Social Media Does Not Belong at Our History Organizations?

By Matthew Colon

Social media has no place in the office! It’s a distraction! I’ve heard this in some form or another from a variety of museum professionals. Their message was that unless you were hired with the purpose of managing an organization’s online image, then engaging in the internet’s social world may lead to no good. Horror stories that include public shaming and job terminations may have accompanied breakroom conversations. There’s also the claim that social media doesn’t bring people through the doors of our historic houses, sites and museums. Numbers matter.

Communication Insight

I agree. In an industry where resources are limited, there is often very little justification to focus any part of the annual budget towards generating history themed tweets. And spending resources in an attempt to MAKE people do anything is probably wasted.

However, are some of us too quick to dismiss social media’s influence?

In November, I had the opportunity to speak on this topic during a forum geared towards the history community of Sullivan County. I addressed the benefits, concerns and the role of social media in capturing community interest and interaction through the lens of the Newburgh Historical Society’s award winning community exhibit, “Growing Up in Newburgh.” It turns out that there are plenty of social media users with an interest in history who are looking for something to do; a heritage to experience and be a part of.

Graph_DataResults01I was also granted permission to analyze the Facebook pages of other local history and heritage related organizations. It was interesting to see that the results from most of the pages aligned with trends in visitation demographics while others had a broader appeal. This analysis also revealed which post type – plain text, image or links – reached a larger audience.

Social media’s popularity is undeniable. There are a total of 1.55 billion active Facebook users in the world. That’s larger than the sum total populations of the United States, Canada, Mexico and the twenty-eight countries that make up the European Union. It’s larger than the populations of India and China.

In the United States, there is estimated to be more than 150 million Facebook users.

Facebook active users to population infographic. Click to enlarge.

Facebook active users to population infographic. Click to enlarge.

One 2013 university study concluded that Facebook has cut the widely accepted theory that any two people in the world are connected by six or fewer steps is now closer to four.

That’s a lot of people communicating over the internet and although they’re mostly sharing videos of their cats, it continues to be a dominant method of communicating and engaging with the world around us.

Communication is the key. Social media and my cat may have no place in the office, but communication media certainly does.

A Look Back at Communication: Newburgh

Boothroyd brothers standing in the doorway to their news dealing, stationery, and printing business in 1891.

Boothroyd brothers standing in the doorway to their news dealing, stationery, and printing business in 1891.

While in operation for over 130 years, the Newburgh Historical Society has experienced nearly every form of communication media from the nineteenth century through the present.

I can imagine a former board secretary purchasing fountain pens, ink and stationery from Oliver and Arthur W. Boothroyd’s Water Street paper goods business in 1894. Now the meeting minutes are taken on paper with a ballpoint pen, transcribed onto a computer and distributed via email to the remaining board of managers.

Eventually the task of setting letters and applying ink would be replaced by the typewriter, photocopy machine, dot matrix printer, facsimile and now the three-in-one printer, fax and copier.

Newburgh also has a place in advance forms of communication. Albert James Myer, a Newburgh born United States Army officer who served during the Civil War, is known as the father of the U.S. Signal Corps. His work with telegraphs to transmit weather observations led to the creation of the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Fast-forward to 1939, Newburgh along with Middletown and Poughkeepsie were test cities for new televisions by the RCA Manufacturing Company.

From Reach to Action?

Visitors sharing their collection of photographs from an older Newburgh.

Visitors sharing their collection of photographs from an older Newburgh.

The internet has recently become an available resource in our media kits with a variety of online venues providing access to information, including social media. We can harness this to reach more potential visitors and communicate information as quickly as it can be entered onto a computer.

The question of whether an enhanced reach influences our audience to visit still remains. However, the “Growing Up in Newburgh” exhibit challenged this idea.

Uncertainty shouldn’t become a reason to avoid further investigating something. At the Society, we had our reasons for building a stronger online presence: free advertising, learning more about our audience and, simply, keeping up with organizations like ourselves.

One important reason was to regularly engage our audience. The Society has a responsibility to its mission to preserve and present the history of Newburgh and although we are fortunate enough to have a permanent headquarters and historic house, limited resources prevents it from being available as frequently as we would like. A new and revamped website focused on communication and social media allows the Society to maintain a regular and reliable presence while communicating with current members and informing future visitors of what the Society is and how it fulfills its mission.

A Touch of Controversy

Our first step was to research how an organization can best utilize social media. We came across many sources complete with pros and cons facing any organization including museums.

Some concerns about the use of social media included copyright issues, inadvertently discouraging visitation, lack of resources, myth building and a complete disconnection of information from its sources.

CityForFluoridationThen there is the idea that on social media everyone has equal standing and that popularity not an accuracy of information is the deciding factor on how far-reaching a post may be. This is problematic for any organization attempting to serve as an authority. The Society experienced something similar to this while promoting for a panel event on the topic of their exhibit. We used images from the exhibit to spark conversation on Facebook. One image showed a group of Newburgh children with ear to ear smiles, each holding a cup of water.

