Dirt: A museum on TikTok remixes historical heritage

The Black Country Living Museum is the most popular on the platform.

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I learned this week that the Black Country Living Museum near Birmingham, England is apparently the most popular museum on TikTok. The museum’s communications manager searched the platform and couldn’t find another museum with more than their 350,000 followers, according to The Guardian. (At the time of writing this they have 413,000.)

This isn’t the open-air museum’s first brush with streaming fame. It was also used as a filming location for the TV series Peaky Blinders. The museum was founded in the late 1970s to teach visitors “how steam power, human ingenuity and an increasingly interconnected world transformed this region into a manufacturing powerhouse.” This cross-section of history focuses on 1850 to 1950.

I visited the museum’s TikTok account and watched all of their videos. The museum speaks the language of the platform — dueting with other museums, using K-Pop soundtracks, and offering the shaky “things in my house” style of home tour that is native to TikTok.

However, the museum’s most popular character also appears sitting by the fire and giving advice directly to the camera, a style of communication that dates back to the fireside chat. In one video with 1.4m views he says, “Some of you are missing your friends and family dearly… even in the darkest night, somebody out there is listenin’.”  

Commenters call him “grandpa,” and his videos are among the most-viewed on the account. It’s a form of historical ASMR, a balm for the alienation viewers feel from the authority figures in their own life. 

The success of The Black Country Living Museum’s account reminded me of a 1990 paper by Ian Hodder called Archaeology and the Post-Modern. Hodder cites a research study by Nick Merriman that demonstrated a “heritage boom” in England: “There has been a doubling of the number of museums in Britain since 1971 and they are currently opening at the rate of one every ten days.” The timeline of this boom lines up with the history of Black Country Living Museum. According to their website, visitor numbers were at 205,000 per year in 1985 and 305,000 in 1990 before attendance fell during the early ‘90s recession. Now, they say attendance increases year over year. 

Hodder ascribes this heritage boom to the social effects of post-modernism. He uses a Sony walkman as his example, but he could easily be describing TikTok when he writes, “the individual subject is cut off, floating free, just another signifier itself fragmented into multiple levels of consciousness… in this decontextualized, ironic world the language of commerce and the commodity are embraced and played with.” 

TikTok is dominated by Gen Z, a generation exhausted by being perceived by everyone but “seen” by no one. The hyper-visibility of this generation is offset by a lack of fixed identity and the romanticization of nihilism, an instinct that is repeatedly prodded at by capital in order to harness the power of an un-actualized, inwardly violent and financially desperate force of workers. 

Gen Z has been presented with two polar opposite relationships to history. The first is history as conservative (in the global sense) catnip, with a nostalgia for hegemony. The latter is history as the source of original sin, the misdeeds of the dominant race, gender, sexuality, sect, or religion that can never be repaired or expunged. 

On TikTok, content is all “cut off, floating free” and “fragmented” in the algorithm. Nonetheless, the Black Country Living Museum offers a third way to the two historical positions I described above. For Gen Z, it is a way of grappling with their identity as a consumer, seeking our authenticity, and as a developing adult looking for a meaningful relationship to tradition and morality. (All evidenced by this BCLM TikTok, history as meme.)

“The past, renamed heritage, is an important arena for working out the opposed claims of our social responsibilities and our de-centered consumer existence,” writes Hodder. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: The heritage boom isn't dead. It isn't even past.