In November 2017, Museums Galleries Scotland asked me to deliver a talk at the Nationally Significant Collections Meeting on using social media at Surgeons’ Hall Museums. The following blog post is an amended transcript of the talk I delivered.
Surgeons’ Hall Museums, for those of you who don’t know has been open to the public since 1832 and is home to one of the largest and most historic pathology collections still in the original building that was built to house them. The entire collections of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh are the most comprehensive medical repository, built up by many generations of fellows and conservators to further educational opportunities for surgical students but the Museum was also, from its earliest times, open to members of the public to improve general public understanding of medicine.
The museums closed in May 2014 and reopened in September 2015 after a £4.4 million refurbishment, funded by primarily by Heritage Lottery Fund, known as The Lister Project. I have been fortunate enough to be with the Museums since 2008, firstly as a volunteer, before becoming a full-time member of staff. During this time the visitor numbers in the museums have grown from 14,000 a year to a current prediction of 75,000 per year for the end of this year.
Social Media – Prior to Relaunch
But how has social media played into telling people about our collections? With the museum closure, a WordPress site was set up to complement any outreach that went on during closure and the social media channels which shared content regularly ramped up the pace to deliver more regular content.
Over the closure period over 60 objects were shared on a weekly basis ranging from specimens to artworks and medical instruments. These were usually loosely based around a theme. The Museums also took part in MuseumWeek, a worldwide online social media focused share-a-thon where museums across the world shared content with the public, focusing on different themes each day. This increased awareness of the museums both to a national and international audience whilst we were closed. When the museums reopened online activity again increased. Whilst the museums were closed it was absolutely imperative that all online content kept people up to date. We expected our visitor numbers to double upon relaunch and through my role, I needed to show that the museums had been actively engaging with the public, via outreach and through our social media.
Using social media I was able to show what museum events were being put on outside the museums, including pop-up handling sessions and talks at community libraries. I was also able to highlight the entire redevelopment project as it progressed. By pacing out content I could show in stages what was happening in the museums. The content was usually limited to 1 or 2 photos a week, usually on a Friday, so there was never the chance of overdoing with the similar decanting shots. Social media was also used to help promote the museums relaunch and advertise the new museum events. Once the museum had reopened, again all social media channels were used to share what had been happening in the museum during the relaunch week. As we headed into October, regular content started to get generated.
Social Media – Post Relaunch
This involved object of the month, SHMFacts, and objects that may be relevant to the collections, as and when they appear, in addition to our museum blog, which is also filled with content from all staff. Within our museum, we have 16 members of staff working on the entire collection.
All members of staff contribute something to the museums’ social media content. Whilst this does seem like a big ask, being able to carefully outline what you need from your colleagues and setting deadlines is half the battle.
Our education team, write about workshops they take and coordinate as part of our museum events calendar. So far, the museums have put on dissection classes for children and adults, potting classes for adults and medieval elixir making workshops for kids. Our education team have written about the workshops afterwards, generating content for the museums online profile, but at the same time raising awareness of the work our education team does.
Our collections team, comprising of 3 colleagues, and our volunteer senior research fellow, select an object of the month on a four-month rotational basis. This ensures the amount of information I am looking for from them never intrudes too much with their actual job. They also have clear guidelines as to what is expected from them with regards to content and when they are expected to deliver content. In addition to this Two of our collections team rotate on a monthly basis, writing a pathology spotlight blog which focuses more on the disease process surrounding behind the specimens that we have in our collection. Furthermore, there is a collections account @SHM_Collections. This account was set up by the collections team, and any remote collections related content would come out of the account and be shared on the main Surgeons’ Hall Museums account. For example, collection focused blogs and object of the month posts along with any conservation content comes from this twitter account.
Any other content is created by myself, and as we sit in an open office, all of my colleagues are welcome to feed into what goes into our social media calendar. The entire collection at Surgeons’ Hall Museums consists of over 33,000 objects, of which over 25k are anatomical or pathological specimens. The entire collection dates from 1699, and the museum has in its care two preserved cadavers from that time.
The museums still collect modern surgical instruments and items from modern manufacturers were sought to expand on our collections as part of the redevelopment project. A recent acquisition being a laprascopic stack from Olympus. However, as many here know, the museums are not just home to anatomical specimens and medical instruments. Paintings, film, furniture and misc. items such as wax casts, stamps and medals, make up part of the collection too. Its equally important that we share our collection through our social media, as well as maintaining it, adding to it and enhancing it.
At Surgeons’ Hall, we understand why our collection is recognised as being nationally significant and understand the importance of our collection in the story of the history of medicine in Scotland. In the museum, we are very fortunate to be the caretakers of such a vast collection. In order to share the museums through social media, we have to pick the platforms that are right for us.
