AD 1

What does it meme? When social media becomes part of the museum collection

Arran Rees on how social media can become part of the museum collection. GIFs, memes, hashtags and social media are ubiquitous in contemporary life, but this digital culture is not being adequately reflected in our collections. What happens if we do start collecting it and what is the impact on the way museums have traditionally managed their collections?

About the author: Arran Rees is a PhD student at the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds. Before starting his PhD he worked in collections management and as a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cardiff Story Museum and the Royal Mint Museum with an interest in digital and contemporary collections, and the collections management standards we apply to them.

Before we take on the collecting traditions of the museum, lets first look at what it is I am suggesting we collect and why.

Oprah meme made using

Social media can be many things to many people, but my favourite definition to date has to be one by Amelia Wong. She simply describes them as ‘digitally networked sites that encourage and facilitate social interaction, communication and information exchange.’ Encouraging and facilitating social interaction, communication and information exchange are principles very close the mission of most museums too…

Work has already been undertaken to try and understand the complex ways in which we can preserve social media. The Digital Preservation Coalition released a report in 2016 helpfully called Preserving Social Media which looked at how research and cultural institutions can preserve social media data sets as ‘valuable records of contemporary life’ and as ‘insights to twenty-first century human behaviours and interactions.’ However, whilst the report often mentioned how an archive or library might want to collect this material… what a museum might want to collect was completely left out.

‘y tho’ meme using Pope Leo X (After Raphael) by Fernando Botero, 1964

Why should a museum collect social media?
What is the difference between an archive or library collecting social media data sets and a museum collecting social media? I’m coming at this question from the angle of an ex-curator and collections manager. Although of course relevant, I’m not interested in how years’ worth of data sets can be collected from Twitter (The Library of Congress is already grappling with that) or what the UK Governments tweets have been for the past three years (The National Archive look after that).

I’m interested in what story a GIF of Ed Milliband looking awkwardly (and perhaps seductively?) into a camera can tell us about social media’s impact on how people engage with politicians (this GIF specifically referencing the Milifandom phenomenon of the 2015 general election).

Ed Milliband GIF from GIPHY

Or how a Tweet about asking if there was a ‘bitch badder’ than Taylor Swift sparked an amazing wave of quote tweets naming exceptional women in history and telling their stories in 140–280(ish) characters.

Quote tweet by @moviehistories of the @xnulz Taylor Swfit tweet

With that in mind, the broad categories of social media objects I am interested in examining include:

– Memes

Classical art meme (using Vertumnus by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, 1590–91)

– GIFs

Aeroplane GIF (1987), believed to be the first of its kind from GIPHY
High-five cat GIF from GIPHY

– Social digital photography
Term taken from the exciting Collecting Social Photo research project

Family outing ‘groupie’ courtesy of Jessica Rees
Tweet from @arranjrees of Darwin’s pet octopus in the Natural History Museum collection

– Individual social media posts

Running Through A Field of Wheat Facebook Event
Hillary Clinton quote tweet of Donald Trump


Digital cultural material like this is constantly at risk. We tend not to attribute the same value to it as we do to tangible / physical objects. In 2009 when Yahoo! shut down GeoCities with hardly any warning, digital preservationists described it as:

‘destroying the most amount of history in the shortest amount of time… in known memory. Millions of files, user accounts, all gone.’

Is it not the responsibility of the museum to collect this material? To interpret the history of how we live our lives today, and save some of our contemporary lives for future generations?

Lets say you all agree and museums are going to start collecting social media objects in museums from now on. How do we do it?
Do our existing standards support it? Do the organisational structures of museums allow this to happen easily? Although I am not a fan of over-complicating matters… simply right clicking on a digital file and saving it will not suffice (even if we try to claim it is a ‘field collection’).

