by Meghan Caprez
When the Smithsonian National Museum of American History was creating an exhibition about immigration to the U.S., it conducted research, collected items and listened to Pitbull. The international music sensation invited museum staff to his concert while they were planning its newest displays.
“It just goes to show that you never know what will happen when you work in a museum,” said Melinda Machado, the museum’s director of communication and marketing.
Machado led the session, “A Monumental View: What It Takes to Work In Museums and Historical Places” at the 2014 PRSSA National Conference. In her session, she shared several case studies with challenges related to the Museum of American History’s special events and potential crises.
Because I’m in Washington, D.C. for National Conference, I can’t wait to visit the Museum of American History to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the classic film “The Wizard of Oz.” Apparently, my excitement to see Dorothy’s slippers isn’t unique; many of the museum’s five million yearly visitors most look forward to seeing the costume piece. A few years ago, the slippers were loaned to a museum in London.
“We had to create comprehensive plan to manage the type of coverage,” Machado said. “We had to do our best to make sure it was positive.”
After announcing the loan through a press release and writing numerous blog posts to help museum visitors “cope when the ruby slippers step out,” the museum decided to bring in a new piece from the Tony Award-winning musical “Wicked.” The show “Wicked,” the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, donated an original Broadway costume.
To promote the inclusion of the “Wicked” costume, the museum hosted a press event where the musical’s two lead actresses sang several songs from the show, in addition other paid, earned, shared and owned media initiatives.
Let’s just say Dorothy’s ruby slippers aren’t the only items on my list of must-sees here in D.C. now.
Attendance at the Museum of American History drops in the winter months. Museum communication staff members were challenged to increase visitation during winter…with a zero dollar budget.
Using a combination of earned, shared and owned media, the museum released a poll; people could vote for which two vehicles they’d want to be released from the vault to be put on display in the museum. Not only did the museum receive more than 53,000 views on its related blog posts, it saw a 6.5 percent increase in visitors.
While evaluating, the museum communication team learned that its best practices were customizing content to the platforms on which they were released and tapping into existing communities (such as car clubs) via social media. They also learned that social media does not help bring people to museum programs; advertising and marketing efforts are much more affective.
After hearing several other case studies, students were interested to learn how they could get involved in museum communication. Machado said students don’t necessarily have to have museum experience, but they do have to be expert writers.
“Not only writing, but you have to be able to sell it,” Machado said. “You can’t be shy. You have to think creatively.”
If you'd like to learn more about her work, email Machado at MachadoM@si.edu.