A Museum’s Engagement Through Social Media
by Susan Chang
Photo Credit: Pbdragonwang/WikiCommons/CC
Heading Toward a Storm?
EARLIER THIS YEAR, a cluster of pneumonia cases were reported in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The World Health Organization (WHO) published its first “Disease Outbreak News” report on the new virus on January 10, and the first recorded case outside of China was confirmed on January 13, in Thailand. As the world headed for a pandemic crisis, it was speculated that Taiwan was to suffer a massive outbreak due to its proximity and close ties with China. Instead, as of July 9, 2020, there have only been 449 reported cases in the country.
Despite the fact that Taiwan is one of the few places in the world to have COVID-19 under control, it is unclear whether the country’s trade-dependent economy can avoid a recession. The Taiwanese government announced an emergency economic stimulus package totaling 1.05 trillion NTD (34.64 billion USD) on April 2, 2020. An additional 150 billion NTD (4.99 billion USD) was added weeks later. The arts and culture sector was also hit hard by unprecedented closures and the sharp decrease in international and local tourists. As a result, the Ministry of Culture proposed a relief and recovery package of 1.5 billion NTD (49.95 million USD) in February 2020 to provide subsidies for operational costs of arts and cultural venues, including local museums, historical houses, performance halls, and galleries.
The National Museum of Taiwan History (NMTH) was among one of the national museums to experience a significant decrease in visitor numbers as a result of this pandemic. As the first museum dedicated to Taiwan’s culture and history, NMTH plays a crucial role in leading museum professionals in the country. One success of the institution is that it presents the rich and diverse facets of Taiwanese history through an interdisciplinary lens, while also unveiling the interactions between different ethnic and social groups in Taiwan through various historical topics and contemporary issues. Recent exhibitions cover a range of topics, such as immigration, baseball, the role of women in Taiwan’s history and etc. Some of the past exhibitions include “Time for School: Modern Education in Taiwan”, “The Defiers: 30 Years after the End of Martial Law”, “The New Tai-ker: Southeast Asian Migrant Workers and Immigration in Taiwan” and “Renovation and Reform: Taiwanese Society in the 19th Century”.
How can a museum that relies on in-person visitation, history exhibitions, and hands-on education programs stay connected with visitors during a global crisis? What is NMTH offering and how can it adjust to when life returns to a “new normal”? In this article, I will share how the NMTH responded to the coronavirus and how it utilized its Facebook page to stay connected with its visitors. I will reflect on how this is possible for countries that provide equal digital opportunity and participation of sustainable digital citizens.
Connecting to Collections
THE FIRST POST related to COVID-19 by the NMTH was posted on January 28, 2020, in which the museum issued a statement: all frontline employees will be wearing masks, and staff will approach visitors who show COVID-19 symptoms. Thorough cleaning and disinfection will also take place in selected zones, and hand sterilizers will be provided at the entrances. The Museum posted again on January 30, reminding visitors of the requirement of temperature-taking before entering the museum building. These posts are seen repeatedly throughout the first half of 2020, as the government increases the intensity of social distancing policies.
Soon, the museum became creative in disseminating policies from CDC (Taiwan Centers for Disease Control) particularly with regards to masks. Facebook posts began to engage visitors in relation to the current epidemic with Taiwan’s history on public health, religion, and anti-epidemic materials.
On February 3, 2020, nine photos of different masks were posted online:
“Speaking of masks, they are one of our closest partners today. In fact, not only in modern times, Taiwanese [people] have been getting along with masks for nearly a hundred years. Masks in each era are actually made from different materials using different methods, for various purposes. We can also interpret the historical and social meaning behind these masks. Now, let us take a brief look at the mask collections of NTHM and let us briefly review the centuries of intimate relationships between Taiwanese and masks!”
These masks include the medical masks and a public health pamphlet dated back to the Japanese colonial times (See Figure 1). There are also masks that are used during protests, such as the cover of Hakka Fengyun (客家風雲) featuring Sun Yat-Sen wearing a mask to protest the government’s national language policy to designate Mandarin as the only official language. The selection of masks as well as sanitary products and leaflets from different eras not only educates visitors on the history and function of these objects, but also indicates the technology, standard and expert knowledge that we have today regarding sickness and sanitation were developed from the daily hygiene practices during the colonial times.
On February 29, 2020, the Museum again posted about current events. At this time, the international community was waiting for Japan to decide if the 2020 Olympic Games will happen or not. The Facebook post invites visitors to brainstorm “What are the events that only happen every four years” by posting historical objects related to the previous Olympic Games, Taiwan’s presidential elections, and the World Cup. This post was followed up by a second post on March 29, after Japan announced the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games.
