We live in a world where social media is hard to escape. Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, amongst countless other platforms, have rapidly transformed the world in which we live. With this, the way we consume, experience and perceive art and museum collections has also changed. Traditionally spaces have banned photography for fear of damaging precious pieces, violating copyright or to simply protect the atmosphere. It is now not only allowed, but often actively encouraged by museums and galleries. While many of us may still feel awkward whipping out a phone in the middle of such a space, industry marketing strategies have evolved to not only capitalise on visitor posts, but actively curate shows with social media in mind.

But what do museums and galleries look like in this digital age? The desire for content has contributed to the recent success of ‘experiences’ within the industry, where exhibitions are judged for their ‘Instagramability’ and how well they photograph. The general rule appears to be the more aesthetic or interesting the exhibition, the more traction it receives, with the worldwide success of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms (there are currently 838k photos with the tag #yayoikusama on Instagram) or the Guggenheim’s America (a golden toilet recently stolen from Blenheim Palace after 100,000 people waited to use it) often used as prime examples. 

Even more interestingly, made-for-Instagram museums are gaining in popularity (and perhaps notoriety). The Museum of Ice Cream, which has spread to four US cities, takes advantage of the contemporary obsession with content creation and that, according to their website, aims to design “environments that foster IRL interaction and URL connections” that “cater to the appetites of our generation”. Owing to the dominance of millennial pink, unicorns and sprinkle pools, as well as the brand’s 393k Instagram followers, MOIC is arguably more of a Willy Wonka-style museum of photo opportunities than of ice cream education.

More traditional museums and art galleries have also evolved into sites of social media innovation and are developing exciting digital marketing strategies or inserting it into new or permanent exhibitions to enhance the storytelling process. As well as simply allowing photography and posting engaging promotional content (check out the Museum of English Rural Life’s Twitter account), curators are now considering how exhibits can be engaged with to allow for maximum social media impact, such as through interactivity, aesthetics and photo opportunities. One example of this is #SocialMedium by Seattle’s Frye Art Museum who asked their followers to curate a show by liking their favourite artworks across its social media channels. Engagement was high, and comments from a number of the ‘citizen curators’ were displayed alongside each piece. 

But should curators be planning exhibitions for maximum social media impact and hype, and what are the pros and cons of society’s social media addiction in the cultural world? In the current climate, funding decisions are very much a numbers game, with the success of each exhibition judged by how many visitors it receives. The more online traction a museum or art gallery gets, the more people are exposed to what it has to offer, hopefully translating into an increase in visitor numbers and securing the venue’s funding future. Similarly, social media has the power to break boundaries by bringing a museum’s mission, messages and content to an audience that may not be able to physically enter the building. I lived vicariously through social media during the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, which sold out unprecedentedly quickly, and during the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Wonder, where attendance posed some obvious logistical issues. By sharing a piece of art that made you think, or an artefact with a history or story you found interesting, social media also allows visitors to connect with art and collections in a meaningful way. 

But perhaps social media is just another burden that stretched budgets and staff have to consider when planning exhibits. Many would argue collections should always be at the centre of these spaces and by putting too much emphasis on attracting social media attention, audiences may be pushed into thinking about getting the perfect picture rather than experiencing the exhibition in real time. Perhaps we are at danger of sacrificing education, engagement and storytelling, which may change the meaning of these spaces too dramatically. We’ve all experienced the annoyance of entering a gallery or exhibition to see only camera phones or people posing, and there are many reported stories of visitors taking selfies or trying to find the perfect photo opportunity only to end up damaging priceless artworks or artefacts. 

Social media has undoubtedly changed the way we interact with art and museum collections. It is clear that while some caution should be taken when considering social media’s place within the cultural sector, museums would be foolish to not actively think about it when planning, curating and marketing exhibits in our current age. Yes, visitors should be respectful when using social media to avoid negatively impacting the experiences of others, but how people decide to experience art and museums should be at their own discretion. Judging the digital habits of others justifies accusations of snobbery and elitism towards the sector, and if social media encourages the participation of those who may not traditionally engage with the industry, then surely it’s a step in the right direction.

Featured image: George Tuli 

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