2018 in review: the sheep that won the internet

This year a sheep became an unexpected viral sensation. CR meets the man behind the ram, Adam Koszary, to discuss how the Museum of English Rural Life became this year’s biggest social media hit

Earlier this year, The Museum of English Rural Life (@TheMERL) achieved the kind of viral success that social media managers salivate over. All it took was a particularly imposing ram, and five words that stamped the museum in the minds of Twitter users. “Look at this absolute unit.”

The man behind its runaway success, Adam Koszary, watched as the MERL Twitter account leapt by 7,000 followers in 24 hours, and continued to clock up likes and retweets. At the time of writing, the ram stands at over 107k likes and 30k retweets, and the museum commands 77k followers.

Koszary doesn’t have a full-time role in social media management, he’s actually Programme Manager and Digital Lead for Museums Partnership Reading, which works with MERL and Reading Museum. However, he’s taken responsibility for MERL’s Twitter account, and hit upon an approach that’s letting the museum share its collection of rural ephemera in a way that connects with followers.

“Museums are disgustingly slow at adapting,” says Koszary. “I come from a collections background, but I see social media as the most effective way of reaching the most people with the stories we can tell about history. I see it as something museums should be doing as their core work. It’s as important as having physical galleries.”

For him, social media removes the one-way dialogue that people often experience in museums – going to shows, reading the label, and going back home again. Koszary says it’s a chance to have the kind of conversations museums can’t have at exhibitions, and a more effective way of engaging with the public.

But before he achieved viral fame, Koszary first had to face up to the museum’s perception. “We’re very conscious of ourselves,” he says, “We know when you hear the name you immediately get an idea of wagons, mud and Morris men.”

In some ways, people’s low expectations opened up an opportunity for MERL, leaving them free of the baggage of larger and more well-known museums. While a certain gravitas is expected from someone like The British Museum, Koszary was free to be playful. It’s allowed him to co-opt memes, make animated gifs, and generally position MERL’s Twitter account as an individual, rather than a nebulous cultural entity. He says the British humour has also landed particularly well with American followers.

“I always start from the assumption that everyone finds everything in our museum really boring, but we know that it isn’t,” he explains. “You need to work really hard to get over that initial impression. Rural life connects across food, cultural history, national identity, and many other things which people find interesting, but they assume it’s all about cows. You’ll always need someone at MERL to explain why hayricks are interesting, but you’ll never convince people if you post a picture and say ‘this is a hayrick’.”

Of course farm life is inevitably a big part of what Koszary does, and MERL’s Twitter account is enjoyably replete with vintage photography of sheep, hogs and hayricks. It might not sound scintillating, but Koszary’s irreverent approach keeps things interesting, whether he’s sharing a list of English village names – including Upperthong, Six Mile Bottom and Sexhow – or taking advantage of trending topics elsewhere, such as the ‘hot duck’ of Central Park or Knickers the giant cow.

But although it might look like Koszary is simply having fun – and there’s plenty of that – he says it’s more than just “pissing about on Twitter”. Many museums have digitised their collections in recent years, but Koszary says they’re not making the most of them. According to him there’s still hesitancy around how to use them, how to share them, and how to get people interested in what they offer. “The absolute unit is one part of what we should be doing – it’s the awareness-building that drives people towards what our colleagues want, which is crowdfunding, coming to exhibitions, and getting into the archive,” he says.

And since MERL found online fame, Koszary says that the museum has definitely welcomed more people through the doors – often coming to see the famous ram himself.

“We take ourselves too seriously, and we’re so used to telling people what high culture is, and what history is, and having this one-way flow,” he says. “We talk a lot about adapting to the internet, rather then trying to make the internet adapt to museums.”

merl.reading.ac.uk, @theMERL