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MM Musings, vol. 26: the rise of the "Instagrammable" museum

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum. These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning. I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Instagram-food-pictures-meals-funny-ecardThe recent notion of a "made for Instagram" museum experience is a topic that is near and dear to my IG-loving heart. I've been on Instagram for about a year and half, and it's easily become my favorite social media platform.  The idea of designing restaurants, hotels, and food with Instagram in mind has officially spilled over into the museum world, so today I want to explore not how museums are using this immensely popular app (800 million users and counting), but the pros and cons of offering museum spaces and exhibitions partially based on how photogenic they are.  I also want to talk about how "Instagrammable" the Makeup Museum would be if it occupied a physical space.

There were a few articles I consulted for background information, most of which mentioned the same few museums and exhibitions that seem to be made for Instagram:  most notably, the Museum of Ice Cream, Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms, The Color Factory, the Rain Room, Refinery29's 29 Rooms, and the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery's 2015 "Wonder" exhibition. While the directors and curators behind these insist that they did not design them solely for photo-opp purposes, for many visitors it's the main takeaway.  And some museum professionals and art critics have questioned whether that's a good thing. 

First, let's look at the pros of having Instagram-friendly spaces and exhibitions.  Many agree that highly photogenic, immersive, colorful exhibitions are an excellent way to boost attendance and name recognition.  Not only do these exhibitions get more people in the door, once visitors are there they tend to wander to other parts of the museum. In an insightful article for the Washington City Paper, Kriston Capps argues that the made-for-Instagram museum has been a boon to DC's art scene:  "Locally, if there’s a concern about museums serving too many sweets and not enough vegetables, it’s that exhibits that are low on nutrition—meaning shows that lack scholarship, quietude, or the possibility of an anti-social experience—will crowd out shows of substance...quieter shows aren’t going anywhere; in fact, museum directors say that more people are seeing them than ever before, thanks to the louder stuff.  'There are incalculable benefits when a place that has long been almost invisible in Washington’s crowded museum scene suddenly is one of the hottest destinations in town,' says Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun, the longtime director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery. 'Yes, it helps with funding appeals when potential supporters say ‘Wow, the Renwick!’ instead of ‘Where’s the Renwick?'  Surely those museums saw upticks in attendance from Rain Roomers who wandered into other art exhibitions. People queued up outside the building means more foot traffic through the doors—always a plus. And museum boards, donors, and members are no doubt pleased to see high-water marks for attendance...D.C. museums are betting that spectacles are a way to convert crowds into viewers." 

Secondly, even if critics don't think a particular exhibition is actually art and more of a spectacle made for photo opps, does it really matter?  People are having fun in a museum setting, which ostensibly is a good thing.  And this might lead them to think about art and museums on a more meaningful level than the pool of ice cream sprinkles they just swam in.  As former editorial fellow for the Atlantic Katherine Schwab notes, "Engaging people with art in any way possible is, for many museums, the first step in persuading them of its deeper value. And taking photos of works, however performative it may be, is a way for people to show off what’s important to them."  Adds Russell Dornan for Museum ID, "By photographing their way around a museum, visitors may engage in a deeper way than they otherwise would. Crucially, they also spread the word."

But there are detractors who believe museums shouldn't fully embrace the Instagrammable hype.  For one thing, it might have the opposite effect on art's worth, reducing it to a prop rather than enhancing its cultural and historical merit. "Nowadays, art for the sake of art is much less desirable if you can’t document it with an aesthetically pleasing photo to showoff your followers. Art is becoming more of a supporting background in our self-portraits than something of stand-alone value," warns Annie Francl in Shapeshift Magazine

Secondly, people may not even be enjoying the experience after all; instead, they're only there to one-up their Instagram buddies and keep up with the Joneses.  The Cut asked several people waiting in line for Kusama's Infinity Mirrors about why they were there.  The responses? "All my friends on Instagram have gone. It looks cool" and "I saw them all over the place on Instagram. A lot of friends have come here."  Indeed, the "worthless without pics" mantra is alive and well.  Says Shelby Lerman for Thrive Global, "[The] bigger issue here is not that these spaces are made for Instagram, as seemingly everything today is made with Instagram in mind. It’s that these spaces are created to be adult playgrounds and a huge part of that play depends on being able to prove that you’ve played. (As the saying goes, Instagram or it didn’t happen.) It is not experiencing for the sake of experience: it’s doing something specifically so you can record it and post it to your followers...Plus, these whimsical wonderlands encourage you to shake loose from your daily routine, but also rest on the idea that you’ll be grabbing your smartphone to do it. And to think that spaces are made less habitable in real life so that they work better on social media is a strange thought indeed."  If people aren't fully immersed in the exhibition experience because they feel an urgent need to document it, museum-going may seem more of a chore than anything else.  This PBS article highlights a quote from the premier membership manager at the Seattle Art Museum, who, while heartened at seeing the lines stretching around the block for Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibition, also "felt social media usage hindered the experience, for some users, of an exhibit designed for quiet reflection on the idea of infinity. 'Instead, people went in there and were like, ‘I only have 30 seconds to take the best picture, the coolest picture,' he said.'" The article also mentions a study at Fairfield University in Connecticut which found that museum-goers didn't remember the art when they took photos of it as well as when they were simply observing the art.  Along those lines, in the frenzy to get the perfect photo, art can even be damaged - one of Kusama's sculptures was shattered due to an overzealous selfie-taker in the Infinity Mirrors exhibition.  

