Selfies, Instagram and Pinterest: How Do Museums Adapt?

Patrons take pictures with the art at Denmark's Statens Museum for Kunst; the museum is trying to reinvent itself for a new generation by doing away with "no photography" signs and inviting visitors to interact with installations. Ida Tietgen Høyrup/SMK

One of the first things Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark's national gallery, did when it decided to modernize its display in late 2014, was to remove the signs that say "No photography." According to Jonas Heide Smith, the head of digital communication at SMK, this was because many of the peculiar rules that museums traditionally insisted on—often in the service of safety, or copyright regulations—were being flouted by smartphone-toting visitors. "It [became] a losing battle to try to uphold them." So down came the signs. It was a small change but part of a larger revolution.

Museums have spent years trying to shake off their image as stuffy, dictatorial places and, instead, create the sense that they are open and inclusive. In the meantime, they have been losing out to the internet. More people in the U.S. now "discover" art through the social media platforms Instagram and Pinterest than they do by visiting galleries, according to a survey published earlier this year by the art market site Invaluable, and nearly half of those aged 18 to 24 find new artists via social media. Meanwhile, 84 percent of Americans visit art galleries or museums less than once a year, and 15 percent say they never go at all. If our places of culture are going to attract a new—and bigger—audience, they need to embrace at least some aspects of social media. They're trying—but, like painting a picture, it's a slow process.

Alex Espinós of La Magnetica, a European online consultancy for museums, says that though they might be daring in their choice of art, museums and art galleries tend to be inherently conservative places that are less innovative when it comes to business practices and presentation. Then, he says, there was the 2008 crash: "The rise of social media was in the same years as the financial crisis, and the crisis hit museums." They didn't have the cash to spend on social media expertise, and that held them back. Now, though, they are gaining ground and venturing online.

Expanding Social Media Footprint

Selfie installations—where visitors are encouraged to take selfies with a work of art or insert their own pictures into an immersive reproduction—were an early fashion. In 2013, the Pompidou in Paris allowed visitors 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. (Dali's surrealism plays well to this trend: A year later, the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, installed a photo booth that would take your picture and superimpose it onto Dali's portrait of his lover Gala gazing at the Mediterranean.) Smith finds such things "a bit tiresome," believing that integration with the technology in people's pockets through augmented-reality exhibitions, Instagram competitions and specially designed apps make more lasting impressions. That has its own problems, though: Interactive bells and whistles are only possible for bigger museums with deeper pockets. Still, some galleries away from the tourism centers survive because of their social media following; visitors to big cities might line up three big-name museums they must visit, then go to a fourth on a whim. "Often, they'll decide that because they're in touch with the museum on social media," says Espinós.

The Hunterian Museum, a niche and faintly gruesome collection of medical anatomical specimens in central London, found some success online when it set up a Facebook account and Tumblr website in 2013. "Maintaining a social media presence can be a fun, informal, and increasingly essential way to engage with current and potential museum audiences," wrote the museum's then learning and events officer soon after starting up the institution's social media profiles. Hayley Kruger, the current officer, tells Newsweek the social media presence has had no discernible effect on visitor numbers—but says "in a way that's not what it's about. It's simply another way of engaging people with your collections and hopefully encouraging a more two-way dialogue, where people can respond in real-time and share the information easily with others."

Some museums have used analytics and feedback from internet communities to decide how best to present their work. In 2009, the Cleveland Museum of Art used social media to track and analyze visitors' journeys around one of its galleries. It discovered that, far from following the curators' preferred path through the collection, reading interpretative texts and following the links and paths laid down by them, visitors were moving apparently randomly from one piece to another, depending on what interested them. The museum's response was to open Gallery One, an interactive space that included a wall of expandable, digital versions of every piece in the collection: The public became its own tour guide.

Does this point to a future in which museums succumb to populism and the number of gallery visits plays an even greater role in dictating the tastes of directors? Espinós believes that, in fact, social media allows them to do just the opposite. "If you have an exhibition about an artist that is slightly off-topic," he says, "you can focus on specific communities online" to draw in the crowds.

Using Social to Build Audiences

Hans Ulrich-Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, singles out Instagram as "a great platform for artists in the 21st century." Ulrich-Obrist believes that smaller artists are able to harness the power of social media to build an audience big enough to compel gallery directors to display their work. Genieve Figgis, an artist from County Wicklow, Ireland, would agree. She began posting snapshots of her work on Instagram and Twitter in 2013, after she bought an iPhone. "Working from Ireland, you're kind of isolated from the art world," she explains. But Instagram changed that. Those snapshots caught the attention of the Half Gallery in New York. Soon her work was on display there, and Figgis, a 44-year-old mother of two who rarely ventured outside of Ireland, flew over for the opening, her first trip to the U.S. in 20 years.

Historical art can be trickier. Not least because the standard contracts museums sign with each other when they agree to loan and display pieces from each other's collections were written during a pre-smartphone age: Many contain clauses saying loans are made on the condition that the recipient can't reproduce the artwork. "What does that mean for visitors with smartphones?" asks Smith. Galleries such as SMK often have a really free hand with only the 260,000 artworks they actually own. "We have so much content that we could just start posting these things to Instagram and would never run out," he says. "Directing part of your effort to social is a no-brainer."

So is social media likely to displace brick and mortar? Are we going to spend hours scrolling through the Louvre's Instagram feed in place of strolling through its galleries? "I don't think so," Espinós says. "You want to remember that real experience." That's why digital-art databases like the Google Cultural Institute, formerly Google's Art Project—a high-resolution collection of more than 200,000 works of art online from 1,000 museums and galleries—will always fail to replicate the experience of standing in front of a work of art. Nothing can quite match the sense of wonder of, say, first seeing Picasso's Guernica up close and in person. Ulrich-Obrist, meanwhile, asks us to consider the example of the music industry in which, though digital downloads have replaced the CD, people still come out in huge numbers to hear artists play live. "[Online] is never going to replace the physical gallery," he says. "The more art we see online, the more desire there is to visit exhibitions." That's one of the main reasons the Statens Museum signed up to Google's project—"from our point of view, the more platforms that want to distribute our art and expose their users to it, the better," says Smith.

What online art databases do is bring a new audience to culture. Those who wouldn't dream of sitting down in front of the Mona Lisa in real life may change their minds if the online world has prompted them to develop a hankering for Renaissance portraiture. And there's a shift too among the men and women who run museums, as well as those who visit them. "It's a change of mindset to say, 'We are not our website. We're not our building. We're not our Facebook page,'" Smith says. "We are the collection: an institution that wants to inspire people to talk about art. That's tough and difficult and strange," he says, "but it's worthwhile to try."