TikTok and museums: from trend to fundraising tool

Home » TikTok and museums: from trend to fundraising tool
Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" is always among the most photographed (and communicated via social media) works in the Louvre, the world's first museum © Musée du Louvre, Paris
Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” is always among the most photographed (and communicated via social media) works in the Louvre, the world’s first museum © Musée du Louvre, Paris

Is devoting time and resources to develop an active TikTok account for a museum a wise choice or just a response to a trend triggered by the needs of lockdowns? In the next few lines, we will attempt to shed light on a topic as topical as it is thorny, which sees a fairly deep division among the opinions of cultural professionals.

Unlike other social media, TikTok is a platform that, for now, still represents a place almost exclusively of the young and very young. It would therefore seem to be the ideal place to capture their attention, including from museums and cultural organizations. However, as in any other social, one needs to know both the languages and the modes that are relevant and effective in that context. Moreover, one must ask the most pressing question: how useful is it in achieving the museum institution’s goals?

To answer this, it is first necessary to define what a museum is and thus what its goals are. The new ICOM definition profiles the museum as “a permanent nonprofit institution serving society that researches, collects, preserves, interprets and exhibits cultural heritage, tangible and intangible. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums promote diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically and professionally and with community participation, offering diverse experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

To enable the optimal success of these intentions, it is certainly necessary to ensure adequate resources for the museum, and it is therefore important to set as an objective, in addition to socio-cultural ones, that of medium- to long-term economic sustainability. If digital content, of any kind, does not serve the goals just described by the ICOM definition or economic sustainability, then it may be superfluous, if not actually counterproductive.

To understand more, let’s first look at the modes of communication that can be adopted on TikTok.

“Performative trends” vs “Expert voice”

For the sake of convenience, we could distinguish all videos on social into two categories: those in which they entertain a trend and those in which storytelling prevails instead. The same applies to museum content, as Emma June Huebner argues in her numerous studies on the subject. The researcher at Concordia University Montreal, proposes an interesting distinction between entertainment TikToks and educational videos. The former, termed “performative trends,” consist of challenges, opera animations and timelapses. The second type, on the other hand, occurs when the museum acts as an “expert voice” and decides to tell something about itself or the works in it. These practices serve to almost create digital appendages of the museum and provide TikTok users with knowledge pills.

This distinction is implemented to provide some clarity in the platform’s ocean of content, but in reality videos often have a hybrid nature, and museum accounts adopt these categories to varying degrees. Below we have selected some profiles that have implemented interesting choices in their editorial plan for analysis.

The MarTA museum

For example, the Taranto Archaeological Museum has decided to undertake the use of TikTok to overcome the problem of closures due to the pandemic. Its profile currently features a mix of videos of different types. In some content, which we might call “catchy,” statues are animated with viral audio or to refer to contemporary current events being talked about in Italian social media. Other TikToks, on the other hand, are used for educational purposes and are thus either videos in which a museum curator is filmed and analyzes some artifacts, or videos in which art-historical topics are explored through drawings and graphics. Some of the content is dedicated to promoting the activities held in the museum such as openings and exhibitions but also for example of the possibility to visit with virtual tour the exhibition rooms. There is no shortage of behind-the-scenes features and collaborations with well-known personalities.

In general, this is a varied profile in which both the museum’s collection and its activities are emphasized. There emerges a desire to make “alive” a place where ancient artifacts are kept, and thus the strategy adopted is to approach young people by placing the history of the ancients close to our habits and as something fun. Trend videos may seem to be of little use to the enhancement of the institution, yet they could be a kind of bait to make people discover a museum reality that is important but not known to everyone in Italy.

