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Reflecting the Museum: How Instagram brings back seeing

Russell Dornan explores how Instagram allows museums to create new kinds of mutual engagement. He argues the social network is a powerful platform to understand and interact with audiences, deepen visitor engagement, subvert expectations and build a collaborative and participatory community

About the author: Russell Dornan is Digital Producer at V&A Museum of Design, Dundee. Until recently he was Web Editor for Wellcome Collection, where he was responsible for commissioning and editing digital content and developing digital projects. Russell worked on building the audience across social media platforms and this article is based on his experience at Wellcome Collection. Russell has worked in museums for over seven years, starting out as a curatorial trainee before working at the Horniman Museum. Digital media has always played a big part in his work.

This article was originally published in issue 18 of Museum-iD magazine (2016)

For me, a visit to a museum almost always involves photography. Perhaps when I arrive at its façade; it might be once I’m just inside, looking around its atrium or main hall; maybe specific objects or exhibits inspire me to point my lens their way. Depending on the museum, it’s likely to be all of these.

The debate around the level of visitor photography in museums is ongoing: Why don’t people just “take in” the experience? Why take photos at the expense of those visitors without their eyes glued to a phone or a camera; you know, the ones exploring the museum properly? By contrast, others feel that personal photography in museums is a vital part of their experience, as well as acting as free advertising for the institution. Allie Burness talked about selfies on our blog last year: “…the sharing of lived experience is part of our daily lives and, within that process, we have the ability to present ourselves and see our bodies as never before. Selfies are a contemporary tool for managing our sense of self, a highly personal process which requires viewers to remain aware of context and directorial control as important to their meaning.”

“Museums and galleries are among the most photogenic places to visit – you really can’t beat a museum or gallery for photo opportunities. Instagram allows museums (and their visitors) to reflect on their offer as the visual destinations they often are”

Museums and galleries are also among the most photogenic places to visit. Sure, churches, skyscrapers and other architectural wonders look good in photographs; even certain shops or restaurants can have a great aesthetic too. Of course there are other places to see crowds of people interacting with space in an interesting way. But I’d argue that museums, as a collective, are able to offer the same photographic opportunities as all of the others combined. For example, the central hall of the Natural History Museum is as staggeringly beautiful as any cathedral. Add to that the profundity offered by the objects or artworks museums contain, plus the often-unique installations fundamental to many of them, and you really can’t beat a museum or gallery for photo opportunities.

Instagram allows museums (and their visitors) to reflect on their offer as the visual destinations they often are. The increasingly popular photo-sharing platform reflects museums beyond the point of mere images and its use can be more contemplative and thoughtful than many other social media channels.

Museums and Instagram
Instagram is self-described as “a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever.” With over 400 million monthly active users (that’s more than Twitter), Facebook-owned Instagram is still one of the fastest growing social networks, especially among 16 – 29 year olds. Its users are also particularly committed, with over half of them using the app daily.

The platform is now one of the core social media channels used by museums and galleries to tell their stories online. The last year has seen a massive increase in institutions signing up and sharing photographs of their objects, spaces and buildings. This is in part thanks to projects like #InstaMuseum on Twitter and Instagram: an annual campaign organised by Museum140 to raise awareness of museums using Instagram, encouraging museums to sign up as well as share their favourite museum Instagram posts. Museum140 has also compiled a list of museums on the platform; almost 500 have been added so far.

Museums and galleries have a ready-made USP perfect for a dynamic Instagram presence: architectural features; unusual and interesting objects on display or in storage; rich library material; events; exhibitions; gardens or grounds; satellite sites; and more. They are recognised authorities on a wide range of subjects and can offer interesting perspectives on the same. As a follower, museums sharing great photographs is a treat, whether it’s simply a newly acquired llama or a more in-depth exploration of a topic using their historic archive.

“There’s a simplicity to Instagram that many other social media platforms lack. For those consuming the content, the immediacy and universal nature of images over words/language means fewer barriers to understanding”

There’s also a simplicity to Instagram that many other social media platforms lack. Even Twitter, a simple concept on paper, can be intimidating: who do I follow; what’s my tone; what if I’m boring; I don’t have anything to say; how do I mention people; etc. With Instagram’s emphasis on imagery, plus its ability to make the most out of any photo, a lot of those fears are removed. The grid of square thumbnails is elegant and the user interface is sophisticated, but not off-putting. The format of the app elevates the content by design, meaning even the least experienced taker of photographs can still look the part. Best practice is still important, but the ability Instagram provides for content creators to post a beautiful image is often much more empowering than coming up with a pithy statement in 140 characters. For those consuming the content, the immediacy and universal nature of images over words/language means fewer barriers to understanding.

