7 Practical Tips for Engaging Art Lovers Through Social Media That We Learned From an Internet Cowboy and the Meme King of London

The experts weigh in on how to build a quality museum presence online.

Screen shot from the National Museum of Women in the Arts's Instagram.

One lesson that the lockdown era has laid bare is that, when it comes to museums, not all social media presences are created equal. While many of them offer outstanding IRL experiences, cracking the code of what will gain traction online is a different skill altogether.

Coronavirus means we can’t do business as normal, and that goes for social media too,” Adam Koszary, social media and content editor at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, tells Artnet News. “People are scared, bored, and in desperate need to fill their time. This is a time to shine for museums, but it means being far more interactive than many institutions are used to.”

Koszary, who has been dubbed the “king of memes” by the New York Times, is credited with paving the way for museums to adopt a more informal tone online. Here are some top tips from Koszary, as well as other museums social media gurus, on how to craft a quality museum presence online.

Aim For the Right Metrics

As tempting as it is to focus on follower growth, our key metric is engagement,” the Field Museum of Natural History’s Katharine Uhrich tells Artnet News. “We’re more interested in the quality of our online relationships than the quantity.”

Uhrich explains that while it can be tempting to use social media like a megaphone, it works better when you approach it more like a telephone, and talk to your audience as well as other institutions.

“People love to share,” the Royal Academy’s Koszary adds. “Whether it’s their opinion, their experiences or something they’ve created.” The expert suggests that museums invite participation from their audiences. To that end, the Royal Academy has been issuing daily challenges under the hashtag #RAdailydoodle to encourage its followers to get creative and participate in activities such as its recently viral challenge: “Who can draw us the best ham.”

Claire Lanier, the social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, agrees. “I think one of the best things we can give followers right now are things to do,” she says. The Met issues its own prompts and challenges, such as the #MetTwinning challenge, which encourage people to recreate art from its collection at home. Museums elsewhere are launching similar challenges, such as the Ashmolean Museum’s #IsolationCreations campaign, or the viral Getty Challenge, which has yielded some hilarious results from people attempting to copy works from its collection using homemade props.

Find the Museum’s Voice

The Field Museum’s Uhrich stresses that it’s important to know your museum’s voice and mission. “It’s that ‘be authentic’ cliché, but it’s important,” Uhrich says. “More practically, consider what’s unique about your institution. What can your social presence bring to the conversation that others can’t?” 

The Musée d’Orsay has its own Instagram artist-in-residence, who has been having fun imagining what the Impressionist masters in the collection might have posted on their own social media accounts if they were alive today. 

And who can forget Tim, who runs the social media for the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma? When the museum shut down, they handed their Twitter reins over to the museum’s head of security, Tim, who gamely took on the challenge, even though he had never used Twitter before. Tim made endearing mistakes, such as spelling out the word “hashtag” and signing off every tweet with “Thanks, Tim.”

“His very wholesome misunderstanding of Twitter and his stories of the objects in the museum are the escapism we all need right now,” Kozsary says.

Observe Other Institutions

Uhrich suggests that if you’re struggling with original content, you can join other institutions’ hashtags and prompts—there is plenty out there to get you through a dry spell. “There are so many brilliant examples of engagement and creativity,” she says. “Don’t worry about dreaming up the next viral moment.” 

Adrienne Poon, the digital content creator for the National Museum of Women in the Arts tends to agree that collaboration is important. “Many of our most successful posts come from collaborative campaigns, such as #5WomenArtists or #MuseumsThankHealthHeroes,” Poon says. “Even simply joining other campaigns is a great way to increase engagement. She gives the example of the #MuseumBouquet campaign started by the New-York Historical Society and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Museums are “one big family,” adds Tim.

Have Fun

Tim from the National Cowboy Museum says the biggest lesson he has learned from taking on the role is “that making people smile makes me smile.” His advice for other museums? “Look for that thing that makes people happy and lifts them up. We all need some happiness in our lives.”

A lot of successful museum tweets have an off-the-cuff and conversational tone. “The key thing is to talk to people and not be a robot,” Kozsary says, adding that among the great joys of visiting museums is talking to an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gallery attendant, shop assistant, curator, or educator. “People often perceive museums to be aloof and elitist, but all it takes to demolish that perception is an engaged dialogue.” 

One of the Field Museum’s prize artifacts is the remains of a 67 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex named Sue. One of the museum’s curators has been having fun in the empty galleries by dancing around in an inflatable T-Rex suit.

“People are craving humanity now more than ever and are seeking it on social media,” Uhrich says, pointing out that “even the most revered museums can have a social presence that’s entertaining and relatable.” As an example, she offers up the Met, which made a “sun’s out, buns out” reference on Instagram on the first day of spring.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something New

In the Wild West of the internet, anything goes, and museums’ social managers shouldn’t be afraid take a shot at something original if they feel so compelled. “If something doesn’t quite work out then it’s easily lost in the never-ending stream, but when that one thing blows up you’ll know it,” Kozsary says. 

Sometimes a fresh perspective on a collection can have interesting results. The Orsay’s “A week with…” project, where they invite thought leaders to offer their own viewpoints on the collection, has been very popular. It kicked off with Julian Schnabel, and the series will continue with the philosopher Emanuele Coccia, writers Maylis de Kerangal and Linda Lê, followed by the South African artist Marlene Dumas and then art historian Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

Speak to the Moment

It is also important to acknowledge relevant concerns of society. “For a long time museums have developed the ambition to be not just conservatories of the past, but also actors in the way the world is moving forward, and to take their full part in the current discussions about society,” the community manager at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Eric Jouvenaux says. While the external world may be in chaos, many are turning to art for a moment of serenity. With many trapped inside, the Musée d’Orsay has been sharing a landscape from its collection each day.

“Especially right now, it’s important that we find ways to speak to the reality of the present moment—in isolation, in pajamas all day, in Zoom meetings—while being sensitive to the fact that there is very real tragedy happening around us,” the Met’s Lanier says. “Calming, moving artworks and powerful stories in art history offer us very authentic ways of relating to followers”

But Don’t Forget the Museum’s Mission

Amid the urge to create fun and relevant content, the National Museum of Women in the Arts’s Adrienne Poon says it’s important to remember the core mission of the museum. “Staying true to our mission not only determines what content we should post, but it also lends our social media a unique perspective,” Poon says.

“Any museum can share cute pet photos, but what about cute pet photos alongside each pet’s favorite woman artist? Both options are delightful, but the latter remains on mission for us while also adding educational value for the audience. That tiny added value is key, because it gives people a reason to engage beyond a quick heart emoji.”

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