The Stibbert Museum

This is an interesting case for all those who work for cultural institutions that are not well known. The Stibbert Museum is little known not because it does not have an interesting collection but because it is located a few kilometers from the city of Florence where there are already well-known institutions such as the Uffizi, which capture all the attention of cultural tourism. This condition has probably led to the search for new ways to enhance and bring out the museum. TikTok seems to be the ideal showcase, and for this reason, both potentially viral types of videos (in which, moreover, the museum’s lack of notoriety is mocked) and videos in which curiosities and behind-the-scenes stories are told that really entice people to visit the collection. Self-deprecating humor and the uniqueness of the works shown are the features that might intrigue new visitors, and the Stibbert Museum might fit more easily into tourist itineraries.

The Rijksmuseum

The TikTok profile of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is certainly the most followed of the ones we are analyzing. Its way of using the platform is interesting because the very few trends and entertainment videos are always related to the promotion of the museum’s works and activities. One notices an organic programming of content that is of various genres but always characterized by consistency of topics. On the one hand, there are numerous focuses on the paintings and their details, and on the other hand, there is no shortage of behind-the-scenes and insights from museum staff. In addition, shop articles, exhibitions, evenings, and workshops are often the subject around which TikTok revolves. Thus, it is a complex and comprehensive editorial plan that has changed and “grown” over time, becoming more and more organized and suitable to represent the institution. In addition, the whole has many elements that are consistent with the website, the other social pages and in general the nature of the museum, never coming across as disconnected with its coordinated image. It is also interesting that there are always comments from users, especially in the content about the works, so it seems that what is shown arouses an interest that does not prescind from the museum as is often the case with more viral and trend-related content.

The MOCA

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is the last example we will consider in this analysis. Its TikTok profile is worth considering because it seems to tell the story of a community rather than of the museum itself. The protagonists of the profile are art and people, whether they are artists, visitors, experts, or professionals. Already from the general appearance the set of videos entice the user to understand more about the museum and its activities. People are also involved beyond the museum visit because, for example, DIYs are offered with which a creative activity can be done at home. In general, the content is not very self-referential and seems to propose the museum as a cultural reference point for its community.

Primary and secondary objectives

From the examples analyzed here, it is clear that there are many types of profiles and content that museum institutions can consider for their communication strategy. But, as has already been pointed out, these actions must address a need and help achieve their primary goals. The types of TikTok just analyzed respond to three secondary objectives:

1. Engagement: creating content that enriches the museum’s offerings and adding information about the works provides greater knowledge to users and greater democratization and accessibility to knowledge. They are also an opportunity for the museum to have direct contact with its visitors who may have requests that need attention.

2. Brand awareness: by publishing or not publishing an idea, trend or any kind of topic, the institution declares its values and intentions and better tells its self-image to consolidate its identity.

3. Conversions: by promoting activities, exhibitions, workshops, and purchasable items, it is possible to strengthen the economic sustainability of the cultural organization through conversions (which may or may not be economic)

The first two objectives are aimed at consolidating the museum’s values and mission while the third is the only one whose results can be measured. This difference is of great significance because there is a tendency to consider the number of interactions to posts or the number of page followers as indices of success. In reality, sometimes the virality of a piece of content does not directly result in greater museum attendance, but more importantly, it is not easy to measure, through data, how much improvement that digital content has brought.

A concrete form of fundraising?

In opening a TikTok profile for a cultural institution, it is good to be aware of the limitations this platform presents for this area and for achieving a museum’s goals. Despite this, there are concrete examples where social networks have brought tangible improvements in the field of cultural preservation and enhancement, as evidenced by the “Tous mécènes” fundraising campaigns introduced by the Louvre to finance, for example, the restoration of the Nike of Samothrace. Thanks to 6,700 donors who contributed the million euros, it was possible to reach the amount needed for the intervention. In this case, the fundraising was mainly attended by Facebook users, and it therefore begs the question of whether similar episodes could occur more often in the near future, perhaps in socials with lots of active young people like TikTok. The fact that training courses such as “TikTok for Arts Fundraising” promoted by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy are in place makes us think that the potential of TikTok as a cultural promoter is not yet clear, and it is desirable to continue investigating in this direction.

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