When the pandemic forced the Sacramento Museum of History to shut its doors in March 2020, staff members were searching for a way to stay relevant.
Inspired by other museums’ work, staffer Jared Jones proposed trying something many of his colleagues had never even heard of: TikTok.
“Most of us in the meeting at the time thought, well, that’s just for dancing, and you're crazy,” said Delta Pick Mello, executive director and CEO of the museum. “The sound of the rolling of eyes was loud.”
But the staff decided to give it a shot.
Within a year, the museum had more than one million followers.
Jones, who has since acquired the role of digital content coordinator, is the mastermind behind the channel. At first, his videos performed modestly. Then came Howard Hatch, or as he is known to his legion of fans, simply “Howard”.
Hatch is an octogenarian docent who has volunteered at the museum for 22 years. In a few short videos, he became a globally famous TikTok star, and the museum’s not-so-secret weapon.
On camera, Hatch sports a denim apron adorned with a “CA Grown” pin, thin wiry spectacles and a gentlemanly demeanour. He comes across as a clear outsider, and his own disbelief at the channel’s success just might be its biggest appeal.
In the videos, Hatch generally begins by hand rolling a brayer printing tool over globs of sticky, jet-black ink, walking viewers through the process of using a printing press while relaying tidbits of history. These videos routinely rack up millions of hits.
His catchphrase: “I just don’t get it!”
But whether Hatch “gets it” or not, his viewers certainly do.
Through a perfect algorithmic storm, @SacHistoryMuseum has drawn more than 1.6 million followers – about the population of Sacramento county – and its videos have received a combined 18 million likes and 108 million views.
Hatch’s appeal is encapsulated in the channel’s most popular video, which has garnered more than 25 million views, and which Jones credits with making the account truly viral. In the video, Hatch repeats his tagline (“I still just don’t get it!”) as he prints a newspaper front page with the museum’s 170-year-old press.
In the end, he holds up the finished product, which reads, “Sacramento History Museum reaches 610,000 TikTok followers”. He averts his gaze from the camera and gives into a bashful smile. A star is born.
So far the channel has produced over 300 videos, most of which feature Hatch demonstrating the museum’s exquisitely preserved pieces and explaining their historical significance. Unlike many popular TikToks, these clips seldom feature popular sounds, hysterics, or mainstream trends.
Rather, they’re a mix of the relaxing sensation known as ASMR, information and character. They’re #asmr; they’re #oddlysatisfying, they’re #edu-tainment. They combine everything the TikTok algorithm loves: esoteric information, communicated succinctly by a lovable face.
Pre-pandemic, Hatch spent his time at the museum giving presentations in the print shop. When Jones proposed the TikTok idea, Howard had a simple question.
“‘What is TikTok?’ Those were the first words out of his mouth,” said Jones. “And I told him, ‘For the life of me, Howard, don’t go home and go on TikTok’. And what did he do when he got home?”
“I went home and on my computer... put in TikTok,” Howard recalled. “And I got a bunch of crazy people dancing and gyrating around!”
Initially, Hatch refused to participate. But with some cajoling, Jones convinced him to segment his thirty-minute presentation into thirty-second, scroll-friendly chunks. Quickly, it became clear that they had a hit on their hands.
“We shot a couple of things and posted it and all of a sudden... I guess the term is, we got traction, or something like that,” Hatch said.
Jones, who himself has appeared in several of the TikToks, clearly understands his leading man’s appeal.
“I mean, you can’t hate Howard. He is probably the most wholesome individual you’ve ever met,” Jones said. “He gets here at 7.30 in the morning, and he’s out of here by 11 o’clock so he can go home and have lunch with his wife. This is just his routine in his retirement.”
Hatch landed at the Sacramento History Museum after a career working for Aerojet and, later, fixing cars. (“The Reader’s Digest version is, I started life as a rocket scientist and ended up as an auto mechanic,” Hatch explains). After his retirement – and his wife’s gentle suggestion that he “go out and find something to do” – a friend introduced him to the museum, and suggested he put his mechanical skills to work by fixing the museum’s Linotype machine.
Hatch says there was a steep learning curve. But after borrowing a book from the Sacramento Public Library, he was able to teach himself to use the antique technology, repair the machine, and begin his docent career. After decades of educating his community as a volunteer, he has found the TikTok channel has presented a larger classroom than he ever could have imagined.
Hatch sums up his feelings about his newfound fame with a characteristically vintage adage: “I like to say, ‘I still put my pants on one leg at a time and my hat still sits down on my head, like it’s supposed to’.”
Unsurprisingly, Hatch isn’t a TikTok user. In fact, his flip phone wouldn’t even support the app. He prides himself on making content that differs from the usual For-You-Page fare, the “crazy people dancing and gyrating” that scared him away when he first looked into the platform.
“I like to think we really contrast with the typical TikTok,” he said. “We’re very straightforward. Very family friendly.”
When he does feel like checking in on the TikToks, Hatch accesses the museum’s page through a bookmark on his home desktop computer. Even then, he avoids the comments. It’s Jones’ job to wade through that section, where most comments, he says, consist of young fans professing “how much they love Howard or that they’d die for Howard, that we’re supposed to protect Howard at all costs...”
“Yeah, well, there’s no accounting for taste,” said Hatch.
His fame has helped the museum ease back into normal life, now getting plenty of visitors, many of whom come in asking for the famous docent. Some are starstruck when they see him. When he’s not in (“I don’t live down here, although some people think so,” Hatch said), visitors are greeted by a larger-than-life-sized cardboard “flat Howard”. And when he is in, visitors often don’t know what to do with themselves.
How does Hatch feel about his success?
"He's pleased by it," said Mello. "But he is also very, very careful. He does not want to be a gimmick. He believes in what he does. He doesn't want to come off as ridiculous or goofy or you know, anything like that. He's passionate about the medium of prints."
Hatch seems comfortable with all the attention, or at least comfortable with tolerating it — as long as the views result from his earnest efforts to bring knowledge to the TikTok community. And by the looks of it, that's exactly the case.
"What is the irony of all of this... is the fact that we are projecting a communication medium that is hundreds of years old onto a platform that is brand new," Mello said. "We're bringing in an older man, who's bringing this topic to a younger generation... It's that juxtaposition that we think is very much a part of the formula of success."
"It's like the trifecta," Jones agreed. "You have Howard, who is an older gentleman on an app that is usually for young people... and he's using really old equipment... to print something for a modern platform."
The videos of Hatch are almost always sans-music, a rarity for an app dependent on the use of a constant treadmill of trending audios. But Hatch doesn't do that. And by eschewing these traditional attempts at virality, the videos attain a sort of elegance: Hatch doesn't seem to really want to be viral. And this nonchalance makes the videos stand out on a platform where so many are desperately clamouring for attention.
Only 65% of the museum's followers come from the United States. Ten percent are European, and the rest are dispersed around the world.
"We are reaching people that'll never be able to see our museum in person," Jones said. "We are reaching people wherever they are and sharing the history – not only printing, but Sacramento history and what makes our city so great. And Howard's the person that has helped put our museum on the map." – The Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service