A few years ago I began following my favorite cultural and public history institutions on Twitter. I wanted to stay up-to-date with what events they were holding, what exhibits they were planning, and learn about free/discount days. However, I did not want to be inundated with emails that I would save for latter, but never actually read. Following these institutions on Twitter allows me to view their most recent updates at my leisure. However, Twitter can be used to semi successfully advance institutions missions.
The most common posts by museums are updates on upcoming events or live Tweeting current events, ‘This Day in History’ posts, ‘Did You Know’ posts, and photos of patrons enjoying the institution. However, social media is not a one-way conversation. The public can respond to institutions posts and initiate the dialogue themselves. This allows patrons to publicly communicate any ideas, compliments, or grievances. The use of this dialogue facilitated by social media helps many institutions fulfill some aspect their missions.
Education is part of nearly every public history institution’s mission. Through ‘This Day in History’ and ‘Did You Know’ posts institutions are able to facilitate education to thousands of people, many of who are unable to visit the museum. These posts also highlight aspects of the museum’s collection and might entice people to visit the museum or further research the topic of the post.
The mission statement of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s is “Commemorate, Educate, Inspire.” Further explained: “The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum collects, preserves, studies, and exhibits artifacts, archival materials, and works of art related to the history, culture, and science of aviation and spaceflight and the study of the universe. Its research and outreach activities serve all audiences, within and beyond its walls. The Museum commemorates the past and is committed to educating and inspiring people to foster appreciation for the importance of flight to humanity.”
Through the museums daily posts that briefly explain a piece of their collection or aviation history the museum is able to digitally facilitate education. The post only contains a small fact, but ideally it inspires people to research the topic further. The museum also commemorates important anniversaries and dates by creating relevant posts that honor a person, group, or event.
However, Twitter does have its limitations when serving public history institutions. With a limit of 140 characters it is difficult for an institution to communicate a substantive message or have a truly education post. Many people who communicate with the institution via Twitter will also have their posts left unanswered due to the volume of posts the institution receives. Twitter is a valuable tool when used in conjunction with other digital resources. A few institutions posted links to their blogs or websites that were able to convey more information on a topic than a Twitter post would have allowed. Some posts linked to Flickr accounts where you could view photos of a new exhibition or past event.
The more public history and cultural institutions embrace social media the better connected with the public they will be with the public. When used properly and in conjunction with other communication methods Twitter will be able to aid them fulfilling their missions. For now though Twitter’s most valuable use is conveying information and updates about the institution.