Social Networks In The Age Of Dinosaurs: The Example Of The Museum Of Natural History In Florence


Among all the exciting things that happened at Museums and the Web Florence, there was one we particularly enjoyed: meeting Alba Scarpellini, Head of Communication at the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

Founded in 1775 by Peter Leopold of Hasburg-Lorraine, Granduke of Tuscany, it was the first Italian Museum of Natural History to be open to  all: nobles, the cloth, as well as the working class, including women. Literally, an “open museum” since the very beginning. And a museum that, nowadays, is very active online, using “the openess” – to the public, to new tendencies and to digital initiatives – as an overarching approach for its activities and programs.

Our chat with Alba made us realize how often what really makes the difference is having the right mind-set. Warning: this interview is quite a long one, but it is worth reading ’till the end. As usual, we hope that knowing more about this interesting case of an “awaken museum” will be useful for all of you.

The Rise Of The Digital At The Museum

F: Alba, we are curious to know the story of social networks at your Museum, which is on Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube, Flickr and Foursquare. Was opening these accounts your idea? How did it come to you, and how did you get started?

A: The idea came from me, and I started these channels out of  a personal interest for the internet, and all the Information and Communication technologies. I have always been fascinated by the philosopy of the Web, the concept of decentralization of power (political, economic, related to the information), as well as its strong sharing aspect.

My beginnings in the field of museum communication date back to 2005, when I took on a role that was previously non existent. The ingredients of the success of our Museum’s online activities stemmed from a mixture of curiousity and interest on my side, combined with opportunities for training that the management of the Institution allowed me to take. Fully trusting my proposals – which were, anyway, cost-free, the Museum gave me carte blanche.

As it always happens with new things, I started experimenting. In February 2010 I opened an account on Facebook. I didn’t create an institutional profile though, and that was a mistake. Every day I would look for people and institutions that could be interested in becoming friends with the Museum, by writing on their walls and “recruiting” them. In a few day,s we reached about 200 friends. Later, we had to create a fan page instead to avoid transgressing Facebook regulations. I was worried that we would have lost all the friends we had so patiently “conquered”, but we got them back quite soon and the numbers have been steadily rising for the last couple of years.


How To Create An Integrated Online Communication?

F: How did you integrate the wide array of social accounts you have created?

A: The decision to open different social media accounts and activate a multichannel communication campaign started in 2012, thanks to an exhibition: Dinosauri in carne e ossa (“Dinosaurs In The Flesh”). In order to plan our online efforts, we created the Jurassic Media Team (with the collaboration of Fondazione Media Toscana). Over the six months of the exhibition, we engaged the community and we earned the title of “most social Italian Natural History Museum”.


The Facebook page had been the main strenght of the whole campaign: in 6 months, our Facebook community grew in quantity and quality, earning 10,000 fan with an average of 40 interactions for each post. By integrating Foursquare we reached a good level on this social network as well.

The exhibition gave us also the opportunity to experiment with Tumblr, through which we promoted different gaming activities as well as online contests: it was a real success. Tumblr is half a blog, half a social network, it is really easy to use and different media can be included. Which is why we decided to use it again, last year, for another campaign.

Flickr and Instagram are a really good reference as well: we upload pictures regularly. YouTube allows us to present the Museum in a dynamic way, thanks mainly to the ‘BatBox’ campaign, an extraordinary citizen science project that we are carrying on in collaboration with Unicoop.

Regardless our over one thousands followers, we are aware we are not using Twitter at its best. Besides our participation to the #museumweek, we have been using it mainly to promote our activities. We should start triggering conversations on different topics connected to the research activities and other programs of the Museum, instead. But we are working on it, and, as a result, we would like to create a “network” of editorial staff throughout the Museum, involving curators, docents and so on.

Quality Interaction With The Fans! It’s All About Investing On People

F: How much the interaction with your fans is important to you, and why?

