Based on a brief and unscientific survey of Twitter use by several public history institutions, there appear to be two different levels of the platform’s use. The first and more basic employs Twitter as another outlet for marketing announcements that are also made elsewhere on the institution’s web presence (new exhibitions, programs and events, important historical dates pertaining to the museum’s subject matter). Institutions at this level may sometimes highlight items from their collections or feature short biographies of individuals connected to their topic, but in general their Twitter “voice” is not particularly distinctive, and their Twitter content doesn’t offer much that can’t be found on their other digital outlets. The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago is a good example of this level of use. Most of their content is announcements, fundraising appeals, and the occasional retweet of another cultural institution or event related to their mission. Since February is Black History Month, they have recently been featuring photos of notable African-Americans–but those tweets usually link to Wikipedia pages about the individuals, rather than to DuSable’s own content. It’s not that their Twitter use is out of keeping with their mission, which reads:
To promote understanding and inspire appreciation of the achievements, contributions, and experiences of African Americans through exhibits, programs, and activities that illustrate African and African American history, culture and art.
Featuring notable African-Americans certainly helps advance this mission. But it’s questionable how much this Twitter use does for the DuSable as an institution. Followers interested in learning more about Aprille E. Jackson (the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering) or in Matthew Henson (a black Arctic explorer) are directed to Wikipedia or Biography.com, rather than back to the DuSable where they may be inspired to explore the website or even plan a visit. Though clicking on the “Tweets & Replies” tab reveals that whoever runs the DuSable’s Twitter account does sometimes engage with followers who tweet questions or criticisms, in general the voice of the Twitter account is a fairly bland institutional one, little different from the tone of postings on the museum’s website.
A second and more successful level of Twitter engagement by public history institutions involves a well-developed voice and focus for the account that uses Twitter’s potential to go beyond content offered by the museum’s other digital outlets. The Twitter account of the National Museum of American History is an example of effective use of the platform. Most of the tweets follow a “Today in history” theme, which justifies frequent posts and makes them relevant to the casual viewer. These tweets link back to content from the museum’s blog, keeping viewers engaged with the institution’s official outlets. The NMAH’s Twitter account also makes use of its membership in the large Smithsonian network, featuring objects from other museums’ collections as well as its own. The operator(s) of the account make use of hashtags and jokes that demonstrate a familiarity with the conventions of Twitter and that make them stand out as savvy users of the platform. Finally, the Twitter account sometimes links to ongoing research projects, such as with this tweet about collecting at the Iowa Caucuses, which can get its audience involved in following these initiatives while also educating them about the ways in which history is an ongoing process:
When comparing these two institutions’ use of Twitter, it is very important to remember how any institution’s resources (or lack thereof) may affect its ability to use social media in an effective way. As a member of the Smithsonian network, the NMAH likely has more money, staff time, and expertise to devote to developing an effective Twitter feed and to creating or posting the web content that supports a good feed. Even larger museums like the DuSable may lack the resources that make this possible. They may have to make trade offs between investing in social media platforms that may turn out to be ephemeral and investing in their collections, research, programs, or other priorities.