Museums in the Age of Instagram

When I started this project I decided I’d rate museums based on standards of edification and entertainment.  That is, how much I felt educated or improved by a place, and how fun the place was. I then added a third rating based on how much I think people should visit (or not).

But in our modern social, digital age, I’ve arguably missed a vital yardstick in the assessment of museum quality: how share-able an institution makes the experience.

The Age of Instagram

I feel like I have mentioned Instagram a lot in my reviews, so it surprises me to learn that I have only namedropped it thirteen times in the course of almost 150 museum reviews so far.  In the wider world, as of the end of 2017 almost 11.8 million Instagram posts use #museum.  I realize that’s not a very useful metric; most museum Instagram posts would use a more specific tag. About 350,000 use #themet, 1.4 million use #moma, 2 million use #louvre. Regardless of the magnitude of museum-gramming today, the impact of social media on museum design and exhibit curation feels inescapable.

Dale Chihuly in the Botanical Garden #bronx #chihulynybg #glass

A post shared by Joe Laszlo (@gothamjoe) on

Although to some extent I mean all social media, I have a reason for calling out Instagram specifically .  There’s a synergy between the inherently visual experience of most museum exhibits and the photo-centric nature of Instagram that makes it particularly suited to sharing a museum moment.

I have been pondering two questions in this context.

  • What does it mean for a museum or exhibit to be “instagrammable”?
  • Is a focus on social sharing, and particularly visual social sharing, a detriment to museums’ main purposes of edifying and entertaining?

It’s a sure sign a museum has embraced Instagram if its exhibit curation offers moments of saturated color, beautiful form, and good lighting for smartphone cameras.  Visual spectacles that are funny, strange, or hard to get to also score highly.  Alternately, rather than being a good subject for a photo, the other way to score Instagram points is to create a good background for a selfie.  And some museums encourage visitors to tag posts with particular hashtags, calling them out on signage, brochures, or wall texts.

Pinnacles of Instagrammability

The artist Yayoi Kusama stands at the pinnacle of art world instagramambility at the moment. I do not believe her colorful, pattern-rich Infinity Rooms represent great art.  They don’t move my soul, and never seem worth the hassle or the hours-long lines it takes to experience them.  But holy crap, you can take a great selfie in there.

As I consider the museums I’ve reviewed so far, there have certainly been a few that stand out as particularly Instagrammable.

The New-York Historical Society’s Tiffany Lamp Room is perhaps the most self-consciously instagrammable space I’ve visited so far.  Dark, with dramatic lighting and a completely unnecessary, Apple-Store-like glass staircase (I mean, the space needed stairs, but definitely didn’t need dramatic stairs), form has won out over function here.

Tiffany at New-York Historical Society
Tiffagrammable Moments

The Chihuly show at the New York Botanical Garden also stands out as a supremely instagrammable installation.  Monumental art glass surrounded by lush and/or exotic plantings makes for awesome photographs.

I also cited the Cooper-Hewitt’s techie Immersion Room, where visitors design their own wallpaper, as a particularly selfie-friendly experience.

And fourth, the Museum at Eldridge Street, with its gorgeous interiors, practically begs to be photographed and shared.  Indeed, the museum curators call that out explicitly.

Museum at Eldridge Street
Instagrammability

I can’t blame a museum marketing department for seizing on social media as a way to get people through the door.

Inherent Versus Induced Instagrammability

Like Eldridge Street, some places just are inherently instagrammable, by virtue of their iconic architecture or inherent fame — although at opposite ends of an architectural timeline, the Guggenheim and The Cloisters both also fall into that category.

 

I don’t have any issue with inherent Instagrammability.  Or even making sure lighting favors smartphone cameras. But museums cross a line when an exhibit or a space feels like marketing had more to do with the design and layout than the curatorial staff did.  At that point the institution is favoring photo sharing at the expense of edifying and entertaining its visitors.

Tiffany glass is beautiful.  But the overly large square footage the New-York Historical Society devotes to its new Tiffany room is square footage that institution can no longer use to discuss civil rights, immigration, art, culture, or, you know, the history of New York.

I don’t mean to sound like Instagram itself can never entertain or educate. But posting a picture to Instagram, while somewhat creative and potentially fun, isn’t entertaining or educational for the creator.  Indeed, someone intent on lining up the perfect shot and then filtering, captioning, tagging, etc., can’t be paying maximum attention to whatever it is the object or exhibit is trying to convey.

Instagrammability poses a challenge because it inherently emphasizes superficiality — appearance is all.  Creating an experience a visitor feels compelled to share isn’t the same thing as creating an experience that stirs a visitor’s soul. I praised Chihuly’s glass at the Botanical Garden.  Thinking about it now, though, it was extremely pretty, but that’s all it was. Even today, the best things in life aren’t always the most photogenic.

Transcending Instagrammability

Institutions focused on enabling what used to be called Kodak Moments will face the problem of image fatigue — the devaluation resulting from the oversupply of Instagrammable exhibits. If everything is photogenic, it’s possible that nothing stands out enough to be worth photographing.

I’ve noticed this in myself regarding food photos. Where once I zealously captured nearly every dish I ate or cooked, nowadays I have generally returned to eating, not snapping, my meals. I wager something similar will occur for museums.

So what’s an institution to do?  Perhaps those that have mastered the Instagrammable Moment should challenge themselves to curate exhibits and experiences that defy capture by Instagram.

There’s a blunt-force way of doing this, of course: ban photos.  The Louis Armstrong House and the Judd Foundation both do this, among others.  They still use the platform; indeed, @louisarmstronghouse has a pretty good Instagram.  I get that copyright may force a museum’s policy here, but it feels like a losing game.  Unless you confiscate phones at the door, some doofus will be taking pictures where they’re not supposed to.

More creatively, museums could curate experiences that transcend the visual in favor of other senses and eschew the static or clear-cut in favor of the temporal or complex.  A few examples:

  • When I was a kid, we visited San Francisco’s Exploratorium.  I vividly remember an exhibit there called the “Tactile Dome,” which you explored in total darkness.  Very not Instagram friendly.
  • Much more recently the Rubin’s show on sound startled me. It offered a thoughtful, interesting ear-opening experience.
  • I really wanted to Instagram the Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a picture that captured the full, sweeping majesty of it.  Close-ups seemed trivial — missed the point. But rather than being ticked off, I loved the Panorama all the more for thwarting me. You have to see it in person.

Museums rarely bend their exhibition talent in non-visual directions, but perhaps they should do so more often.  The marketing department may balk at the challenge of creating an “un-Instagrammable show” but thinking in that direction will ultimately improve even the Instagrammable experiences.

Finally, having said all that, you can follow my more photogenic museum adventures at @gothamjoe on Instagram.

 

 

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