Perhaps the best expression of my main concern with highly Instagrammable museums comes from Wired Magazine, which produced a short video and more in-depth article on the subject.  What benefit do people really get out of the made-for-Instagram museum?  "Maybe the question is not whether or not these spaces contain art, or even what their relationship to social media says at all, but instead: What do we get out of these spaces? Do they make us think and reflect and see the world differently? Or does the experience inside amount to the little square photo you post online?"  I know that if the Museum occupied a physical space, I certainly wouldn't want it to be just about photo opps with oversized lipsticks, fun though they are.  I want people to actually learn something about makeup and art.  And I know when I visit museums I take a few photos here and there, but not for Instagram purposes.  I take them to help me remember how special it was to experience the art first-hand - I'm far more invested in learning something and simply observing the art rather than documenting everything I saw or trying to get a selfie.  I'd probably be somewhat disappointed if I visited the Museum of Ice Cream since, to my knowledge, there's no actual attempt to provide people with the history of ice cream, facts about its consumption across the world, etc. But it seems people want to be entertained more than they want to be educated (according to the findings of this study), and no museum director wants to alienate the whopping 81% of people who expect some sort of social media tie-in to their visitor experience, so how would a physical Makeup Museum strike the perfect balance between fun and education? 

Obviously the answer lies in striving for compromise.  The Makeup Museum would definitely have its fair share of highly Instagrammable spaces.  For me, makeup is mostly about having fun and playing with color, so it would almost feel like a crime not to have some kind of crazy colorful installation, if not several, that serves as the perfect selfie backdrop.  Who wouldn't want to take a dive into a pool full of soft, spongey, brightly hued Beauty Blenders?  Or capture the perfect picturesque view atop a gigantic lipstick tower?  As the study pointed out, the vast majority of museum-goers are expecting an opportunity to show off their snaps.  The Cut article highlights several exhibition goers who had actually strategized how they were going to take photos:  "Why else would you come [if not to take photos]? We’re going to have to go through it first and then go again, so I know what I need to take pictures of."  Another remarks, "I kind of did some research of what pieces will be shown at the gallery. I brought my Insta360 camera and two iPhones to shoot as much as I can, since I heard there was a time limit for each piece. Specially the Infinity mirror room and polka-dotted environment were the perfect two pieces to do a 360."  At this level of photography planning on the part of visitors, it's important not to disappoint them. 

At the same time, however, it's equally important to make sure people who want to be educated and who maybe just want to take everything in don't get overwhelmed with crazy, over-the-top, made for Instagram exhibitions and spaces. There would be a few spaces and installations available for those who want the full Instagram documentation, or if the space the Museum occupied really didn't allow for that, I could at least offer a guide to the most Instagrammable spots in the Museum.  Smithsonian Magazine highlights how some museums have been rearranging a few of their galleries to make them more selfie-friendly.  "The Getty Museum in Los Angeles rearranged mirrors in its decorative arts gallery to make mirror selfies easier, while San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art added terraces designed as selfie spots. On its website, the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama describes its summer art series as 'Instagram gold' and offers an online slideshow of the top places in the museum to take a selfie."  But this would definitely not be the focus of the Museum, as my primary aim in founding it was for people to learn something about the history of makeup and appreciate the artistry that goes into the packaging.  Especially since, despite the hordes of visitors who are chasing the perfect shot, there are still those who want to simply experience the art and not worry about documenting it.  About her plans for visiting Infinity Mirrors, another museum-goer tells The Cut, "You’re going to miss the whole thing if you take a video! I’ll probably take one or two pics, but I’ll probably try to just take it all in, because we’re only in there for a limited amount of time. I don’t really want to take a photo, I kind of want to just chill."  This is largely my approach as a museum visitor and basically every other outing.  There's a reason you hardly ever see food photos on my IG, as I prefer to eat my food than take pictures of it.  Same with concerts and other shows - as much as I'd like to get the perfect photo, I feel as though the stress of it completely negates my enjoyment of the event.  My goal is to have the Makeup Museum be a place for both people like me as well as those who prefer spectacle over substance, a positive experience for everyone.  As professional Instagrammer (yes, it can be a job) Patrick Janelle concludes in the Smithsonian article, "Ultimately what we want are really wonderful experiences...and sure we want to be able to document them on social media, but we also crave things that are just really wonderful and special in real life.” 

What do you think?  And what would be the ultimate Instagram bait for a makeup museum?

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