Life in the age of Corona has changed the way we do a lot of things, including how we consume art and other museum artifacts. I may not be working in museums right now, but I’m still concerned for their long-term well being. More immediately, I’m interested in how museums have been using the closures of Covid-19 as an opportunity to engage their audiences digitally. Today then, I’d like to share some observations I’ve made over the last couple of weeks.
First I’ll tell you a little about my process. I’ve always followed museums on social media, but I’ve been focusing on them more recently as a way of managing my time online (i.e. preventing downward spirals into anxiety and despair). I’ve been paying particular attention to how art museums have been responding to Covid-19, since my background is in art curation, but other kinds of institutions have been posting content as well (in arguably the cutest examples, of course, aquariums and related institutions have been letting the animals out to tour the museums). Of all the social media sites, I tend to use Instagram the most because it accommodates both text and image, but I’ve also been following individual museum websites, Twitter, and Facebook. I’m not especially familiar with TikTok or the other more recent platforms, but if I were to turn this into a research project I might look into them to see if and how they reach younger audiences.
I initially started thinking about museum responses to the Coronavirus when I started seeing the hashtag #MuseumFromHome on a lot of recent posts. From there, I began following different museums that either used that specific hashtag or otherwise related their content to the Coronavirus closures. The rhetoric typically goes something like this: “hey, we know you’re at home and can’t visit us, so we’ll bring the content to you!” Or something along those lines.
When it comes to actual content, art museums have usually been sharing works from their collections, but certain themes have recurred. A lot of posts have a domestic element to them, whether through sharing works that focus on the home, or having staff members share works while working from their own houses. Such tactics not only establish a sense of empathy with viewers who are likely homebound, but also enable museums to align themselves with the familiar comforts associated with domesticity, underscoring their desirability as social media sites to visit. In one of the more extensive examples I’ve seen, Shelburne Museum, in addition to its blog and Instagram posts, has been offering tours of Founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s house via Facebook Live, led by curator Kory Rogers. A lot of posts also feature humor in them, with various museums like the Dallas Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, and other institutions offering moments of levity in a serious time.
Other posts have a decidedly less domestic character, in an effort to help visitors feel less confined. Some Instagram posts feature photographs from recent gallery tours, for example, encouraging visitors to reenact the experience of walking through the museum’s distinct spaces. In the most extensive examples, museums have enabled visitors to take actual virtual tours of their spaces. Places like the St. Louis Art Museum have also been recording new events and posting them online to maintain social distancing, such as a gallery talk by Kehinde Wiley. Other posts show works that depict different geographic locations, enabling viewers to embark on a virtual world tour through art. Sometimes these works will reference famous holidays or artist birthdays, offering a celebratory angle to the posts. What all these myriad efforts share is a sense of escape.
For the most part, the content has also been apolitical, with a focus on providing a sense of comfort and pleasure to visitors. That said, some places like the Allen Memorial Art Museum have taken a current events angle by sharing works on Instagram that address issues of health access and well-being. The Allen Museum also makes a point of including works by women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups, and rotates its posts among different staff members. These posts are among the most extensive I’ve seen on Instagram, and read like detailed, scholarly exhibit labels.
There’s also a strong personal element to these posts. A lot of museums will have curators and other staff share their favorite works, for example. Sharing staff favorites is an effective way to personalize museums with their visitors (heck, I did it at the Roswell Museum), but again, it’s the scale at which this is happening interests me. In one of the most popular recent examples, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has handed over its social media reins (forgive the pun) to its Chief of Security, Tim Send. Describing collections objects and other aspects of the museum through a distinctly humorous, folksy lens, Send introduces a personalizing element to his posts while also allowing visitors to experience the museum through the perspective of a staff member who might not usually get represented in social media. Additionally, Send’s wholesome and apolitical posts provide an optimistic element that associates positivity with the Western Heritage Museum’s brand, right down to Send’s hashtag #HashtagTheCowboy.
What also intrigues me is the way museums have been engaging audiences through participatory means. A lot of these methods have been used before, but it’s the scale at which it’s happening that’s struck me. Museums like the Smithsonian Institution, for instance, have recently provided free coloring pages based on objects in their collection. Other museums like Shelburne have made music concerts available on Spotify and other channels so that visitors can re-experience those events from their homes. In perhaps the most playful example of inviting visitors to recreate or complete works of art through their participatory engagement, museums like the Getty and the Rijksmuseum, taking inspiration from the Instagram account @tussenkunstenquarantaine, have been inviting viewers to dress up and recreate works from their collection with items found in their own homes. Again, people have been dressing up as paintings for years, but it’s the scale and direct invitation to participate that’s caught my attention.
So what are my takeaways from all of this? Honestly, these are only preliminary observations because this social media work is still very much evolving, but here are some thoughts:
- How will this affect traveling exhibitions? Walter Benjamin argued in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that photography would render the uniqueness of the original obsolete, but the scale at which people travel to see art in person, whether through traveling exhibitions or contemporary biennial, suggests that we still consider viewing the original significant. Yet ecocritics have rightly pointed out the ecological unsustainability of such a model, and that we should reevaluate the necessity of viewing originals. As these social media posts have suggested, viewers can have meaningful experiences digitally, if altogether different from the visual and tactile experience of the original. At the same time, I worry that this whole pandemic response could used as a means to justify cutting operating budgets to museums, since virtual experiences are possible.
- Social media can question or reify extant biases: While engaging visitors through a museum’s collection of greatest hits is a guaranteed way to secure visitor engagement, museums can and should also use social media as an opportunity to share lesser-known facets of their collection, or enable other staff members to contribute content.
- Everything depends on access: The world of the digital has often been hailed as the great democratizer, but as recent articles discussing the recent shift to online teaching have underscored, everything depends on web accessibility. If you can’t access the internet, you can’t experience this content, and not surprisingly, internet accessibility patterns tend to reflect the infrastructures of institutional racism and class-based separations.
- Ecological impact: the internet is often envisioned as an ethereal network that can liberate us from detrimental effects of climate change, but in reality it’s a massive physical and electronic infrastructure demanding large amounts of energy while also relying on toxic chemicals to make its connections work. In moving their work online, to what extent are museums assuaging or aggravating the current ecological crisis?
- Museums are more fun when visitors participate: Whether they’re dressing up as their favorite paintings or requesting that specific works be highlighted in Instagram posts, the whole #MuseumFromHome moment we’re experiencing is definitely a dialogue occurring between museums and they’re respective viewers, and that often makes for the most interesting posts.
So those are some preliminary thoughts. Overall, I find the work museums are doing right now to be exciting, and I’ll be interested to see how it continues to develop over the coming weeks.