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How Carnegie Museum of Natural History rose to online fame on a tide of snail jokes

Through TikTok and Instagram Reels, resident mollusk expert Tim Pearce has helped the museum expand its digital following during the pandemic with his punny jokes and research explainers alike.

Tim Pearce leads a tour of the museum's mollusk collection.

(Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

Thanks to the internet, Tim Pearce is getting used to strangers asking him, “Are you that guy?!”

When the pandemic forced all nonessential businesses and services to fully close in March of last year, places like museums and other educational institutions that relied heavily on in-person revenue started to turn online.

That’s what the Carnegie Museum of Natural History did, turning its new TikTok account into a hub for short videos featuring jokes, behind the scenes research or do-it-yourself home activities for viewers to try during the early lockdown days of the pandemic. Since launching its account in early January 2020, the museum has amassed over 320,ooo followers with a total of over 4.5 million likes across all of its videos. A May 2020 partnership with TikTok through the Creative Learning Fund also helped grow the Carnegie’s following by allowing it to bring even more online content to viewers across the world.

But much of the account’s popularity is thanks to Pearce, the head of the Section of Mollusks at the museum, who is perhaps better known for his snail joke videos posted on TikTok and Instagram Reels every Monday.

“Tim has long had kind of a cult following among museum members and visitors,” said Sloan MacRae, director of marketing at the museum.

@carnegiemnh

Did you accidentally call me on your shell phone? #MolluskMonday #SnailJoke #SnailTikTok #Snailfacts

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♬ original sound – CMNH

Prior to the pandemic, Pearce offered tours of the Carnegie’s mollusk collection — a behind-the-scenes feature that isn’t normally accessible with a general admissions ticket.

“He would just appear on the floor with like a conch shell, and gather people, visitors and they would just come with him,” said MacRae. “And of course, the jokes were one of the things about the tour that made it memorable.”

Those jokes quickly found a home online, with the fifth TikTok garnering nearly 2 million plays for a Michelle Obama-themed snail pun.

“We didn’t know it but it was Michelle Obama’s birthday when we posted that — like she was already sort of trending and that just galvanized us,” said MacRae.

@carnegiemnh

#fyp #naturalhistorymuseum #pittsburgh #obama #michelleobama #snail

♬ original sound – CMNH

Since then, the Carnegie has religiously posted clips of Pearce’s snail jokes every Monday for what it now refers to as #MolluskMonday. And even though MacRae acknowledged that social media views don’t always directly lead to increased visitor levels, he also said that the museum has had its best July on record in terms of attendance (though, sure, the rainy weekends may have been a factor, too).

"Be open to your assets. Different people can be different brand ambassadors."
Sloan MacRae, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Nonetheless, the Carnegie’s brand awareness has grown exponentially since the museum launched its TikTok and Reels presence a year and a half ago. Within that success, MacRae added, there’s a lesson to be learned by other institutions looking to boost their online presence.

“Be open to your assets — different people can be different brand ambassadors,” he said, noting that while Pearce and other popular museum figures on social media might not be the CEOs or museum directors, they can often have a wholesome authenticity that appeals to visitors on a more personal level.

Technical.ly met up with Pearce for our own mollusk tour this week — snail jokes and all. Read our conversation with the museum’s most popular online figure below. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Technical.ly: Before the pandemic, how did you get museum visitors to learn more about the mollusk collection here?

Tim Pearce: I don’t actually share any door with a public hall, so it’s a little bit difficult. But before the pandemic, I used to have public days, once a month, the second Saturday. And so there were meeting places, but rarely did anybody go there to meet me. I would have to kidnap people. It was like a behind-the-scenes tour, so I would bring people down here and show them some cool things in the collection.

I feel very strongly that the public needs to know, the museum has collections — not just what you see, but we have huge research collections. And the second thing is, we do research! This is where the information that you read in your textbook comes from. So I felt strongly that that’s important. This was my one-man way of trying to get the information out there. And people used to love it. They would say, “This is the best part of my museum experience.”

So when those tours weren’t possible anymore, how did you start to bring some of that online?

That was actually Sloan’s idea. He knew that I tell jokes. Also, he might have heard something [about how] we were doing a survey of snails on the California islands. And it’s really pretty cool, because we almost doubled the number of species known on one of those islands.

[On one island] there’s this house there — unoccupied, but it’s livable. And so [my friend] said, “This would be the perfect place if you needed two months to focus on writing a manuscript or something. Nobody would bother you.” And I thought, well, I could write a book. Or maybe [my friend] said, “Tim, you should write a book.” And I said, “Well, what am I going to write it on? One thousand and one snail jokes?”

And that sounded like a good idea. So that was the beginning. Ever since then, I started writing down all the jokes I could. I just passed 365. So I could write a joke-of-the-day calendar.

@carnegiemnh

Happy MolluskMonday! 🐌SnailTikTok

♬ original sound – CMNH

I saw that one of your recent joke videos had over 200,000 views, which is exciting! I guess it’s hard to really know how people are responding other than the likes and views, but have you gotten any kind of outreach from guests since starting these? I know they’ve made me more excited about mollusks.

I try to sneak little fun facts in there. I feel like I’m educating people. You know, one of my goals was to make mollusks — or even just science or biology — as popular as football. Football is so incredibly popular. I don’t know why. Why can’t we make science that exciting? And there was one point where we had more hits than the Pittsburgh Steelers did.

I come up with the jokes, but I’m not on social media. So I don’t get to read all the comments. I hear that they’re really positive. But I do meet people on the street that say, “Are you that guy?!”

Wow! That’s celebrity status right there.

Yeah, I got off the bus the other day and somebody said, “Are you that guy?!” And then two or three weeks ago, I was actually in Washington, D.C. And we were shopping in the supermarket. And the guy who was helping us check out, he said, “Are you that guy?!” He recognized me by my voice! Because I was wearing a mask. So that’s pretty amazing.

Do you prefer to tell jokes about snails, or do you mix it up with other mollusks, too?

No, I do some other mollusks. You know, why didn’t the clam donate to charity? Because it was a little shellfish!

Or you know abalones? The inside is called mother of pearl, the same material that pearls are made of. Something about abalone is that the scientific name for mother of pearl is nacre. So the joke is that out there in California, you can buy abalone for about $10 an acre.

Or, what do you get when you cross the crocodile and the abalone? A crock of baloney!

The museum’s mollusk collection. (Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History)


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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