The Armchair Museum Visitor

No, I haven’t been visiting museums of armchairs. In fact, for the past couple of months, for unavoidable health reasons, I haven’t visited any museums at all, which is sad. But today, thanks to my Tumblr-mad little sister, I have totally immersed myself in a rather wonderful museum, which I plan to keep visiting at regular intervals over the next few museum-restricted months. The museum isn’t even local. It’s the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana, USA.

The reason that I, and thousands of other people around the world, have been able to visit this museum, is thanks to the tireless enthusiasm and astonishing hard work of it’s full-time volunteer curatorial assistant, Emily Graslie, and her rather wonderful Youtube channel The Brain Scoop (in case you’re wondering, a brain scoop is a sort of little spoon, used in taxidermy for… um… scooping brains). Honestly, I have been able to spend as much time exploring this museum and finding out about its collections, taxidermy preparation, and random natural history facts as I would if I visited the physical museum. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have loved to visit the museum itself, (or in fact any museum) but just to say that there’s a huge amount of material in there, and that it’s totally enthralling. I’ve seen inside their cold room of pelts, admired their tank of dermestid beetles, looked in countless drawers of skulls and skeletons, and been with them in their truck to collect a frozen wolf carcass.

What Emily and her fellow volunteers have manage to do is a near-perfect job of engagement through social media. As far as I can tell, they’ve managed this because they both take the job very seriously, whilst having a massive amount of fun doing it, and also by, really, REALLY caring about the museum, it’s collections, research, and natural history in general. As is demonstrated by their thousands of loyal followers, their enthusiasm is totally infectious. This is not least because they diligently respond to huge numbers of questions, comments, and photos, drawing more and more people into the conversation.

What makes this even more amazing is that the Philip L. Wright Museum is actually just a few storage rooms, hidden away on the second floor of the University of Montana. It’s so desperately short of money that the spirit collection (i.e. the jars of pickled animals) has lived for seven years in cardboard boxes on the floor of a dusty room across the campus. The museum has 1.5 members of staff, and only the part-time curator is paid. But volunteer Emily is so passionate about the museum that huge numbers of online followers now send messages asking what they can do to help the place raise money, and sending design ideas for merchandise. She also does a fantastic job of drumming up enthusiasm for natural history museums more generally, featuring her own and other people’s photos of them on the Tumblr blog.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment in museums about social media and online participation (see, for example, the work of Nina Simon). But plenty of museums, whilst trying to show willing, really do quite a half-arsed job. I suspect the Philip L. Wright Museum has struck gold with Brain Scoop for a few reasons. First, because it’s fronted by an intelligent, enthusiastic and attractive young presenter. Second, because it plugs into the current trend for geek culture, where learning about weird subjects like taxidermy is considered cool (which, as we all know, it is). Thirdly, because they really get the language of the internet (memes, gifs, lols and suchlike). Fourthly, because everything is well designed and produced, and looks great. And fifthly, because they never stop responding to their followers.

So Emily’s Youtube videos and blog appeal not only to converted museum geeks like me, but to all sorts of people who have stumbled across, loved, and shared them throughout the world of social media. Now normally it’s me who hauls my family members to museums. But this time, because of the social media phenomenon that is The Brain Scoop, my little sister was able to repay me the favour. And I’m delighted that she did.

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