Curating for the Digital Age

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.

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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:

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Some Snapchat followers have gone as far as to praise LACMA via Twitter:

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Another recent Snapchat proselyte, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, posts a weekly emoji art history lesson:

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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:

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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.

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So how can museums take steps to increase their reach?

  1. 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?

10 comments

  1. Love the post! I guess you decided not to use this topic for your presentation, but it would have been a good one! (If you do use it, just be sure to concentrate on different information). Nice and different angle on digital impact in an industry you don’t normally think of.

  2. laurencondon23 · ·

    This is a really interesting post! It seems as if museums have had no choice but to embrace social media tactics to appeal to the younger demographic. However, as a museum goer I have come to despise the ever present selfie sticks being used at exhibits. I feel that it really detracts from the experience of others trying to view the work, but I wonder how those who run the museums regard them. Are they encouraging selfie taking because they have to despite this bothering them? or are they indifferent?

  3. This is an excellent post on a very unexpected topic, loved it! It was cool to see how some of these museums are using SM in a very organic way (with emojis and memes) to reach to the target demographic and it looks like they are doing a great job.

    I have also noticed a lot of installations from modern art museums become somewhat viral on Instagram, and I think a lot of the museums nowadays are relying on creating these “instragrammable” pieces in order to attract a younger demographic. In a sense, what they really need is one big attraction piece to make sure people set foot in the museum, and these pieces do the job perfectly. Of course, not everyone will pay attention to the rest of the museum, but some might (and the museum still makes money on the tickets sold).

  4. What a great post! I found this really interesting, especially because I visited many museums last year when I studied abroad. One part of museums I always disliked was large tour groups because sometimes I found myself stuck in back where I missed important, interesting points. I think social media could be incorporated further into museum tours by having people Snapchat pictures of certain works with filters displaying fun facts about that piece. I really liked what you said about the importance of tracking the user because I have never thought about that aspect before. I think it’s really interesting to be able to measure different paths people take through exhibits, and I agree that GPS tracking would help improve people’s journeys.

  5. This is such an interesting topic you picked! As an avid art lover, I fully believe art exhibits could never really be captured through pictures. Therefore, I really hope social media will end up bolstering popular support for (rather than eliminating) art in museums.

  6. dcardito13 · ·

    This was a great post to discuss because the impact of social media on museums is definitely an overlooked topic of conversation. I feel that in order for museums to sustain a great enough audience in today’s day and age, management definitely needs to adapt to the technological changes. Being that I do not frequently visit museums, I feel that the social media component would definitely attract me to engage and attend more regularly due to the increase virtual engagement. On the other hand, I can definitely see how social media can take away from the authenticity of the art portrayed in the museums, so a happy-medium must be sought out.

  7. DanKaplan · ·

    Great post! The museums that Boston College has are very underrated and are definitely something I look forward to visiting more frequently prior to graduation. With all the digital entertainment that is available today, museums are often overlooked. It is great to see them adapt to the times by utilizing services such as Twitter to reach a wider audience. it is amazing to see how social media is impacting all aspects of our society in a way rarely seen before.

  8. Sounds like a tricky balance between reaching audiences through their preferred platforms without trivializing art. I wonder how the push for instagrammable art affects curators’ choices and whether this is pandering or strategic. From a business perspective, it’s certainly clear that social media outreach is not optional these days.

  9. Fascinating how phone cameras are the lense through which we witness so much. As someone who visits museums and galleries frequently it is fascinating how exhibitions must cater to the social media world whether it be by encouraging photos/filters/hashtags or curating exhibits that are “Instagram worthy” backdrops for people’s photos.
    It would be great to also get artists’ opinions on the photographing of their works. Robert Irwin is well known for not allowing his works to be photographed. On the other end of the spectrum is Richard Prince.#WellDone

  10. I never knew this existed but it has made me want to follow all these museums ASAP! As someone who is a Communications major with a focus in social media and digital marketing, I think every business has the opportunity to use these tools towards their advantage. I think it is very clever for the museums to take on a more humorous voice because it appeals to the younger generation that follows them. Museums are often seen as areas of interest for primarily older people so using social media targets a new audience and widens their reach!! Loved the post :)

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