How a Dudley museum turned a TikTok sensation | Museums
T.The Black Country Living Museum is an open-air attraction that tells the story of early British manufacturing history, set in the defiantly starry town of Dudley in the industrial Midlands of England. The exhibits that have earned him numerous awards include two mine shafts, a lime kiln, and a collection of post-war trolleybuses.
This month, the visitor attraction received another, more unexpected, award and became – it is believed – 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 period clothing, can attract many more viewers. A recent video featuring a character called “Grandpa of the 1920s,” offering advice with a tar-thick Blackland accent, has been viewed more than 2.2 million times. “My favorite TikTok account is giving me LIFE right now,” says one of the clip’s almost 12,000 comments.
Filming of ‘1920s Grandad’ which has been viewed over 2.2 million times. Photo: Black Country Living Museum
For the pressured heritage sector, constantly struggling to attract younger visitors and depending on the Covid-related shutdown this year, that level of engagement with new audiences is sort of alchemy. Abby Bird, the museum’s communications manager, admits she didn’t expect such popularity when she opened the TikTok account in late August.
“I remember thinking that I would be very happy if we had 10,000 followers by Christmas,” she says. In fact, she cleared that hurdle after her second post, a video of some of the museum’s actors strutting the historic streets to a booming K-pop soundtrack, parodying a street-style meme that was popular on the site. The museum has been named one of the Top 100 UK TikTok Accounts for 2020. After a thorough search, Bird cannot find any other museum in the world with more followers.
A street scene in the Black Country Living Museum. Photo: Mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
The urge to get on TikTok was the lockdown itself, as the museum’s reduced schedule left her some free time. Bird, 31, is an avowed TikTok addict, but not all of her peers got it first. “After I explained the process to the executives, they were very similar: ‘Well, I don’t really understand how it works and I don’t use it personally, but I trust you. ‘A part of us that is accessible as a museum is in the spaces where young people are digital. “
This challenge is well understood by Adam Koszary, who experienced a brief and surreal moment of internet fame in 2018 as social media manager of the Museum of Rural English Life. One of his tweets with an impressively proportioned sheep became such a big global meme that billionaire Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, briefly changed his profile picture to that of the museum.
Koszary is now in charge of social media for the Royal Academy in London and often advises other museums and galleries to make their communication more effective. It is ironic, he says, that while many are storytelling, “many are still catching up on social media in a variety of ways. Even if they have a large following, they are still not entirely connected to each other. “
Both he and Bird agree that the key is what Koszary describes as “halfway hitting the internet,” taking the time to figure out what works on different platforms and using the resources to make that institution content and tone be transferred to this medium.
The boat dock at the Black Country Living Museum. Photo: Black Country Living Museum
That doesn’t always mean a cheeky riff about viral memes, although the Yorkshire Museum has instigated a lively Twitter dialogue by challenging other institutions to regular “curatorial battles” asking them to link to items from their collections. Koszary points to the National Trust as an institution that has “done a great job” balancing its members’ interest in nature and history with the need to communicate the sometimes controversial background stories of their properties.
The question is, how do you translate viral following into real value on social media. “I suppose it really depends on how you define success as a museum,” says Bird. “Just because our doors are currently closed doesn’t mean that our work will stop. We focus on visits to the site, conversations, the number of comments – all of these are really important indicators that people put in the story. And I am absolutely confident that this will lead to further visits. “