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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Race to the Museum

People's Choice:
3 votes


National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution




Innovative | Experimental


In the National Museum of American History, there is a cabinet full of keys—keys that fit the 73 cars in the automobile collection. Most are sitting under car covers...but now the covers are coming off! 

In the late 2010, the Museum used its blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed to launch a "Race to the Museum" campaign. Over the course of a week, we presented eight of the jewels of the Smithsonian car collection, covering 120 years of history and presented in order from the oldest to the newest.  After the last car was introduced, a public vote was opened to determine which two cars would ultimately come out of storage and go on display. This is the first time that the National Museum of American History has asked the public to help choose objects for display, a decision usually made by the curators.

Facebook posts helped pique interest in the automobiles prior to the public vote

The "Race the Museum" initiative was an experiment for the Museum on many levels: it marks the first time curators have given up any control over the display of its objects over to the Museum's audiences; it was our inaugural try at pitching reporters and enthusiast bloggers via Twitter; and the online experience was built entirely with free Web tools we had never used for such a purpose. We had no idea what to expect and were pleasantly surprised by the results.

Conversations about Race to the Museum on Twitter

Through clever outreach on Twitter and via targeting a few enthusiast bloggers, we were able to activate word-of-mouth with Glasspar fans and EV1 lovers pit against one another in a race to the finish.  Nearly 24,000 people voted in the innovative Race to the Museum contest over a period of 3 weeks. Through Twitter, Facebook, and our blog we were able to reach hundreds of thousands of people about the voting initiative—without advertising or other traditional forms of marketing.  


The story was picked up by the Washington Post with a half-page of photos and background about the campaign--an earned media slot that would have cost the Museum over $50,000 if purchased through paid media. The winning cars, a 1929 Miller Race Car and a 1948 Tucker Sedan, went on display for a limited time to drive traffic to the physical Museum during a traditionally low-visitation period.  

Winners: 1929 Miller race car and 1948 Tucker sedan 

Through strategic use of social media, the Museum was able to try something new with virtually no budget and meet great success with public engagement and pickup by media. On "moving day," several news crews covered the event and the Museum used its YouTube channel to bring visitors behind the scenes from storage facility to final display.