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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.

The Mystery of the “1940s Time Traveller”: The Changing Face of Online Brand Monitoring


In the spring of 2010, the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) at the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) witnessed a viral Internet phenomenon. One seemingly innocuous photo from the Bralorne Pioneer Museum in central British Columbia, hosted on our servers in a virtual exhibition exploded online. From one post on, the image radiated across the web through personal blogs, popular news sources like and, and across "traditional” social media networks. International media outlets were requesting information and interviews, and web-savvy entrepreneurs were asking for high resolution copies of the photo hoping to be the first to solve the mystery and capitalize on the image.  CHIN’s Business Development and Marketing team followed the story online for months, an exercise which was instrumental in helping the organization develop a more comprehensive and integrated social media strategy beyond traditional channels and social media applications.

While CHIN watched the VMC visitation statistics climb exponentially, at the same time, it also recognized that sometimes what is put online can move out of a museum’s control, and that institutions may be sceptical in their approach to social media. In this case, as our intellectual property moved further out into the Web, the further it became its own brand, removed from both CHIN and the Bralorne Museum. This is particularly poignant in this era where the jury is still out on fair use and the posting of full resolution images online. Any museum would welcome this flood of conversational capital, but to monitor this wave and try to bring it back to the institution’s name can become an unexpected human resource cost and a frustrating exercise. Most importantly, the organization-models of larger institutions often do not allow museums to move at the speed of the conversations around them in social media channels, and keeping up with this minute-by-minute pace can be challenging.

This paper presents the mystery of the "1940s Time Traveller" as a case study in viral phenomena and social media, and their potential implications for and impact on museums and cultural institutions. Should museums remain focused on ownership and copyright, or would their collections and knowledge be put to better and broader use by opening up? It also explores online museum marketing in an era where the phrase "I Can Has Cheezburger?” can launch million dollar online companies, an aftershave ad campaign can crash YouTube, and a photo can propel a small community museum to international recognition.


Le mystère du « Voyageur dans le temps des années 1940 » : Le nouveau visage de la surveillance en ligne d’une marque

David Harkness, Sheila Carey, Julie Marion, Réseau canadien d’information sur le patrimoine (RCIP), Canada


Cet article se sert du mystérieux « voyageur dans le temps des années 1940 » comme toile de fond pour procéder à une étude de cas sur les phénomènes viraux et leurs retombées et conséquences potentielles sur les musées et les établissements culturels. Une approche efficace et globale de la surveillance d’une marque nécessite d’être à l’écoute des commentaires générés par le public. Bien que ces conversations puissent être lancées par l’entremise d’activités marketing, elles peuvent aussi survenir spontanément et évoluer rapidement. Une surveillance appropriée devrait s’effectuer parallèlement à ces conversations, et non être à leur remorque. L’étude examine les préoccupations d’ordre muséologique se rapportant à la perte de contrôle de la propriété intellectuelle pouvant survenir en ligne. Elle s’intéresse aussi au marketing des musées à une époque où une phrase comme « Donne-moi une Pop-Tart! » fait vider les tablettes des supermarchés, une campagne publicitaire pour une marque de lotion après‑rasage peut faire planter YouTube et une simple photo peut apporter une renommée internationale à un petit musée communautaire.         

Mots‑clés: Surveillance d’une marque, image de marque, marketing viral, Musée virtuel du Canada, Web social, droit d’auteur, capital conversationnel 

Cet article sera disponible dès le 7 avril 2011 sur le site Web Échange professionnel du RCIP | This article will be available in French at CHIN's Professional Exchange website after April 7, 2011.


Paper - in formal session


david.harkness's picture
David Harkness is the Community Marketing Advisor at the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). He is responsible for the promotion and support of the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) to the public and to the museum and heritage community. Prior to CHIN, he was involved in a number of large-...
scarey's picture
Sheila Carey is an Audience and Program Analyst with the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), where she has worked since 1998. Sheila is in the Research and Business Intelligence group, where she researches audience behaviour and needs in order to support the development and redevelopment...
marionj's picture
Julie Marion is Manager, Business Development and Marketing at the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). Prior to joining the network in 2010, Julie worked for 10 years at the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation and was responsible for the marketing and branding function. Of note,...

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