Sharing the #Smithsonian

Social media has transformed the way we learn, what we share and how we communicate. What role do museums play when everyone is their own curator? Amy Rogers Nazarov takes a look at how social media has become an integral part of the exhibition experience.

In November 2015, as images of people peeking out of what appeared to be giant birds’ nests and standing among glaciers comprised of index cards began to flood the Web, Smithsonian American Art Museum staff peered at their smartphones and computers, watching the exhibition dubbed WONDER come back to them in snippets on Instagram, Facebook and other social-media platforms.

WONDER had opened that month at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, following a two-year renovation of the building. As visitors began to arrive, the pictures they snapped to capture their wanderings through the immersive exhibition offered up new educational, interpretive and social opportunities staff sought to capture and develop.

At the outset “we wondered how social media – and even just photography – would play a part in the exhibition,” says Amy Fox, digital and social media content specialist, who joined the staff after WONDER had opened. The images of the artworks meant that “people would have a piece of [the exhibition], that they would have some kind of interaction with it, that they would have a way to share it with their friends.” In other words, she said, social media can and does “lower the barrier” to accessing the exhibition, the artworks inside, the gallery itself.

Screenshot of Instagram post

Instagram user Beatrice Giuli was struck with wonder at the Renwick Gallery’s reopening.

Walking through the doors of the Renwick made for one kind of firsthand experience of the art; capturing pieces of it in a smartphone photo that you then shared with friends created a second layer of interaction. Meanwhile, Instagram users in Jakarta and Des Moines, in Antwerp and Nairobi, could view the wonders of WONDER from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

To make explicit the gallery’s desire for visitors to photograph the artworks to their hearts’ content, signage was installed throughout the Renwick inviting people to take photos, assign them a hashtag,  #RenwickGallery, and share them across social media. The Renwick tapped into these images to create another element of the exhibition: a not-quite-live stream of pictures taken by visitors inside the gallery as they moved through it and as they headed home later. “We wanted people to know that we valued the fact they are taking the photos, that they were engaging with the artworks I this way,” Fox said.

These days, and only through May 14 when it ends, the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit is blowing up folks’ social-media feeds with images of glowing squash-like orbs, the polka-dotted “Obliteration Room” and more. “The volume [of photos] took us by surprise,” noted Hilary-Morgan Watt, digital engagement manager at HMSG, the museum’s first social media-manager hire. Reached in late March, Watt said that 18,000 images had been tagged #InfiniteKusama, with more than 1,000 new ones being added each day.

Multiple lights and reflections in Infinity Mirror room exhibition

Eric Long’s camera is reflected as he take a picture inside one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror rooms at the Hirshhorn. An unidentified man is reflected at right. (Photo by Eric Long)

Even as the volume of images generated by museum-goers surges, so too does the length of the lines outside as patrons strive for coveted same-day tickets to the exhibition. (A new batch of timed-entry tickets are released online every Monday at noon.) It’s safe to say that the images of compelling exhibitions on social media only enhances demand to see the actual exhibit in person.

Deploying social media to ratchet up the “cool factor” can’t be underestimated, said Erin Blasco, a staff member in the American History Museum’s office of audience engagement and an education specialist working to increase signage around the museum letting visitors know about its social media presence and which hashtags to use to get their photos noticed.

“The number one thing our visitors do on social media is say, ‘I’m here at the National Museum of American History. Aren’t you jealous?’ Every day they post images of something iconic here” – with the Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” being on or near the top of the list – “or of the building itself.” The power of social media was demonstrated recently by a Kickstarter campaign, #KeepThemRuby, that raised money to conserve Dorothy’s iconic slippers, as well as the Scarecrow’s costume worn by Ray Bolger.

Sequinned shoes photgraphed on black background

Sixteen-year-old Judy Garland wore these sequined shoes as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz.” In the original book by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy’s magic slippers are silver; for the Technicolor movie, they were changed to ruby red to show up more vividly against the yellow-brick road. One of several pairs used during filming, these size-five shoes are well-worn, suggesting they were Garland’s primary pair for dance sequences. (Courtesy National Museum of American History)

Blasco also thinks a lot about faraway people who may have or who will never set foot in any Smithsonian unit (“the majority of America,” she said) to be a key audience social media can reach. And a third group she affectionately refers to as the “nerds” – who post images with detailed captions about something they’ve spotted at the museum, and to whom she might push back links (perhaps something about the history of Technicolor to share with an admirer of the Ruby Slippers) to get more information about an artifact. The chats with the social media audience is ongoing: “I have all these little micro-conversations with visitors while I am waiting at the bus stop,” she said, alluding to the steady care and feeding social media demands.

“We want our visitors to have a really good customer experience,” Blasco concludes. “When we talk to them on social media – to say ‘Welcome,’ to provide more information about something they liked enough to share on social media – we’re not so different from the docents and guides who greet our visitors every day. If we can make you feel comfortable, online or in person, you are much more likely to learn from and remember our exhibitions.”



Posted: 18 April 2017
About the Author:

Amy Rogers Nazarov writes about D.C. culture & history and manages social media for non-profits and small businesses from her home on Capitol Hill. Her byline has appeared in Cooking Light, The Writer, Psychology Today, The Washington Post and many other print and Web publications. Before going freelance, she spend a decade reporting on high tech for a wide array of newspapers and magazines.