In the age of photographic immediacy: social media as a vehicle for building museum narratives

The evolution of art, culture and social dynamics over the last decades is associated with the emergence of new technologies. The new millennium brought the explosion of the web and the online has become something dynamic, fast, easy to access, low-cost and fully capable of establishing bilateral connections between users and museological institutions, giving rise to actions, reactions and behaviours. Contrary to the early twentieth century predictions, which asserted museums’ obsolescence in the face of technological evolution, they have adopted the internet as an important space for advertising content and an essential vehicle for building museological narratives.

In uncertain times, the result of the atypical COVID-19 pandemic, institutions began a massive digital expansion, with new solutions, methods and models of producing, consuming and exhibiting art. Today, answers are beginning to emerge to the question: What is the real contribution of digital platforms to museum institutions? Museums have been forced to respond in a reactive, direct, simple and as effective as possible way to the closure of the venues, adhering en masse to interactive activities in digital form. With the doors compulsorily closed, institutions have created new means and tools, circumventing the obstacles of in situ visits.

In this new social context, networks, which are privileged digital alternatives, allow museums to reach new audiences, expand their scope of action, create heterogeneous contents and join the physical and digital space through interactivity and participation. Users have become active participants, sharing content, experiences and personal opinions. Institutions have found a new form of marketing for collections, conferences, articles, videos, images, graphic contests, polls and other materials that allow collective meanings to be built through individual meanings.

In the age of photographic immediacy, visual language is foregrounded in digital channels. The image culture triggers subjective and emotional engagement, allowing institutions to understand the motivations of the public’s visit through visitors’ posts, comments, emojis, descriptions or the way of photographing the building. This sharing process is what makes it possible to gauge and summarise how the architectural work is seen by audiences, as in many cases opinions and images unique to the building’s architecture emerge. Art increasingly frees itself from the museum’s physical space, spreading on digital platforms and feeding an always interactive environment. On the other hand, digital audiences respond more easily to posts with visual elements. Perceptions differ depending on the viewer or their mood.

Instagram is the preferred channel of visitors and institutions, following the new trends of contemporary society and reinventing itself over the years. Unlike in the past, institutions have moved away from prohibiting the use of cameras in galleries, allowing photographs and videos and encouraging the publication of these on online platforms. “Instagram museums” or “instagrammable museums” have appeared, focused on the museum experience, making the audience’s expectations and opinions more and more important through a more direct contact with the audiences.

In the current scenario, the architectural side is necessary in the interactive museum experience. The museum must assume this as an important factor in attracting and mobilising audiences. In cases like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry or the Portuguese Maat by Amanda Levette, the building is like an engine for institutional promotion, attracting visitors as a work of art in itself. People go to the site just to see the outside and take an image as proof of their visit. The museums’ identity is reinvented, they adopt the architectural image as a driver in online dissemination, in marketing the institution and in building narratives that relate the work to society. The goal is increasingly clear: to integrate the audience’s perspective in institutional discourses, viewing the container as a symbol, given its visually iconic character.

Instagram is contemporary society’s new Tamagoshi, allowing museums to extend beyond their physical borders, spreading art and architecture on digital platforms and fostering a constantly interactive environment.

Beatriz Monteiro Gamboa was born in Caldas da Rainha, 1998. She studied Architecture at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon. Completed his Master Thesis Museum Architecture in the time of social media: from institutional image to audience appropriation, in 2021. Since then, she writes about museums, art and architecture in the “Instagrammable Era”.

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