The #empty movement is an elegant example of museums and Instagram coming together in a way that uses the strengths of both to deliver something special. The concept is simple: high profile Instagramers (usually with large followings) visit a museum outside of regular opening hours and capture the spaces and collections in a rarely seen way. It started at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013, when photographer Dave Krugman recognised the power of Instagram’s format in showcasing a museum’s spaces.

Speaking about his visits to the Met, Krugman says on his blog, “I couldn’t help but notice how many people were looking at their phones. But they weren’t bored, restless, or looking for a distraction. They were engaged, enthusiastic, inspired to create.” In contrast to the idea that visitors to cultural institutions with their phones out aren’t as engaged with the material as they “should be” (or worse, the assertion that they must not understand the art), Krugman saw that there’s more than one way to get involved in a museum visit.

In fact, by photographing their way around a museum, visitors may engage in a deeper way than they otherwise would. Crucially, they also spread the word. “These people were capturing the incredible experience of visiting the Met,” says Krugman, “creating their own art, and the people who follow them on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram could engage with the Museum vicariously.”

It’s this combination of both a desire to share and photography skills with a simple social media platform focused on beautiful imagery that lends Instagram its appeal. Add institutions like museums to that and magic happens. Giving certain photographers special access to your building may seem exclusive, but it helps foster a relationship not just with those artists, but their followers too. Your content is thereby made more accessible to new groups of people, especially younger audiences who may not have felt connected to certain institutions previously.

Dolly Brown, an Instagramer involved in the #empty movement and the organiser of #emptyROH, explained to the Guardianthat Instagram, “creates real-life connections out of the virtual, whereas Facebook, for example, takes real-life connections and tries, I think many would say unsuccessfully, to import them into the virtual world.” It’s this more meaningful connection that Instagram fosters by being so detail-orientated and strongly visual that leads to it being one of the most exciting and engaging platforms for museums.

Other museums soon followed the Met’s #empty example, such as the AMNH in New York and Tate in London. We held #emptyWellcome in April 2015 as a way of showcasing our newly refurbished building after our development project. I organised it by approaching Zoe Timmers, the Instagramer who instigated #emptyTate. It was exciting for us because we were arguably the smallest institution to take part and one of the first museums in London. The photographs taken by the Instagramers were stunning, showing off Wellcome Collection in ways we hadn’t seen before, and brought us to the attention of a new audience on Instagram. As a museum we’re often referred to as a “hidden gem”, so we’re keen to amplify our presence.

Timmers sums up her experience as a first time visitor to Wellcome Collection. “I was more than surprised – mainly with myself that as a Londoner I had never been inside. As a photographer I loved the space, clean design and natural light coming in. As a visitor I thought the collection was fascinating and I will be back to explore more!” For us, sentiments like these shared with the photographers’ tens of thousands of followers allows us to connect with people interested in what we offer, but don’t yet know about us. The different viewpoint the photographers bring is refreshing too; in-house imagery is often more marketing focused, but Instagram is driven by sharing. Inviting photographers adept at using the platform to capture our spaces results in unique, shareable images that may be more unadulterated than ones chosen to represent our brand.

Other museums and cultural institutions are adopting the #empty framework, and so they should: it’s simple, fun and fascinating. Best of all, it’s a true exchange. We get beautiful images, publicity, new audiences and a chance to see ourselves in a new light. The photographers get unprecedented access to museums and opportunities to see things at a different pace. As Timmers explains, “any opportunity to have freedom in a public space just allows for more photographic creativity. I often visit museums and visualise how I would create shots were there no people in them – the #empty events allow just that.”

Wellcome Collection as Instagramer
I started Wellcome Collection’s Instagram account as a way to showcase our objects and spaces in a candid and contemporary way. A fan of the platform, I was keen to discover how it could be used to communicate the themes of a museum visually, but without a reliance on marketing or archival material. Wellcome Collection is a living, breathing destination with amazing objects to see and stories to learn; Instagram allows us to present that in the context of our building and through the eyes of those who work here.

We usually post to Instagram once a day, about three or four times a week and concentrate on a mix of: objects and displays; temporary exhibitions; behind the scenes; architectural features; shop products; archival images; restaurant shots; and staff. The emphasis is on photographs taken on a smart phone in person. We keep archival material, and especially marketing imagery, to a minimum; they mainly supplement the rest of the content.

