Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Be Human: Or How To Write Online

13th October 2015

I love surprising stories – and here’s a lovely one, a Twitter account (@ClerkofOxford) on the subject of Old English Literature that nonetheless attracts nearly six thousand loyal followers.  Her latest theme is Old English Wisdom Literature and at least half her tweets are in Old English but her followers show no signs of giving up.

And it’s also a neat story for museums. Over the last 12 months the Great Museum Move Online has been gaining momentum – it’s one of the few growth areas for museum jobs – and as museums explore different ways of being online the Clerk Of Oxford is

a nice reminder that the digital world doesn’t have to be second best, that it has its own subtleties and beauties also.

So to get a feel for the @ClerkofOxford try scrolling down her Twitter feed.  Each tweet hits a thought from a sideways, glancing angle so you have to read a dozen or so to get the full effect.  If I were being fancy I would say that it’s a bit like making a mosaic – each tweet is a mosaic stone whose addition tweaks the overall effect and pulls it in a new direction.  Her tweets are full of saints, dragons, monks and full moons but are all rigorously high brow and well informed.  (A high brow dragon?  I like it.)

All of which is why I am sitting opposite the Clerk of Oxford (aka Dr.Eleanor Parker) in an Oxford caff.  We are having a workman-like, how-do-you-do-it? conversation – and like any other craftsman she’s getting completely animated when talking about the techniques.

We talk about her Twitter style – which is good-natured, generous and only wanting to post what’s beautiful or interesting.  There are other ways of doing Twitter but this one works for her.

We compare blogs and tweets, the difference between writing in 140 characters and in 700 words (like this piece) and whether there are any rules for writing online.  In fact there are only a few but one of them is ‘Be concise’.  And despite being so high brow her tweets follow this rule exactly.

And we talk about the pleasures of tweeting and why she does it?  She says that it has introduced her to lots of people whom she otherwise wouldn’t have met, but also that ‘it’s nice to meet people at a conference who say ‘Oh you’re the person who . . . ‘  Which is interesting because it reminds me of what other people I know have also said,  that-

blogs and Twitter feel like the present you give to the world, a way of introducing yourself, a mode of exchange between you and strangers.

And we talk about the paradox that although Twitter is only 140 characters you can be as specialist as you like and don’t have to dumb down at all (as shown by the fact that half her tweets are in Old English) – because there’s always someone out there who is interested.

From here the conversation zigzags on to the question of how to make a digital museum.  And we agree that although a museum doesn’t easily turn into a book (because that would be a catalogue and a catalogue is not a museum) there are moments when a Twitter feed can feel quite museum-y.  It’s the way in which each tweet can carry an image of an object, enlivened by a completely personal comment. So then she recommends that I try the tweets sent out by the Thanet Archaeological Trust – which, having no real museum of its own but plenty of ambition, thinks of itself as a digital museum and tweets accordingly. (An approach which the Museum of Marco Polo naturally finds quite interesting.)

So what has all this got to do with real museum?  Lots.

Blogs and tweets are only two out of hundreds of ways in which museums can inhabit the online world and although both have been around for some time now (and this is a world where nothing lasts for long) their potential is still enormous.

One thing though needs saying.  Deep in the DNA of all museums is a way of talking to the world which is cool, objective, impersonal and very third person. It’s how we are all taught to write museum text.

But writing for the Web is different.  First of all it’s not about talking to the world;  it needs to feel more conversational.  Second, try writing blocks of cool, impersonal text and you’ll see them die before your eyes on screen.

And so despite the fact that digital is created by coding this is one of the important rules for writing online:  ‘Be Human.’

Follow Dr. Eleanor Parker at @ClerkofOxford.  She recently won the Digital History prize for her tweets – ‘as fine an example of public education as you could find . . . ‘ is what they said about them.