Around the world, museums have begun to harness social media to increase engagement and create new interactive experiences for visitors. The increasing importance of digital strategy represents a shift in the ways museums serve as trusted cultural networks, disseminate knowledge to the public, and perceive their role as stewards of educational content. This movement towards recontexualizing the museum experience through blogs, vlogs, virtual reality, and social networking provides an outlet for museums to engage people with their collections and ideally encourage a bilateral dialogue in which people can react in real-time and share information easily. As a consequence, museums directors and curators are forced to consider how technology changes the way people engage with exhibits. Instead of fighting the omnipresence of the smartphone, some institutions (including the Met, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Boston College McMullen Museum, among others) are embracing social applications to convey the message that the museum can be highly compatible with the modern digital age.
Museums offer unique exposure to a diverse set of collections and research, and social media has the power to capture content and render it more accessible. At the McMullen Museum, there is an entire committee dedicated to social media and the team has adopted not one, not two, but five social platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Blog) to serve as both exploratory resources and as a vehicle for spreading the word about events, programming, and exhibition highlights. Many museums (including the LA County Museum of Art, the Met, and the MFA Boston) find that Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat are the primary ways to reach younger demographics particularly since 46.8% of Snapchat users are between the ages of 18 and 24 as of last December.
Skeptics could make the argument that to unite an object from antiquity that has stood the test of time with a photo that vanishes in less than 10 seconds seems contradictory, but this is the approach that several museums are taking. Los Angeles County Museum of Art created a Snapchat account that now has 160,000 followers and features images with humorous captions:
Some Snapchat followers have gone as far as to praise LACMA via Twitter:
Another recent Snapchat proselyte, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, posts a weekly emoji art history lesson:
As was the case with BC’s McMullen Museum last semester for the Medieval Manuscript exhibition, the Instagram profile was designed to communicate parts of the show that were not immediately discernible to the general public. Below is a screenshot of the winning word-bubble submission contest:
This particular example served as a tool to help invite and engage with difficult-to-reach audiences and promote the image of the museum as an inclusive, inviting space. What’s more, social media allows museums to showcase stories of the behind the scenes curation and offer glimpses into exhibition development.
So how can museums take steps to increase their reach?
Track the user – Measure the impact
In 2009, the Cleveland Museum of Art decided to use social media as a way to track and analyze visitors’ paths through its gallery. This led to the discovery that, rather than following the curators’ prescribed trajectory through the collection, visitors navigated the gallery randomly hopping from one piece to another, depending on what interested them. Going forward, incorporating GPS technology that would allow visitors to plot their journey through galleries–similar to how people plan their commute on Google Maps—could mark the end of getting lost in the Greco-Roman wing or flipping through the brochure in search of a particular Picasso portrait.
2. Generate Interactive Opportunities
At the National Gallery of Denmark (also known as the Statens Museum for Kunst –SMK), visitors were invited on “Instawalks” — small group gatherings at the museum before opening hours where people could capture and share photos tagged with #emptysmk.
The result provided photos that exposed different visual perspectives inside the museum:
Another step some museums have taken are selfie installations where visitors are encouraged to take selfies with the works of art. In 2013, the Pompidou in Paris granted guests to take photos of themselves seated on the lip-shaped sofa at the center of Salvador Dali’s re-creation of Mae West’s face.
3. Revise & Adapt the SM Game-Plan
The primary factor that sets well-adapted museums apart is their conscious effort to reflect on their experiences, and continuously acclimatize their social media strategy with the needs of visitors and the museum. Actions taken by the museums described above may not be universally effective across all institutions, but they provide an example for museums looking to increase reach and engagement.
Where are the implications for social media in museums going forward?
Endorsing the use of smartphones could mean that more art galleries will design and curate Instagram-friendly exhibitions. According to Dana Miller, the Director of the Whitney’s permanent collection,
“The ways in which people are interacting with works have changed, and so that changes, a little bit, the way we space the works.”
Despite the fact that social media can help advance museums in their efforts to nurture community involvement and public engagement, digital networks can pose various challenges. For example, user-fixation characteristic of the social media world feeds into a “customer is always right” mindset which can be a threat to the authority of scholarly insights in favor of visitor gratification. Due to the fact that social media involves different platforms of communication, this can be a challenge for the established authority of one single museum voice. Therefore, how to monitor, manage, and balance professional insight with public dialogue is an urgent managerial strategy to consider. According to a survey published by Invaluable, more people in the U.S. now discover art via Instagram and Pinterest than they do by actually visiting exhibitions. They found that 84% of Americans visit art galleries or museums less than once a year, and 15% claim they never go. If these cultural venues plan to attract a larger, more widespread audiences, they will need to embrace at least some facets of social media. Given that the social media learning curve operates as a moving target, museums with a reputation for being set in their ways will have to be mindful of the risks that come with delayed adaptation.
So, what do you think? Is social media likely to render brick and mortar venues for art obsolete? Are people going to opt to scroll through the Louvre’s Instagram feed instead of wandering through its galleries? Or could this be the start of an entirely new frontier for the role of museums in cultural exchange?