How we went viral: a good story, good luck and good friends

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

It all started with a story that, five or ten years ago, would have remained within the four walls of the museum and gone no further: our assistant curator found a dead mouse in a Victorian mouse trap.


The trap was behind a glass case in our store; it was not baited and it was not on display. And out of the thousands of tasty objects the mouse could have chosen to call both home and dinner, it zoned in on one of the few objects designed to kill it.

As a humane trap, the mouse is meant to be found and then released. Tragically, our mouse would have died a lonely death. Since we check our collection for pests regularly, and don’t expect our traps to be achieving their original purpose, this mouse was simply unlucky to get trapped in a time-frame between check-ups.

We thought the story was interesting and posted about it on our blog and Tumblr. Fast forward five days and it has become global, viral news.

See our other blog post for more information about the trap and an update on what we’re doing with the mouse.

Interest in our Tumblr spiked, and then rapidly returned to normal levels.

And we’re not exaggerating.

Since the original blog post, we have been interviewed by the BBC and the Canadian public radio broadcaster CBC. After featuring on BuzzFeed the story of our mouse rippled throughout the internet, ending up on The Daily Mail website, ABC, The Huffington PostI F***ing Love Science and more. We trended on Tumblr, where our post has over 3,000 notes, and have been chosen as a feature of their History Spotlight category. We made the front page of Reddit, and our imgur gallery has been viewed 374,552 times. Our blog has had 67,521 views since the original post, more than the past two years put together.

Not bad for our debut on BuzzFeed.

Not bad for our BuzzFeed debut.

We thought everything had died down by Sunday, but then news started trickling in that we were trending on Facebook across the world. And not only that, but that we were trending higher than the SuperBowl, North Korea and…Beyonce:



Suffice to say, we've never had it so good on Facebook.

Suffice to say, we’ve never had it so good on Facebook.

So what was the viral timeline of events? It all started with our original blog post, which was also cross-posted to Tumblr, and from there:

Our mouse made the 'front page of the internet', better known as Reddit.

Our mouse made the ‘front page of the internet’, better known as Reddit.

Needless to say, there does not seem to be one recipe for going viral. What seems essential, however, is recognising when you have a good story, writing it well and having nice pictures.

From there it took getting our story in front of the right person – in this case Buzzfeed’s Hayley Campbell – and then watching the dominoes of ‘clickbait’ websites fall. We also nudged the story along, soliciting a retweet from a ‘power user’ of Twitter and Tumblr, Neil Gaiman, as well as posting updates and providing different angles on the story, such as our image gallery on Reddit.

We were lucky that we had been building our expertise and capacity in social media for some years, meaning we could hit the ground running when it became obvious the story was a hit. Our online network of museum professionals and journalists was essential to its success; without Nick Booth alerting Hayley Campbell to the story, it may not have kicked off in the first place.

However, before we publish blogs from now on, we’ll definitely be asking ourselves: ‘Would we be happy if this went viral?’ In hindsight, we were glad to have explained the ethical and practical issues involved with having a dead mouse in a museum object, as well as why and how it may have happened. Trust is very important to a museum, and if this story had gone viral without us considering the deeper issues we may have suffered immense damage to our reputation. There are many other stories about the important work we do as a Museum which we’d preferred to have gone viral, but nevertheless we hope those who saw the story have learnt a bit more about conservation, the continuing relevance of museum objects and how even the smallest of tragedies can captivate the world.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

Focus on Collections: Dragons

To celebrate St George’s Day we decided to delve into the object collection for dragons.

IMG_8820Dragons are normally something you would keep well away from Museum stores. Messy eaters, far too large and prone to setting things on fire, they are possibly the least ideal animal to have in a storehouse full of dry baskets, wooden tools and straw samples.


And yet, some curator long ago saw fit to let at least a few dragons in. Our first three are fairly manageable, being altogether about ten centimetres long, made of corn and being – on closer inspection – actually quite cute. Modelled on the fierce beasts of mythology, these corn dolly dragons made by Doris Johnson appear to be aquatic rather than airborne, with only two legs, a spiral tail and no real wings to speak of.


