Earlier this year the Hirshhorn Museum debuted Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, an exhibition that drew record-breaking crowds within the first two weeks of opening. One reason? Kusama’s mesmerizing works are ready-made for social media sharing, evidenced by the thousands of posts under the exhibition’s hashtag #infinitekusama. The Hirshhorn’s exhibition is not the first to capitalize on the desires of visitors to capture unique images to share on their social profiles. In 2016 the DC area saw at least two other museums drawing crowds with exhibitions perfect for Instagram: Renwick Gallery’s Wonder and National Building Museum’s Icebergs.
With the success of these exhibitions, largely because of their social media potential, it can no longer be denied that social media is an important form of communication that has direct impact on the museum’s bottom line. The good news is you don’t have to put on a blockbuster exhibition like the ones above to reap the benefits from social media engagement. All it takes is a little creative thinking to overcome some of the common challenges to social sharing to make your museum social-media friendly.
Challenge 1: Objects in an exhibition can’t be photographed due to copyright restrictions or the delicate nature of the material.
Solution: Give visitors space outside or near the exhibition to take pictures related to the theme or in the artist’s style. One example of how museums have done this, last winter the North Carolina Museum of Art presented The Worlds of M.C. Escher: Nature, Science, and Imagination. Photography was not allowed in the exhibition, however to encourage participation and sharing through social media, NCMA set up a wall of reflective spheres that people could use to take selfies in the style of Escher’s reflective self-portraits (which I did with shameless delight while my family looked on).
Challenge 2: Some visitors to the museum dislike other visitors using social media and feel they are disrupting the experience.
Solution: Make space for contemplation in your permanent galleries, separated from areas expected to have high interest from those coming for the social media experience. It’s important to remember that different visitors come to the museum for different reasons, and find enjoyment in different things. Using the Falk visitor personas as an example, if you’ve got a recharger who comes to the museum regularly for quiet contemplation, they will always be annoyed by the experience seekers using social media, because the recharger views the museum’s purpose differently than the experience seekers do.
The key here is to find a balance between differing visitor personalities and your institution’s goals. Do you have a larger percentage of rechargers who come to your museum and want to preserve their experience? Or perhaps you want to revitalize falling attendance numbers by bringing in a younger experience-seeking crowd? Conduct visitor surveys to get a good idea of who comes to your museum and why. If you find that a large number of your visitors appreciate quiet spaces, but you also want to allow social media, strike a balance by giving your rechargers a quieter gallery they can retreat to when a social media-friendly exhibition is on display.
Challenge 3: Trustees or staff in the museum worry that if visitors are given the opportunity to take photos in one area in the museum, they won’t respect photography policies when exhibitions or delicate objects necessitate stricter guidelines.
Solution: Your museum may already tell people not to take photos in specific galleries, why not flip visitor’s expectations by telling them when and where they can take pictures. Put up signs on pieces in the galleries that encourage social media sharing. Encouraging social sharing works for multiple reasons: it prevents ambiguities regarding when visitors can and can’t take pictures, it will “train” visitors to start looking for signs in future exhibitions, and also puts your social handles and hashtags front and center, leading to more interaction with those handles online. An example of how museums can encourage social sharing comes from the Royal Ontario Museum. Large hashtags are painted on the floor inside exhibitions to make it immediately clear to visitors that social sharing is encouraged. Other museums use enthusiastic, pro-photography wording on signs, like the one below:
Challenge 4: Subject matter featured in an exhibition or overall subject of the museum is more serious than what many deem appropriate for social media sharing.
Solution: Social media sharing is still possible, though a more directed and strategic approach is required for serious subjects than for lighter exhibitions. Opportunities for selfies may not be appropriate in serious exhibitions, but social media at its fundamental level is about sharing perspectives. It’s possible to find ways to get visitors to share their perspectives through social media, perhaps by asking thoughtful questions throughout the exhibition that give visitors the chance to share their own stories related to the theme. Even for serious subjects, people often share quotes or their thoughts without prompt because they found something on their visit that speaks to them.
While considering how to overcome challenges to social media you experience in your own museum it’s important to note that allowing for social media sharing in the museum won’t automatically lead to higher visitor attendance. It takes a deliberate strategy designed with multiple points of engagement crafted to fit your museum’s personality to do that. But allowing social media use is a good place to start, and museums of every size should take a serious look at how they can effectively use social media to increase visitor interaction and reach. In the long term, encouraging visitor social media use will bring additional awareness and potentially more revenue to the museum and future exhibitions.