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Museum becomes unlikely hit on TikTok

The Sacramento History Museum has become an unlikely hit on the social media platform, TikTok, thanks to one of its volunteers, known as Howard the Printer. Howard Hatch, who is in his 80s, has gone viral due to a number of video posts he has made about the museum and his love of printed media to explain history to his many followers. TikTok is known for its fun videos that focus on entertainment and social influencing but Hatch has found a novel way to engage with audiences all over the world, in part due to his understated style that stands out on the platform.

The undoubted star of the museum’s social media marketing campaign, Hatch has remained rather modest about his achievements. Claiming he was just doing his job by attracting many millions of followers, the print technology expert is seen giving demonstrations of different historical presses in a series of videos. The online content is definitely of the internet age, however, because Howard the Printer – as he is known to social media fans across the globe – dispenses facts at an astonishing rate and tops them of with some clever wordplay, usually terms associated with printing.

In one video, the printing volunteer demonstrate a printing press that can turn out in the region of 500 pages per hour. In an age when such a fast rate of printing meant that pamphleteering was the mass communication of its day, the video content for the social media platform strikes a stark contrast. Mr Hatch admits that he doesn’t truly understand how a video showing a technology with this rate of potential reach could have amassed more than some 17 million views. In a typically self-deprecating style, Hatch says that it cannot be his presentational style that makes his videos so watchable but the technology he is showcasing. While working with a Washington Hand Press that dates back to the 1850s, he says, “Maybe it is the power of the press.”

Lockdown Strategies

Like many museums in the United States, the California-based museum was forced to close its doors to visitors in the wake of the pandemic. Thinking of ways that the Sacramento museum could keep the public engaged during the closure, Jared Jones, who assists with the museum’s visitor services, decided to up the institution’s social medial output. He set up a TikTok account for the museum after seeing what some other establishments had been doing on the platform. Soon, Jones began to put together video content for the museum’s social media feed.

Many of the early recordings Jones made were of his museums colleagues at work, doing the sort of thing they might do every day. However, when he suggested the idea of filming Hatch at work, he was met with initial doubt. Indeed, Hatch first responded to the idea with scepticism, admitting he had never heard of TikTok before. Even after Jones had explained what the platform was about and shown it to him, Hatch was unconvinced due to the large numbers of people on it simply posting videos of their dance moves.

“I almost gave up,” admitted Jones. “Actually, until I filmed Howard [there had been]… little response but then, it took off.” Since the summer of 2020, when Howard the Printer’s first videos started to be posted onto the platform by Jones, the account of the Sacramento History Museum has gone on to gain 11.3 million likes and well over a million followers. According to the museum’s executive director and CEO, Delta Pick Mello, these figures will lead to more excitement about the museum in the local community. However, she admitted that she is not able to quite say how other museums might replicate the online success that Hatch’s video presentations have garnered.

“People [from other institutions]… keep asking us what the secret is,” Mello said. “The truth is that we don’t know except for Howard.” she added. Commenting further on the museum’s extraordinary success online Mello went on to say that it must come down to the attraction people have for somebody who is simply himself in a completely authentic way. In addition, however, she admits that it may have something to do with the brevity of the videos which ‘serve up’ history in bite sized chunks for viewers.

A Chance Success

According to the star of the videos, the success of them can be put down to mere happenstance. After all, Hatch began working as a volunteer at the museum by chance. After his retirement as a car technician, another volunteer at the museum asked Hatch to help him fix a large press used for printing newspapers. Although Hatch had no previous experience with such work, he decided he would take the project on by teaching himself.

“I went through the public library,” Hatch explained, “to read anything I could find.” Hatch said that he looked for an material that was available on printing presses and the history of printing. “It drew me in,” he said. That was over two decades ago but now he is putting those skills and knowledge to good use by educating younger generations in short bursts of history education.

A Reopened Museum

The museum reopened after its enforced closure in March. Since then, it has seen an unusually high number of attendees. Some of its newly acquired visitors have admitted that they only found out about the museum because of TikTok. Today, in-person visitors are able to visit a new exhibit that is devoted to the history of printing technology which includes a collection of maps from the Gold Rush era as well as a page printed on a Gutenberg Bible. Hatch may not always be present but a cardboard cutout of him is, such is his fame at the museum.

Interested in how other museums are using TikTok? Find out more in this article.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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