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  • Writer's pictureLondon Museums Group Team

Impact of Social Media Activism within the Museum Sector

Originally posted on 30 April 2017 #LMGBlogArchive #LMGBlogArchiveProject by Carrie Svinning

Chloe Turner is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Museum of Brands, blogger at and soon-to-be University of Leicester Museum Studies graduate. Here she talks about her research in the impact of social media activism within the museum sector.

‘Whether with words of love, hate, curiosity or indifference, the museum world is talking about social media.’ – Amelia Wong (2012)

Museums and social media have much in common. Both have potential to emit knowledge, both arguably exist for the audience they speak to, and both have unprecedented influence upon their communities. Social media has the capacity to construct dialogue and social values, as do museums.

Inspired by Richard Sandell, my Masters dissertation was always going to be in the social justice remit. But, equally fascinated by the fine-tuned practice of museums engaging with social media and the unprecedented changes social media use has brought to the sector, I thought, why not combine the two? Why not see what happens when both the museum sector, and the unique character of social media platforms unite to democratize knowledge, engage communities in equality and tolerance, deconstruct grand narratives, and develop a practice of social justice and activism awareness.

Fifteen thousand words later, this inevitably became much more complex than first thought. Two main questions have surfaced. First of which, is what is specific to social media that facilitates social activism? Second of which, is what is unique to the museum sector that is expected to engage with social justice and activism?

‘Web 2.0’ came into popular use in 2004 to describe the development of the internet moving from a purely marketing tool, to a more responsive and personalized form of communication. Russell Dornan recently spoke about the personalisation of museums for Medium, in it he spoke about his experience at Wellcome Collection as a Social Media Manager (or SMM’s, to those in the know, so I’ve learnt.) I interviewed Russell as part of my research, and we discussed the Wellcome Collection Trump tweet, otherwise known as my favourite tweet on the Internet. Russell fine-tuned an essence of satire, relevance to the collection, and humour, to put across the point without offending. At its core, this can be defined as activism, but not the scary, intimidating perception of the term activism that can come to mind.

The significance that social media has had upon the museum sector, although debated, is momentous. The first example of museums using their personal voice on social media for activism, or at least the first widespread example, is the #museumsrespondtoFerguson hashtag that arose in 2014 and 2015 after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American by a white police officer in Ferguson. Researched into by Gretchen Jennings in 2015, Gretchen opened the dialogue of the unprecedented influence museums have upon their societies if used creatively.

Before any readers scream at the screen at my obvious millennial status, I acknowledge and accept the undeniable flaws of social media. While I will always hold a soft spot for social media, and will defend its use in museums, social media in its current use is exclusive and only for those who have the funds and the language to engage. The age-old argument of whether museums are temples or forums comes into play, and whether museums should engage in activism at all. Museums engaging in current political debate, current events and social injustice can be isolating to visitors. If a visitor’s local museum passionately advocated to Remain in the EU during the Brexit vote, will that isolate a Leave voter from visiting?

Examples like #museumsrespondtoFerguson, Wellcome Collection’s Trump tweet, and #MuseumsAgainst show that museums use of social media democratises what can otherwise be perceived as intimidating. Social media encourages collaboration and dialogue in the sector, and with our audiences, that would otherwise not engage in what they think of as activism. As social media shifts museums use of the Internet from information to personal, including grass-root audience experiences and opinions diversifies debate and opens the collection to social justice agendas. It is the work of the future museum to effectively balance the intricacies of both social media and activism. Ultimately, the reciprocity, accountability, collaboration, and shared authority that social media can incite with its audiences makes our museums more engaging to the communities they are there to serve.


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