Another press, the Washington hand press, works just as well as it did the day it was manufactured in 1852, Hatch says — with such certainty you’d think he used it back then. The print shop, the century-old presses and the wholesome man who operates them — they all seem impervious to the flow of time.
Not much has changed these days, except that Hatch has an audience around the world watching.
On TikTok, a popular app for sharing short videos, Hatch has gone from beloved local museum docent to — in the words of one online commenter — “a national treasure.” Videos of him explaining the printing process or even simply using the equipment, which doubles as an exhibit, have racked up millions of views in a matter of months. With Howard at the helm, the Sacramento History Museum has become the most popular museum TikTok account in the world, boasting twice as many followers as the population of Sacramento.
Most people associate TikTok with Gen Z, but Hatch is an octogenarian, and the star of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s widely followed account — snail expert Tim Pearce — is a baby boomer. The two men’s charm is not a result of keeping up with the latest memes and trends. Quite the opposite. Neither Hatch nor Pearce, who is known for his “Mollusk Monday” jokes, own a smartphone or send text messages. Pearce calls himself “a technological klutz.”
TikTok users have garnered a reputation for valuing authenticity, but videos on the platform can seem contrived and overproduced. Confessional monologues can sound scripted. Slice-of-life footage often looks rehearsed. For Pearce and Howard, who have spent much more of their lives off-screen than on-, that ever-elusive “authenticity” isn’t an aspiration. It’s simply their default state.
While TikTok has been the site of many online trends related to history — such as medieval TikTok and dark academia — the platform still lacks a significant presence from major U.S. museums. Long before popular international museum accounts, such as the United Kingdom’s Black Country Living Museum or Italy’s Uffizi Galleries, joined the app, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie museum paved the way.
The museum began posting videos in early 2020, and it saw quick success with Pearce, the mollusk curator. For Pearce, who has a cult following in Pittsburgh, being on TikTok has allowed him to get closer to achieving one of his life’s goals: to make mollusks as popular as football. It’s a tall order, but at one point, he notes, the museum’s videos were receiving more hits than those of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There’s no doubt the success has to do with Pearce’s enthusiasm. Wearing a snail-patterned mask, Pearce begins each video the same way: “I’m Tim Pearce from Carnegie Museum of Natural History and I’ve got a snail joke for you!” The way he emphasizes the word “snail” captures an unbridled eagerness as pure as it must’ve been when he started collecting snails as a toddler.
“I’ve always been interested in the underdog,” Pearce says of his affinity for the slimy creatures.
The museum’s account has a nerdy goofiness to it. Stevie Kennedy-Gold, collection manager for amphibians and reptiles, makes occasional appearances, filming from a chamber deep in the museum, full of jars of salamanders and snakes. Sometimes, Kennedy-Gold says, she has to take multiple videos because she gets too excited and trips over her words.
“It’s a job where you get to be like a 5-year-old,” she says. “We get to be like little kids looking at cool things all the time.”
That’s not always the perception from the outside. “Natural history museums can become didactic really quickly,” says Sloan MacRae, director of marketing at the Carnegie museum. TikTok, he says, allows them to show that scientists are approachable — even silly — and that natural history isn’t all dead animals and dioramas. “It gives us some swagger,” he says.
Still, when Jared Jones, a 28-year-old guest-services associate at the Sacramento History Museum, proposed starting a TikTok account, it didn’t go over well. “The sound of eyes rolling around the room was loud,” says Delta Pick Mello, the museum’s executive director.
But the museum was desperate to stay relevant during the pandemic-induced closure, so the staff eventually gave in and opened an account. And Hatch hit his stride on the app not by dancing but by deadpanning.
In one early video, Hatch is printing wanted posters on the hand press. “Can you explain a little bit more about it?” Jones asks. “I would, but I’m really pressed for time,” Hatch replies so matter-of-factly that the pun almost seems unintentional.
As if traveling back in time, Hatch went from working with rockets in the 1950s to fixing cars in the ’70s to operating the museum’s printing presses in the ’90s. For Hatch, a lifelong tinkerer, operating the machinery scratches an itch. “It keeps the mind occupied,” he says. “It’s almost like diagnosing a fault in an automobile.”
There is an undeniable quaintness to Hatch’s videos. He moves the pieces of the press around as he explains print jargon — “pieing,” “quire,” “furniture.” He talks about sayings that come from printing, such as “Mind your Ps and Qs” and “Hot off the press.”
In the background, the mechanical sounds — the paper releasing from the hand press, the hum of the jobbing press — are so precise and crisp, it’s as if you could reach out and touch them.
On TikTok, watching information produced over a minute rather than milliseconds can seem like a revelation. And Hatch’s full-body motions operating clunky machines are a mesmerizing contrast to our fingers flicking across smooth screens.
Mello thinks the popularity of the account, which has continued even after the museum reopened in March, has something to do with such contrasts. “There’s this juxtaposition of an older person with an older medium on a newer way of communicating,” she says.
But it might go even deeper.
“Some of [the Carnegie museum’s] popular personalities are gray-haired, very wholesome, grandparent-like personas,” MacRae says, referring to Pearce and Bonnie Isaac, the botany collection manager. He has spotted online comments along the lines of “Adopt me, Bonnie!” and “Tim, will you marry my mom?”
“There is sort of a nostalgic parental thing going on,” he adds.
Similarly, on the Sacramento videos’ pages, viewers liken Hatch to their grandparents. “Protect Howard at all costs” has become a refrain among commenters, alluding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Whenever the museum reaches a new milestone in followers, Hatch prints a newspaper announcement. As he moves around the print shop on those squeaky floorboards, he shakes his head and says, “I just don’t get it,” which has become a catchphrase. And it’s true — Hatch isn’t keeping track of likes or followers. He’s just working in the print shop, as he has for decades — doing his thing in true 19th-century style and succeeding in the most 21st-century way.
Sometimes, his admission sounds gleeful: “I still don’t get it.” It almost makes you wish you could retreat to the print shop and not “get it” either.