The Sacramento History Museum in California may be the only museum in the western United States devoted to the history of the Gold Rush and Sacramento itself but this does not mean that the museum hasn’t been able to find an international audience. In fact, its social media activities have led the museum into becoming one of the most popular museums anywhere in the world on TikTok, the social media platform that is normally associated with dancing, comedy clips and people lip-syncing to pop songs. How has a provincial museum in the US become such an online phenomenon? The story starts back in July 2020 when an employee who usually works on the institution’s front desk to help visitors find their way suggested using the platform to promote the museum.
Back then, the museum – like so many others around the world – was suffering from the social restrictions that were put in place to try and prevent further spread of the coronavirus outbreak. In the summer of 2020, the Sacramento History Museum was only running virtual staff meetings in an effort to keep employees apart. One staff member at the museum, Jared Jones, suggested that the limitations placed on the institution’s ability to teach and engage with its usual audience meant that it should seek online alternatives. Specifically, Jones wanted to give TikTok a try. According to the museum’s CEO, Delta Mello, the suggestion was initially met with some scepticism. She suggested that the platform would be unsuited to a serious historical institution like the museum because it was aimed at people who wanted to watch snippets of entertainment rather than to learn. In short, she thought it was not the sort of audience the museum should be trying to engage with.
Nevertheless, Jones persisted with his idea. He made his case based on the marketing experiments he had conducted on the platform in his spare time. During that process, he had noticed that other institutions had become surprise hits on TikTok. He described how the Black Country Living Museum in the English Midlands had shocked many in the British museum sector because of the depth and breadth of its popularity on TikTok. In short, Jones pitched his idea as one that could be a way to reach out to younger audiences in a place where they already look, perhaps surprising them with alternative content to what they were usually seeing. Jones pointed out that this might be especially effective given the pandemic meant that people were looking online for cultural experiences as well as fun ones. In the end, given that the museum was closed to the public and that the board had little to lose by experimenting with social media, Jones was given permission to begin running the Sacramento History Museum’s official TikTok account.
It is, perhaps, ironic given that much of the Sacramento History Museum is devoted to the Gold Rush-era period of the western United States that, having decided to give TikTok a go, it should hit such a rich seam of success almost immediately. One of the museum’s volunteers, an 82-year-old named Howard Hatch, featured in an early video describing the workings of an old printing press at the museum. Dating back to 1852, the printing press was featured with Hatch operating it and producing a mock-up of an old newspaper front page. According to Jones, the video had received over 50,000 views within the first 24-hour period after it had been posted on TikTok. However, it was not just casual viewing that led to such a response because many of the people who saw the museum’s early videos decided they liked what they saw and decided to subscribe to the institution’s TikTok account.
Jones reckons that by the end of the year, having only been producing content for the platform for around six months, the museum had reached around a thousand followers. At this point, the popularity of the channel snowballed with the museum picking up many, many more followers. Jones has gone on the record to say that the museum’s board were astonished when his management of the account surpassed the 100,000-follower threshold in early 2020. Mello recalls that soon after that, she thought the museum had made it by reaching 600,000 subscribers, an astonishing figure for any social media account let alone one that featured archaic technology and old-fashioned systems as typical content. By March of 2021, the museum’s TikTok account had got to over a million followers. As of September, the account has received in the region of 23.4 million likes for its posts and now has a following that is just short of two million people across the globe.
During this time, one exceptionally viral video stands out. Like so many of the popular videos that the museum has posted to the platform, this one features Hatch. In it, the volunteer uses the 169-year-old printing press that appears to have got the ball rolling. Hatch demonstrates how the press works and prints a version of a 19th-century newspaper, the Daily Bee, in the video. The headline reads that the Sacramento History Museum has reached the landmark figure of 1.4 million followers on TikTok. Therefore, it seems that this highly popular video not only provided viewers with something they found engaging but also pleased them in the sense that all of the followers were also part of an online phenomenon and contributing to the success of the account.
According to TikTok’s figures, the Sacramento History Museum now has more followers than any other museum in the world. To put it into context, that’s a greater number than the Natural History Museum in London with 61,000 followers, more than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with 24,000 followers and even more than the Uffizi Gallery in Florence which has a respectable 84,000 followers who subscribe to its posts. What’s more, some major institutions, such as the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Louvre in Paris, don’t even have a presence on TikTok to promote themselves.
According to the director of digital media at a Sacramento-based marketing firm, 3fold Communications, one of the chief reasons that Jones has enjoyed such success with his video posts for the museum is the authenticity of Hatch himself. The volunteer only started working at the museum after his retirement by chance and had little prior knowledge of the particular printing press that features in so many of the museum’s viral posts. The director concerned, Christie Pierce, points out that Hatch admits this and never tries to overstate the case for expertise. “The more authentic you are,” Pierce said, “[the greater the online]… push that content to people who are interested will get.”
The museum’s director, Mello, agrees with Pierce’s analysis of their success. She said that the word ‘authenticity’ is frequently overused in the museum sector and also in online marketing. “[However,]… Hatch is authentically being himself in our videos,” Mello told the press. The director pointed out that Match has been undertaking demonstrations of analogue printing techniques for classrooms full of students for over two decades. “In this sense, this is nothing new to him,” she added.
A Balanced Approach
Part of the success the museum has enjoyed also comes down to the fact that it has been careful not to over-produce its content. The videos are short and to the point, sometimes raising questions and provoking further curiosity rather than being exhaustive and attempting to answer all of the questions there might be on a given subject. Of course, social media content is usually there for its entertainment value – and this is certainly the case on TikTok – so a balance between educational and entertaining content needs to be found. By telling stories, as so many well-curated museums tend to do, what goes on in a museum can transfer very well to social media platforms. The major difference is, of course, that even more brevity is needed when telling stories through platforms like TikTok. Museum marketing professionals who think that this is a tall order can look to the Black Country Living Museum and the Sacramento History Museum as fine examples of the way to build an audience in a truly authentic manner.
Of course, developing a large online following is not the end in itself. It is unlikely to affect the bottom line of a museum’s balance sheet even if revenues can be created from the likes and shares that lead to online virality these days. According to Mello, the Sacramento History Museum is still not making a great deal of money directly from its TikTok live streaming events. She estimates that in the region of $200 to $1,000 of income a month is generated this way. However, what the museum has gained with its substantial following could not be achieved so inexpensively with a direct marketing campaign that used online adverts as well as traditional media to promote itself. In this sense, the TikTok phenomenon is more about global brand promotion on a limited budget. Will visitor numbers go up as the pandemic recedes? No one can say for sure, of course, but few at the Sacramento History Museum would bet otherwise.
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.