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TikTok and museums: Can they jibe?

Matthias Beckonert als
August 4, 2020

Despite US President Donald Trump's threat to ban the platform, TikTok is growing in popularity worldwide. Famous museums are starting their own channels.

Smartphone picture wwith TikTok symbol on screen
TikTok has become a frontrunner of social mediaImage: picture-alliance/Ostalb Network

For the short video platform TikTok, the coronvirus pandemic is something of a gift. While social contact in public spaces is minimized worldwide, more and more users are looking online for a substitute for the lack of social interaction — and often choosing TikTok. Despite criticism of its business practices, it is currently the most downloaded app of all, as reported by Sensor Tower, an analysis platform. By April, the number of downloads had exceeded the two billion mark.

Which Topics are Hot on TikTok?

Museums have taken note, with a handful of famous museums opening their own channels on the Chinese social media service, which began as a platform for lip-sync and dance videos. And while users increasingly turn their attention to political and social topics in their postings, museums apparently feel that TikTok can be a meaningful extension of what they can offer in the digital realm.


Sex zombies, killing machines, rampaging elephants

"The most important thing is to set the scene right in the first few seconds to encourage people to stay with it," explains Marc Jerusel. As the social media manager at Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde (Natural History Museum), he is responsible for the TikTok channel.

The museum uploaded its first videos on May 6. In them, museum guides talk about rioting elephants, frogfish that become "sex zombies," and cute owls turn out to be perfect "killing machines." Not surprisingly, the videos are extremely popular: After only three months, the channel reached 18,000 subscribers and over 220,000 likes.

Dinosaur sketelon at Berlin's Natural History Museum
This dinosaur cannot only be viewed at Berlin's Natural History Musem, but also on TikTokImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik

And that with relatively simple means. The museum first produces the videos and then gears them toward the respective social media channels. For TikTok, that means: loud music, special effects, and that's it. "To be honest, not a whole lot of effort has to go into it," explains Jerusel, "especially when you compare it with the reach and the interaction it triggers." In contrast to other platforms, he adds, TikTok generates a lot more feedback; users are much more active there. "I see an opportunity here for museums: science education and communication."

Another aspect is that while the Natural History Museum mainly targets young adults, 69 percent of TikTok users are under 24, which makes the channel seem a strategic investment in the future. The platform fits this museum, whose objects often have a quirky history. A rioting elephant, for instance, can perhaps be more gripping than a Baroque painting.

"Making art accessible to all"

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: Also a digital frontrunner Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Linkel

Scene change: Amsterdam. The city's Rijksmuseum can't really complain about a lack of visitors: The art museum set a record in 2019 with some 2.7 million. It has also boasted an excellent digital presence for quite some time, with over 245,000 followers on Twitter and an Instagram channel with half a million subscribers.

So it's not surprising that the museum has been on TikTok since April 2. The channel presents fun facts about the artworks, offers live tours and, challenges being a much-loved format on the platform, re-enacts famous pictures. "It's important to make our collection accessible to everyone," explains Nanet Beumer, who heads the Rijksmuseum's digital department. With its exploding number of users, TikTok's reach is obvious.

"TikTok is a platform that is characterized by its many content creators," adds Beumer. "The app is very easy to use; unlike Instagram, image and video editing take place completely within the app. This ensures that many users actively create videos." This is exactly what can be used for museum education. "We usually have a lot of school classes visiting. We want to see if we can use TikTok to interact with younger visitors in the museum in a completely different way, for example, by enabling them to create content for our TikTok channel."

Read more: Data privacy: 'We're pretty much in the worst-case scenario,' says whistleblower

Attracting the young with humor

But can that really go down well? When museums suddenly descend from the ivory tower and open themselves to the fleeting attention spans of young people, outraged reactions of the more conservative cultural elite are pre-programmed.

Still, people like Eike Schmidt, who has been in charge of the Uffizi Museum in Florence since 2015, want to make the museum attractive to young visitors as well. To this end, he too is relying on TikTok: "It's about becoming part of a conversation," Schmidt explains. "Television series and Netflix are currently planting collective visual material in young people's heads. But our great works of art, which in our opinion have the highest relevance for the present and also for the future, usually don't reach this generation at all."

Part of Sandro Botticelli's "Primavera"  Sandro Botticelli from1477
Part of Sandro Botticelli's "Primavera" Image: picture-alliance/L. Ricciarini/Leemage

The Uffizi's response to the lack of accessibility for young people is as daring as it is successful on TikTok: Sandro Botticelli's Venus, for example, walks into the painting Primavera and, outraged, demands that the mythological figures at hand respect the prescribed minimum social distance. Francesco Petrarch unpleasantly and obtrusively makes passes at the muse Laura to the sound of Balkan pop beats in the background, with a caption that reads: "When Petrarca courted Laura: How it really went down." And Caravaggio's Medusa wears a mask over her mouth, accompanied by the viral-going "corona virus" cry of rapper Cardi B. Each is an example of an open breach against the tempered reputation and tradition of the museum and its objects.

The videos help dispel reservations among young people about visiting the museum, says Schmidt. "A reason why many young people today no longer go to museums is because they often feel it is not relevant in their own lives."

Future of TikTok in the US uncertain

Trump says he'll ban video app TikTok in US

While more and more museums open their own channels on TikTok, US President Donald Trump has expressed an intention to ban the video platform, citing the possibility that information on it is accessible to the Chinese governnment. Last week, in his Air Force One jet, Trump told reporters on board that "As for TikTok, we are banning it from the United States," which he said he could do with a presidential decree.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has entered negotiations to purchase the platform's US operations. TikTok claims to have 100 million users in the US, including museums such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in Germany,Deutsche Welle has its own TikTok account whose aim is to give a fresh view of culture in Europe.