This year, fears of COVID-19 also cast shadows over the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage. The “temple tour,” comprising of visiting various temples and performing rituals, draws thousands of participants each year, and would likely become a hotbed for community spread. With the pilgrimage canceled, NMTH posted a series of historic videos of the pilgrimage from its collections on March 22, 2020, inviting visitors to participate in the “temple tour” online as a way of doing one’s part in epidemic prevention (See Figure 2).
On March 31, 2020, the museum’s Facebook page reflected on the recent wave of panic buying, with the surge of people purchasing anti-epidemic materials such as isopropyl alcohol, masks, and even toilet paper. The post then features the history of toilet paper in Taiwan, as well as the commercial recording for Scotties (a tissue brand) from the museum’s sound collections. The post also invites readers/visitors to walk down memory lane to the era when students are required to bring handkerchiefs to schools, as a gateway to introduce the history of Taiwan’s public health policy. There were only four responses, with two being “heart” emoji, one commenting on “How there were a lot of colors on the tissue paper” and one pointing out that “Being eco-friendly today reminds me of the student days when we are required to bring our own bottles and handkerchiefs” (Figure 3).
In addition to Facebook posts, the museum also reposted its ongoing online resources. While the museum has yet to move all of its exhibits, collections, and programming online, we can already see a range of special and permanent exhibitions directly through the museum’s website. April 19 and 29, the museum introduced their previous exhibitions, documented using 3D recordings, on their online website (See Figure 4).
The latest and the most viral post came on May 6, calling for artifacts that show how Taiwanese navigated the COVID-19 crisis. This shows that the National Museum of Taiwan History, among other museums across the globe, has begun recording this moment of collective uncertainty. The post accumulated 340 comments and 1.3K sharing. Along with the post of a “call for artifacts”, the museum shared photos of creativity from all walks of life in Taiwan. This includes the ‘Aerosol box’ that shields doctors against coronavirus while intubating patients (See Figure 5).
Developed by a doctor in Hualien, Taiwan, this box is now used in more than 20 countries. Another object is the P3 protective clothing developed by Makalot Industrial 17 years ago. According to Focus Taiwan, “the critical battle against COVID-19, Makalot Industrial, Eclat Textile and four other manufacturers on the ‘national team’ have been contracted by the government to deliver 1.1 million isolation and protective hospital gowns by April”. Facebook users shared photos of COVID-19 related posters, government notices they see in their daily lives, notices from temples, masks of different colors, art installations of statues wearing masks, as well as photos of buildings shining the word “zero” to celebrate the days when there are no infected cases. These posts are coupled with messages that they will be sending collected objects to the museum.
Pouring support from the public is reflected in the posts on June 3 with the museum rolling out a website for the public to register and post photos of COVID-19 related objects and share personal stories to create a digital database (See Figure 6). This is followed up with a post on June 11, sharing the donations of COVID-19 related objects from various organizations, hospitals, and individuals. According to the post, the museum has received nearly 100 objects, ranging from masks, COVID-19 announcements and prevention manuals, to tickets of canceled performances (See Figure 7). Using the hashtag #contemporarycollection and #cowritinghistory, the museum not only grabs visitor attention but also shows how it is important for the public to participate in contemporary collecting and creating digital databases for future generations.
RECENTLY RENEWED interest in museums and cultural heritage in Taiwan allows museums to play newly critical roles in connecting history and the public. Together, traditional methods of display and educational programs, as well as creative and experimental methods online and in other virtual platforms, can provide the public with a better understanding of their own heritage and identity.
As we move into the “new normal”, where social distancing becomes standard, museums will need to develop different strategies to interact with visitors virtually. Digital interaction is made possible through countless projects aimed at digitizing museum collections as well as putting exhibitions online. Connection with visitors is possible only because Taiwan provides equal digital opportunities and participation for sustainable digital citizens. The Survey on 2019 Individual/Household Digital Opportunity Survey in the Taiwan Executive Summary shows that “86.2% of [the] population aged 12 and above had used the Internet…the household Internet use rate in Taiwan exceeded 90% for the first time (90.4%)… and the percentage of Internet users who have used any mobile device to access the Internet gradually increased from 53.0% in 2010 over years and reached the plateau at 98% in the past two years”.
Moving into the “new normal”, we are likely to see more cultural programs moved online to observe social distance and to engage with a wider audience. Museums have long been advocating for equal access to all communities, and while technology has proven to be useful and effective in times like these. Museums and other institutions in the cultural sector must continue to advocate for digital equality. Further online visitor research should also be carried out to understand how the usage of digital platforms has impacted visitor experience.