Our next dragons are similarly flammable but, since they were made in 1787, have managed to survive. They are known as Housen, and are pieces of decoration meant to be attached to a horse’s collar. They both depict a pair of dragons in the centre, mouths set against a globe. The style of both pieces is very reminiscent of Nordic designs, and yet these two pieces were collected from Twyford. Their origin is obscure, but they may have developed from the guard attached to the front of the saddle to protect the groins of a knight in armour, which at least gives them a flavour of St George.

The lack of wings, however, make us wonder if these even do depict dragons. Are they in fact heavily stylised lions?


MERL on Twitter #2: #MuseumWeek & beyond

The dust has settled and I’ve just about managed to catch up on the work that was sidelined as I spent #museumweek glued to Twitter! It seems to have been a hugely successful initiative according to @TwitterUk themselves in their summary, and I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to try out some new ideas.  Coverage was clearly dominated by the highlights from @HRP_palaces and @V_and_A and there was definitely the danger that the smaller museums could get lost amongst the ‘big guns’ with their millions of followers. But I think there were also advantages for the smaller museums such as ourselves in tagging our posts with top-trending hashtags and appearing in timelines alongside Henry VIII and dinosaurs. When I met up with @ACallaZoo to talk about how @ColeZoology could join in, she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to do enough, with so few staff and so little time, to participate effectively. In the end, it was this amazing #museummastermind picture from @ColeZoology which appeared in a Storify summary, thus attracting attention beyond the end of the week.

Cole teeth

My colleagues at the Cole Museum and the Herbarium  both reported increased followers as a result of the week, with some really useful contacts amongst them. ‘Tweepsmap‘ congratulated @MERLReading on gaining 211 new followers over the week as opposed to a more usual 30ish. There were definitely lessons to  learn from the week of frantic tweeting. We all agreed that the posts with pictures were the most successful and that actively encouraging followers to engage by asking questions really does work! Our #dayinthelife posts were very popular, proving that people appreciate that opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes.

Selecting objects

Selecting objects from the store for a new handling collection #dayinthelife

I was also amazed at the number of people who took up the challenge to identify our mystery object posts on #museummastermind day.

Mystery object3

What are these? #museummastermind

So is there a lasting advantage to having invested in this opportunity? It was a lot of work and to be honest, after the first couple of days when I got little other work done, our involvement in the later hashtags dwindled. For my colleagues who don’t have dedicated Marketing Officers on site, it will be even harder to maintain the momentum. (I’m considering setting up a new account to cover all the Museums and Collections at Reading in one place to help increase exposure for the smaller collections…) For MERL, it’s meant that I will be thinking much more about encouraging interaction, rather than just posting links to events and blog posts. We’ve already introduced the #TuesdayTool to highlight a part of our collection that doesn’t get much exposure whilst engaging our followers, (if you’ve missed them so far, we’re storing them on our Pinterest and Facebook pages too) I think I might continue #WheresJethro too, bringing our popular family trail online!

Jethro MAE


If you have any ideas on what you would like to see MERL and the other University collections tweeting about, please comment below!

Pinterest & MERL

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.


Everybody – regardless of whether they use them or not – is aware of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. There are also the professional sites such as Yammer and LinkedIn. However, one site which you may not have heard of – and which is becoming increasingly popular – is Pinterest.


Pinterest is a site which helps you cope with the sheer amount of websites you visit and data you accumulate on the internet, and allows you to pin images from webpages on a virtual pinboard. It is essentially a more visually pleasing way of bookmarking interesting content that you find online, and it is a website that more and more museums (and their shops) are taking advantage of in order to show off their objects and archives.

The John Tarlton Board on the MERL Pinterest account

The John Tarlton Board on the MERL Pinterest account

After gathering advice from other institutions (such as the Getty Museum in New York) MERL now has its own Pinterest account. We are hoping to use it as a way of archiving temporary exhibitions so that they can be viewed after they have finished (such as the John Tarlton exhibition), as well as letting people see the objects and archives which usually don’t see the light of day. We are experimenting with different ways of using Pinterest, and Tom Paganuzzi – a student who was on work experience at the museum – very helpfully agreed to pilot a Volunteers Board, which will allow volunteers to pin their favourite objects or whatever they are working on, with notes giving their opinions and further information. Tom also wrote a post about his time at MERL, which you can see above!

If you are already on Pinterest then please follow us, or if you are not already signed up it’s very easy to do so – either by email or through your facebook account.