In 2018, The University of Glasgow’s The Hunterian will mark the tercentenary of the birth of famed Scottish physician, William Hunter, whose bequeath of his library and collection was the foundation for the museum today. The tercentenary year will be celebrated by a new major exhibition based around the objects from Hunter’s collection and the role of Hunter himself, and a publication produced in conjunction with the Yale Centre for British Art.
The process of working towards these two landmark productions will be a great undertaking, and it kicked off last week with a research workshop held here in Glasgow at The Hunterian, pooling together scholars, academics and museum professionals from across Europe and America. Working at the event, one of my roles was to assume control of The Hunterian’s Twitter account and conduct the honourable task of acting as the museum’s social media mouthpiece for its three day duration.
I have always held strong views on both the importance of social media to museums, and as to the most effective means of exploiting it. So to be given the opportunity to turn these opinions into practice was an exciting prospect. My first concern was with the responsibility of acting as a “voice” for the institution. Social media, as its name suggests, should be inherently social. As such, the social media “face” of an institution should endeavour to have something of a personality. Twitter users for the most part should be conscious the human beings behind the “brand” mask, so to hide that is intrinsically disingenuous. The trick therefore is to find a balance between the personalities of the account users, and the perceived personality an organisation should have. It would not suit The Hunterian to replicate the amusingly acerbic “bantering” of Tesco Mobile for example, nor the unwelcome and slightly intrusive “chumminess” of Tesco Food. The disproportionate successes of two accounts extending from the same company show just how important this issue of “personality” is.
The Hunterian, as world-renowned and respected academic and cultural institution can’t be making catty retorts to members of the public or appearing in their “timelines” unprompted to ask them about their lunch. The “voice” of The Hunterian account should be respectable and authoritative, because above all, the public expect it to be so. Having said that, for the account to portray itself as infallible and all-knowing, to me, would seem dishonest and somewhat anti-social. I could have played that role too, as I had every curator in the institution on hand to feed me with any and all relevant information I required. The Hunterian however is not all knowing anyway, it wouldn’t be running research workshops if it was. This is why I made the decision to identify myself personally as the individual behind the account for the duration of the event.
The tercentenary research workshop was a unique ocassion, with a social media voice that would be unique to those three days, and that placed The Hunterian in a special position of intense self-reflection. Everyone from the museum directors to the workshop assistants like myself, were engaged in a rigorous study of the history of The Hunterian’s collection and its provenance. There was no single individual with all of the answers; this was a collective group working towards devising a set of learning outcomes, and as constituent part of this, I believed the Twitter account should be representative of that. I may as an individual have more to learn still than the director, but I was no less representative of the institution, on a journey of discovery about itself, than any of the other members of staff.
My second concern was with the content that I should share from the event. I am a firm believer in the value of museums engaging their audience through asking open-ended questions and encouraging friendly debate and discussion. However the research workshop did not lend itself particularly suitably to this model, as its purpose was to ask questions that the museum itself did not yet know the answers to, and these were always targeted and highly specific. Musing on areas of study for academic research is not exactly twitter-friendly content.
However, the event created a wealth of opportunity for public engagement in other areas. Whilst the workshop itself was a learning experience for The Hunterian, the vast knowledge of its collection provided as context during discussions over the course of the three days created an ideal opportunity to provide an insightful and (crucially) accessible learning experience for the generally casual interest of its audience on Twitter. As such, I endeavoured not to use the account to try and involve the public directly in actual event, but to use the discussions from it to run an almost tandem workshop, if you will, through which the account’s followers could gain a more laid-back, fun and at times quirky understanding of The Hunterian and the man behind its origin.
When a workshop group visited a particular area of the collection, I ensured that some photos were taken that could be shared with the public as well. When there was a particular fact or nugget of fun information that I felt people would respond well to, I shared it. With every member of the institution’s expert curatorial team on hand, and a bounty of objects from Hunter’s original collection unearthed from storage, this event was a truly unique opportunity to furnish the public with both a visual and factual experience that is unattainable on a general day to day basis. It was important to me whilst “tweeting” throughout the course of the event, that people were aware of this, and that I did my very best to get the most that I possibly could out of it for them.
Lastly, as the workshop was a special event, contained solely within those three days, it felt like a shame to let the Twitter activity tumble endlessly into the past, as “tweets” forever do. As such, I decided to curate the content into a Storify page, organising “tweets” into both a thematic and chronological narrative. I believe this was a useful endeavour as Twitter “hashtags” can at times be tricky to keep up with and such is the fast-paced nature of the platform that it can be easy to miss things, or struggle to get a feel for the bigger picture. The Storify page allows the event-related content to be self contained, and allows people to easily locate and retrace the day’s proceedings in an accessible and coherent fashion. In constructing the narrative for the page I attempted to ensure that the tone was both reflective of the event itself, which was as entertaining as it was educational for all involved, and that it was as fun and accessible as the Twitter feed had been intended to be. You can view the Storify for the workshop here:
Finally, I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to my colleagues Sean Kelly, Lauren Henning and Jill Roseberry, and to The Hunterian’s Student Engagement Officer, Ruth Fletcher, who also “tweeted” throughout the workshop, making invaluable contributions to the “#Hunter300” feed, and hopefully, to the experience that The Hunterian’s Twitter following took from it.