Managing our Social Media
I took over the social media accounts around 2010 and have been developing them ever since. Currently, I manage 5, what I would deem social, accounts. These are Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram and WordPress. I also oversee all content that goes into third party accounts such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and any entries in which the museums may appear on.
Twitter and Facebook are our key social media platforms, with Google Plus supporting and Instagram our fastest growing. You may think Google Plus? Who uses that? Is it still going or even what is that? G plus Is a platform that has a similar set up to Facebook, but you can tie your Google business page directly to your google plus, AND everything gets indexed by Google, which means it shows up in searches quicker. At Surgeons’ Hall Museums I post the same content to G+ that I do to Facebook. We have a slight branding issue with the name surgeons hall. It is associated with the area, the building and our commercial company, by ensuring that content is added to the google plus page, when you search for surgeons hall, all hits for the museums come up first. Which is what we want of course.
I set up the Museums Instagram account in early 2016, gradually drip feeding content into it so that at the very least it gave the museums a presence on that platform and to gauge how well content went down online. I was extremely cautious about using Instagram as it a photo sharing social web service. Within the museums, we operate a no photography policy for visitors, as a mark of respect for the collection and those who we owe so much to, so when setting up the Instagram account I personally felt somewhat conflicted. However I discussed with colleagues who do similar roles at other organisations and they encouraged me to use it, look at developing content and see how other museums do it.
I created a sort of hybrid content between facebook and twitter, usually a striking image, used on Twitter, but with the same amount of text that was used in a Facebook post. Luckily 80 plus weeks and over 300 posts later, the number of followers now sits at just under 5000, making it our fastest growing social media platform. Using Instagram, I can share images of the museum collections along with the stories that come with them on one of the fastest growing social media platforms.
With Facebook and Google plus I ensure that content is posted at least every other today to these platforms. It is imperative that any content created for any social media channel must fit the style of that platform. Whilst there are workarounds built into the social media platforms such as share to twitter or cross post to Instagram, it doesn’t look particularly right and the seasoned social media user can spot it a mile off. There are better options to share your museums’ messages using social media content managers such as HootSuite or buffer. utilising them to share content, can not only save you time on coming up with content but they can give you more time to plan for good content. Using a social media content manager you can look at key dates around your collection, perhaps work up to an anniversary. For example, sharing seven objects over a week in the run-up to the anniversary of James Young Simpson’s birth, then perhaps capitalising on this with a blog about the man himself.
I use our social media content manager to plan in #SHMFacts. These are little bits of information about our collections. They can be related to objects in our collections, key figures that are associated with our museums, or key dates in history that are important to the stories we are trying to tell. With this I look at the museum on a month by month basis, queuing up content to go out on our different social media channels, tailoring it appropriately to what best suits each channel. Whilst this sounds like a lot of work, I would argue that it is a lot easier than sitting down daily and trying to frantically find information to put out on social media channels. The best social media content is that which is planned in but is also topical and responsive. People love finding out new information and our recognised collections should be used to tell these stories, to highlight what makes our collections so important to Scotland, to reinforce that they are nationally significant, but most importantly make them accessible to all, everywhere.
Responding to Feedback
Since 2013 we have carried out several surveys in the museums, where visitors have been asked if social media had influenced their decision to visit. Each time a survey has been carried out, there has been a gradual increased in social media is the reason for visiting or having an influence on the reason for a visit. When I visit somewhere I always check the social media to see what sort of content the institution is posting, and I usually reach out to them. I personally feel that when people reach out to engage with museums, museums should reach back and engage with the user, even if it is just a quick message to say thanks, glad you had a great time or something similar. THAT human interaction is worth everything to the individual. I enjoy tweeting at museums when I am away from my work (a busman’s holiday if you will) and I love when they respond, there is something slightly fangirlish that makes me go OMG they noticed me. If me a museum professional feels like this when out and about then surely the visitor at the other end would feel the same way?
To quote from Russell Dornan’s piece on museums having a personality, The beauty of social media is that it’s just that: social.
Whilst social media accounts are perceived as an addition to museums and their day to day running, I feel that with this talk I have touched on why are and should be essential. It is someone’s full time job. As I mentioned previously with Surgeons Hall Museums, a blog was set up to share tales of our outreach work when the museum has closed. Since then, we have built upon that and everyone recognises the value of having regular interesting content across the entire museum. Museums are no longer just about curators and collections. They are about the stories we can tell, the projects we work on, the outreach work we can carry out, and the engagement with our audiences both in the museum and online.