Museums, Humor, and Memes

In September 2022, the above meme was discussed in my Digital Public History class. The meme was posted by the Museum of English Rural Life – also known as the MERL. I was familiar with the meme, and I own the mug and the tee shirt to prove it!  

The MERL first appeared on my radar when I noticed a number of my friends who work in various museums started commenting on a series of posts that appeared on the MERL’s Twitter account.

The ‘journey’ was a series of tweets that featured the 1784 mathematics workbook of a 13-year-old boy named Richard Beale. The book contained pages of mathematical equations, but the tweets focused on doodles the made in the margins. There were some curvy designs, a tree, several images of a little black and white dog, and this:

This ‘chicken in pants’ started to circulate amongst museum folk at lightning speed, and museums worldwide started combing through their collections for content related to pant-wearing birds, which they shared in the MERL’s comment section. I remember my initial reaction to the Tweet was that this is the type of museum I wished I could work at. In my experience, most museum workers come armed with a fantastic sense of humor, but it is rarely observed by the general public, let alone flaunted on social media. For the MERL, humor paid off in followers on their social media accounts and branded merchandise that they now sell in their gift shop.

I started actively seeking out other public displays of museum humor and found that memes were being generated and shared among museum workers. Some memes use old photographs to echo universal truths and connect images of the past to issues we deal with today, which is a primary function of historical interpretation. Kids doodling in notebooks is as timeless as bad hair days.

Some memes circle around ‘inside jokes’ related to knowledge of specific periods of history. A person unversed in the Victorian era may not understand the peculiar photographic techniques of the day or understand the shock of flashing an ankle in public. Those in the know would certainly see the humor in these memes.

I’ve even generated a few memes that reflect the places I live and work and how my love of history often collides with contemporary life. For years I commuted to work in Toronto, Ontario, and when I came across this image while surfing through re-enactment pictures, this meme popped into my mind, so I hopped on imgFlip and created it.

When I think back to the best times I have had at work, they often involve laughter and working with people who appreciate the humor in the workplace as much as I do. As illustrated by the MERL, humor can attract new audiences and aid in interpreting history in ways that help connect people to the past by illustrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Museums do not have to be solemn and stuffy; if it’s not on fire, it’s all good.