In my 48 hours as a Twitter-user, I’ve found that public history institutions use Twitter in two ways. The first is to redirect followers to Twitter accounts run by other organizations with similar missions. The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), for example, devotes most of its tweets to content that is not their own. The nonprofit links to outside articles related to architecture and design or provides news blurbs about a design exhibition held by another Chicago institution. This sharing of general design news and miscellaneous images of architectural wonders falls under CAF’s broad mission statement to inspire people “to discover why design matters.” While most of their tweets are Chicago-related, there is no geographic limitation to the organization’s account or mission statement. A retweet about a design exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, a link to an Architectural Digest article about a London skyscraper, and an image of a new stadium in Los Angeles are all recent posts by the nonprofit.
The cross-sharing of information between cultural organizations with similar missions is a strength of the Twitter platform. CAF can alert its followers about an upcoming event at the Graham Foundation, the Graham Foundation then shares a link to an online lecture series presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival, and so on and so forth into Twitt-ernity. Public history institutions like CAF successfully use Twitter to build digital networks of likeminded individuals and organizations and keep their followers abreast of the latest events, exhibits, and online resources.
The second way that public history institutions use Twitter is to promote their own collections, programs, and exhibitions. The Newberry Library is an example of an institution successfully showcasing objects in their collection through the Twitter platform. In the past few weeks, the Newberry has shared views of their stacks and pages from rare manuscripts with a brief blurb promoting the expansive research collection. This supports the library’s commitment to “free inquiry” and the wide “dissemination of knowledge” as stated in their official mission statement. I am surprised that many other collection-based institutions do not use Twitter in this way. The Chicago History Museum (CHM), for example, successfully promotes events and exhibitions on Twitter but rarely showcases their actual collection. The museum could make better use of its Twitter account by having a regular post of an object or portion of the collection that is rarely exhibited. This could offer an opportunity for interactivity between the museum and its followers. For example, a collection-based institution like CHM could share an image of an obscure object and have followers guess what it is. Followers could retweet and have their followers offer ideas as well. This specific example would certainly not apply to every museum or archive, which each has their own institutional mission and resources. Yet all public history institutions should consider more creative ways to promote themselves and their collections through Twitter.