How to land an absolute unit (or become Elon Musk for a day)

Q&A with Adam Koszary as he leaves The MERL for pastures new
Yosola Olorunshola
“Social media isn’t going away.” When Adam Koszary shared this reminder on the relentless nature of social media at the Museums Association 2018 conference, he may not have expected to spend his Easter break swapping identities with multi-billionaire Elon Musk. 

As programme manager and digital lead for Museums Partnership Reading, he catapulted the Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) to viral fame with a photograph of a sheep dubbed “absolute unit”. This launched a campaign that brought the museum’s collection to life for audiences across the world – unearthing stories from the history of the English countryside and translating them into 21st-century meme culture.  

After five years at The MERL, Koszary is moving on to a new role as social media editor at the Royal Academy of Arts. He spoke to Museums Journal to share some final tips and highlights from his experience at the museum. 

We have to ask: what did it feel like to swap identities with Elon Musk for a day?
Sitting in a small terraced house in Reading tweeting as a museum pretending to be a multi-billionaire was surreal but a surprisingly easy, and a fun way to spend half the Easter break – he posts weird stuff, we post weird stuff, it was a good fit except for how we recognise unions and he doesn’t.

You’ve said that giving a museum a personality is a "risk". How did you convince your team the risk was worth it?

There wasn't a single moment of convincing the rest of the museum - instead, it was a few years of trial and error, building up relationships with colleagues and clearly communicating when things have and haven't worked. Every time I do something weird, it’s always a test of the waters, and I always have the data and reasoning behind it to show any concerned colleague who asks.

I definitely take more risks than most museums would be comfortable with though, and that’s mostly because of the kind of museum The MERL is - we’re a free-entry university museum without a massive profile, so we had everything to gain and not a whole lot to lose by standing out on social media. Museums that are much more established or dedicated to more sensitive subjects couldn’t take the kind of risks we do because the stakes are so much higher.

You’ve helped create a personality online that is now part of The MERL’s history. How do you think digital-first content could form part of museum collections in future?   

I don’t have the answers. Creating social media content is weird for museums because we’re so used to being able to hold onto things, to record them and preserve them. At the moment most of our digital content is whisked away to never be seen again unless it’s saved in some form on our website or locally. It was only a few years ago that we added our first tweet to an object file - part of a conversation with a living relative of the person who donated a carved walking stick to the collection.

Some of my colleagues have been working on how we work with digital-first content and I can’t really speak for them, but I know that we’re aware that rural life is being expressed and recorded online as much as it is in physical form now. There are vibrant rural communities on different social media platforms, and currently all we can do is get involved as best we can and contribute to the conversation. 

What are you excited about as you step into a new role at the Royal Academy? 

In Reading my job is taken up with managing our Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation partnership, running about 10 projects within that, overseeing digital strategy for two organisations, training staff and, with what's left, doing things like The MERL's Twitter.  

So, I’m most excited about simply being able to dedicate 100% of my time to social media. I want to push the principle that contributing social media content should form a part of everybody’s roles and be a tool for the whole museum, not just for one person in the digital or marketing team. Being able to explore that with the kind of collections, people and programme they have at the Royal Academy is just going to be so fun.

If you had to pick one, what is your favourite item in The MERL’s collection – and why?

Probably the Perpetual Mousetrap. I love it because in many ways it started me down the path I’m on right now.

Just before The MERL reopened in 2016, a mouse managed to get up to our first floor store of objects - full of leather, wood, textile and all manner of tasty things. But this mouse, faced with 35,000 objects, zeroed in on the one shelf dedicated to historic mousetraps, got trapped in an Edwardian humane mousetrap and died. As soon as our curator emailed the museum about it, I knew that it was too good a story to pass up, so I took some photos and wrote a blog
Nick Booth (now at SS Great Britain) put me in touch with a Buzzfeed journalist who wrote it up herself, and it then went viral (or at least our standard of viral back then). We had the mouse stuffed and put back in the trap, and now it’s the first thing I talk about when showing anyone around the museum.

Almost every instance of social media success at The MERL has been about reacting to an event, turning it into a story, taking a risk (who wants to let people know we have mice?), relying on friends (thanks Nick) and a bit of luck. And it all started with that mouse.
In exactly 280 characters, what advice would you give to anyone who wants to make a sheep famous?

Give up the fear, don't think you have to be serious all the time and remember that people are usually on social media for entertainment – it isn’t a crime for a museum to be entertaining.

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