A: It is crucial. To give an example, last year, after the fire that destroyed the Science Center in Naples, we launched an informative campaign through which we kept people updated on the situation. We integrated social media in promoting a special opening of the Museum to raise funds for the reconstruction. Conversations started on social media turned into real presences during that evening event and we managed to raise 4,500 €, handed to the Director Amodio a month after the fire.

What we want now is for our community to be involved more and more in projects in which it can play a major role, becoming involved in decision-making and Museum activities. E.g, we are currently updating the exhibits in a brand-new Geology section where a 10 meters long fossil whale will be hosted: we are planning a social media campaign around that, with a dedicated hashtag, and we will organize a series of events to raise funds for the project.

Screen shot 2014-05-05 at 3.59.55 PMF: What kind of economic investment is required for these kind of activities?

A: Based on my experience, I can tell that the economic investment is not very substantial. The major social networks are available for free. It is true that there are tricky conditions, such as with Facebook and the algorithm that hinders the visibility of posts. However, ads have very accessible costs.

An investment is although necessary on people. Unfortunately, in Italy very few museums have internal staff with a targeted background in social communication and marketing. And those who have been working in the field for a while now, rarely have an adequate economic and professional training.

A Museum, to be defined such, has to be open to the public, do research, preserve and display its heritage, but above all, it has to communicate it. By the same token, online activity is fundamental as much as the more “traditional” activities. The scarcity of budget can’t be a real obstacle, as most of the social media platforms are free.

A Double Planning: Strategic And Operational

F: Is it better to strategically plan the use of social tools, or rely on improvisation?

A: Social media planning, and  its integration with the Museum’s activities, needs to be both strategic and operational.

Strategic plan needs to identify the objectives, analyze the internal and external context, select the actors and the target groups. Each channel should have its function: the website is the general container, Twitter is to relaunch the news and Facebook to create a dialogue with the users. The strategy should rely on good planning and not so much on improvisation. It is useful for us to cross-promote news and content on different channels.

An editorial plan should include daily activities of the Museum as well as more general news. Our Facebook page is geared toward the communication of activities and news of the Museum, but it provides a constant thematic update as well. We do content curation in this sense: we research, aggregate, organize and share relevant news on topics as nature, biodiversity, climate change. We also try to stimulate awareness when events such as the one at the Copenhagen zoo happen.


The Cruciality Of Having An Internal Team

F: I know you appreciated Paolo Cavallotti’s words from the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan related to the importance of the Website. What about yours? You are currently renovating it: what are the main objectives of this renovation?

A: I shared and appreciated the content of that interview, especially when Paolo talks about the necessity of an internal team that knows and manages the web and social tools. Our website dates back to 2005 and is a product of the “one to many” communication: a fairly rigid environment, designed before the Web 2.0 wave. If you compared our website to our social media activities you would have the impression of facing two parallel tracks that don’t ever meet or interact.

We have been working on the new website for a year now. We created an internal team instead of outsourcing the service (although this might have been faster). The team includes communication professionals coming from the University of Florence as well. We created a public competition announcement to find the developers, and – to be sure that they would be passionate about the Museum – we shared this on our social media as well.

The “Open Museum”

1469992_10151904312888020_453587752_n F: What about the policy related to images distribution and photography in the Museum? What is your take on the #openglam initiative?

A: In our Museum visitors are free to take pictures and videos, and they are warmly welcome to share them on social networks. We realized that this is crucial to empower the visitor and make him/her part of a communication process. We joined the Digital Invasions manifesto since the very beginnning and have asked to be “invaded” twice now, adding contests and prizes to that formula to enhance the engagement. I would like to underscore, though, that it is still necessary to require an official authorization to use images of objects from our collection for commercial purposes.

Regarding Open Glam, I have been following what the Fondazione Torino Musei has been doing. Museums are repositories of heritage and knowledge, and need to approach as many tools as possible to communicate their contents. Otherwise, they would exclude themselves from the understanding and diffusion of culture.
In this sense, our new website will ensure access to databases from a wide range of collections; thousand of images; information on turnouts and budget – all this to pursue full transparency.

Translate by @mapnoterritory