Still life, selfie life
With 800 million users and growing, it was perhaps inevitable that Instagram would shake up the art world.
The social photo platform has been accused of fanning a narcissistic selfie culture. But in galleries, research is showing the positive aspects far outweigh the negative. Instagram is changing the way we experience and share visits to exhibitions, and perceive art.
Arts institutions are now actively courting Instagram users. The Museum of Ice Cream in the US is considered one of the most Instagrammed exhibitions, with over 125,000 hashtagged posts. The show included such Insta-friendly displays as giant cherries, suspended bananas, and a rainbow sprinkle pool, inviting the visitor into a colourful space of neatly guided photo opportunities.
The Triennial at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia features large installations with visitors invited to photograph themselves among them.
Increased visitor photography at galleries and museums has proved controversial at times.
Recently a visitor to Los Angeles popup art gallery The 14th Factory destroyed $200,000 worth of crown sculptures. The sculptures rested on top of a series of plinths, and, while attempting a selfie the visitor fell, knocking the plinths down in a domino-style chain reaction.
In another instance, visitors damaged an 800-year-old coffin at the Prittlewell Priory Museum in the UK. The visitors had lifted a child over a protective barrier into the coffin in pursuit of the perfect photo. Their actions caused the ancient artefact to be knocked off its stand resulting in a large piece of the coffin breaking off.
Many exhibitions still place restrictions on photography, and most galleries still prohibit selfie sticks. Banning photography because it interferes with the visitor’s experience could be cultural elitism; expressing a view that art can only be appreciated in an orthodox manner.
It also ignores the potential of Instagram to bring a new dimension to artists, curators, exhibition designers and visitors. Recent research at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art Gerhard Richter exhibition showed that visitors use Instagram as part of their aesthetic experience.
Another study at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences’ Recollect: Shoes exhibition in Sydney found that audiences used Instagram primarily to engage with exhibition content; not by taking selfies.
This finding was echoed in a larger study that focused on Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Far from the narcissistic selfie-obsessive behaviour, Instagram offers visitors authority and agency in sharing their experience.
As researchers working in this emerging area, we see much value in curators and exhibition designers making use of Instagram to inform how they plan exhibitions. It could help build new audiences and strengthen connections with existing visitors.
While removing all visitor photography restrictions is not possible, visitor expectations and experiences have now changed. The future of cultural institutions needs to include Instagram.
Instagram is changing how we see art.