How could this spark controversy?

In our excitement we missed the potential trigger of this image showing children who participated in the 1950s Newburgh and Kingston trials for the fluoridation of the water supply as a means to reduce tooth decay. All it took was one person to unravel the conversation into the controversy of forcing citizens to ingest potentially hazardous chemical fluoride.


We lost control of that conversation as it spiraled into a long discussion digressing far from where it started. Beginning on the topic of growing up in Newburgh, it quickly went beyond the dangers of ingesting fluoride and into the controversy of children and vaccines.

Consider Your Audience

A common piece of advice to any organization seriously considering social media was to “consider your audience.” Although we aspire to attract a younger audience, the Society targeted senior donors. Adults are the dominant group that attend the Society’s events and this is the case for many history museums and historic sites. Reach Advisors, a research firm headquartered in New York State, conducted a survey of museum-going households in 2010 and determined that 60% of history museum visitors are women while 65% are over the age of fifty years.

According to another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September 2014, Facebook remains by far the most popular social media site, which includes 56 percent of online adults in the United States aged 65 and older are now using Facebook. According to this, Facebook is the preferred social media service for reaching our intended audience.

The Society has had a Facebook page since 2011 and this allowed us to use an insights feature to retrieve useful data while researching our existing audience. We learned that the results of the 2010 survey were very close to the ours with 61% of our followers being women and 57% of all followers over the age forty-four years.

I decided to take my research a bit further and was recently granted access to other history and heritage related Facebook pages and the results were similar to the Reach Advisors survey. The pages I sampled included: Friends of the State Historic Sites of the Hudson Highlands, Mid-Hudson Historic Destinations, Newburgh Landmark Conservancy, Orange County History and Heritage and Preserve Algonquin Park.


Although most of the pages are attracting the attention of a familiar audience, two pages run by Johanna Yaun, the Orange County Historian, are drawing interest from nearly an equal amount of men and women as well as young and older adults. Through a series of speaking engagements and her bi-weekly newsletter, Yaun has positioned herself as a spokesperson for heritage tourism promoting immersive tourism and targeting a younger audience. It looks that something she is doing on social media is working.

Not an Elixir, Another Method of Communication

At the Newburgh Historical Society, all it took to encourage a Hudson Valley community to tell its own story was a post on Facebook comprised of one picture and 176 words. Russell Lange, the curator, provided the image and wrote the post description. Russell was gauging the public’s interest in contributing to a community exhibit centered on the theme of growing up in Newburgh. “The idea is to ask folks who grew up here to submit photos that depict familiar scenes from their childhood in Newburgh,” he wrote.

GUIN_RussLangeThe image he provided was indeed familiar. Every Easter, parents once dragged their children dressed in their Sunday best for pictures at Downing Park, a 35 acre park at the city’s center. In the photograph Russell is with his brother, Mark, and their mother surrounded by patches of tulips. Although it’s a black and white photograph, Russell described the vibrant flowers and the colors began to push through the shades of grey.

For a community like Newburgh, which exists in a state of economic hardship, telling its own story is important. The Facebook post received 60 likes, 13 comments, reached 989 users and was clicked 294 times according Facebook’s insights feature.

A “like,” however, is only a virtual “thumbs up” and an indication of the exhibit’s possibilities, but not a commitment. In the end, sixteen members of the community responded with 120 images, one rare video and three toys spanning from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth century.

The images the Society gained became valuable additions to the collection.

Laying bricks on William Street, Newburgh, 1915.

Laying bricks on William Street, Newburgh, 1915.

Thanks to one former Newburgher, a rare series of images were brought to our attention showing the progress of laying brick roads in the early 20th century, complete with steam rollers, company names and a demonstration of tools. The donor kept the images because her grandfather’s corner-market can be seen in the background. To our donor, the images represent a piece of her family history and nostalgia. To the Society, the historic significance lies in the broader picture of constructing Newburgh roads.

An English teacher from the local high school used the exhibit as the basis for a creative writing lesson plan. The Times Herald Record sought after a personal writing piece titled, “City tells its own story through its diversity,” connecting the exhibit to a city-wide festival.

The exhibit reflected the virtual newsfeed of Facebook where donors filled the space with their own materials.

People from all over showed up to view the exhibit hearing about it through a variety of means. We gained new friends, new members, new acclaim and new donors.

The community let the Society into their photo albums, toy rooms and hearts. In exchange, the Society gave them a voice; a way to visualize their Newburgh experiences both past and present. Here is where the Society met its goal, which was not solely due to our efforts on social media, but may not have been possible without it.

One thing the Society learned by this project is that Facebook or social media is certainly not the elixir to decreasing museum visitation, membership and activity, but it is certainly not snake oil. It’s just another method of communication in our marketing kit to engage our current audience and new visitors within a greater community.

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