A museum in the Land of the Midnight Sun turns to social media to tell the story of the 1913 climbing expedition to the summit of Mount Denali. A long lost artifact is discovered in a descendant’s basement—and distant relatives connect online.  

Alaska is famous for its natural beauty and abundant natural resources. But with vastness combined with low population (710,23, or 1.2 people per square mile as of the 2010 Census), Alaskans have become experts in long distance communication.

More than in other regions, social media plays a fundamental role in the everyday life of businesses and institutions up north, as I recently learned on a trip to The Land of the Midnight Sun representing the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco.

A good example of Alaskan ingenuity comes from the Museum of the North, at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. They recently opened Denali Legacy: 100 Years on the Mountain, an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first climbers to summit the mountain’s peak.

For the exhibit’s guest curator, Angela Linn, finding the right objects to tell the tale was no easy task. Nobody knew which artifacts had survived ravages of time or where they could be found. Social media to the rescue.

Linn and Museum Media Coordinator Theresa Bakker used the museum’s Facebook page as a jumping off point. They also created a blog to document how the exhibit came together and interact with followers.

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“Social Media really helped throwing the word out there that the museum was looking for objects related to the first climb of Denali,” said Linn.

Bakker added, “[The exhibit’s presence on social media] really created a hype around it, constantly reminding people of our mission. Descendants of family members of the first ascendant team from all over the country contacted us and wanted to be part of the exhibition.”

The museum’s social media channels also built trust and solidarity with the families of the climbers, and offer a way for visitors to connect with the museum and its curators on a personal level—even with each other. Linn’s personal blog actually connected long lost family members.

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Crowdsourcing museum content isn’t limited to historical exhibits. The museum’s Jill Stockbridge and Derek Sikes, Curator of Insects and Associate Professor of Entomology, used social media to figure out that a mysterious insect he discovered in Southeast Alaska was actually a new species.

“Museums, especially those mandated to do research, often forget that it’s ok not to know all the answers to the questions. Social media can be a useful tool to help you get out of a dead end,” said Linn.

At the Museum of the North—where visitors can tag their photos with the stuffed Grizzly (#OttoBear), and share them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—the institution was able to completely embrace the advantages that social media offers.

In the past it was a major challenge to effectively communicate and do research in the sparsely populated state. Nowadays, the isolation almost makes the sense of community formed on social channels that much stronger. Public organizations should take a lesson from the museum in how to turn a weakness into an advantage.

Some stories of how the Denali Legacy exhibit came together through social media: