Print Proposal: How does a Smithsonian Institutions use Social Media?

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened to the public in 2016 and has since become a cornerstone destination for tourists and historians alike. It is the only national museum to focus exclusively on the life, culture, and history of African Americans. At its heart, the museum is dedicated to empowering and educating the public while working with institutions around the world. How does such a large museum, with thousands of artifacts and members, create a connection with the public? What specific forms of media do they use? What is their target audience, and does it change depending on the platform?

For the scope of this project, I will focus on NMAAHC’s accounts on instagram and twitter, where they have over 200,000 followers each.

A screenshot of the NMAAHC’s official twitter account.
A screenshot of the NMAAHC’s official instagram handle.

Just from looking at these two images it becomes clear that hashtags are the predominant tool to reach the public. Both accounts have #APeoplesJourney and #ANationsStory listed in their bios, which is a direct reference to the homepage of the museums website. What posts are linked to each hashtag? How does the public react to these posts? Are there an increased number of comments on specific posts, and if so, why?

One possible approach to provide a rough outline of how the public engages with the NMAAHC’s social media is to take the top five posts for each hashtag on each social media handle and turn the posts and comments into their own individual word documents. From there, each document could be uploaded to Voyant, an online tool that allows you to visualize uploaded documents, and see the words with the highest frequency. Comparing the different corpuses would help us understand which historical moments the public is engaging with the most, and if the comments stay on topic or diverge. Do posts that highlight a specific African American leader receive positive words? Are remembrance posts dedicated to darker parts of our nations history, such as the bombing of a church, receive the same amount of attention? Does the wider cultural and political context effect how the public reacts to different posts?

-Evelyn Baldwin

One Reply to “Print Proposal: How does a Smithsonian Institutions use Social Media?”

  1. Hi Evelyn,

    I think doing an analysis of NMAAHC’s social media would be a really interesting project. If you do focus on NMAACH, I think it would be good to focus in on issues and questions that relate specifically to the institution too. To that end, I think it would be good to shape your driving research question to be directly about how NMAAHC is using social media to tell a national story about black history/African American history.

    I think your idea about identifying exemplar posts to various social media channels and then engaging in analysis/close reading of them is going to be a great way to identify themes/issues to explore in this. My sense is that trying to use Voyant or computational tools to do bulk analysis of this kind of material is less likely to give you anything as rich as the closer reading. So if you did run with this as your project, my suggestion would be to skip the Voyant part and instead do some outreach to NMAAHC staff to see if you could get them to tell you a bit about their social media strategy and see if they could tell you about any of their lessons learned from doing this work and if they have any particular posts or content they have published that they are particularly proud of. I imagine there is a good chance they would be up for talking to you about that and I think getting their perspectives and voices into the paper is likely to make it much richer.

    Overall, this is a great idea and I think a lot of folks would be interested in the results of this kind of analysis.

    Best, Trevor

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