Bringing History to New Audiences
By Sarah Hojsak
September 16, 2022
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) has over 20 million items in its collection, and Emma Hirt's job is to explore them all.
As HSP’s Programs Assistant Co-op, the senior global studies major has spent the last six months working on communications and social media for the Center City-based organization, as well as assisting with their educational and member programs.
Working alongside the HSP’s Programs and Communications Coordinator, Hirt searches for interesting stories and writes about them in a way that’s engaging to the general public. She finds inspiration for social media posts throughout the vast collection.
"I have freedom to look wherever in the collection I'd like to look," Hirt said. "My supervisors are good at asking me what I’m interested in historically and making sure I get to look at things I think are really interesting and write about them."
This July, Hirt helped develop a social media campaign for National Ice Cream Month focused on the history of ice cream in Philadelphia.
"It started as a very simple thing, and it turned into this really huge social media campaign," Hirt said. "We didn’t realize how much we had that related to [ice cream] and we just kept finding stuff in the collection. It was like a snowball effect."
Hirt dove into research for the campaign, writing blog posts about what she found and sharing it on social media. HSP already had a well-rounded social media presence, but Hirt brought her own social savvy to the table to build an audience on the one platform they were missing—TikTok.
TikTok allows HSP to reach a new, younger crowd, and its attention-grabbing format fosters engagement. Still, Hirt didn’t expect the account to take off in the way it has, garnering over 3,000 followers and 61,000 likes so far.
Hirt’s strategy is to tell a story that makes the audience hungry for more. That was how she approached sharing a startling find about a nearly 200-year-old murder involving the owner of Woods Confectionary, an ice cream shop that was located on Chestnut Street in the early 19th century.
The video currently has over 300,000 views on TikTok, and was even featured in Philly Voice. Many commenters wanted to hear more details, so Hirt created a follow-up with a deeper dive into the backstory. Additional TikToks she’s created take viewers on a tour of the HSP and show more pieces from the collection.
HSP is known for its genealogical research resources—it contains one of the largest family history collections on the east coast—but it also has a host of workshops and programming for students, educators, researchers and anyone interested in history. Still, it’s mostly older generations who take advantage of everything the organization has to offer.
With social media, Hirt explained, "our goal is to engage younger generations in the stuff that we have...because we do have like a lot of really, really cool stuff in the collection."
Hirt chose to major in global studies because she entered college with an interest in international relations, but has found that the wide-ranging program allows room for interdisciplinary exploration.
"It’s very culturally engaging," Hirt said. "I study...political science, international relations, history and even science. I like that it's a hodgepodge of all these different things."
As she enters her last year at Drexel, Hirt reflects on her three co-op experiences, which have allowed her to get a feel for different careers.
"[Some] people pick a co-op they think will be better experience-wise over a co-op they think they’d enjoy more, which I understand, because the point of the co-op is for work experience,” Hirt noted. "But I also think that if you're looking for a co-op and see something that you think you’ll enjoy doing for six months, that’s also beneficial."
Hirt previously completed co-ops at the National Board of Medical Examiners and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, but her experience at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has been her favorite, and has made her consider a career in the museum field after grad school.
"There are other co-ops that on paper looked more like what I thought I wanted to do," Hirt said. "But I'm definitely glad that I took this experience and know more about what I could possibly do in the future with this kind of work."