Four Things Museums Can Learn From Sharknado

Image courtesy of Mashable

Image courtesy of Mashable

This is not a paid endorsement for The SyFy Channel. In fact, I understand that SyFy isn’t for everyone – just like C-SPAN and Powerblock TV isn’t for everyone.

Poster courtesy of IMDb (

Poster courtesy of IMDb

I’m a sucker for SyFy movies. As someone who lives and breathes history, which I find incredibly exciting (and at times exhilarating), the thing about history is that it isn’t always so happy. That being said, there is always something to be learned from history, a silver lining (no matter how small or seemingly unimportant), and the repercussions of history cannot be argued. While it’s hard for a history lover for me to admit, I completely acknowledge (and agree) that history can be a downer. After a long day of reading about chattel slavery, the civil war, segregation, genocide, etc., I truly appreciate a bizarre SyFy film.

So, why am I talking about SyFy films?

If you missed the cultural phenomenon that is Sharknado last week, you missed a real treat. I think museums could learn a thing or two from this phenomenon.

The movie poster itself is enough to make one smile. But honestly, I had a great evening with my friends, laughing and watching a couple of 90s stars try to survive a tornado hurling man-eating sharks at the innocent people of Los Angeles. Are you scratching your head yet? You should be. Plot lines like this are what make SyFy movies great. The film will be rebroadcast on the channel this evening at 7pm (check your local listings).

I’m a huge proponent of museums capitalizing on recent events and happenings. And let me tell you, if you don’t already know, Sharknado was HUGE. I don’t know about you, but in the words of my friend Amy, “My Twitter feed has never been so fun.”

With the help and feedback of my coworkers and several museum pros on Twitter, I would like to present…

Four Things Museums Can Learn From Sharknado

1. Often the craziest-sounding ideas are the best! (@adriannerussell)

Whenever anyone from The Asylum or Syfy teams would question if something in the script had gone too far or was too over the top, I’d just say ‘It’s called Sharknado!’ and that pretty much was the end of it. Thunder Levin, Sharknado screenwriter

Why NOT think outside of the box? Museums have a tendency to be risk averse; some more than others. Perhaps it’s the fact(s) that the job market is tight and many museums are understaffed (and possibly facing more cuts), funding is extremely competitive, and if you work in a humanities-focused museum – it can be exhausting to continually argue your importance and contribution to the community. Perhaps it’s because of where our funding (not matter how much or how little) comes from (major gift donors, foundations, and local governments need pleasing and would like to receive a feather in their caps for supporting our good works – because our good works are an extension of themselves). I think it’s fair to assert that this is a stressful time for the field.

Do you know what’s popular during “times of stress”? Zombies.

It’s been refreshing to see museums capitalize on the zombie craze; between The Walking Dead, World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the slew of zombie video games available – our brain-eating, societal reflection counterparts are a cultural staple. From fun runs and walks, to full-on museum programming, I have really enjoyed seeing museums get in on the action.

A few examples are:

What does this look like through the lense of Sharknado? Personally, I would love to see a science center explain the perfect storm of elements needed to lift one shark, let alone hundreds into a tornado. What is the anatomy of a shark? How many sharks (and species of sharks) are in the Pacific Ocean/per square foot? How many sharks would truly be available for a “sharknado”? Could be quite fun!

How about defining the act of being Sharknadoe’d? My co-workers and I took a crack at it at lunch:

Sharknadoe’d: To be overcome by an angry, man-eating shark thrust from the depths of the ocean by a landrophilic water spout

Whether its zombies, sharks, or insects that best fit into your mission and programming, think of something new. Don’t be afraid of experimenting, or failing (failing doesn’t have to be the “f” word of the professional world). How else are we going to find out what works and move forward?

In fact, my advice is: be ok with failure, but don’t assume that every risk is going to fail. The words “new” and “outside the box” do not always equate to falling on your face; sometimes they equate to Sharknado!!!

2. Embrace social media (the good, the bad, the ugly – and the downright silly!)

Twitter users were yelling at the screen, shouting out lines and throwing virtual popcorn. It was great fun. We can do that now with hundreds of thousands of other people all around the world simultaneously. Thunder Levin

Social media is a measure of success. I repeat, social media (activity AND engagement) is a measure of success. If you’re familiar with Museum Minute – you’ve seen me preach this many times. It is no different with Sharknado. While the Nielsen television ratings are modest, the film created a Twitternado! The SyFy Channel said Sharknado was the “most social telecast ever,” with about 5,000 tweets per minute at its peak (SocialGuide measured a total of 318,232 tweets during the broadcast, according to Twitter).

Twitter made Sharknado available to a broad range of people. People with cable, and people without. Those not watching the movie were able to participate, and simply enjoy the conversation. Even celebrities were tweeting about it (Will Wheaton shared a funny Vine video countdown waiting for the Sharknado).

Embrace social. Embrace the positive, the negative, the ugly – and the down right silly. This is feedback. Are you doing a good job? What can be done better? What do people love? What do people hate? What are people sharing? What are people talking about? These are all important things for us to know that can only enhance our work and the way we think of the visitor experience. Thanks, Sharknado.

