The Instagram Museum: Visitor Participation in the Age of the Selfie

Visitors taking a selfie at the Museum of Ice Cream (Photo Credit: Laura Morton)

Have you ever heard of an “Instagram Museum”? Often temporary, these pop-up exhibitors are often part-art gallery, part-immersive experience, but all about the selfie. Although the Museum of Ice Cream, which first opened up in NYC in 2016, is arguably the most famous of these Instagram Museums, it wasn’t the first – for that, we turn to the Renwick Gallery in 2015. There, a exhibition called “Wonder” became hugely popular due to the Instagram-friendly environment. Although the exhibition quickly embraced the popularity, with new signs stating that photography was encouraged, it should be noted that the exhibition was never intended to be an Instagram hot spot (Pardes 2017). The trend continued throughout 2017 and 2018, with many pop-up exhibits following in the footsteps of the Museum of Ice Cream and more or less opening as a series of interconnected photo-ops, mostly about food (DeJesus 2018).

In some way, we can see the popularity of these exhibits as a logical continuation of visitor participation in museum spaces – specifically art museums. Art inherently asks the viewer to engage through the senses, with some pieces taking this further than others through immersive experiences, of course – but what about other museums? Specifically, scientific and historical museum spaces? These museums already have their own forms of participation – think of natural history museums which have displays of animal bones for guests to pick up, or of history museums that have re-enactors speak to guests in period-specific characters. Ultimately, Instagram Museums are taking the next step, moving from simply engaging with material and placing the visitors in the material (which, coincidentally, is also perfect for a selfie!).

Woven thread artwork by Gabriel Dawe at the “Wonder” exhibition at the Renwick Gallery (Photo Credit: Rachel Barron)

So, what are the implications of these spaces, specifically with regards to the future of museums? For starters, I’d say that it marks a shift in the level of participation that is desired by some visitors – that immersion is key, which has also been seen in the popularity of immersive art collective places such as Meow Wolf. “Wonder” curator Nicholas Bell probably states it best: “It’s like this new first-person narrative of the museum experience” (Judkis 2016). And while many museums will want to further capitalise on this trend for the sake of marketing and raising tourism, I also think it raises an interesting new perspective by which future museums could be intentionally designed and curated around. Again, visitor participation is nothing new – but, to take Bell’s phrase, how can we shift the perspective to a first-person narrative? And, more specifically, what does a first-person narrative mean to a museum whose exhibitions are more “objective”? Imagine this perspective as applied to a science museum, in which an exhibit is tailored to engage the visitor in an immersive experience focused on the evolution of humankind. As we find ourselves able to conjure up images and videos of faraway things in an instant thanks to the Internet, how do we allow museums to take it a step further with regards to providing a new perspective to visitors?

To end this blog post, I should point out that I originally drafted this prior to the 2020 pandemic, so the question of what these immersive experiences may influence in museums moving forward is even more complicated. As I write this post, a majority of the United States and the United Kingdom have re-opened to the public, albeit with many new safety and health measures installed. Although the unfortunate reality is that some of these participation-friendly will continue to operate as usual – perhaps with the bare minimum of occasionally sanitising exhibits – many of these museums will find that they will need to drastically change with the times, thereby ending the forward momentum of this trend. As museums, generally speaking, struggle to survive during a pandemic, how will they also contend with the changes of visitor engagement and participation? What does it mean to a curator that visitors are contexualising their museum experience through protective screens, masks, and the heavy burden of a world in crisis around them?

References

DeJesus, E. (2018) Fake Food Museums are Our Greatest Monuments to the Brand Hellscape of 2018. Eater. Retrieved from https://www.eater.com/2018/12/21/18151663/fake-museum-of-ice-cream-pizza-instagram

Goldburg, G. (2017) Double Scoop of Fantasy at Museum of Ice Cream in SF. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.sfchronicle.com/style/article/Double-scoop-of-fantasy-at-Museum-of-Ice-Cream-in-12216063.php#photo-14127511

Judkis, M. (2016) The Renwick is Suddenly Instagram Famous. But What about the Art? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-renwick-is-suddenly-instagram-famous-but-what-about-the-art/2016/01/07/07fbc6fa-b314-11e5-a76a-0b5145e8679a_story.html

Pardes, A. (2017) Selfie Factories: The Rise of the Made-for-Instagram Museum. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/selfie-factories-instagram-museum/