How we use Instagram in relation to exhibitions
As well as being a regular user of Instagram, we also use it as a tool to deepen visitor engagement with our themes, generate content for exhibitions and interact with our visitors through their photography.

In 2014 Wellcome Collection put on a highly participative exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition. In it, the alphabet ran along both sides of the gallery, each letter opposite itself; every letter stood for a theme allowing our visitors to explore the human condition. On one side, we presented a selection of our large collection of historical objects from all over the world relating to each letter’s theme. For example, X was for X-rated and featured a variety of sex-related objects.

On the opposite wall, the same themes were explored using participatory activities in the gallery so our visitors could engage with those themes directly, simultaneously contributing to the exhibition itself. The idea was to use parts of our collection to show the many ways our objects inform what makes us human and, as fellow experts on the human condition, we wanted our visitors to be able to contribute to that inquiry. For example, K (Keeping up appearances) asked people to draw a self-portrait. Five of these activities used Instagram as a way to participate.

Out of the 26 themes on offer, we identified those we thought would resonate most with our audience, as well as those that would lend themselves best to photography. Skin Art meant we could ask people for photos of their tattoos. Individualitywould allow us to request selfie submissions. We printed the Instagram photographs out and displayed them in the gallery in different ways.

We also commissioned blog posts to explore each theme further and used the submitted photographs to illustrate the articles. We used the submitted photos on Facebook and Twitter to publicise the exhibition and project, and some images have been used on our website.

This project explored the human condition and the submitted photos covered aspects of our visitors’ everyday life, their observations and their selfies. The light hearted, participatory quality Instagram lent the project was beneficial for us and for the public. The relatively simple call to action enabled our visitors to respond creatively and we were delighted to display such a wealth of photographic submissions as an intrinsic part of the exhibition. Our account was still young at this point and a project like this accelerated the rate of follower growth beyond expectations, when not used within exhibitions.

In addition to some of our temporary exhibitions, we’ve used Instagram more subtly to explore our permanent collections. In a blog series called “Perspectives”, we look at photographs of us posted to Intagram by our visitors, identify which objects capture their imagination and then use the images to look at those objects more closely. The first one was John Isaacs’ I can’t help the way I feel. This sculpture reflects what Isaacs calls the “emotional landscape” of someone who might glance in the mirror and see themselves in a certain way when in reality they look nothing of the sort.

Since the sculpture challenges its viewers to see things in new ways it lends itself to being scrutinised from many angles. En masse photos of the same object may force you to notice small details, look harder and generally see it differently. Uniquely, Instagram allows us to look at exactly that and get a sense of what our visitors are responding to, as well as an insight into how they perceive our objects.

Reaching new audiences
Instagram is an asset when trying to reach new audiences. I’ve already discussed the #empty movement and its effectiveness in doing so, but there are other ways we’ve been able to reach people who may not have heard of us.

When Wellcome Collection was still fairly new to Instagram, one way we tried to make ourselves known to that community was by inviting them to the museum. During An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, we arranged an InstaMeet with the photography group, Instagramers London. This group forms part of the global network of mobile photography communities using Instagram. They plan meetups and organise events, providing the London mobile photography community with opportunities to meet each other and take and share great photographs.

Over forty people came in for breakfast one Sunday followed by a tour of the exhibition, before going on a photo walk to take pictures on Instagram using one of our hashtags. The following week, their submissions for that theme came in, boosting its presence in the project. It was useful to meet a network of local Instagramers who helped spread the word about the project and our presence on the platform. We also enjoyed providing a space for that kind of group to meet and explore our galleries and to be seen as a destination for photographers, which proved to be relatively simple and non-intrusive.

We managed to reach new audiences on a bigger scale in August this year. I had the idea for #MuseumInstaSwap after Londonist listed their ten best London museums on Instagram. Seeing museums with such a wide range of collections, subjects and sizes represented made me think we should try some kind of cultural exchange: an exciting way to collaborate and share our content in a new way, especially on a platform as dynamic and engaging as Instagram.

The museums involved were the Horniman Museum and Gardens; Royal Museums Greenwich; Science Museum; Design Museum; London Transport Museum; Wellcome Collection; Imperial War Museum; British Museum; Victoria and Albert Museum; and the Natural History Museum.

I invited the other nine museums to Wellcome Collection to talk about the idea. We discussed how it could work best for everyone involved, refined it and then all ten museums were sorted into pairs by pulling names out of a hat.

