A sheep, a duck, a mouse, a chicken, a bat and Elon Musk. Probably not what you think of when trying to work out how to gain global recognition and in the process successfully engage your museum with the rest of the world. But those and more are exactly what the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading, UK, has used to achieve cult fame as one of social media’s brightest stars.
Adam Koszary first harnessed the power of social media in early 2016. Unbeknownst to staff, the MERL – which is a museum, library and archive dedicated to recording the changing face of farming and the countryside in England – had a mouse on the loose in its archives. The archives were, as described later by the museum in a blog post “the promised land” for the rodent, with straw, wood, and textiles from the museum’s collection perfect for the creature to build itself a nest. Sadly for the mouse, out of the 35,000 objects it could have destroyed, it managed to zero in on a shelf dedicated to historic mouse traps.
“He got caught inside a humane Edwardian device called the perpetual mousetrap,” says Koszary. “Our curator found it in the trap and sent an email asking if people had put it in there as a teaching aid. They hadn’t.”
Built 155 years previously, the trap had successfully captured the mouse. The museum shared the story on its blog. From there it was picked up by Buzzfeed, giving the museum a nice boost in online traffic in the coming days.
For Koszary, he saw the moment as an opportunity and continued to try and engage the museum’s audience in unique and interesting ways.
“We knew we could reach a new audience with good content but we were trying to work out how,” he explains. “We’re constantly experimenting with how to make our collections relevant and it just happened that this one kicked off.”
The social media revolution at MERL however wouldn’t truly kick off until 9 April 2018, as Koszary explains: “That day, one of the archivists at the museum let me know that it was international unicorn day.
“Museums have a time-honoured tradition of tracking trending hashtags and then doing appropriate posts to shoehorn their collections in there in a bid for attention. That’s what we were essentially trying to do.
“We have more than a million photographs in our collections,” he continues, “Around 40,000 have been social media approved. I was trying to find an image of a sheep with a horn growing out of its forehead, because that sometimes can happen. Instead, I found one of a huge Exmoor Horn aged ram.”
Koszary posted the image along with a caption which read “look at this absolute unit”.
In just a matter of days, the locally-known museum was trending worldwide on Twitter, with the post receiving hundreds of thousands of likes, shares and retweets across social media, not to mention the countless articles from major publications and websites that were written just about that single social media post.
Chicken in trousers
From there, things really went up a gear, with MERL going from the odd well-received tweet to each post on the social media platform receiving responses from people all over the world, often in their thousands.
Koszary realised that to get a true reaction from the audience he was trying to reach, he had to create relatable content. Enter the chicken in trousers.
Starting with the assumption that people could find the subject matter and collections boring, he set out to convince social media it was interesting.
“A new book had come into our collection,” he explains. “It was an 18th-century mathematics book by a 13-year-old from Kent in England. In this book, we found a doodle of a chicken in trousers but rather than just posting the picture, we created a story around it.”
Using a Twitter thread to tell the story, the post built anticipation of the mystery at its conclusion, in this case, the chicken in trousers. Koszary says that putting an image online and describing what’s in it is only useful to those who already know why those objects are interesting. By taking a different look at the collection, you can draw in a new audience – Harry Potter author JK Rowling included.
Rowling, who has nearly 15 million followers on Twitter, called the doodles and the thread “truly wonderful”. After she shared the thread with her audience, Koszary asked the author to make her “next series of novels track the adventures of a chicken who wears trousers”. Rowling replied that she was already “way ahead” of him, adding that the chicken would be “best friends with a duck in a balaclava.”
These interactions continued to shine a spotlight on MERL as its follower count steadily trended upwards and following these successes, Koszary had room to experiment. He could send things out into the Twitterverse, see what kind of content would land and see which would not.
With this mindset, one day he absent-mindedly sent a tweet, not expecting much from it – “hey @britishmuseum give us your best duck”. What he got in response was so many images of ducks from museums around the world, that Twitter declared these institutions were “sending each other solicited duck pics”.
“That was a weird day,” says Koszary. “I thought so little about that tweet when I sent it. We’d been tweeting about ducks and so I asked the British Museum to send us a duck not expecting them to. After they did it exploded.
“We managed to get the Louvre to send us a picture of a cockerel at one point, which we made a rude joke about. We then knew we could get the bigger museums to play with us but it relied a lot on our audience who were in on the joke. They kept prodding the British Museum and then every other museum they knew from their local museum down the road all the way up to the Getty. It really relied on having that community in place.”
If the world’s most significant museums tweeting about ducks for several days wasn’t strange enough, things took a weird turn when MERL found a bat in its library.
“It was a very rare bat from the Baltics, which is part of a conservation project,” says Koszary. “One of our librarians coincidentally also worked at the bat conservation trust, so she nursed it back to health before we released it.”
This story, of course, also played out on social media. Not only did the museum tell the story of the bat being found and what the museum did to help it, but it intertwined that with facts about bats, teaching readers about migratory patterns and threats to the species. The bat was also made an honorary member of the University of Reading, which printed out a library card in case the animal every decided to come back.
The strangest, perhaps of all these events, was when Elon Musk – the celebrated technology entrepreneur, investor, engineer and 25th most powerful person in the world – changed his Twitter profile picture to none other than the absolute unit that had started everything off, the Exmoor Horn aged ram.
“Universe is big, but rendering complexity is not,” Musk told his 25 million followers, followed by his new picture, “but I’m just a simple sheep/ram.”
Koszary took what to him seemed the only logical next step on this journey of social media madness – he changed MERL’s profile picture to an image of Musk and renamed the account the Muskeum of Elonglish Rural Life, with the caption “two can play at this game”, sparking an exchange between the two accounts.
“I didn’t coordinate this with Elon Musk. It just happened. The best I could do was react,” says Koszary.
The move was not only a success for the museum, which once again, had millions of eyes looking at its content and programming, but also on a personal level for Koszary, who as a result of the exchange will join Musk in July, becoming Tesla’s new social media manager.
“All of this has been reacting to something and jumping on a story,” says Koszary. “We have hundreds of things which could be stories but we only have so much time in the day, so we take the ones which appear to have the most value and share them with the world.”
The reaction to Koszary’s work – far exceeding what anyone would have expected for a small farming museum in Reading – has been remarkable for the museum’s online presence. But how has it affected the museum itself?
“We’ve had a big boost in visitor numbers, which we think is partly the social stuff, partly the museum getting into its groove of big events,” explains Koszary.
“Our online statistics are crazy. It’s started influencing how we do our marketing and we’re revising our strategy. Our tone can be a lot more relaxed and we find that people enjoy that.
“We get visitors from the US, New Zealand, Canada and Europe coming into Reading to visit the musum, when they otherwise wouldn’t have, all because we shared a photo on Twitter.”
In addition to a stroke of luck and some good timing, how did Koszary help to drive a small rural museum in the south of England into the position it now sits?
“At the core of the approach, you need creativity,” he says. “You can have all the social media skills and you can understand your institution, but if you don’t have that spark then it will always fall flat. Creativity and a willingness to react is key.”
And what advice would Koszary offer anyone wanting to repeat his success?
“Give up ‘the fear’ and experiment all the time. Focus on what makes your museum unique. Because we’ve done something with the MERL, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone else.
“When you do a gallery, you’re writing a label for an exhibit that has to stand the test of time for 10 or more years. With social media, you can be a lot more agile in how you explore history. You can relate it to present day things which might be gone in a week, but they can inform whatever debate is happening. You can be a bit more silly because the thing won’t be there to look at in 10 years time. It’s a much more dynamic way to look at the past.”