To read more about how Twitter escalated Sharknado to category F5 social phenomenon (I can’t take credit for this excellent phrase – I’ve seen several articles use various F5 references) check out Twitter’s When a #Sharknado attacks! How the phenomenon happened on Twitter.

3. Crowdsourcing is where it’s at! (@FreshInTheField)

Though the project is not even at the script stage yet, the network greenlit “Sharknado 2” based on the social media whirlwind the original made-for-TV film inspired and the premise of dumping big fish on the Big Apple. Ethan Sacks, New York Daily News

Give the people what they want. SyFy quickly scheduled another viewing of Sharknado for this evening (don’t forget 7pm!) and as of yesterday, they greenlit a sequel (watch out NYC). Yes, another Sharknado is coming (I couldn’t be more thrilled). Also, SyFy has launched a contest to name the Sharknado sequel! How can SyFy fans participate? Through Twitter, of course! Social crowdsourcing. Make your fans part of the process and look for opportunities to engage them where they already are. After last week’s Twitternado it only makes sense that this activity would take place on Twitter.

4. Have fun!

Photo courtesy of Geeks are Sexy (

Photo courtesy of Geeks are Sexy

Every once in a while, there is a perfect storm — on television. The fans are clamoring for a sequel. Or perhaps it will be a prequel. What we can guarantee is that Sharknado 2 will be lots of fun. Thomas Vitale, Executive Vice President of programming and original movies at Syfy

This one is pretty simple.

Make time for fun. For your visitors, for your staff, for your community. Don’t just manufacture it, but allow for  it – create space for it. Let the fun be your engine. Sharknado must have been pretty fun to make, because Tara Reid and Ian Ziering want to be in the sequel. We know it was pretty fun to experience because it accounted for 17% of all the TV-related tweets sent the night it aired.  That happened because people not only enjoyed seeing the movie, but they also enjoyed the act of participating in the watching of the movie. That’s pretty powerful fun, if you ask me.

So, there you have it – four things museums can learn from Sharknado.

Is your museum already inherently taking any of this advice? If not, can you imagine what a Sharknado-inspired program, activity or conversation might look like? For my friends in the natural history museum and science center crowds, especially: has the film sparked any especially entertaining conversations or ideas?

I’d like to give a special shout-out to a few people who made this post possible: Emily Lang and Mark Wahba of the Ohio Historical Society, for carrying on a 45 minute lunch conversation on the science behind Sharknado (that hilarious conversation made me so happy!). And to #MuseumBloggers Adrianne Russell and Cate Bayles for contributing ideas on the take-aways from the film. Y’all rock.

9 thoughts on “Four Things Museums Can Learn From Sharknado

  1. I don’t have cable but my Twitter feed during Sharknado was hysterically funny and entertaining. So many people were live-tweeting it I didn’t feel like I missed a thing. Museums could definitely take a lesson from SyFy about not taking yourself too seriously.

    • I don’t have cable either. As a matter of fact, I don’t know that many people with cable. Hmm. Do you know if Pew has conducted any studies on this? I too giggled at my Twitter feed during the live broadcast of Sharknado. Luckily, I was able to watch the film in all of its glory thanks to a friend’s DVR the following Saturday.

  2. Reblogged this on Wunderkammers and commented:
    While I pack, unpack, pack, and repeat a few times during an especially busy July, I thought I’d share this fun & insightful post from Museum Minute. Even if you haven’t (yet) seen Sharknado, this article nicely sums up some key concepts that museums and all non-profits can easily embrace to better serve audiences. What do you think?

  3. We (Adventure Science Center, Nashville) actually have an adult (21+) night themed to zombies called “Way Late Play Date: Blood Thirsty Thursday.”

    Guests are encouraged to dress the part, and we have a costume contest. To coincide we have floor activities based on zombie science. Disease spreading with glo-powder strategically placed in the building, bone forensics (so you can tell who was Mom and who was Dad…after the apocalypse), the real life zombification of ants and snails, etc.

    And there are adult beverages

    All of our Way Late Play Dates are based on pop culture. We’ve also recently had James Bond (Spyence), Game of Thrones, and tonight is Superheroes & Villains.

    This article nailed it too. Museums and cultural institutions need to keep up with the pulse of cool, or be doomed become a zombie themselves. And, we all know that the living avoid zombies at all costs.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Hawkins. The Way Late Play Dates programming sounds amazing (wish I could be there for the Superheroes & Villains party)! Are these events quarterly? And yes, I totally agree, “Museums and cultural institutions need to keep up with the pulse of cool, or be doomed become a zombie themselves. And, we all know that the living avoid zombies at all costs.” <== very well said!

  5. Pingback: 11 Questions to a Museum Blogger on MuseumBlog/gers Day | Museum Minute

  6. Pingback: Sharknado 2: That Happened (And What Museums Can Learn From It) | Museum Minute

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