A ‘one does not simply’ meme made using

This could lead to all sorts of issues with image quality, metadata, ownership and copyright. Is the person who Tweeted it the owner? According to Twitter, users own their own posts (although Twitter is allowed to do whatever it wants with it too) and all onus is put back on them with regards to ownership and copyright issues. The user needs to be involved in any acquisition and the museum may need to reconsider its understanding of ownership in the participatory sharing world of social media.

How can a social media object be shown in context? If a museum collects a meme that was tweeted and got over 25,000 retweets –  the context of those retweets is lost, and important information that could demonstrate how significant that meme was with it. A screenshot will only show a snapshot in time and does not to any justice to the way in which people encountered the meme in the first place. Rhizome’s Webrecorder offers a potential way to collect social media objects and revisit them in an authentic way –  recording hyperlinks and replicating browsing and timeline experiences, but this will still only be a snapshot in time. The social media post will continue to live ‘out in the wild’ despite being collected by the museum.

What happens when we’ve actually collected the object? How do we catalogue these items? Using existing standards, we might be required to record the material or physical description. What is the physical description of a doge meme??

Doge meme made using

Websites such as are taking steps themselves to record the provenance of memes and GIFs – is the best work in recording our digital cultural heritage already happening outside of our official memory institutions?

Don’t fret — it isn’t all bad news
There is some promising work going on in our museums. The following examples show where social media has been used in a variety of different ways –  almost as if it could be part of the collection itself…

Social media as an interactive display

Pulse — Museum of London
© Museum of London / Tekja

This display at the Museum of London was created by Tekja and constantly monitors Twitter in Greater London to map happiness levels, trending topics and emoji usage. Visitors can interact directly with it by tweeting using a hashtag or just watch as the current mood of London boroughs is interpreted through emojis.

Social media as art

Excellence & Perfections — Amalia Ulman

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 5th September 2014), 2014 (Credit: Amalia Ulman/Arcadia Missa)

Amalia Ulman created a three-part performance work over 5 months that explored how women present themselves online. By the final post of the project on 19 September 2014, Ulman had amassed 88,906 followers. It was only then she revealed the whole thing had been a performance, a work of art, rather than a record of real life.

The work has been exhibited a number of times. Online through New Museum, New York as well as in physical gallery spaces at Electronic Superhighway (2016) at Whitechapel Gallery and Performing for the Camera (2016) at Tate Modern.

Social media content on display

The Reaction GIF: Moving Image as Gesture –  Museum of the Moving Image, New York

© Jason Eppink —

The Museum of the Moving Image in New York invited members of the popular social news website Reddit to identify the most frequently used ‘reaction GIFs’ and their ‘commonly agreed translations’. The display showed how GIFs are being used as a performative and communicative form.

Social media in different mediums

The Donald J.Trump Presidential Twitter Library — The Daily Show

Although not technically a museum display, I couldn’t resist showing how with a bit of imagination, the Daily Show managed to put on a travelling exhibition using only Twitter content from a single user as its inspiration. The video embedded is only 1 minute 36 seconds long, but gives a great overview of what can be done in a physical gallery space with Twitter posts.

As of 02/03/2018 an online tour of the exhibition is still available here:

What next?
Collecting social media content as museum objects is important for preserving our digital cultural heritage. Although many museums have collected digital objects, the standards and best practice examples just do not exist. We can see from the above examples that social media content is starting to bleed into museum as content worth exhibiting, however, there is still a lot of work to do in removing the conceptual barrier that exists between many curators and digital objects. Whilst this work is happening, we need to be thinking about the future and establishing appropriate frameworks that support these digital objects as and when they do enter museum collections. Rigid collections management traditions built on organising and preserving physical objects may still be usable, but not without clear use cases, relevant terminologies and the expertise to understand what a digital object is actually made up of.

My research examines how existing museum collections management standards can be successfully applied to digital objects, using social media content as the primary use case.  if you’re interested or working with these issues yourself, I’d love to hear from you on Twitter @arranjrees or email at

Arran Rees
PhD student, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds

Sign up to the Museum-iD Newsletter:
Sign up to the Museum-iD Newsletter: