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Marketing a Dinosaur Exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature

At the Museum Marketing Summit in Los Angeles, organised by MuseumNext, John Swettenham, Chief Marketing Officer at the Canadian Museum of Nature, delivered an inspiring presentation on his team’s creative approach to marketing.

Over the past three years, Swettenham and his team have launched a series of successful viral campaigns that massively expanded their reach.

The Museum and Its Mission

The Canadian Museum of Nature, a cornerstone of Canadian heritage, boasts a collection of approximately 15 million specimens, including contributions from biologists, paleontologists, and other scientific experts. The museum also houses the National Biodiversity Cryobank of Canada and centers for species discovery and Arctic research. Since its inception in 1912 and a major renovation in 2010, it has been a pivotal cultural institution in Ottawa, a city of 1.2 million residents with a rich blend of English and French-speaking communities.

Our mission extends beyond preservation; it aims to inspire a global commitment to nature conservation,” Swettenham emphasized during his presentation.

Ultimate Dinosaurs

In 2016, to generate early summer buzz, the museum launched the “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibit, developed in collaboration with the Minnesota Science Center and the Royal Ontario Museum. 

Partnering with Orkestra, a festival-savvy agency, and Bell, a leading Canadian telecom company, the campaign leveraged the quirky appeal of “T-Rex Tuesdays,” which featured inflatable dinosaurs in humorous scenarios. The approach included street activations, media events, and a robust social media push.

The results were immediate and spectacular. A simple video of inflatable dinosaurs crossing the street quickly amassed 750,000 views, eventually hitting 1.7 million. The viral sensation attracted national media coverage, including from CBC, Canada’s answer to the BBC.

Collaborative Success and Lessons Learned

Following this success, the museum fostered collaborations with other local institutions, boosting overall museum attendance in Ottawa. Not every initiative was a home run—like the ambitious but ill-fated Star Trek crossover—but the collaborative spirit and mutual support among Ottawa’s museums remained strong.

In 2017, for Canada’s 150th birthday, the Museum of Nature unveiled a new Arctic gallerysponsored by Canada Goose. This campaign, centered on social media and street activations, featured inflatable polar bears and achieved significant media attention and public interest.

Pivoting and Innovating: The Brain Exhibit

Last summer, the museum hosted an exhibit on the brain from the American Museum of Natural History. Originally planning to feature “Instant Einsteins,” inspired by a successful Toronto event, the museum had to pivot quickly due to a controversy over Einstein’s historical remarks. The team introduced “brainiacs”—characters in lab coats and wigs—as new mascots for the campaign.

Despite varied outcomes, the museum’s campaigns consistently generate substantial media coverage and public interest, proving the worth of these innovative efforts.

Engaging the Audience

One notable campaign included inflatable dinosaurs participating in yoga sessions on Parliament Hill. Swettenham noted, “This went crazy like crazy. The first video reached 1.7 million views in just two days.

The Museum of Nature also ensured these activities were well-documented and shared across multiple platforms. “We invite the media to our events and push the videos on social media,” said Swettenham. “It’s all about creating a buzz and engaging the public.

Future Endeavors

As the Museum of Nature gears up for its next exhibit, “Terra Soar,” it remains committed to leveraging cutting-edge marketing strategies to captivate and inspire its audience. The upcoming exhibit, rebranded from “Terra Sos” to suit French-speaking audiences, promises to be another innovative venture.

Conclusion

Swettenham’s presentation at the Museum Marketing Summit highlighted how strategic, creative marketing can significantly enhance public engagement. By continuously innovating and adapting, the Canadian Museum of Nature sets a high standard for how museums can connect with their audiences in dynamic and meaningful ways.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now spends his time championing best practice through MuseumNext.

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