People from each museum pair visited one another, photographing things that resonated with their own collections and themes. We all told that story on Instagram through the photos and captions we posted during the same week at the end of August. The idea was that each museum’s unique focus would offer a different perspective of their partner museum. It was a way for our combined audiences to discover new museums, or see their favourites through a different lens.

We posted a picture of a London Transport Museum (LTM) map of London because it reminded us of a brain: both in terms of the aesthetic and the network of channels that allows a city or brain to function. LTM shared a photo they took of our Transparent Woman anatomical model. To them, it evoked the London Underground: the hidden circulatory network of veins and arteries that lie just underneath the surface of our skin and the complex structure of tunnels concealed beneath the concrete of our city. Instagram allowed us to make these connections and draw attention to each other in a way that was interesting and unexpected. The ability to leave longer captions also meant we could interrogate those connections in more depth than we could on Twitter, for all to see.

We wanted the project to let the public experience our themes in a new way. Our audiences enjoy our museums and are interested in our themes (that’s why they follow us), so it was fun to show them something seemingly unrelated to us, but using their interest in our subjects to subvert what we were showing them. Using social media to challenge our followers as well as us led to greater engagement.

The benefits of such a truly collaborative project allowing museums to share their audiences include an increase in both followers and engagements on Instagram for everyone involved. We all experienced above-average interactions and follower-growth that week. The Imperial War Museums were paired with the British Museum, for example, and the huge following of the latter dramatically boosted the former’s account. It’s not just about numbers, though: it’s about raising the profile of our museums, sharing audiences and being playful. We received several great comments from people who’d never heard of us, saying they’d found our account through our partner museum and were glad they did. We were too.

“There are reputational benefits for museums working together in a dynamic and open way. It’s important to show that museums are more involved with each other than some people think. We’re all looking to do the same thing: enlighten, entertain and engage”

There are also reputational benefits for museums working together in such a dynamic and open way. It’s important to show that museums are perhaps more involved with each other than some people think. We’re not totally isolated or siloed, rather, we’re all looking to do the same thing: enlighten, entertain and engage. Projects like this allow us to come together to do that.

It’s also how the world communicates now. Two museums conversing on social media provides an endearing glimpse into something you don’t often see. If it’s a jovial or candid exchange, it can be particularly amusing or engaging. As long as it’s carried out with a bit of sensitivity (the amount of which varies between museums), I think it’s great to see and projects like this feed into that ethos. Social media and other digital tools also extend our reach beyond the walls of the galleries. A collaboration on Instagram like #MuseumInstaSwap meant the reach of our stories and objects was amplified beyond the level any of us have as individual organisations.

At Wellcome Collection we have fun with Instagram. Whether we’re posting our own photographs, looking at and commenting on those taken by visitors, or collaborating with other organisations, it’s hard not to enjoy it. After all, social media allows people to share aspects of their lives with their networks, and we essentially do the same. The fact that museums and galleries are culturally relevant enough to feature in our visitors’ updates to their friends is something not only to be celebrated, but fostered. This is one important reason that Wellcome Collection acknowledges visitor photography and why we try to incorporate it into our exhibitions or digital media projects. Instagram facilitates this brilliantly, with an emphasis on wonder and openness.

The app also features a set of filters you can use to enhance or transform your images; photographs of us posted to Instagram act as a filter too, letting us see ourselves through our audience’s eyes. Similarly, posting pictures of cultural institutions I admire and respect is a way of framing my personal experiences: I visited somewhere amazing; I was part of it; and I want people to know. Instagram allows us to create structures for new kinds of mutual engagement, making it an exciting platform for museums to explore.

Some of the ways we have used Instagram at Wellcome Collection are quite unconventional. For example, sharing a different museum’s content may not be the norm, but it doesn’t have to be used that way. The beauty of Instagram as a social network is its clean and robust way of showcasing and sharing great photographs. At its simplest, it’s a dynamic gallery for the museum. But it offers opportunities to go beyond that: a tool to understand and interact with audiences, subvert their expectations and collaborate with different organisations or artists. All of this in a slick medium that elevates mobile photography alongside other forms of visual culture. The app appeals to the young and the aesthetic draws in creative types; there are whole networks of communities and trends that emerge from Instagram. I say be brave, harness these opportunities to really see and be part of a bigger movement. It’s happening anyway. What have you got to lose?

Russell Dornan

This article was originally published in issue 18 of Museum-iD magazine (2016)

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