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Are you following? The Old Masters take to Twitter

9 June 2014

You have to have been hiding under a rock for the last few years not to have heard of Twitter. A social media tool that allows you to share content in a pithy 140 characters, Twitter is something that many museums have taken to with alacrity. It provides a simple way to push information to followers: to share collections information, advertise exhibitions and events and share behind-the-scenes titbits.

In many ways Twitter provides museums with the opportunity to present a more human face to the public. It allows staff members to interact more broadly, show some light personality, and emerge from the stereotype of collections obsessives buried in the stores. In fact, it’s one means of opening up those stores, through sharing objects that aren’t on display, along with research questions and activities. It allows museum staff and academics to build networks for advice and knowledge sharing and, crucially, it shows that we are consumers as well as producers of culture, who discuss the exhibitions, objects and ideas we love.

Twitter is snappy and visual. The character limit forces you to think very clearly about the key message of what you are saying – very useful when it comes to label writing. Likewise, Twitter has instant visual appeal, especially since the recent option to attach up to four images to a single tweet. It should be a gift to the art world (allowing, of course, for the ever present issues of copyright). Yet, art galleries seem to have taken to it with less enthusiasm than science and social history museums.

Yes, almost all museums have an account, through which they disseminate news and web content. And, confusingly, published lists of museums on Twitter tend to prioritise art institutions. But it is the science and social history museums that have tended to lead the way with imaginative uses: handles for famous objects, regular quirky hashtags, accounts with a distinct voice and character. Take a look at the Horniman Museum and Gardens’ ‘Walrus on the Move’ campaign, which won at this year’s Museums + Heritage Award for Excellence.

One striking exception, which suggests how art galleries and museums might bring their own stamp to Twitter, is the V&A’s strategy for the William Kent exhibition. They have created an account for @SignorKentino, picking up particularly elegantly on the separate vogue for giving historical characters Twitter accounts. Reynolds, Turner, Samuel Johnson and even Chaucer all tweet, some with wry social commentary, some with historical quotations. @SignorKentino acts simultaneously as a focus for discussion and content around the V&A exhibition, and a means to bring character and a voice to an artist less well known to a general public. The twitter feed acts brilliantly to make the exhibition’s point that Kent was a contemporary celebrity and bon vivant. Just last week he discussed with @YourPaintings which was his personal favourite of his portraits in public collections.

As a regular tweeter and exhibition-goer myself, I found the Kent show particularly enjoyable and memorable to engage with, thanks to the addition of a light-hearted but historically meaningful layer of interpretation on Twitter. It is only a shame that the Signor’s account was not advertised anywhere in the exhibition itself. @SignorKentino also goes out on his travels to comment on his country house designs. This weekend, in fact, he’s been at the spectacular Holkham Hall. The question remains how he’ll continue to tour and comment after the show closes. Then we’ll see how the legacy of such an innovation might develop.

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