Ah, museums. They’re a great way to learn about history and culture without even realizing you’re learning. But what does it take to get people excited about museums and to keep them coming back? With limited budgets and small teams, this can be a difficult task. Melinda Mechado, Office of Public Affairs Director at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History shared her struggles, problem-solving, and creativity in building excitement for museums.
Race to the Museum: Turning timeless classics in engaging journeys
First step for creating hype about museums: bring in something old that you don’t have. Mechado and her team decided to utilize the timeless interest in old-fashioned cars to fuel a social media competition titled Race to the Museum (#Race2Museum). They featured eight unique antique cars. The Smithsonian blogged about each vehicle and then allowed users to vote on their website. The two cars with the most votes would be brought into the Museum for a limited exhibition. What kind of audience did they target? “Look for enthusiasts,” Mechado said. They researched car clubs and personally reached out to them about this competition and exhibition. The hashtag got the competition trending, and after the winning vehicles were transported to the Museum, there was a 6.5% increase in visitation.
Julia Child’s 100th Birthday: Combining celebration with kitchens
The Museum has Julia Child’s entire kitchen set on display. The team put on a food exhibition in honor of Julia Child’s 100th birthday. They had a press preview before the exhibition opening, which resulted in media coverage and public hype. Mechado said “We found the slightest exciting thing that was relevant to an exhibition and turned it into an event. That’s the key. Relevancy with a twist.”
Raise It Up: Star Spangled Banner star-studded remembrance
It was the 200th anniversary of the star spangled banner. The Smithsonian has the original flag in one of its most popular exhibitions. This was a chance to celebrate American pride and bring people from all over the country to fall in love with the flag again. Their campaign, “Raise It Up” had a huge event on Flag Day that featured politicians such as Hilary and Bill Clinton, performances from the Kennedy Center, and a firework display in Washington D.C. Leading up to the event they developed an anthem website that featured music videos of various artists singing the “Star Spangled Banner.” All the hype about #RaiseItU brought more attention to the moving and popular exhibit.
Crisis: Say Goodbye to the Ruby Slippers
The Ruby Slippers are arguably the most visited artifacts in the Smithsonian. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London asked the Smithsonian to loan the Ruby Slippers to their special film exhibition. The Smithsonian did it to them as loyal allies, but realized they now had a crisis: the ruby slippers were gone. This could easily decrease attendance. Before announcing this to the public, the PR team brainstormed a way to make this positive. By working with the creators of Wicked, they arranged an agreement to have Elphaba’s costume donated to the Museum for a limited time in place of the slippers. Instead of wording their announcement as “The Ruby Slippers are leaving,” they added urgency by saying “Come see the Ruby Slippers before they leave!” This made guests rush to see the coveted treasures. The induction of Elphaba’s costume caused a lot of media and public attention. They created an entire event around the welcoming of the artifact, including performances by Idina Menzel and other cast members! “It was a different piece of the Wizard of Oz puzzle,” Mechado said. Rather than leaving this as an empty spot in the Museum, the Smithsonian PR team turned it into an exciting change.
“We need to find a unique twist or connection for each artifact to make museums relevant again,” Mechado said. All of these examples express that, through a competition with cars, to a birthday, to an American remembrance, and putting a new piece of a story into an exhibit. Mechado didn’t look at her crisis as a crisis, but rather as a way to tell a different part of the same story. Museums tell stories of our past. It’s the responsibility of the workers to tell those stories as part of the present