime kiln and a collection of postwar trolley buses.
This month the visitor attraction gained another, more unexpected accolade, becoming – it believes – the most popular museum in the world on TikTok. It has more than 350,000 followers worldwide, and its short video clips, often featuring a cast of re-enactors in historic dress, can attract many more viewers. A recent video featuring a character called “1920s grandad” offering advice in a tar-thick Black Country accent has been viewed more than 2.2m times. “My favourite TikTok account giving me LIFE right now,” reads one of the clip’s almost 12,000 comments.
For the hard-pressed heritage sector, struggling perennially to attract younger visitors and this year reeling from on-off Covid-related closure, this level of engagement with a new audience represents a kind of alchemy. Abby Bird, the museum’s communications manager, admits she had no expectation of such popularity when she launched the TikTok account in late August.
“I remember thinking I would be really happy if we got 10,000 followers by Christmas,” she says. In fact, she cleared that hurdle after only her second post, a video of some of the museum’s actors strutting through its historic streets to a booming K-pop soundtrack, in parody of a street-style meme popular on the site. The museum has been named one of TikTok’s 100 top UK accounts for 2020, and after extensive searching, Bird can find no other museum in the world with more followers.
The push to get on TikTok, she says, was lockdown itself, when the museum’s reduced schedule left her with some free time. Bird, 31, is a self-confessed TikTok addict, but not all her colleagues got it at first. “Once I explained the process to senior staff, they were very much like: ‘Well I don’t really understand how it works, and I don’t use it personally, but I trust you.’ Part of us being accessible as a museum is being in the spaces that young people are digitally.”
That challenge is well understood by Adam Koszary, who had a brief and surreal moment of internet celebrity in 2018 when he was social media manager of the Museum of Rural English Life. One of his tweets, featuring an impressively proportioned sheep, became such a huge global meme that the billionaire Tesla-founder, Elon Musk, briefly changed his profile picture to that of the museum.
Now in charge of social media for the Royal Academy in London, Koszary frequently advises other museums and galleries seeking to make their communications more effective. It is ironic, he says, that despite being in the business of telling stories, many “are still playing catchup to social media in a ton of ways. Even if they have massive followings, they’re still not quite connecting.”
Both he and Bird agree that the key is in what Koszary calls “meeting the internet halfway”, taking time to discover what works on different platforms, and committing the resources to make the institution’s content and tone translate to that medium.
That won’t always mean a sassy riff on viral memes, though the Yorkshire Museum has kicked off a lively Twitter dialogue by challenging other institutions to regular “curator battles” in which they are invited to link to items from their collections. Koszary points to the National Trust as an institution that has done “an amazing job” balancing its members’ interest in nature and history with the need to communicate its properties’ sometimes controversial backstories.
The question is how to translate a viral following on social media into real value. “I suppose it really depends on how you define success as a museum,” says Bird. “Just because our doors are closed at the moment, that doesn’t mean our job stops. We’re focusing on visits to the website, conversations happening, the number of comments – all of those are really important indicators that people are taking in the story. And I have absolute confidence that that is going to lead to more visits.”