Title:The Mystery of the ‘1940s Time Traveller’: The Changing Face of Online Brand Monitoring
Authors:David Harkness, Sheila Carey, Julie Marion
Publication:MW2011: Museums and the Web 2011

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" target="_blank">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.