Is Instagram the world's hottest museum?

by The Dyás Admin

Since the pandemic, many cultural institutions have had to close their doors to the public, and visitor figures have plummeted. Meanwhile, social media platforms like Instagram have found themselves at the centre of the art world. So, as museums increasingly turn to Instagram to exhibit their artwork, is Instagram's takeover of museums imminent?

Museum exhibits started popping up on social media sites like Instagram around 2013 after photographer Dave Krugman posted a photo of a #empty New York Metropolitan Museum of Art outside of visiting hours. Soon enough after-hours instagram posts of museums became something of a trend.

Almost a decade later, Instagram boasts 1.48 billion users (more than triple the 400 million they had in 2016) and museums are being featured on Instagram posts more and more - to the point where using Instagram has almost become an essential part of the museum going experience.

The aesthetic focus of Instagram means that it’s not surprising museums and galleries have increasingly to used the platform for marketing purposes. But since the beginning of the pandemic, Instagram has stopped being an auxiliary feature of museum marketing campaigns, and has instead become a central part of the museum going experience.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, museum visitor figures plummeted. Although the number of visitors to museums globally reached 71 million in 2021 (an improvement from the 54 million visitors in 2020) this figure is still 69% lower than the 230 million patrons that were received in 2019. Over 80% of the institutions that took part in that survey also reported at least one day of pandemic-related closures, and museums in some countries like the Netherlands have averaged close to 150 days closed.

At the same time, the presence of social media in our lives has only grown over the course of the pandemic. A DataReportal survey done in January 2021 found that global social media use since the beginning of the pandemic increased by 13.1%

The growth of social media, and the roadblocks museums have had to overcome in the last couple of years, meant it was inevitable institutions would make use of platforms like Instagram to keep the public engaged with their work even when they were unable to open their doors open. But as museums have started to function normally again and visitor numbers continue to climb, why aren't museums turning away from Instagram?

Even before the pandemic, artists and curators were getting curious about the interactive potential of phones. Scanning QR codes to unlock virtual displays or lenses for photography offers artists a new medium of expression, and museums a way of encouraging direct audience engagement. One of the first examples of this sort of exhibition was the 2014 Wellcome collection, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition. Featuring 5 exhibits which required Instagram participation, the creators intended to reflect to patrons a modern take on the human condition The exhibition also made a public request for photos of the letter K for Keeping up appearances to be posted online.

But another big reason why phones are becoming essential to museum going is the growing popularity of so-called “Instagram museums,” or pop-up museums. These are tailored to the visual and aesthetic nature of Instagram and are designed to be the ideal backdrop for visitors to take photographs in front of (which they can then later post and display on their social media feeds). The first of these sorts of exhibits was the “Ice Cream Museum” in 2015, and since then more and more pop-ups have been (briefly) brought to life. And they've been very  popular. 

But if museums were already looking to move further into the social media space due to the success of pop up museums and the opportunities presented by QR codes and lenses, it was the success of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror Room that forced their hand. Her extremely photo friendly mirror rooms raised memberships at nearly every museum they were shown at, and The Hirshhorn raised their membership by 6,500% in 2017 as a direct result of her work's popularity.

Museums have also seen Instagram as an increasingly central part of their outreach. “Swaps” with other institutions have become rather popular since #MuseumInstaSwap was founded in 2015 by Russell Dornan. The annual exchange involves cultural institutions around the world drawing parallels between their own themes and exhibits and those of other institutions. This provides the opportunity for art to be looked at from a different angle, inviting audiences to explore each piece from a different perspective. It also allows museums to piggyback off one another's followings.

Scrolling through Instagram requires significantly less effort from the consumer, there are no travel or entry costs, and the distance between the visitor and the geographical location of the museum isn't an obstacle for visiting - and so for a growing number of museums that find themselves underfunded and under-visited, Instagram is increasingly being seen as a lifeline. 

The interaction between the cultural institutions of the museum and Instagram has been long underway. All the pandemic did was finish that process. But, as more and more museums have found themselves reliant on Instagram as a result of the pandemic, there has been a shift. Instagram use has gone from being an occasional feature of museum going, to becoming an essential part of the experience. What that means for museums remains to be seen, but whatever happens you'll probably need your phone. 


Words by S.C. Jat 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published